Friday, September 07, 2007

Stand by your home-grown tyrant...?

One of the positive advances credited to the feminist movement is the fact that it is no longer considered a virtue to stay with an abusive husband.

I'm not a historian, but I think it is reasonable to claim that a few generations ago (and right up to the present day in some places, even in the U.S.) it was expected that a man had the right to beat his wife and that the wife was not justified in leaving him over it. Today most modern, educated people are disgusted by the idea that wife-beating could ever have been considered admissable behavior. I suspect that the legal and cultural aspects of this change followed from economic realities: if a father's economic support means the difference between eating and starving, many will conclude that it is better to be occasionally beaten than to die of starvation and exposure. When women started to join the workforce and had greater potential to support their children themselves (if necessary), leaving an abuser became a reasonable choice. The question "but who will feed the children?" finally had a good answer.

Now I'd like to apply the "abusive husband/father" model to the analysis of foreign tyrants. I'd like to talk about this since it would appear that America is in the "regime change" business, thus it makes sense to do some analysis of how such adventures work in order to predict when and why some will welcome a liberator with open arms when others will see a hostile foreign invasion.

Without going out on too much of a limb here, I think that rule number one for being welcomed as a liberator is to convince the people in question that you have their best interests at heart. And a good first step for doing that is to actually have their best interests at heart. It's not enough to say "It is obvious that the dictator of country X is evil, therefore everyone will surely thank me if I kill him by any means I can."

It is true that brutal dictators typically use a great deal of force and intimidation to maintain their power. Yet there is a non-negligible component in which a home-grown dictator can convince his people that he's one of them, that he's interested in making their country great, and that any brutality and repression are necessary measures to protect the people from hostile foreign threats. Even in a case where anyone with eyes can see that the leader is, say, using the nation's resources to build himself a giant palace instead of building hospitals and schools, that doesn't mean that people will necessarily prefer a destructive foreign attack that ends with the country's resources being silently pumped into foreign pockets. It's not that different from the selfish man who mistreats his family yet shares some DNA and common interest with them and is bringing home at least part of his paycheck vs. an outsider who offers no tangible support.

There exist some Americans who explicitly favor a cynical policy of maintaining U.S.-friendly control over foreign resources regardless of whether it is fair or of the effects on the people living in the countries in question. But I think such Americans are a minority and that typically hawkish Americans are sincere in believing that a given military action will eventually lead to improved conditions for the people of the given foreign country. And in some cases this is probably an accurate assessment. But that doesn't mean that a military solution is always the best solution or that it's necessarily even always on the list of good solutions. Lately America's foreign policy is starting to look like a neighbor who says "Mr. So-and-so keeps beating his wife -- I should really do something about it... But what? I know! I'll go burn their house down! That will surely correct the problem."

I recently read an article (hat tip to Paul) that talked about evidence that babies as young as five months old prefer people who speak their own language over people who speak a foreign language. Frankly, I think humans tend to have a natural mental barrier that keeps them from empathizing with foreigners and from seeing immediately the human parallels between a foreign situation and one's own situation. It's not an insurmountable barrier, but it's one that takes a conscious effort to overcome, as I will illustrate below:

Now there are a lot of rumors floating around that Bush is planning an air strike against Iran. And people are probably saying that it's necessary because Iran is very close to having nuclear arms, and since its government is horribly repressive, Iranian nukes pose a grave danger to the entire world. I heartily agree that nuclear arms in the hands of the current government of Iran pose a grave threat to world peace. However, the assessment of the advantage of an air strike only takes into account the most familiar (American) perspective.

Let's use this situation to do a little thought exercise of picturing what it would be like to be a citizen of some other country. I'd like you to take a moment to imagine how this proposed air strike would look to you if you had been born (1) in Iran (2) in some other Muslim country (3) in China or North Korea.

Here are the responses that come to my mind:

For #1, I don't think any reasonable person in Iran is looking at the disaster in Iraq and thinking "I'd like to have that kind of help in my country too." Most likely, the average Iranian will see this attack as concrete evidence that there is a very real foreign threat and that their government is right to pursue a nuclear program in self-defense. An ordinary Iranian (who might otherwise have been pushing his government for needed reforms) would likely turn to his own government for military protection against the foreign danger, and view such things as political executions as necessary for national security -- in much the same way that Bush has persuaded many Americans that the use of torture is a necessary measure to ensure their safety.

