Unreality and Nihilism

 

shutterstock_273465104George Kennan’s classic 1947 “X” article, published anonymously in Foreign Affairs under the title The Sources of Soviet Conduct, laid the foundation for more than 40 years of American Cold War policy toward its Soviet adversary. Kennan’s article is a model of analytical clarity and grand-strategic vision, best known for formulating the strategy of “containment”. But while containment was Kennan’s famous – and famously successful – policy prescription for the challenge facing the United States in 1947, what is often forgotten is his thesis, which is hiding in plain sight within the article’s title: if you want to prevail over your adversary, you must first understand what motivates him. What are the sources of his conduct? What is his “political personality”?

In the case of the Soviet Union, Kennan identifies the basic source in Marxist-Leninist ideology, and in particular, two of its key postulates: the innate and irreconcilable antagonism between capitalism and socialism; and the infallibility of Soviet political leadership. All Soviet conduct in foreign affairs flows from these two elements. In light of which, Kennan deduces that “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.”

Secretary of State George Marshall and President Truman were persuaded by Kennan’s analysis and, with much public debate, committed the United States to a costly, long-term national effort to contain Soviet Communism. The precise meaning and form of this effort were subject to some disagreement around the edges, but its main contours remained firm and constant for over 40 years. This massive commitment was made while the smoking ruins of World War II still smoldered, and with the catastrophic failure of the major democracies to understand and confront the sources of Nazi conduct still fresh in the minds of America’s leadership class.

In the next few days the United States will conclude negotiations regarding the precise size, shape and weight of the silver platter on which we will deliver a nuclear weapon capability to the Iranian mullahs. If there has been a vigorous, high-level public debate about the sources of Iranian conduct, I must have been napping when it happened. It seems to me that these sources are clearly analogous to those identified by Kennan in 1947: a firm belief in the irreconcilable antagonism between Shia Islam and its enemies; and the infallibility of Iran’s theocratic rulers.

I am by no means an expert on Iran, and therefore I don’t insist that this analogy is perfect. Indeed, it fails in at least one respect: Iran’s leadership is far more aggressive, provocative and expansionist than Stalin and his successors, who were exceptionally cautious when it came to provoking the West. The correct response may therefore be something more than containment. But surely somewhere in the State Department’s sub-basement there are smart, moderately-paid experts who think about such things. Are any of them asking these questions? If they are, is anyone in power listening to them?

Of course, Kennan’s analysis presupposes that the point of a national security strategy is to prevail over one’s adversaries, or at least to prevent them from imposing their will on you and your friends. But this presupposes too much. You may or may not be surprised to hear this, but the United States actually has an official thing called a National Security Strategy, which is published roughly annually. The 2015 version was published this past February. The word “Islam” appears in it exactly once (not counting the single instance of the term “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”) – to dismiss as a lie that the United States is at war with it. As far as Iran is concerned, here is our official strategy in its entirety:

We have made clear Iran must meet its international obligations and demonstrate its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Our sanctions regime has demonstrated that the international community can— and will—hold accountable those nations that do not meet their obligations, while also opening up a space for a diplomatic resolution. Having reached a first step arrangement that stops the progress of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited relief, our preference is to achieve a comprehensive and verifiable deal that assures Iran’s nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. This is the best way to advance our interests, strengthen the global nonproliferation regime, and enable Iran to access peaceful nuclear energy. However, we retain all options to achieve the objective of preventing Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.

Practically every word of this is false, including “and” and “the”. Nonetheless, having thus checked the nuclear proliferation box, the document quickly moves on to more important stuff: climate change, global health, women’s equality and AIDS. You can read this entire embarrassing piece of mendacious, passive-aggressive mush here.

Kennan’s approach also presupposes that grown ups are in charge of things. Unfortunately, our historic civilizational rapprochement with Persia takes place against the backdrop of the Great Enstupidation and Ballsification of our elite institutions. For example, in his just-released book, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren reports the following exchange with New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, concerning a dishonest editorial penned by PLO honcho Mahmoud Abbas:

“When I write for the Times, fact checkers examine every word I write,” I began. “Did anybody check whether Abbas has his facts exactly backwards?”

