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The risks of rhetoric

Two days ago the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Abbas Amanat, a historian, observing that villainizing Iran threatens what progress the country has made toward democracy and detente, and risks turning them into an enemy they need not be. Today, the Times reports, "Millions of Iranians, galvanized by President Bush's branding of their nation as part of an 'axis of evil,' marched in a nationwide pep rally today that harkened back to the early days of the Islamic revolution, with the American flag burned for the first time in recent memory."

It is possible, as some believe, that the United States is strong enough that it needn't be concerned with either the threat posed by a "galvanized" Iranian populace, nor by the loss of support we risk by aggrieving our European allies (who do not wish to see any escalated conflict against Iran). But it's hard to see what we gain by this. Even if there was in fact no chance that Iran would ever eliminate those elements within it that pose a threat to the United States, there remained the chance that its official government could assist in doing so. Not only does that chance seem to be lost, the threat has been prodded awake, and, worse, offered a handy justification for aggression.

Rhetoric is a necessary tool for any politician. But it has a higher price, in this day of instant, accurate, global communication. Even professional sports teams have already learned its cost — ask any athlete for a prediction of an upcoming match, and he or she will respond only with platitudes; he knows that, if his opponents hear him say he's better, they'll use his words as motivation. In other words, it will cost him.

That same rapidity of communication has changed the global political landscape. Perhaps Bush needed his "axis of evil" to prepare himself and his party for upcoming elections, or perhaps it was an honest attempt to prepare America for an inevitable conflict. Either way, its costs far outweigh any benefit I can see. The (democratically elected) government of Iran — and its people — has a new enemy it didn't think it had before, and, while it's hardly likely that Iran can defeat the United States or inflict lasting harm, the chances of this conflict resulting in greater human and economic loss have only worsened.


Update: This article from Slate.com suggests that the Times' "millions" figure is most likely exaggerated.

February 12, 2002 2:20 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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