American Foreign Policy and the Tyranny of Old Ideas

The French call it “professional deformation,”  the way institutions filter and shape information and events to fit institutional orthodoxy, interests, and ideology. Professional knowledge then becomes a stencil applied to reality, hiding information that doesn’t fit the institution’s received wisdom, and leaving a neat pattern that is then taken for the whole of reality. In foreign policy, this bad habit abets the failure of imagination that leads to disaster.

Our decades-long bungling in the Middle East is a good example of this phenomenon. For years our foreign-policy establishment has looked on disorder and conflict in this region through a Western paradigm that has downplayed or ignored other motives and beliefs, and failed to imagine worldviews radically alien from our own. Thus this paradigm is based on questionable assumptions, such as economic development, anti-colonialism, and nationalist self-determination as the prime movers of social and political unrest. Western colonial empires and then post-colonial interference, so the story goes, had brutally suppressed nationalist aspirations for autonomy and freedom. Economic development had likewise been thwarted to serve the colonizers’ own interests, leading to poverty and lack of opportunity that feed despair and drive the oppressed to violence. Get the neo-imperialists out, create democratic institutions, aid economic development, and all will be well. Peace, prosperity, international cooperation, and global order will follow.

The failure to properly understand the 1979 Iranian revolution reflected this institutional bias through which events were filtered. For many in the foreign policy establishment, hatred of the Shah was the consequence of his brutal repression of the people’s liberal aspirations. The Shah was a neo-imperialist, neo-colonialist puppet who subordinated the good of the people to his own power and privilege, and to the geopolitical and economic interests of the United States. The revolution thus was an understandable attempt at liberation from an alien oppressor and its stooge, and the establishment of a consensual government that recognized nationalist self-determination promoted a more just economic development and protected human rights.

What the foreign policy stencil missed was the potent role of Islamic religious belief in toppling the Shah. The faithful hated the Shah not because he stifled liberal and nationalist aspirations, but because his modernization and secularization policies threatened Islam. The issue wasn’t that brutality and autocracy were wrong on principle, but that they were in the hands of the wrong person. After all, the mullahs killed more in one year than the Shah had in 25. This discontent of the religious class hungry for power, however, was rationalized or ignored by many in the West in favor of the presumed interests of Westernized intellectuals, secularists, and technical elites. The sermons and books of the real prime mover of the revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini, were brushed aside, his calls for jihad and shari’a ignored. Instead, Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski counseled that relations with Muslim countries should be based on “shared interests,” and that “our support for a world of diversity, and our commitment to social justice” would “deepen our dialogue” with Muslims. But Western shibboleths like “social justice” and “diversity” were meaningless to an Islamic worldview in which Muslims are the “best of nations,” infidels are to be converted or destroyed rather than tolerated, and “social justice” means an illiberal and intolerant shari’a law. Nor did economics or nationalism cut any ice with Khomeini, who explicitly said the revolution was not about lowering “the price of melons,” and that he was willing to “let Iran burn” in order to “export our revolution to the whole world.”

Fast-forward 35 years later, and the same paradigm is determining our response to the upheavals in the Middle East. Iran has murdered our citizens for decades and is progressing towards developing nuclear weapons, and we still think economic sanctions and “engagement” alone will stop them. Thus even more negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are conducted, most recently in Kazakhstan, with little or nothing to show except more incendiary rhetoric from “supreme leader” Khamenei. Meanwhile the centrifuges keep spinning as Iranian negotiators play for time. Just as with Carter’s solicitous “outreach” during the 1979 embassy hostage crisis, concessions and outreach to Iran lead nowhere, for the simple reason that the Iranian leadership has goals and beliefs alien to our own.

Yet despite that object lesson in the dangers of delusional paradigms, we are repeating the same mistake in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is advancing towards an Islamist regime inherently anti-American, anti-Semitic, illiberal, and thus contrary to all our national interests and those of our most important regional ally, Israel. Yet the Secretary of State has just promised $250 million in aid, with $1 billion more to come once Egypt accepts a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF. And don’t forget the $213 million worth of F-16 fighter jets the Muslim Brotherhood is slated to receive.

