Things are never what they seem. Conservatives don’t believe that for a moment. Liberals, or Progressives if you wish, assume that conventional wisdom, or received wisdom, and a whole lot of cultural tradition, might be wrong. Our enemies, while evil and dangerous, might be acting rationally, as they see it, given their particular circumstances. Sure, we could kill them all – if we had the time and had a way to contain the inevitable blowback from future generations of such folks – or we could change their circumstances, which, while tedious, is far less costly than shock-and-awe followed by a decade of occupation, after which we come home and pretend we fixed things. That was at the core of the debate about the Iraq war that Dick Cheney and his crew wanted. George Bush seemed to be just tagging along for the ride on that. But Saddam was evil, so he had to go – so did Gadhafi in Libya. They were both just as they seemed – very bad men – but nothing much changed after they were gone. Iraq is close to a failed state, and now closely aligned with Iran, our enemy forever, for now, and Libya is a failed state. There’s no country there anymore, just two governments, each saying the other is illegitimate, with no one at all running the place. Gadhafi was as bad as he seemed, but the situation wasn’t what it seemed. Removing Gadhafi seemed like a good idea. It may not have been.
Things are never quite what they seem, even if removing Saddam Hussein seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe it was, in a limited way, but the underlying circumstances of life in Iraq haven’t changed. The Shiites are in charge now, making life hell for the Sunnis. Under Saddam Hussein, it was the other way around – but the ISIS crowd vows to change that. What did we accomplish?
The Bush administration would have none of that kind of thinking. Saddam was a BAD MAN! Use your eyes! And he had those weapons of mass destruction! Use your eyes! The critics of the Bush administration kept saying things are seldom what they seem. Let Hans Blix and his inspectors do their thing, and we’ll see if there are any of those weapons of mass destruction – and war to change the government in Iraq might seem like a good idea, but things are seldom what they seem. If we do that, what comes next? The critics of the Bush administration lost those arguments. Those who said that things are just as they seem won the day. We had our war.
There is more to this than the Iraq business. The same dynamic is in play in all disputes between conservatives and liberals. Gay marriage might not only be something the government should allow, to be fair to everyone, but it might strengthen the institution of marriage, not destroy it, because people pairing up to love and respect and care for each other is good for the society as a whole – so things aren’t what they seem. Conservatives will have none of that. Gay people are icky. Use your eyes, and use your eyes about global warming too. This is the worst winter we’ve ever had, or close enough. Forget the dismal statistical trends:
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, who strongly denies that climate change exists, brought a large snowball on the Senate floor Thursday as a real life example that the globe is not warming.
“In case we have forgotten because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record,” said Inhofe, who is the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee while holding the lumpy snowball in his hand. “I asked the chair, do you know what this is? It’s a snowball just from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out – very unseasonable.”
“Catch this,” he said, as he tossed the snowball underhand to an unseen person – perhaps a page or an aide – just a couple of feet away.
He then resumed his speech with a smile on his face that indicated he was quite pleased with his demonstration.
He proved that things are just what they seem, but of course someone could mention to him, that if he looks out the window, the earth seems flat. Just look. Walk far enough in any direction and you could fall off the edge. So, do you really want to argue that things are just what they seem? Heck, raising the minimum wage might create jobs and help the economy, as more people, who have to spend all their money just to survive, spend that new money and goose the economy. Sure, a few employers might shed a few low-end employees, as they have to pay them a bit more, or so it seems, but lots of people would now be buying things they couldn’t buy before, which is good for business. And by the way, sex education and birth control, while they might seem morally awful to some, might go a long way toward reducing teen pregnancies and abortions. And so on and so forth.