“That’s your opinion,” Rosenthal replied.

“I’m an historian, Andy, and there are opinions and there are facts. That the Arabs rejected partition and the Jews accepted it is an irrefutable fact.”

“In your view.”

“Tell me, on June 6, 1944, did Allied forces land or did they not land on Normandy Beach.”

Rosenthal, the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter and famed executive editor, replied, “Some might say so.”

Of course, the sources of Iranian conduct are as plain as day. The far more interesting question is, what are the sources of U.S. conduct? What is our political personality? Some Iranian or Chinese Kennan may have the answer. The words “unreality” and “nihilism” come to mind.

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    What do you think of the Twelver issue? Should that go into our assessment of Iran’s likely actions?

    • #1
  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Oblomov: The far more interesting question is, what are the sources of U.S. conduct?

    I agree. At this point, this is the question I find most vexing. I never expected that this — of all questions — would prove to be the most bewildering to me in a 30-odd year career of studying foreign policy.

    You know what I’d like to see? As a post, or a thought exercise? Assume that you’ve been given the responsibility for writing a report titled “The Sources of US Conduct” — one of roughly the length of the X article — for the benefit of some other country’s reading public. Think you could?

    • #2
  3. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Source of American conduct? Domestic politics.

    As a nation where legitimacy depends on the consent of the governed; the interests, feelings and wishes of the public predominate. How the formal and informal institutions attempt to interpret and influence the mood of the voters is the source of conduct.

    • #3
  4. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: You know what I’d like to see? As a post, or a thought exercise? Assume that you’ve been given the responsibility for writing a report titled “The Sources of US Conduct” — one of roughly the length of the X article — for the benefit of some other country’s reading public. Think you could?

    Yes, that would be fun. Actually, Vic Hanson has done something like this already here. It’s brilliant and pithy, although it doesn’t dig deep enough to find the real source, in my view. The funny thing is that our real national security strategy – the real one, not the one the White House puts out for public consumption – is containment. Containment of the United States.

    But I suppose the source of one president’s conduct and the source of our national conduct are not exactly the same thing.

    • #4
  5. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Arahant:What do you think of the Twelver issue? Should that go into our assessment of Iran’s likely actions?

    Arahant, I’m not familiar with it. Can you explain?

    • #5
  6. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Steve C.:Source of American conduct? Domestic politics.

    As a nation where legitimacy depends on the consent of the governed; the interests, feelings and wishes of the public predominate. How the formal and informal institutions attempt to interpret and influence the mood of the voters is the source of conduct.

    I agree that the natural baseline mood of the American voter is slightly isolationist. So our current escape from reality is in part enabled by that. But how does your theory explain our Iran policy?

    • #6
  7. Ricochet Moderator
    Ricochet
    @OldBathos

    The kind of analysis you favor is like so five minutes ago.  The new approach pioneered by Obama and Hillary is based on other principles entirely.  Specifically, it is all about us–other people base their foreign policy entirely on whether they like the President of the United States.  Notions like history, ethnic conflict, religion, borders or strategic economic needs are like so old-fashioned, dude.

    In “reset button” policy, you simply convince others that you are cool, hip, unthreatening and totally willing to trash every American leader from the archetypal slave-owning DWM George Washington to the drooling trog George Bush ’43.  Once they get that, they don’t hassle us or anybody else because they sense the transcendent coolness of American leadership and that’s all that anybody wants from us.

    So why get hung up on outdated stuff like other people’s national ambitions, ideology, strategic maneuvering or even what some neocons call our “national interest” and all that when the real deal is to simply wait for them to grasp that the ultimo non-Bush is POTUS now?

    • #7
  8. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    I think the source is Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s Rasputin.

