In 2005, Yale professor Philip Smith published a fascinating book Why War? to examine the “cultural logic” underpinning three major Middle East conflicts involving Western democracies — the 1956 tripartite aggression in Suez, the 1991 Gulf war and the 2003 Iraq war. Smith’s thesis is that, while “hard” geopolitical factors may explain why democratic states want to go to war, they need “cultural mandates” from the citizenry in order to do so. These “mandates” emerge from public discourse, primarily but not exclusively in the press. In Smith’s three cases, the press in the soon-to-be belligerent Western country reliably employed an “apocalyptic” narrative genre to talk about the enemy-to-be. In 1956, the British and French press cast Nasser as an “icy fanatic” whose ambitions had to be stopped for the sake of world peace. In the leadup to Desert Storm, Time magazine similarly wrote that Saddam Hussein “made the entire world quake, weak-kneed, at his power.” And in 2003, of course, Americans were scared into backing invasion of Iraq by that non-stop tape loop of alleged al-Qaeda fighters “training” on a jungle gym in Salman Pak and all the rest.

Smith continues that participants in debates about international crises make “genre guesses” as to which narrative genre will capture the public mood. Hawks try to “inflate” the prevailing narrative into full-blown apocalyptic mode, which mobilizes fear and deeply painful memories, while more professorial sorts try to “deflate” the genre with appeals to reason.

Peter Hart at FAIR, Glenn Greenwald and others have been tracking how the American media is dipping into the apocalyptic genre to tell the story of the US-Israeli confrontation with Iran over the Iranian nuclear research program. As Hart has shown, ABC News has seemed particularly welcoming of the four horsemen.

A great deal of the media threat inflation has revolved around the supposed peril to Israel posed by Iran’s enrichment of uranium. And this theme resonates with many Americans. But the real helium for the genre balloon might be the 1979-1980 hostage crisis, a trauma shared by all Americans in their early forties or older. The 444-day captivity of US Embassy personnel in Tehran is a formative political memory for many, many people — and decidedly not a warm and fuzzy one. Coming amid “stagflation” and steadily falling real wages, the hostage crisis seemed to crystallize the ambient dread of the historical moment, confirming the end of US national greatness presaged by Vietnam and Watergate. It is, in short, an emotional steel girder holding up what Trita Parsi calls the “institutionalized enmity” between the US and Iran.

Today’s Washington Post features an op-ed by former hostage and retired State Department official Don Cooke, who recapitulates his personal ordeal to argue (a bit obliquely) that only pressure backed by the threat of force will bring Iran’s nuclear ambitions to heel. The Post chose an ominous-sounding headline: “Iran Held Me Hostage Three Decades Ago. It Shouldn’t Hold America Hostage Today.”

Cooke paints the Iranian students who took over the US Embassy as part of a “peacock show” begun by Iran’s revolutionary regime. “Two antagonists enter the field, dance and wave their feathers at each other. It becomes clear who has the more impressive feathers; the weaker one resigns the field without a fight.” The Carter administration, apparently, was not a very convincing peacock, and it is not clear if Cooke thinks the Reagan administration was any better. “The standoff between the United States and Iran that those demonstrators launched was destined to be a long one because of the interplay of two inconsistent philosophies. The Iranians were in the arena flashing their feathers, making a determined, ostentatious show of strength. The Americans were looking for a face-saving compromise but didn’t want to appear to give in.” (These two philosophies do not seem all that inconsistent, but leave that aside for a moment.)

Since the US is dealing with a peacock, Cooke continues, it has no option but to strut around and flash its feathers, too. “Iran is coming back to the negotiating table — but not because it has suddenly decided to live up to its international obligations. These talks may provide a face-saving way to halt its nuclear program. The key to the Iranians accepting such a solution is to convince them that we have the capability and the will to end their program ourselves. The irony is that the more clearly we demonstrate that capability and will, the less likely we will need to use them.”

In substantive terms, this argument is pretty much what the Obama administration is doing, so it should not necessarily be read as an endorsement of more aggressive tactics, the Post’s headline notwithstanding. But the evocation of the hostage crisis to understand the nuclear confrontation of today could help to blow up the putative threat.

For the Iran hawks of today, the narrative elements of the hostage crisis are almost too good to be true: wild-eyed captors fresh from chanting “death to America,” radical political Islam, Americans held captive and terrorized just for doing their jobs, a hapless attempt at rescue that dramatized US weakness and put it on global display, a cerebral Democratic president under relentless GOP attack for lacking maschismo…the list goes on. These elements all figure in Cooke’s piece, and many would seem ripe for exploitation amid the twenty-first-century version of “malaise,” when the US unemployment rate is artifically lowered because so many workers (2.6 million in February) have given up looking for jobs and Foreign Policy nervously checks a “decline-o-meter.”

Reason obviously lost to fear and trauma in the three cases adduced by Smith. Which “genre guess” will prove correct in the case of Iran? In the wake of the AIPAC conference, most observers believe that Barack Obama has coolly deflated the war talk. Robert Dreyfuss and Robert Malley, among others, have written the counterpoint. In any event, the Cooke piece is a reminder that the “cultural logic” of a war with Iran is half-asleep in the American psyche and with some effort could be jolted awake. So it is encouraging that there are other former hostages with subsequent diplomatic experience (including with Iran), like John Limbert and Bruce Laingen, who are vocal opponents of escalation.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Threat Inflation via Memory Lane," Middle East Report Online, March 11, 2012.

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