This largesse is being bestowed on a regime founded on Islamic supremacism and hatred of the infidel West, one that incorporates illiberal shari’a law in its constitution. It is a regime that persecutes Egyptian Copts, supports the genocidal terrorist outfit Hamas, denies us access to a suspect in the murder of our ambassador in Benghazi, and indulges Koranic anti-Semitism and eliminationist rhetoric. So why do we do it? Because of the old delusion that such “engagement” will help Egypt “strengthen its economy and build political unity and justice,” as Kerry said on his trip, and that in turn will make the Muslim Brotherhood like us and serve our interests. After all, the revolution was really about removing a brutal dictator, eliminating corruption, creating opportunity, and improving the economy. The Islamist and jihadist aims and principles that have defined the Muslim Brotherhood for 8 decades are just rhetoric. Odd, though, that the minority of true liberals in Egypt didn’t get that memo, which is why they protested Kerry’s visit and the promised aid, and plan to boycott the April elections.

Such is the power of received ideas and unexamined assumptions when they become institutionalized. The point is not that there aren’t throughout the world millions of Muslims who want to accommodate their faith to the modern world or reconcile Islam with liberalism. But no one can provide evidence that they are the majority of Muslims, while evidence abounds that the jihadists and Islamic supremacists are better organized and more passionately motivated than all those alleged liberals and moderates who are, with some few brave exceptions, conspicuous by their absence.

Until our foreign policy establishment is liberated from the tyranny of old ideas and the deformations of institutional orthodoxy, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes until some game-changing development––a nuclear-armed Iran that sparks proliferation throughout the region––reveals the dangerous wages of our failure of imagination.

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  • AdinaK

    Let's be clear, a nuke here or there may do the trick, but even that is not assured. After all, Obama and gang understand that the Mid East, & beyond, is on fire, capable of upending the world order. However, they are the pyromaniacs who lit the match! Yes, they did.

    Food for thought –

    This is where it is at, and the prognosis is dire – for the west!!

    Adina Kutnicki, Israel

    • Asher

      You are so right….this administration has replicated many dictatorial regimes implementing the Change that is Armageddon, and a world in chaos.

  • SAM000

    Excellent analysis;
    what is not said in this article is that, "appeasement and containment are the main line and map road of STATE. DEPT.".

  • EarlyBird

    More FPM propaganda. Thornton writes: "Western colonial empires and then post-colonial interference, so the story goes, had brutally suppressed nationalist aspirations for autonomy and freedom."

    So the story goes?! So, Britain and France didn't actually have League of Nations mandates to recreate the Middle East after WWII? They didn't actually draw the current borders of many modern ME nations and install their preferred emirs and shahs into those governments? The US really didn't overthrow Mossadegh and replace him with the Shah? The West had no hand in the establishment of Israel? The USSR didn't really co-opt the governments of Syria and Egypt? These are all just stories?

    • EarlyBird

      I meant to write "after WWI (Great War) after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

    • HIS Servant

      No "the West had no hand in establishing Israel?" GOD used the West to fulfill ancient prophecy and Britain's failure to establish Israel right after the Balfour Declaration is the reason they lost their 'British Empire'!

      • EarlyBird


  • EarlyBird

    Extremist Islam and terror, and Sharia-based government is a direct reaction to, and rejection of, the people of the ME's experience with the West. Like Zack Mayo in "An Officer and a Gentleman," they've got "nowhere else to go!" but radical Islam. It does not make one a terrorist sympathizer to recognize this.

    The people of the ME simply no longer believe in Western style government as we know it, because they've only been abused, tortured, jailed, and impoverished by corrupt governments supported by the West. And they see "Girls Gone Wild," "Family Guy," and general American cultural filth seeping into their culture and are horrified by it.

    Extremist Islam is as much of a radical, fundamentalist reaction to modernism (as they see it being imposed by the West), as is evangelical fundamentalist Christianity is a reaction to modernism.

    This is why they hate us kids, not "for our freedom."

    • Drakken

      Holy crap! It is islam, it has always been islam and it will always be islam at play untill it is dealt with. I for one don't opologize for our western ways and superiority, like you do. Typical leftist drivel of blame us for what the muslim world does. If it wasn't for the west, the muslims would still be sitting on that oil with no way to get it out of the ground. They still hump their goats and little boys though.

      • EarlyBird

        More insightful analysis from Rambo.

        Try to get this through your head: I also don't apologize for Western ways and superiority. We are far, far superior to the dysfunctional, backwards societies in the ME, and their backwardness has almost everything to do with their religion and millennia of culture. Agreed?

        But let's not pretend the West hasn't given them plenty of reasons to be pissed off. The audacity of Thorton to gloss over the long, long history of Western imperialism and manipulation of governments as a "story" is absurd, and an intentional lie. Facing these facts doesn't "excuse" terrorism, but patriotism require being simple-minded children, either.