Those arguments will fall on deaf ears, and there have been a few decades of research that tries to figure out why. In the nineties, John Jost was working on what he called “systems justification theory” – and he’s been at it ever since. In a new interview in Salon, he has a few things to say about those who argue that things are just what they seem:
When I was a graduate student in social psychology at Yale back in the 1990’s I began to wonder about a set of seemingly unrelated phenomena that were all counterintuitive in some way and in need of explanation. So I asked: Why do people stay in abusive relationships, why do women feel that they are entitled to lower salaries than men, and why do African American children come to think that white dolls are more attractive and desirable? Why do people blame victims of injustice and why do victims of injustice sometimes blame themselves? Why is it so difficult for unions and other organizations to get people to stand up for themselves, and why do we find personal and social change to be so difficult, even painful? Of course, not everyone exhibits these patterns of behavior at all times, but many people do, and it seemed to me that these phenomena were not well explained by existing theories in social science.
And so it occurred to me that there might be a common denominator – at the level of social psychology – in these seemingly disparate situations. Perhaps human beings are in some fairly subtle way prone to accept, defend, justify, and rationalize existing social arrangements and to resist attempts to change the status quo, however well-meaning those attempts may be. In other words, we may be motivated, to varying degrees, to justify the social systems on which we depend, to see them as relatively good, fair, legitimate, desirable, and so on.
This did not strike me as implausible, given that social psychologists had already demonstrated that we are often motivated to defend and justify ourselves and the social groups to which we belong. Most of us believe that we are better drivers than the average person and more fair, too, and many of us believe that our schools or sports teams or companies are better than their rivals and competitors. Why should we not also want to believe that the social, economic, and political institutions that are familiar to us are, all things considered, better than the alternatives? To believe otherwise is at least somewhat painful, insofar it would force us to confront the possibility that our lives and those of others around us may be subject to capriciousness, exploitation, discrimination, injustice, and that things could be different, better – but they are not.
That led to a 2003 a paper on political conservatism:
We wanted to understand the relationship, if any, between psychological conservatism – the mental forces that contribute to resistance to change – and political conservatism as an ideology or a social movement. My colleagues and I conducted a quantitative, meta-analytic review of nearly fifty years of research conducted in 12 different countries and involving over 22,000 research participants or individual cases. We found 88 studies that had investigated correlations between personality characteristics and various psychological needs, motives, and tendencies, on one hand, and political attitudes and opinions, on the other. …
We found pretty clear and consistent correlations between psychological motives to reduce and manage uncertainty and threat – as measured with standard psychometric scales used to gauge personal needs for order, structure, and closure, intolerance of ambiguity, cognitive simplicity vs. complexity, death anxiety, perceptions of a dangerous world, etc. – and identification with and endorsement of politically conservative (vs. liberal) opinions, leaders, parties, and policies.
Jost notes things haven’t changed since then, which he goes on to explain in excruciating detail, but his main point seems to be that conservatives share a need, as a social group, to assert that things are indeed just what they seem, and always have been. The idea that things are seldom what they seem cannot be considered, and that will be hard to overcome:
Without question, we are a social species with relational needs and dependencies, and how we treat other people is fundamental to human life, especially when it comes to our capacity for cooperation and social organization. When we are not engaging in some form of rationalization, there are clearly recognizable standards of procedural justice, distributive justice, interactional justice, and so on. Even within the domain of distributive justice – which has to do with the allocation of benefits and burdens in society – there are distinct principles of equity, equality, and need, and in some situations these principles may be in conflict or contradiction.
How to reconcile or integrate these various principles in theory and practice is no simple matter, and this, it seems to me, is what we should focus on working out.
It might be impossible to work that out, and an issue that shows that is the issue about what to do about Iran, which may not be what it seems.
This came up long ago, when the sun never set on the British Empire, when those who ran the world had too much time on their hands. One of those was Sir William Jones:
In 1770, he joined the Middle Temple and studied law for three years, which would eventually lead him to his life-work in India; after a spell as a circuit judge in Wales, and a fruitless attempt to resolve the issues of the American colonies in concert with Benjamin Franklin in Paris, he was appointed puisne judge to the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Calcutta, Bengal on 4 March 1783, and on 20 March he was knighted. In April 1783 he married Anna Maria Shipley, the eldest daughter of Dr. Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of Llandaff and Bishop of St Asaph. Anna Maria used her artistic skills to help Jones document life in India. On 25 September 1783 he arrived in Calcutta.
