The Tyranny of Metaphor

Three historical myths have been leading American presidents into folly for nearly a century. Is Obama wise enough to avoid the same fate?

In 1952, British historian Denis William Brogan published a brilliantly perceptive article on "The Illusion of American Omnipotence." In the midst of the Korean War, Brogan was not only commenting on Americans' frustration with their inability to prevail decisively against supposedly inferior Chinese and North Korean forces, but also cautioning against other misadventures in which the United States falsely assumed its superpower status assured a military victory in any conflict it chose to fight. Brogan could just as easily have titled his essay "The Omnipotence of American Illusion" in an echo of Friedrich Nietzsche's critique of true believers. "Convictions," the great German philosopher wrote, "are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies."

Brogan and Nietzsche might well have been talking about the last 100 years of American thinking about foreign policy and the convictions -- or call them illusions -- that have shaped it along the way, across administrations led by men as diverse in outlook and background as Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and George W. Bush.

There is certainly much about America's world dealings in the 20th century that deserves praise: victory in World War II, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, JFK's diplomacy during the Cuban missile crisis, the Camp David peace accords, the Panama Canal treaty, Richard Nixon's opening to China, and détente with the Soviet Union, to mention the most obvious. But a more rounded view would have to include its many stumbles. Three enduring illusions -- a misguided faith in universalism, or America's power to transform the world from a community of hostile, lawless nations into enlightened states devoted to peaceful cooperation; a need to shun appeasement of all adversaries or to condemn suggestions of conciliatory talks with them as misguided weakness; and a belief in the surefire effectiveness of military strength in containing opponents, whatever their ability to threaten the United States -- have made it nearly impossible for Americans to think afresh about more productive ways to address their foreign problems. Call it the tyranny of metaphor: For all their pretensions to shaping history, U.S. presidents are more often its prisoners.

Even Barack Obama, who rode his opposition to the Iraq war into the White House and has kept his campaign promise to withdraw U.S. combat troops, is not immune from history's illusions. How could he be? Domestic politics are as much a part of foreign policy as assessments of conditions abroad. But Obama might yet succeed in fending off such pressures. The president is keenly interested in making the wisest possible use of history, as was evident to me from two dinners 10 other historians and I had with him at the White House over the past two years. For despite the many countercurrents confronting him, Obama was eager to learn from us how previous presidents transcended their circumstances to achieve transformational administrations.

Such lessons must weigh heavily as Obama faces his next momentous decision on what to do in Afghanistan while praying that Gen. David Petraeus, the hero of the Iraq surge, can duplicate the feat before the public's patience runs out. So far, the president has avoided either fully embracing the Afghan war or calling for outright withdrawal. His commitment of 30,000 additional troops was meant to reassure America's national security hawks that he is as determined as they are to defend the country's safety from future attacks. At the same time, his promise to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011 suggests his understanding that Afghanistan could be another Vietnam -- a costly, unwinnable conflict that could tie the United States down in Asia for the indefinite future. It might also be, of course, that Obama has serious doubts about the value of sending American soldiers to die in a far-off, impoverished land of little strategic value, but understands that simply to walk away from the conflict carries unacceptable political risks, undermining his ability to enact a bold domestic agenda that is central to his administration and his chances for a second term.

Just as President Harry Truman could not ignore the political pressure from the China Lobby to back Chiang Kai-shek's failing regime against Mao Zedong's Communists in the middle of the last century, so Obama is mindful of the political risks of appearing irresolute. Already, his predecessor's U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, has blamed Obama's Afghan withdrawal timeline for sending "a signal of weakness that our adversaries interpret to our detriment." Former Vice President Dick Cheney has referred to the president as someone who "travels around the world apologizing." Bush himself previewed a similar line of attack in a 2008 speech in Israel, in which he criticized Obama and others then calling for engagement with Iran. "We have heard this foolish delusion before," Bush said. "As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."

Can Obama escape this trap? To do so, he'll need to study his predecessors' mistakes and learn from those few U.S. presidents who managed to avoid being tyrannized by metaphor. And he'll need to understand how we got here.

