The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Undiscovered Country


November 13, 2008

Toward the end of the Cold War, Georgi Arbatov, the top America analyst in the Soviet Union, told his American interlocutors that the USSR was doing a terrible thing to the US, it was depriving it of its enemy. In a letter to the NY Times in 1987, he wrote:

And here we have a ”secret weapon” that will work almost regardless of the American response – we would deprive America of The Enemy. And how would you justify without it the military expenditures that bleed the American economy white, a policy that draws America into dangerous adventures overseas and drives wedges between the United States and its allies, not to mention the loss of American influence on neutral countries? Wouldn’t such a policy in the absence of The Enemy put America in the position of an outcast in the international community?

Fast forward 20+ years. In the campaign, President-Elect Obama made an explicit commitment to unconditional diplomacy with Iran. It seems as if the prospect of this Undiscovered Country has rattled the Iranians much, much more than any of the Bush Administration’s hard-line policies ever did.

From the front page of today’s Washington Post:

For Iran’s leaders, the only state of affairs worse than poor relations with the United States may be improved relations. The Shiite Muslim clerics who rule the country came to power after ousting Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a U.S.-backed autocrat, in their 1979 Islamic revolution. Opposition to the United States, long vilified as the “great Satan” here in Friday sermons, remains one of the main pillars of Iranian politics.

Having an easy enemy to demagogue, having an external threat around which to rally the country, having a “Great Satan” on which you can blame your failures, is a fantastic way to distract the public from the failures of the regime, and a great way to hold onto power. So, when a new US president comes on the scene threatening to take away your enemy, it is a dangerous thing.

For Iran, Spencer Ackerman observes:

It is more dangerous. All of a sudden, you’re deprived of a method of demagoguery that’s aided your regime for a generation. And if you refuse to negotiate, you’ve just undermined everything you told the international community you wanted, and now appear unreasonable, erratic, and unattractive to foreign capitols. Amazing how the prospects for peace are more destabilizing to the Iranian establishment than any inevitably-counterproductive-and-destructive bombing campaign or war of internal subterfuge.

Its a terrible thing, to take away one’s enemy.

H/T: Steve Benen

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.