And he was bored. Being a judge in Calcutta wasn’t doing it for him. He was too curious for that, and he decided to dive into what really interested him – languages. He already knew Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew and the basics of Chinese writing, and he ended up knowing thirteen languages quite thoroughly and another twenty-eight reasonably well – and stuck in India, with too much time on his hands, he began to look for patterns. That’s when, looking at Sanskrit and Persian – which is now modern Farsi – he started seeing all sorts of cognates with Latin, and even English. These languages were related, damn it, and he was the one that postulated and then proved there was a common source – what he called Proto-Indo-European – and that added Persian, now Farsi, to the Indo-European Language tree. Those folks form their thoughts with the same linguistic structures that we use to form our thoughts. They just use Arabic script.
That may seem a minor thing, but that’s part of how things aren’t what they seem. Iranians are not Arabs. Ethnically they’re Persians – “The name of Iran is the Modern Persian derivative from the Proto-Iranian term Aryānā, meaning ‘Land of the Aryans’ first attested in Zoroastrianism’s Avesta tradition.”
They’re Aryans? Who knew? They may be fundamentalist Shiite, but the odd thing is that they had always been friendly to us, until 1953 and Operation Ajax – that’s when the CIA organized and executed the overthrow of the newly elected and quite popular government at the request of, and with support from, the British government. The guy they elected was going to nationalize the oil companies we and the Brits had there. Those Persians thought that was their oil, but Eisenhower and the Brits had it all worked out. We put Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the thrown there to rule as the monarch, a Shah who would never face elections. That lasted for twenty-six years, until he was overthrown in 1979, by the Shiite clergy who promised they’d take their country back, and we flew Pahlavi to Panama so he’d be safe. But over the years his secret police, the SAVAK, and his military, had killed a whole lot of Iranians who got in his way. The Shah was not a nice guy. “Shah” is, by the way, a cognate of “Caesar” and thus “Koenig” and “King” – as Sir William Jones pointed out.
Things went downhill from there. In the Carter administration they stormed our embassy in Tehran and took the hostages. They never forgave us for Operation Ajax. Those are the circumstances they know. They’re not Arabs – they’re Aryans, damn it – but they’re still pretty pissed off. They do, however, hate those stupid Sunnis – the al-Qaeda folks and now ISIS – and there was this from 2008:
Iran rounded up hundreds of Arabs to help the United States counter al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attack after they crossed the border from Afghanistan, a former Bush administration official said Tuesday. Many were expelled, Hillary Mann Leverett said, and the Iranians made copies of almost 300 of their passports.
The copies were sent to Kofi Annan, then the secretary-general of the United Nations, who passed them to the United States, and U.S. interrogators were given a chance by Iran to question some of the detainees, Leverett said in an Associated Press interview.
Leverett, a Middle East expert who was a career U.S. Foreign Service officer, said she negotiated with Iran for the Bush administration in the 2001-3 time period, and Iran sought a broader relationship with the United States. “They thought they had been helpful on al Qaeda, and they were,” she said.
For one thing, she said, Iran denied sanctuary to suspected al Qaeda operatives.
Some administration officials took the view, however, that Iran had not acknowledged all likely al Qaeda members nor provided access to them, Leverett said.
We missed a chance:
Iranian diplomats made clear at the time they were looking for broader cooperation with the United States, but the Bush administration was not interested… The Bush administration has acknowledged contacts with Iran over the years even while denouncing Iran as part of an “axis of evil” and declining to consider resumption of diplomatic relations.