AMERICA'S LOVE AFFAIR WITH universalism, the first of the three illusions, began in January 1918 with President Woodrow Wilson's peace program, his Fourteen Points: the seductive rationalizations for U.S. participation in a "war to end all wars" and make the Western world "safe for democracy." Such high-minded ends appealed to Americans as validations of the superiority of their institutions. They were enough to convince an isolationist America to sacrifice more than 50,000 lives in the last 19 months of Europe's Great War. The 20 postwar years, which saw the rise of communism, fascism, Nazism, and Japanese militarism leading to World War II, gave the lie to Wilson's dreams of universal peace and self-governance, driving Americans back into their isolationist shell until the attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated that the "free security" provided by vast oceans and weak neighbors no longer guaranteed their country's safety.

Yet Wilson's idealistic hopes for a better world did not disappear on the beaches of Normandy or in the caves of Iwo Jima. If anything, World War II reinforced Americans' unrealistic expectations that they could reduce -- if not end -- human conflict. Wilsonianism found continuing life in the birth of the United Nations and the triumph of democracy in Germany, Japan, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, and parts of Latin America. But Wilson's vision was again elevated to a sacred doctrine that repeatedly played America false. Eager to believe that World War II would largely cure countries of their affinity for bloodshed, Americans persisted in seeing the Allies -- Britain, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States -- as permanent friends acting in concert to keep the postwar peace.

The onset of the Cold War brought an abrupt end to these dreams. But convictions about the irresistible attraction of U.S. institutions encouraged the hope that inside every foreigner was an American waiting to emerge, an outlook that shaped American thinking not only during the years of anti-communist struggle, but all the way up to Bush's rationale for fighting in Iraq. Today, Bush's prediction that the destruction of Saddam Hussein's military dictatorship would transform the Middle East into a flourishing center of traditional American freedoms is proving to be as elusive as Wilson's original grandiose vision. The imperfect U.S.-sponsored regimes in Baghdad -- and Kabul too, for that matter -- are a far cry from the robust democracies Bush hoped would become the envy of the region. "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world," Bush said in his very Wilsonian second inaugural address, though U.S. military chiefs in Iraq and Afghanistan have since managed to move the goal posts, promising to establish reasonably pro-American governments that can handle their own security.

Most of the evidence, however, points to an unpredictable future for both countries, where political instability, anti-Americanism, and military coups seem unlikely to disappear. It may be that 10 or 20 or 30 years of U.S. stewardship will bring freedom and prosperity to Iraq and Afghanistan, but Americans have limited patience with nation-building that costs them unacceptable amounts of blood and treasure -- and often have a better collective sense of what American power can realistically achieve than the government's best and brightest. They have not forgotten the Vietnam War, even if, at times, their leaders seem to have.

Indeed, Vietnam is always there as a trap for the American leader, a trap set by the deadly and persistent second illusion -- that a failure to combat every act of international aggression is tantamount to appeasement, a return to the failed passivity of the 1930s. This illusion has time and again led the United States into unwise and costly military adventures. While Winston Churchill was marvelously right in saying that Britain had a choice between war and dishonor at Munich in 1938 and that Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Adolf Hitler would produce both, Munich was never the perfect analogy for dealing with subsequent conflicts, as Churchill himself acknowledged. As he put it in 1950, "The word 'appeasement' is not popular, but appeasement has its place in all policy. Make sure you put it in the right place. Appease the weak. Defy the strong." But for hawks, it is always Munich 1938 -- no matter whether the aggressor is Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, or "Baby Doc" Duvalier -- and presidents from Truman to Bush have been led by the appeasement metaphor into misjudgments that have harmed the United States and undermined their presidencies.

Truman, for example, justified his decision to enter the Korean War in 1950 as a way to deter the Soviet Union, which he saw as the architect of the conflict, from future acts of aggression that could touch off a World War III. Truman had reason enough to combat Pyongyang's aggression: South Korea's collapse would have undermined confidence in America's determination to defend Japan and Western European allies. Comparisons between Stalin and Hitler and predictions that Korea was the start of a worldwide communist offensive like the Nazi reach for global control, however, were decidedly overdrawn. But the power of the anti-appeasement proposition was so great in 1950 that one can search in vain for dissenting voices.

Had Truman aimed simply to restore South Korea's independence, his decision to enter the Korean fighting would look much different today. Instead, he chose to follow Gen. Douglas MacArthur's advice to destroy North Korea's communist regime by crossing the 38th parallel. It was a blunder based on two false assumptions: that the Chinese would not enter the conflict and that if they did, they would be roundly defeated, with the likely collapse of their communist regime. Instead, China's direct entry into the war produced a military and political stalemate, delayed a possible rapprochement with Beijing for years, and destroyed Truman's presidency. With his approval rating falling to 24 percent, he could neither enact his Fair Deal nor maintain public backing for the war.

