Paul Pillar

How Not to Show Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind

The role that foreign views play in policy debate in Washington and especially on Capitol Hill has taken some strange forms lately, and none stranger than with the hot topic of the Iranian nuclear program. What an irony to hear American neocons saying “Merci!” and “Vive La France!” after the French foreign minister suddenly added demands to, and thus spiked or at least delayed, a tentative preliminary agreement with the Iranians that was on the verge of being inked. Was it really that long ago that the same neocons were deriding France as one of the countries of old Europe that could not see the wisdom of launching that most ambitious, and most disastrous, of all neocon projects: the Iraq War? Remember eating freedom fries with your burgers? Remember how the war-makers in the Bush administration told France and other major allies and every other member of the United Nations that did not support the war to shove it, and then hooked the poodle Blair up to his leash and went to war anyway? One might be tempted to chalk up the different handling of France ten years ago and today to a change in French views. Governments themselves change, after all. But it was the rightist government of Jacques Chirac that was in power when the neocons started their war in Iraq. Today the French president is a socialist. Not the direction of turnaround one would expect.

No, this history had nothing to do with anyone's wisdom or substantive views. Both a decade ago and today, the neocons have just been using France as a convenient prop and support for debating points, or ignoring it to the extent it was not otherwise convenient. This gets to the first couple of rules about showing appropriate respect for opinions from abroad. One is not to use people as props. Another is to be consistent in one's own thought, policies, and behavior, as if foreign opinion really were having a constructive impact on one's own thinking. The neocons here are showing consistency in one respect; people who never met a U.S. war they didn't like were responsible for starting one war ten years ago, and are now pushing policies toward another Middle Easern state that increase the chance of another war. But of course there is not any consistency in the attitude toward European allies.

Showing a decent respect to the opinions of mankind, including mankind overseas, does not mean bowing to the views of any particular slice of mankind. The writers of the Declaration of Independence who used that phrase about respect to opinions were explaining, after all, why they were spelling out their reasons for committing a revolutionary act. They were not submitting to any foreigner's view as to whether to commit that act. The interests of one's own nation need to come first. A modern clarion statement of that principle, with regard to the same issue about Iran and nuclear matters, comes today from Tom Friedman, who reminds us:

We, America, are not just hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, which they alone get the final say on. We, America, have our own interests in not only seeing Iran’s nuclear weapons capability curtailed, but in ending the 34-year-old Iran-U.S. cold war, which has harmed our interests and those of our Israeli and Arab friends.

That should be obvious. It should go without saying. But a major chunk of the American body politic is acting today directly contrary to that principle. They use some states as props; they act as lawyers for other states.

Note that the Declaration of Independence refers to the opinions of mankind, not the rhetoric or agendas of foreign governments. Here, too, a principle of showing appropriate respect for opinion is being violated. Even those American politicians who show no shame or compunction about acting as lawyers for a foreign state, Israel, make the further mistake of equating the interests of that state with the rhetoric and agenda of that state's current government. On the matter of Iran and its nuclear program, as on some other important issues, the pronouncements of Benjamin Netanyahu definitely should not be equated with the interests of Israel. Knowledgeable and patriotic Israelis have a very different view about what approach on this matter would be good for Israel. Looking beyond Netanyahu's short-sighted strategy of unending conflict and hostility, an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations would be very much in Israel's long-term interests, in addition certainly to the interests of the United States.

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