“It isn’t something that is talked about,” Leverett said in describing Iran’s role during a forum at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan policy institute.
Leverett and her husband, Flynt Leverett, a former career CIA analyst and a former National Security Council official, jointly proposed that the U.S. president who replaces George W. Bush in January seek a “grand bargain” with Iran to settle all major outstanding differences.
That might be a good idea. Obama seems to be working on it, and now it gets tricky:
Washington and Tehran have reached a “special understanding” over the forthcoming offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Tikrit, Iraqi political sources said, as the US warned the assault to retake the city must not fuel sectarian tensions.
The latest developments in the ongoing fight against ISIS in Iraq come as the US-led international coalition continued to carry out airstrikes against ISIS-held positions in central and western Iraq, but did not assist in the latest offensive against ISIS positions in the Sunni-dominated Salah Al-Din governorate.
That means this on the ground:
All along the green irrigated plains in the heart of what American occupying troops used to call the Sunni triangle, lampposts and watchtowers are flying the flags of the Badr Organization, a Shiite militia long hated and feared by many Iraqi Sunnis.
The road from Baghdad to Tikrit is dotted with security checkpoints, many festooned with posters of Iran’s supreme leader and other Shiite figures. They stretch as far north as the village of Awja, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, on the edge of Tikrit, within sight of the hulking palaces of the former ruler who ruthlessly crushed Shiite dissent.
More openly than ever before, Iran’s powerful influence in Iraq has been on display as the counteroffensive against Islamic State militants around Tikrit has unfolded in recent days. At every point, the Iranian-backed militias have taken the lead in the fight against the Islamic State here. Senior Iranian leaders have been openly helping direct the battle, and American officials say Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forces are taking part.
Iraqi officials, too, have been unapologetic about the role of the militias. They project confidence about their fighting abilities and declare that how to fight the war is Iraq’s decision, as militia leaders criticize American pressure to rely more on regular forces.
Yeah, but there’s this:
Twice designated a terrorist by the United States government, considered responsible for up to 20 percent of American casualties in the Iraq war, Major General Qasem Suleimani, the legendary Iranian spymaster and leader of the Quds Force – the elite special operations wing of the hardline Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – is now stirring alarm in Washington for doing something the Obama administration would ordinarily cheer: taking the fight to ISIS in Iraq.
Photographs circulating on social media show Suleimani operating alongside senior Iraqi officials in the theater in and around Tikrit, the Sunni ancestral home of Saddam Hussein that is located almost equidistant between Mosul, the ISIS-controlled city 120 miles to the north, and Baghdad, the capital of the Iraqi government 100 miles to the south.
The presence of Suleimani at the forefront of Iraqi forces’ efforts to reclaim Tikrit from ISIS control underscores both the expanding influence of Iran on the central Iraqi government and the increasingly critical role that Shi’ite militiamen, thought to be operating under Quds command, are playing in the Iraqi fight against ISIS. Neither development brings pleasure to senior U.S. officials or lawmakers in Congress.
This may not end well:
As the international coalition of countries continues to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), some unlikely alliances are proving effective. While both the U.S. and Iran have said they are not coordinating efforts, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s backing of Kurdish and Shiite militias is a key component to the fight.
But CBS News senior security contributor and former CIA deputy director Michael Morell said that de-facto relationship comes with some possible serious consequences.
“There’s a real risk here that over the long run we can defeat ISIS in Iraq, but we might hand Iraq to the Iranians, in a diplomatic sense,” he said Tuesday on CBS This Morning.
Is that why we spent eight years in Iraq? It seems that nothing is what it seems, and our conservative hawks, who keep saying things are simple – agree with Israel and take out these guys – will just have to face the fact that this isn’t simple. Iran is our enemy, and our ally, and they really are the bad guys, most of the time, but not always – and they’re not even Arabs. Our conservative hawks will say just look! Sure, but look at what? Do you really want to argue that things are just what they seem?