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President Lyndon B. Johnson, of course, was another casualty of the Munich analogy. Recalling the political consequences for his party from the 1949 "loss" of China that right-wing Republicans like Joseph McCarthy used to label Democrats as appeasers of Chamberlain scale, he committed the United States to a war in Southeast Asia even more politically destructive to his administration and the country than any act of passivity might have produced. Johnson came to lament Vietnam's cost to him and his administration, complaining about the "bitch" of a war that distracted him from his true love -- building the Great Society.

The failure in Vietnam produced a new metaphor: Fighting a Third World country on hostile terrain was to be avoided at all costs. When George H.W. Bush convinced Congress and the country to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, it was an uphill struggle to persuade Americans that he was not involving them in another Vietnam. Yet he succeeded by invoking that appeasement metaphor yet again: "If history teaches us anything, it is that we must resist aggression or it will destroy our freedoms," Bush explained in making his case for the war. "Appeasement does not work. As was the case in the 1930s, we see in Saddam Hussein an aggressive dictator threatening his neighbors." Such overblown warnings were enough to sell the Persian Gulf offensive, but postwar arguments that America had now kicked the Vietnam syndrome were premature -- and may have sown the seeds of his son's disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The third illusion U.S. presidents often hold is that militarized containment -- the belief that containing or preventing enemy aggression depends on a military threat to their survival -- is the right way to avoid the traps set by the first two. The core conviction here has been that America won the Cold War because it understood that the Soviet Union was intent on world domination and that the best way to counter its ambitions short of all-out war was to contain its reach for control by a combination of economic, political, and military initiatives that would discourage Moscow from aggression and strain its limited resources to the breaking point, forcing communism's collapse.

From the start, however, containment was a contested doctrine. In his famous "Long Telegram" of February 1946 and "X" article in Foreign Affairs the next year, George F. Kennan, who headed the State Department's new policy planning staff, counseled the White House to contain Soviet Russia's "expansionist," "messianic" drive for world control. Kennan later regretted having stated his views in such evangelistic language; it encouraged anti-communists to take his advice as a call for military as well as political and diplomatic action.

In fact, Kennan never believed that Moscow intended a military offensive against Western Europe. In his judgment, Soviet acts of aggression would take the form of political subversion, calculated steps to bring pro-Soviet governments to power wherever possible as Moscow drove to win what it saw as the inevitable competition between communism and capitalism. Kennan's formula for victory was economic aid fostering political stability in countries potentially vulnerable to communism's siren song. He wisely described Soviet communism as a system of state management and controls that would eventually collapse when its inability to meet consumer demands for the sort of material well-being and freedoms enjoyed in the West became evident. Accordingly, he vigorously opposed hawkish Cold War initiatives such as the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, armed intervention in Vietnam, and the development of the hydrogen bomb as needless escalations that would only ensure a harsh Soviet response.

Kennan was a prophet without a following -- at least within the U.S. government. Secretary of State Dean Acheson told him to take his Quaker views to a more hospitable setting than he could possibly find in Washington. Kennan found a home in Princeton, N.J., at the Institute for Advanced Study, but vindication would not become fully evident until the close of the Cold War. As his life ended in 2005 at the age of 101, he was convinced more than ever that the tyranny of military containment had done little, if anything, to assure America's victory in that struggle. He saw the invasion of Iraq as another example of misplaced faith in a military solution to a political problem. In a September 2002 interview, a 98-year-old Kennan described Bush's talk of a pre-emptive war against Iraq as "a great mistake."

No postwar U.S. presidents were more mindful of the need to rely on diplomatic and political initiatives in fighting the Cold War than Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. They understood that Truman's greatest foreign-policy successes were the Truman Doctrine, which committed U.S. financial aid to shoring up Greece and Turkey against communist subversion, and the Marshall Plan, which consisted of multibillion-dollar grants to support European economies as a bar to communist political gains in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Scandinavia.