For #2, I'd be very worried to see a pattern of the heavily armed U.S. launching unprovoked attacks against Muslim nations.

For #3, I'd be thinking, "So Bush gets to decide who can have nuclear technology and is ready to back up his decision with bombs? Are we next?" Even if China and North Korea have no fondness for Iran, they would logically start thinking about defensive treaties to try to contain American aggression. At worst, they could see U.S. military might as a threat to their own national security and use Bush's own "pre-emptive defense" doctrine to justify launching an attack on the U.S....

So, yes, Iranian nukes pose a grave threat to us. But so do Chinese and North Korean nukes, as do those in other countries as well as the various arms that have gone missing from the former Soviet Union. And think how much more of a danger they will present if World War III begins and we're the aggressor nation that started it.

My recommendation? Try to reclaim the moral high ground. Go back to respecting international treaties so that we can expect other countries to respect them as well. Cooperate -- really cooperate -- with honest people all over the world to recover lost weapons and stop international criminals. Don't be satisfied with "Hey, at least we're not as bad as the terrorists." Actually be the good guys so that there will be no confusion in anyone's mind as to who the bad guys are.


Unknown said...

Fantastic post, C.L. I especially like your comments about regaining the high ground.

Another thing to remember about Iran is that they are very nationalist, more so than Iraq ever was.

Iranians still identify with their historical roots as founders of an early civilization. The current regime corrupts that pride in their favor, so it would be wise to remember all three of your points when considering attack.

I think that something like Radio Free Europe (utilizing more up-to-date technology) would be far more effective than all-out attack in a country like Iran. There are indications that people there don't approve of all of the policies of the regime. I think it would be wise to encourage reform from within.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks John!!!

I've been reading some books on Iran lately (just fiction), and I agree completely with your point about their strong nationalism grounded in their historical roots tracing back to ancient times and the glory of the Persian Empire. I also agree with your point about encouraging reform from within. The Islamic government has only been in power there for something like thirty years, so there are plenty of people there who remember what it was like before.

An additional point in Iran is that there's some tension between nationalism and religion: Iran is not an Arab country, and there is some sentiment that Islam was imposed from the outside (more than a thousand years ago). Thus, nationalistic sentiments might encourage people there to fight the theocratic justification for human rights abuses and loss of freedom.

However, foreign threats -- particularly from countries who demonstrate that they cannot be reasoned with diplomatically -- act like a pressure cooker to destroy the voices of dissent and reform. Thus I can't see how a bombing raid will encourage "regime change": it will most likely have exactly the opposite effect.

Stephen said...

I remember David O McKay's long and compelling talk about while many considered it bad to be divorced, it was evil to stay in an abusive relationship and that it might sound strange to those who heard him, but that was God's will.

Kind of like his predecessor's talk to the men about how their wives were not their property.

Some things are just hard to get people to hear.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Stephen!!!

That's a good point: I'm writing as if I think every thinking person agrees that a woman should divorce an abusive husband, but actually it's a pretty recent (and still controversial) position.

Freckle Face Girl said...

Great points. I agree & enjoyed reading this.

Paul Sunstone said...

That you for the hat tip, Chanson!

I agree with you there are profound similarities between the behavior of people who have been abused by a spouse and the behavior of a population abused by a tyrant. One seems to be the micro side of abuse, and the other the macro side. I've thought for sometime of writing a post on the similarities but I haven't yet found the information I'm looking for yet. There are some studies I read of years ago that showed a relationship between one's politics and abuse within families, but I can't find them now. :(

At any rate, I also strongly agree with you that attacking Iran would almost certainly unite the country around its rulers. Only an administration as divorced from reality as the current one would even consider it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks FFG!!!

Hey Paul -- exactly!!!

Sister Mary Lisa said...

Oy. Dubya is such an embarrassment. Great post, Chanson.