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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