True, Eisenhower and Kennedy were not averse to using subversion to undermine unfriendly regimes in the Middle East and Latin America, as the historical record demonstrates in U.S. dealings with Iran, Nicaragua, and Cuba during the 1950s and 1960s. Nor were they consistently wise in sanctioning clandestine operations that did not necessarily serve long-term U.S. interests. Both presidents, however, saw the reliance on direct military action to defeat the communists as a step too far. For all the rhetoric in the 1952 campaign about rollback and liberation (Adlai Stevenson has "a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson's cowardly college of communist containment," Richard Nixon taunted), Ike would not unleash America's military power to oust Kim Il Sung's communist regime from Pyongyang, as South Korea's Syngman Rhee and conservative Republicans in the United States urged. Nor would he support Hungary's attempt to throw off Soviet control in 1956 with armed intervention or rely on more than rhetorical threats to deter the Chinese from attacking Quemoy and Matsu, the islands between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. And he resisted French pressure to intervene with air power to prevent defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the loss of Vietnam, which struck Eisenhower as an effort to involve the United States in a war Paris had already lost and America would not assuredly win.

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Kennedy was as cautious as Eisenhower about relying on armed intervention to serve the national interest. Despite intense pressure from U.S. military chiefs in 1961 to rescue the Cuban insurgents at the Bay of Pigs by using American air power against Fidel Castro's forces, Kennedy rejected a direct U.S. part in the fighting. True, the invaders were U.S. surrogates armed and financed by the CIA, but Kennedy wisely concluded that the price of open U.S. intervention would be greater -- a barrage of anti-American propaganda in the Third World -- than the embarrassment from a defeat. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the demands on Kennedy from his generals to bomb Soviet missile installations and invade the island to topple Castro were intense. But Kennedy insisted on a "quarantine" and diplomatic solution that, as we know now, saved the world from a devastating nuclear war.

Kennedy was also a reluctant supporter of expanded U.S. military action in Vietnam. At the same time he increased the number of U.S. military advisors in Saigon from roughly 700 to more than 16,000, he saw a commitment of U.S. ground troops to South Vietnam's defense as a potential trap that could shift the burden of the war to the United States and turn the conflict into another Korea. In the months before he was assassinated in November 1963, he directed Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to lay plans for the withdrawal of the advisors. (He also signed on to a coup by South Vietnamese generals against Ngo Dinh Diem's government, aiming to create a more stable political rule that would reduce the need for U.S. military intervention.) We will never know exactly what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam in a second term, but it seems unlikely that he would have followed Johnson's path. As Kennedy told New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, "United States troops should not be involved on the Asian mainland." He warned Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and presidential advisor, that sending combat troops to Vietnam would place far greater demands on U.S. commitments than the public would tolerate and would not allow him to sustain public backing for other initiatives his administration might hope to take. The history of LBJ's presidency fully vindicates Kennedy's doubts.

Eisenhower and Kennedy have much to teach Obama and anyone else who becomes president; American leaders invariably confront such demands to use military force. The two men could resist that pressure because they were military heroes who could convince the public that they understood the use of armed strength better than domestic hawks urging action. Presidents without military records -- like Obama -- are at a disadvantage that they need to counter through vigorous rhetoric, a technique deployed with great success by the likes of leaders as varied as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Counter it they must, for the metaphors that have dominated American thinking about foreign affairs over the last hundred years are not simply objects of historical curiosity. As Obama understands, they remain powerful engines of influence on decision-making about vital questions of war and peace. In trying to forge sensible responses to the challenges posed by Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and the persistent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama knows that the shadows of past failures hang over him, whether the misguided belief in turning authoritarian adversaries into Jeffersonian democrats or the false choice of favoring militant containment over anything that even remotely resembles appeasement. His room to maneuver is therefore limited -- at least if he hopes to act with the sort of public support required to put across his domestic agenda while also moving boldly to tame international dangers.

Obama seems keenly aware of the main lesson of Vietnam: Don't let the appeasement metaphor, cliché, conviction, call it what you will, lock you into an unwinnable war that destroys your presidency. He appreciates that a grand design or strategy in foreign affairs does not readily translate from one crisis to another. Appeasement was a terrible idea in dealing with Hitler, but avoiding it was never the right argument for crossing the 38th parallel in Korea or embroiling the United States in Vietnam. (After all, a stalemate in the first war and a defeat in the second did not deter the United States from winning the larger Cold War.) Nor is Obama persuaded by grand Wilsonian visions of bringing democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan; he has made clear that he does not see military solutions to the problems America faces in those two countries. He has openly described the invasion of Iraq as a "mistake" and seems determined to de-escalate U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as soon as possible.