        • AnOrdinaryMan

          What "long long history of Western Imperialism?" It was barely 60 years between the end of WWI and when the Shah caught a plane for Cairo, never to return to Iran. That's not terribly long.
          But let's see, according to "The Iranians," by Sandra Mackey, Iran was conquered by the Islamic Seljuks in the 7th Century. Just a few years later, Sufism–Islamic mysticism–began; this was a reaction to the "worldliness" of the Sunni Umayyad rulers. Do you suppose the Umayyads were Western, in any way? But what if the Shah had been more like George Washington? That is, what if he had been a wise, benevolent ruler who paid close attention to the problems of Iran's middle and lower classes? (instead of trying to manipulate the U.S. for any arms he could get) Would the 1979 Iranian revolution have succeeded? Thornton answers "Yes," it would have. So you see, our freedom is exactly why they don't like us.

          • EarlyBird

            First of all the "West" doesn't just include the US. But if you insist on just speaking about the US, do so, and do so accurately.

            Let's imagine if, after years of being ruled by England, the US finally got its George Washington. Then, France comes in and takes over the government and military overnight, shreds the Constitution, and puts in the equivalent of Saddam Hussein, who tolerates zero freedoms of any kind, kills and tortures countless dissidents, "nationalizes" the nation's wealth, meaning, hordes it for himself and the French, into power. Then, for thirty years, Hussein remains this tyrant purely on the basis of the wealth and weapons given to him by France.

            Do you think we'd like or dislike the French? And guess who in this scenario is playing the role of the French?

        • F.K. Juliano

          Do you acknowledge the West has plenty of reason to be, as you put it, pissed off at the Muslim world? And I don't mean just the recent terrorism. In the 7th century Islamic armies broke out of Arabia and conquered what was then the core of the Christian world. At the time, Muslims had absolutely no claim and no connection to places like Egypt, the Levant, Asia Minor, or non-Christian Persia, so was that not "colonialism"? Of course, Muslim aggression continued unremittingly since then, most prominently by the Turks, who were making a major play for the conquest of Europe as late as 1683. For those who don't realize it, that's AFTER the English colonies in North America had been established, so pretty recently in historical terms. Eventually, the Islamic world fell way behind the West in terms of military and technological might. If we had been vengeful, we could have wiped out Islamic civilization in the 19th century, much like the Spaniards did to the Aztecs, who were as fanatical about their religion as the most as any jihadist,
          but we chose a course of forbearance. Where they were still stronger than us, namely in Turkey, they did respond in kind. Those same Turks committed genocide against the Christian peoples under their rule–Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians–and Christianity was wiped out there.

          The bottom line: it's pretty ridiculous for you and others to define–and indeed, excuse–the latest cycle of Muslim aggressive behavior as a response to their relatively benign interaction with the West in recent decades. Muslims have never failed to attack the kuffar when they saw weakness in them, as is mandated by their religion. Taking that entire history in consideration, Westerners really have nothing to apologize for, though the inverse is not true. Whatever damage "colonialism" did to the Muslim world, it was certainly far less than that suffered by many other societies throughout history and they should get over it. They can't because of one reason, and that reason is Islam.

          • F.K. Juliano

            Correction: "namely in Turkey, they did NOT respond in kind"

          • Anamah

            And it could be helpful to remember and think about the horrific attacks against the West, then also represented by Europe… Few days ago, in his speech announcing his renounce the Pope proceed to the beatification the 800 beheaded Martyr of Otranto in 1480 by Turks. Those poor Christian who refused converting to Islam were decapitated… Who are the imperialist? And they have always been intolerant supremacist…as they are now because Intolerance is essential for their cause!

          • EarlyBird

            Anamah, that's a great example of how societies react to aggression.

            The Spaniards, as an example, really had a reason to war against the Moors, because the Islamic Empire held much of Southern Spain. The resulting Spanish Empire began in REACTION to the Islamic Empire. The Crusades were European reactions to the Islamic Empire.

            The answer is not to go through an ancient history game of "gotcha!," or to use that as excuse making for terror and current day atrocities. It's to see how societies react to outside aggression and interference so we don't needlessly repeat the same mistakes.

          • WhateverMan

            What was the connection of White Christian Europeans with the American continent before they Cortez and Pizarro pillaged it and wiped out entire populations? Was Mexico the core of the Christian world then?