    • #8
  9. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @FrontSeatCat

    Do you ever pay attention when things happen in “3’s”? I made a joke in Claire’s yoga post about her distaste for national holidays, in that I mentioned June 22nd was National Chocolate Eclair Day (US) and National Anti-Fascist Day (Croatia) – they fell on the same day. Last night my sister called and the conversation went to headlines about our financial health (US and world), and my sister brought up Croatia and the financial implosion that happened there. Last night I turned on Rick Steves and the travel story was Croatia. OK…. like a good mystery, I follow the clues, so I decided to google and this was the headline:

    http://news.yahoo.com/far-surges-croatia-eu-disappointment-spreads-102111213.html

    Ironically, the movie called The Book Thief – was on TV ( a free HBO weekend!) Never saw it – another wake up call:

    My point is journalists are the modern Watchmen on the Wall – the Times reporter Rosenthal is brainwashed – so are many in the Obama administration, and our youth  – they don’t know history, so we’re doomed to repeat it. The latest headlines with our military’s urgency to implement protection against Russia, the recent Chinese hacking, says time to get our heads out of the sand because our adversaries are also hard at work.

    • #9
  10. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @FrontSeatCat

    One more thing on Iran – there are writers and journalists that have been sounding the alarm bells for years on Iran – say what you will about Bush 43′, but he knew pressure, and containment was the only answer for dealing with Iran. Someone that is well versed in the “Twelvers” is Joel Rosenberg.  He had been invited to the White House, Pentagon, had closed door meetings with members of Congress, and was Netanyahu’s political adviser.  All of his fictional books have come true and several, including his latest, have had to be rushed to print because real events were unfolding once again before publishing was complete. He moved to Israel and reports regularly of events on the ground thru his blog:

    His Bio:
    http://www.joelrosenberg.com/about-joel/

    He explains the “Twelvers” mentality (the 12th Imam theory). We have writers and journalists sounding alarm bells, but we’re preoccupied with Bruce Jenner, rebel flags, and latest fast food and gadgets while storm clouds gather overhead.

    PS – Note to Claire: Is it time for authorizing a new 2nd Edition of “Menace in Europe” with current updates? I say yes. Prior to my sister finding your book in a used bookstore last year, we never heard of you – your book opened our eyes. It needs to be read by so many now. Like the movie The Book Thief, where they say “Words Matter” – (never saw that movie til last night), we need to re-educate.

    • #10
  11. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Merina Smith:I think the source is Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s Rasputin.

    The difference being that Rasputin was competent.

    • #11
  12. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Front Seat Cat: PS – Note to Claire: Is it time for authorizing a new 2nd Edition of “Menace in Europe” with current updates? I say yes

    The original version didn’t sell well enough to make this feasible, unfortunately.

    • #12
  13. Guy Incognito Member
    Guy Incognito
    @

    Steve C.:Source of American conduct? Domestic politics.

    As a nation where legitimacy depends on the consent of the governed; the interests, feelings and wishes of the public predominate. How the formal and informal institutions attempt to interpret and influence the mood of the voters is the source of conduct.

    Very well put, but I think especially true for Democrat administrations.  At least as far back as Wilson, Democrat presidents (with the exception of Truman) have tended to view foreign policy as a distraction from their domestic projects, and have largely tried to ignore foreign problems.

    • #13
  14. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    I think that the American geopolitical “personality,” if you will, is schizophrenic.  In my view, Walter Russell Mead best expressed it with his distinctions between the Jacksonian, Wilsonian, Hamiltonian, and Jeffersonian views of American foreign policy.  I believe that he put this idea forward in his book Special Providence.  (I haven’t read the book yet, but have read a number of Mead’s articles on the theme.)

    • #14
  15. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Front Seat Cat: PS – Note to Claire: Is it time for authorizing a new 2nd Edition of “Menace in Europe” with current updates? I say yes

    The original version didn’t sell well enough to make this feasible, unfortunately.

    I don’t know what your contractual obligations are with the publisher, but an e-book release can be much more cost effective.

    • #15
  16. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Arahant:

    I don’t know what your contractual obligations are with the publisher,

    They are, of course, disadvantageous to me. A big frustration. They have all the rights, but don’t seem to think it would do much good to republish or update the book. This is a very typical problem in publishing.

    but an e-book release can be much more cost effective.

    In rare cases. It’s a nut that hasn’t yet been cracked reliably: some writers have done very well, but the success rate seems to be on a par with conventional publishing. It’s a very random thing — and no one (certainly not the major publishers) understands why some books take off and some don’t.