But no matter how conscious Obama is of the perils of history's traps, he faces no small challenge in convincing political opponents to relinquish the outworn foreign-policy clichés that have been of such questionable service to America's well-being. As Germany's Otto von Bismarck is said to have observed more than 100 years ago, great statesmen have the ability to hear, before anyone else, the distant hoofbeats of the horse of history. More often than not, however, it is the accepted wisdoms -- or the wrong lessons of history altogether -- that govern the thinking of publics and the behavior of their leaders.

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Photos, left to right: Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images


The Sources of Soviet Iranian Conduct

How George Kennan is still the best guide to today's villain inside a victim behind a veil.

For three decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has bedeviled the United States, resisting both incentives and disincentives and working all the while to foil American designs in the Middle East. If 20th-century Russia was to Winston Churchill a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, for observers of contemporary Iran, the Islamic Republic often resembles a villain inside a victim behind a veil.

Seeking to understand their mysterious foe, American analysts most commonly invoke three historical analogies to explain its character and future trajectory: Red China, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. The chosen metaphor pretty much dictates the proposed response, and most prescriptions for U.S. policy have come down to one of these variations: attempt to coax the Iranian regime into modernity; forget the diplomatic niceties and "pre-emptively" attack it to prevent or delay its acquisition of nuclear weapons; or contain it in hopes it will change or collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions.

After a momentous decade of watching Iran from both Tehran and Washington, interviewing hundreds of Iranians from across the political spectrum, and closely following the writings and statements of top Iranian officials, my advice for Barack Obama's administration as it came to office last year was to dispense with the historical metaphors and instead try to probe, via engagement, a seemingly facile but fundamental question: Why does Iran behave the way it does? Is Iranian foreign policy rooted in an immutable ideological opposition to the United States, or is Iran just reacting to punitive U.S. policies? To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, is Iran a nation or a cause?

I had always thought that the Islamic Republic was sui generis -- a political system unprecedented in modern times. But in the ensuing months, Iran's cynical response to Obama, followed by the massive post-election crackdowns, show trials, and forced confessions, made me think that historical analogies might shed some light on Iran after all. But which metaphor, if any, fits?

For proponents of the China comparison -- often foreign-policy realists -- the Iranian regime is fundamentally pragmatic, not ideological, and yearns for a rapprochement with the United States. Viewed through this relatively benign prism, Tehran's support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, its alliances with radical leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Iraq's Moqtada al-Sadr, and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, its Holocaust denial, and its weekly jeers of "death to America" are seen as defensive reactions to a hostile United States. The analogy implies that a bold U.S. gesture, à la President Richard Nixon's famous 1972 trip to Beijing, could bring about a "grand bargain" with Tehran.

Many have noted that the propitious geopolitical circumstances fueling Nixon's rapprochement with Chinese leader Mao Zedong -- mutual concern about the looming Soviet threat -- do not exist when it comes to today's Iran. While Mao didn't exactly go around waving the Star-Spangled Banner, the China analogy also vastly underestimates the extent to which anti-Americanism is central to the identity of the Islamic Republic's current leadership, particularly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei's contempt for the United States, documented in three decades' worth of writings and speeches, has been remarkably consistent. Whether the topic is foreign policy, agriculture, or education, he seamlessly relates the subject to the cruelty, greed, and sinister plots of what he calls American "global arrogance." Former senior Iranian officials, including even a former president, have told me that in private discussions Khamenei has declared, "Ma doshmani ba Amrika ra lazem dareem," i.e., "We need enmity with the United States." A month before the tainted presidential election of June 2009, Khamenei declared that Iran would face a national "disaster" if a candidate who attempted to thaw relations with America came to power.

While the "grand bargain" option garnered special attention during the George W. Bush years, when Washington shunned dialogue with Tehran, Obama's unprecedented and unreciprocated overtures to Tehran -- including two personal letters from the U.S. president to Khamenei -- undercut the narrative that Iran's hard-liners, despite their own rhetoric, secretly aspire to cordial relations with the United States.

They don't. Indeed, underneath the ideological veneer, the anti-Americanism of Iran's hard-liners is driven in no small part by self-preservation. They are acutely aware of the argument made by many Iran analysts over the years that a rapprochement with the United States could spur unpredictable reforms that would significantly dilute their hold on power. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the powerful Guardian Council, put it plainly in a 2009 interview with Etemad newspaper: "If pro-American tendencies come to power in Iran, we have to say goodbye to everything. After all, anti-Americanism is among the main features of our Islamic state."

