Take Less Liberty, and Give Me More

Some much-needed perspective from Fareed Zakaria on Iran. And on our general tendency to overestimate our enemies.

Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall—and crazy. During the cold war, many hawks argued that the Soviet Union could not be deterred because the Kremlin was evil and irrational. The great debate in the 1970s was between the CIA's wimpy estimate of Soviet military power and the neoconservatives' more nightmarish scenario. The reality turned out to be that even the CIA's lowest estimates of Soviet power were a gross exaggeration. During the 1990s, influential commentators and politicians—most prominently the Cox Commission—doubled the estimates of China's military spending, using largely bogus calculations. And then there was the case of Saddam Hussein's capabilities. Saddam, we were assured in 2003, had nuclear weapons—and because he was a madman, he would use them.

One man who is greatly enjoying being the subject of this outsize portraiture is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has gone from being an obscure and not-so-powerful politician—Iran is a theocracy, remember, so the mullahs are ultimately in control—to a central player in the Middle East simply by goading the United States and watching Washington take the bait.
Go read the whole thing. Really. It’s good.

What Zakaria doesn’t address in this piece is the why of it—why it is that our government continually casts enemies as bigger than they are and operationally irrational. And for that answer, we need look no further than Keith Olbermann last night: “Mr. Bush, you are accomplishing in part what Osama Bin Laden and others seek—a fearful American populace, easily manipulated, and willing to throw away any measure of restraint, any loyalty to our own ideals and freedoms, for the comforting illusion of safety.” It is only in a culture of fear—designed under the threat of an imminent and powerful enemy—that citizens can be coerced into sacrificing their freedoms, thusly conveying more control to their government. And so much the better if that enemy is also unpredictable, incapable of being understood or reasoned with, which is why, in addition to the usual charges of craziness and being a loose cannon, the administration repeatedly underlines the difference in culture between “us” and “them.” The implication is that “civilized, free, Christian Westerners” can’t possibly hope to comprehend the complicated and culturally-specific motivations of the leader of a dissimilar society—and because so many Americans are ignorant of all but their own culture, they buy it hook, line, and sinker.

It is only within this paradigm, in which The Other is cast immutably as an irrational actor with whom Americans can’t possibly identify, that a ridiculous claim like “they hate us for a freedoms” could possibly make sense.

In the end, what we’re left with is a government who takes liberties with its estimates of our enemies, precisely so it can take more of our liberty, and all too many Americans are willing to give it. We should be demanding the reverse—that our government takes fewer liberties in this game they’ve created to steal ours, so we can reclaim what is rightfully ours: the freedom for whom no one hates us but the despicable liars we foolishly charged with protecting it.

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