          • EarlyBird

            I do not excuse Muslim terrorism at all. They are not helpless objects, but products of their own, millennia of cultural "development." They are their own worst enemies.

            We don't need to go back hundreds of years. What about recent history?

            We wonder why the Iranians hate us? Could it be that we overthrew a popularly elected president and replaced him with a brutal dictator who we kept in power for 30 years? What about France and Britain's near co-optation of the Middle East after WWI? They not only created the modern borders of many ME countries, but installed their own puppet governments there. They handed control to the US during the Cold War where we regularly installed "our" tyrant (Hussein, e.g.) to counter the Soviets' preferred tyrant. Arabs and Iranians have a constant sense of American interference in their region.

            "Pan-Arabism," though it flirted with communism, was about national self determination, not Islam. But even that ultimately failed due to outside (including Soviet) meddling. Radical Islam is simply the outlet for a very, very frustrated people who've given up on actual modern governance.

    • Mary Sue

      NO, they hate us because we are not Muslims. And because we are doing sinful things that tempt their young people away from Islam. They DO hate us for our Freedom, do not ever kid yourself. Because our freedom to them is anathema because it is the freedom to walk around "naked" (not really naked but rather non-burqa'ed), the freedom to have relations with whomever we want, and the freedom NOT to be barefoot pregnant and in the kitchen.

      However, they were like this long before any of the "Colonial Powers" were out doing what they were doing. Islam ITSELF is a colonial power, long before the likes of Britain OR the United States! You see, it's only ok if they do it…

      • EarlyBird

        Yes, they hate us for what they see as our wicked secularism, our liberalism, but most importantly, the sense that we are forcing it on them. They are THREATENED by our "wickedness," because we have, and have had, such incredible control over their governments and to a great degree, culture.

        Sure, they "hate" the indians of Peru for being infidels too. But they are not giving their lives in mass terror campaigns to kill the indians of Peru. Why? Because they do not feel threatened and oppressed by them. We Americans (including me) simply wrote off those Muslims as nutjobs, until 9/11, when we felt THREATENED by them, and decided to war against them.

        Don't fool yourself. We have given them decades worth of reasons to make them feel threatened and oppressed by us. The best response is to disengage to the greatest degree possible and let them go back to eating sand.

        • Mary Sue

          No, they are the true oppressors and are threatened by anyone who challenges their right to oppress. The Ayatollahs of Iran are worse dictators than anything the Shah had to offer, and three times as brutal. So are you seriously trying to argue they liked that communist Mossadeq THAT MUCH?! Or that they prefer the Ayatollahs to the Shah? If they loved Mossadeq so much why didn't the Iranian Revolution put Mossadeq or one of his buddies back in power?

          Mossadeq was a socialist that was either the puppet of the USSR or was about to become one. So removing him was a smart move. He was the Hugo Chavez of Iran of his day.

          The people of Iran sure don't appreciate the Mullahs and Ayatollahs running the place, so the idea of democratic rule there is a joke.

    • Ghostwriter

      Sorry,EarlyBird,but I'm with Mary Sue on this one. The main reason that the Muslims hate us so much is that we're not Muslim. Far too many of them want to impose THEIR religion on us. The sooner you realize this,the sooner we can find ways to deal with these people.

      • EarlyBird

        It's not just that we're infidels that they hate us. It's our foreign policy of the past 60 or so years, combined with being infidels, that they hate us.

        Not even crazed jihadists give their lives for a purely abstract notion. Imagine if for the past 70+ years, some immensely powerful Eskimo tribe had the ability to assassinate and depose leaders throughout North and Central America, install puppet regimes that were brutal, and kept North Americans in terror and poverty.

        Maybe also our Bible said that these Eskimos were heathens. Would we give our lives to defeat them JUST because they were heatens, or heathens that were messing with us?

        • Mary Sue

          That's the excuse they feed to the leftists that swallow that, hook line and sinker. But that's not even what they tell themselves. It is an excuse and nothing more, meant to blur the actual reason, which if you listen to any of the whackjob Imams that preach in radical mosques, isn't even what THEY say.

          I don't think 72 virgins or the Approval of Allah or Guaranteed Paradise is exactly an "abstract concept"…

          It wouldn't matter whether we were messing with the Middle East or not. They're expansionist by nature. Eventually they'd become a problem even if we left them alone. When they're attacking frigging BUDDHISTS, who were NEVER Imperialist to ANYONE, but are the most pacifist of all aside the Amish and the Quakers, you know it's all a ruse.