    The moral to all aspiring writers, however talented, is “Don’t quit your day job.” Really. Don’t.

    • #16
  17. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    They have all the rights, but don’t seem to think it would do much good to republish or update the book.

    Then I’ll guard my hardback even more jealously.

    • #17
  18. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @FrontSeatCat

    Claire, I’ve pitched your book(s) on my blog several times – the research and details that obviously took a lot of time, on both the Thatcher book and Menace in Europe. Your topics in both books are still very relevant. The same are currently written about and line the shelves by other writers. Maybe teaming with someone of similar background and retooling it that way for the current generation,  as well as compiling and bringing current headlines to the publisher, like the one about the swastika appearing at the Croatia soccer game, and the spread of this thinking throughout, may change their minds. Maybe different cover, title, shorten chapters, and at the end of each one writing 2015 update – where we are 8 years later.  Some publishers don’t market their product well, and it could have been before its time. Example: See top #6 & #7 on NYT Best Seller List non-fiction:

    http://www.nytimes.com/best-sellers-books/hardcover-nonfiction/list.html

    I’ll shut up about it now – but will continue to encourage people to read it, i.e. if there was a demand for these topics now, and there is,  they may see the light.

    • #18
  19. user_82762 Inactive
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Oblo,

    “I’m an historian, Andy, and there are opinions and there are facts. That the Arabs rejected partition and the Jews accepted it is an irrefutable fact.”

    “In your view.”

    “Tell me, on June 6, 1944, did Allied forces land or did they not land on Normandy Beach.”

    Rosenthal, the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter and famed executive editor, replied, “Some might say so.”

    Deconstructionist nihilism is a subject in itself. Here is a source that is both authoritative and a good read.

    In Defense of History by Richard J. Evans

    This was written all the way back in 2000. He was and still is one of the leading Historians in the World. He chronicles, among many other things, the invasion of the History Dept by the deconstructionists from the English Dept. This takes place in the 1990s. The rot has been going on for a long time. He clearly shows the absurdity and calls for “Defense of History” from these lunatics and others. Another really interesting book from him is.

    Lying About Hitler  by Richard J. Evans

    This is his account of the libel trial in which a British Historian who was very fond of Hitler sued an American Historian in a British court because she had commented on his work. Evans was called in as an expert witness (as he was). They took the British Historians work apart piece by piece and found all of the phony original sources he had claimed and they won the case.

    The rot goes deep but when a guy like Oren opens up and fires a full salvo like this there is still hope. The people who ‘know the difference between opinion and fact’ need to kick the people who perpetrate ’embarrassing pieces of mendacious, passive-aggressive mush’ in the ass.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #19
  20. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Oblomov, it gets even worse.  One aspect of the negotiated nuclear deal with Iran holds in it a provision that gives a 24 hour grace period between detection of violating the deal and the IAEA conducting inspections.  The French, of all people, are doing everything they can to take this out of the deal while Iran is trying to keep it in there.  The French worry that this window of time gives Iran the time needed to cover-up any violations in whole or in part.  From what I can glean the US is who put this in the deal, or at the least agreed to it being in there.

    For Containment to work, before we even get to understanding your adversary, we must first have the will to confront them.  The US just does not have the stomach any longer to be a global power.

    • #20
  21. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Arizona Patriot:I think that the American geopolitical “personality,” if you will, is schizophrenic. In my view, Walter Russell Mead best expressed it with his distinctions between the Jacksonian, Wilsonian, Hamiltonian, and Jeffersonian views of American foreign policy. I believe that he put this idea forward in his book Special Providence. (I haven’t read the book yet, but have read a number of Mead’s articles on the theme.)

    Mead is a great source for understanding our current foreign policy mishaps.  Big fan.

    • #21
  22. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Arahant:What do you think of the Twelver issue? Should that go into our assessment of Iran’s likely actions?

    Yes, a resounding yes.  I have this debate with folks all the time who are comfortable with Iran having a bomb because then they can be held to higher standards in terms of their foreign policy in the region.  My contention is that, while they show tendencies of being a rational actor, are we willing to make that bet that they are truly rational.  Their religion and their particular brand of that religion tells me that they are not 100 percent rational and therefore, we should not roll the dice that they are.