    • HIS Servant

      Great comparison of fundamentalist Christians to radical islamists you moron! I forgot about all those pesky FChristians trying to take down airliners, detonating IED's, and detonating their suicide vests killing thousands worldwide! Silly me! Keep trying to rationalize these fascist killers through those rose colored lenses!

      • EarlyBird

        I made no such comparison between fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity. The comparison is that both are at immense odds with the modern world and much of they see as garbage that goes along with it.

        Both wish to get "back to basics," i.e., they are "fundamentalist" and share a lot of talk about cleaning and purging the earth of Godlessness, and so on. Both talk about "abomination" of homosexuality, want to install plenty of religious rules into the government, etc. Where they separate is in the level of extremism.

  • EarlyBird

    And of course, Thorton's essay all ends with the apparently obvious call to go to war in and on Iran, to prevent it from getting the bomb. Because Iran would suddenly ignite Armageddon, because in his world they are automatons set on "kill" at all cost.

    Speaking of a lack of imagination, Thornton can't consider that perhaps Iran wants that bomb to finally get the threat of American invasion off its back, huh? The nerve of this guy.

    • Drakken

      The lack of imagination is all yours, your looking at this with a western guilt complex. Letting Iran have a nuke is like letting a monkey play with a hand grenade, it will eventually go off with no warning.

      • EarlyBird

        No guilt at all. I don't give a flying f**k about those backwards animals. I care about thriving. And to do that, we need to do everything we can to disengage those freaks in the ME and just let them rot.

        Step #1: get independent of their oil; Step #2 focus on truly existential threats as they come up, and obliterate them.

        Disengagement means looking at what we've done over history to stop repeating it, and stop being led around by the nose by Israel Firsters to get into a war we don't need to be in, on behalf of Israel, against Iran, a two bit backwater. Let's stop being so unnecessarily frightened.

        Nukes Last time I checked, the US had two or three full combat fleets in the neighborhood, nuclear armed submarines, the best military in the world, etc., etc. Iran is a flea.

        • Mary Sue

          You forget that Iran is led by extremist-religion crazed, batfeces insane clerics, to whom Mutually Assured Destruction is a quaint but irrelevant concept.

    • F.K. Juliano

      I agree that a nuclear-armed Iran would not necessarily act in a totally irrational manner. There is a possibility they would not use their weapons aggressively, though they do believe that Armageddon would hasten the arrival of the Mahdi. For instance, I think there's only about a 50 percent chance that they or their proxies would eventually set one off in New York, and only about an 80 percent chance in the case of Tel Aviv. As far the latter possibility, is that perfectly all right with you or just all right?

      • EarlyBird

        Meaning, you think there is a very, very high chance that they would act irrationally, and commit literal mass suicide to hasten the arrival of the Mahdi.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    The war in the Middle East is to install new rulers and continue the slavery of all persons under
    a unified Islamist Sharia law and destroy Israel with aims at the rest of the World. The pushback
    will be slow at first and then the fires of war will rage ever where the death rags hang.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    The troll is back!!!…………………William

    • EarlyBird

      Anybody who writes anything you disagree with is a "troll," William. Not good.

      • WilliamJamesWard

        That is not how it is with a troll alert but OK…………maybe your were assuming
        yourself to be the troll, that would be being to modest………………………William

  • john

    Plenty of comments by informed and the naive – This is to the > naive / ignorant / willfully ignorant . Every where that Islam lives people who don't join die , that's why countries become Muslim . Before any country became muslim they all figured ''Believe what you want'' . Islam loves that . Funny how you can find dozens of countries that are dominated by the force of Islam and its priests , but not one that is dominated by the force of any other faith and it's priests . Tons of websites to look at , do just a fraction of the math of murder for Islam – try – – Look . Listen . Talk . or just keep eating the same brand of banana .

    • EarlyBird

      Thanks, John. What's your point? How should that inform US foreign policy? Do we consider all 1.5 billion Muslims existential threats and kill them all?

      Where to do with this idea? What to do? Nobody but nobody "likes" Islam but Muslims. Does that mean that the US shoudl commit national suicide getting into another invasion, occupation and nation building exercise in Iran?

  • Judenlieber

    The Muslims are right. They hate America because we are evil. In fact our evil is so great that it has punched a hole in the Space-Time Continuum. A hole so great that it enabled Mohammed to see the evil of America more than a thousand years before we even existed! What else could He do?
    And his followers are still haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, is out there having fun!
    Is it any wonder they have to kill?