    • #22
  23. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Robert McReynolds:

    Arahant:What do you think of the Twelver issue? Should that go into our assessment of Iran’s likely actions?

    Yes, a resounding yes. I have this debate with folks all the time who are comfortable with Iran having a bomb because then they can be held to higher standards in terms of their foreign policy in the region. My contention is that, while they show tendencies of being a rational actor, are we willing to make that bet that they are truly rational. Their religion and their particular brand of that religion tells me that they are not 100 percent rational and therefore, we should not roll the dice that they are.

    So, you’re saying that members of an apocalyptic cult who believe their spiritual leader who died/disappeared over a thousand years ago is only in hiding and will show himself at the destruction of the world, that such people might not be trustworthy with weapons that can bring about the destruction of the world? Especially when they are run as a theocracy?

    • #23
  24. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Arahant:

    Robert McReynolds:

    Arahant:What do you think of the Twelver issue? Should that go into our assessment of Iran’s likely actions?

    Yes, a resounding yes. I have this debate with folks all the time who are comfortable with Iran having a bomb because then they can be held to higher standards in terms of their foreign policy in the region. My contention is that, while they show tendencies of being a rational actor, are we willing to make that bet that they are truly rational. Their religion and their particular brand of that religion tells me that they are not 100 percent rational and therefore, we should not roll the dice that they are.

    So, you’re saying that members of an apocalyptic cult who believe their spiritual leader who died/disappeared over a thousand years ago is only in hiding and will show himself at the destruction of the world, that such people might not be trustworthy with weapons that can bring about the destruction of the world? Especially when they are run as a theocracy?

    It’s not so much that they think their leader will reappear and cause the destruction of the world so much as it is that it is THEY who need to bring about this destruction in order for him to reveal himself.  That is what 12th Imamism is in truth, and as such, no I don’t think they can be trusted with a nuclear weapon.

    • #24
  25. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Robert McReynolds:

    Arahant:

    So, you’re saying that members of an apocalyptic cult who believe their spiritual leader who died/disappeared over a thousand years ago is only in hiding and will show himself at the destruction of the world, that such people might not be trustworthy with weapons that can bring about the destruction of the world? Especially when they are run as a theocracy?

    It’s not so much that they think their leader will reappear and cause the destruction of the world so much as it is that it is THEY who need to bring about this destruction in order for him to reveal himself. That is what 12th Imamism is in truth, and as such, no I don’t think they can be trusted with a nuclear weapon.

    That’s what I was trying to say. I was not implying that he would destroy the world, just that that is what it will take for him to show up; therefore, they have an incentive to make the world burn to the ground. So, yeah, we’re in perfect agreement.

    • #25
  26. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Complete and utter enstupidation and unreality:

    http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/24/the-iran-nuclear-deal-proves-that-peace-is-possible-diplomacy-works/?wp_login_redirect=0

    • #26
  27. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    James, thanks for those book recommendations. I’ll check them out.

    Robert, great comments. Very like.

    • #27
  28. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @IWalton

    Outstanding.  We are desperately in need of the debate and in adults capable of stimulating and leading it.   Kennan was a strange brilliant fellow back when we tolerated such people in the Foreign Service.   Now the political leadership looks at polls and the Foreign Service writes reports they think their country directors or ambassadors want to hear.  Since there is no vision, no guidance, no stated purpose and no leadership we get entropy, with every embassy, every country director doing what is most career enhancing, but nobody paying attention until there is a media event that forces it.  Nihilism  doesn’t mean one believes in nothing it means they believe in one thing.

    • #28
  29. user_82762 Inactive
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Oblo,

    UPDATE:

    PETRAEUS, FORMER OBAMA ADVISERS REJECT IRAN DEAL

    Several former advisers to President Barack Obama have rejected the likely terms of a nuclear deal with Iran, adding their names to an open letter that declares: “The agreement will not prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability.”

    I think this “open letter” plus Oren’s book are going to finally make people realize that there is nothing rational with Obama. He’s all preconceived ideology. Also, I think there will be a few folks who want to apologize to Tom Cotton.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #29
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