But if Iran is no 1970s China, ripe for an accommodation, the opposite view -- that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a latter-day Adolf Hitler and Iran is Nazi Germany -- is no closer to the mark. For the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who bluntly told a Los Angeles audience in 2006 that "It's 1938, and Iran is Germany," the Islamic Republic is incorrigibly fundamentalist, messianic, and hence, undeterrable. Continued engagement, then, is tantamount to appeasement, and the use of military force might well be inevitable. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently added his name to the small but strident list of people who have endorsed this surprisingly persistent line of thinking.

Yet though the Iranian regime is homicidal toward its own population and espouses a hateful ideology, there is little evidence to suggest it is also expansionist and genocidal. Even the U.S. Defense Department describes Iran's military power -- underwritten by a budget less that 2 percent the size of America's -- as largely deterrent in nature. What's more, despite Ahmadinejad's repugnant rhetoric and delusions of grandeur, his control over the Iranian state is not comparable to the absolute power Hitler wielded in Germany.

So, should we dispense with the historical analogies altogether? Not quite. In fact, few contemporary analyses capture the nature of today's Islamic Republic better than a masterpiece I first read in college: diplomat George F. Kennan's incisive and unapologetic 1947 essay on the Soviet Union, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Kennan's article, published in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym "X" because the author was a serving U.S. official, set the tenor of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union until it finally collapsed in 1991 under the weight of its economic mismanagement and moral exhaustion.

Like all such comparisons, the analogy is far from perfect. The Soviet Union was an irreligious empire with nuclear weapons and global reach, while the Islamic Republic is an aspiring nuclear power whose influence outside the Middle East is limited. But like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic is a corrupt, inefficient, authoritarian regime whose bankrupt ideology resonates far more abroad than it does at home. Also like the men who once ruled Moscow, Iran's current leaders have a victimization complex and, as they themselves admit, derive their internal legitimacy from thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam.


Read Kennan's essay with the Islamic Republic in mind -- replacing "Soviet Union," "Stalin," and "communism" with their Iranian equivalents -- and the parallels are quite evident. Here's 10 striking examples of Kennan's text anticipating today's Iran. They offer time-tested insight into the machinations and gradual decay of Tehran's paranoid, opaque regime. Kennan's wisdom does not call on the United States to shun dialogue with Tehran, but merely to temper its expectations. In the process, Kennan would caution, America should remain "at all times cool and collected" -- and allow the march of history to run its course.

1. Iran's sense of siege is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"[I]deology, as we have seen, taught them that the outside world was hostile and that it was their duty eventually to overthrow the political forces beyond their borders. Then powerful hands of Russian Iranian history and tradition reached up to sustain them in this feeling. Finally, their own aggressive intransigence with respect to the outside world began to find its own reaction.… It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right."

2. The security apparatus designed to protect the state has begun to subsume it.

"The security of Soviet the Islamic Republic's power came to rest on the iron discipline of the Party Supreme Leader, on the severity and ubiquity of the secret police Basij and Revolutionary Guards, and on the uncompromising economic monopolism of the state. The 'organs of suppression,' in which the Soviet Iranian leaders had sought security from rival forces, became in large measures the masters of those whom they were designed to serve."

3. The looming foreign enemy is needed to justify domestic suppression.

"[T]here is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow Tehran on the menace confronting Soviet Iranian society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home."

4. Revolutionary ideology has not evolved.

"Of the original ideology, nothing has been officially junked. Belief is maintained in the basic badness of capitalism liberalism, in the inevitability of its destruction, in the obligation of the proletariat downtrodden believers to assist in that destruction and to take power into its their own hands."

5. The Islamic Republic may make tactical offers of compromise, but its enmity toward the West is strategic.

"It must inevitably be assumed in Moscow Tehran that the aims of the capitalist Western world are antagonistic to the Soviet regime Islamic Republic, and therefore to the interests of the peoples it controls. If the Soviet Iranian government occasionally sets its signature to documents which would indicate the contrary, this is to [be] regarded as a tactical maneuver permissible in dealing with the enemy (who is without honor) and should be taken in the spirit of caveat emptor. Basically, the antagonism remains."

6. The United States must focus on a long-term strategy, rather than short-term tactics.

"Soviet Iranian diplomacy [is] at once easier and more difficult to deal with than the diplomacy of individual aggressive leaders like Napoleon and Hitler. On the one hand it is more sensitive to contrary force, more ready to yield on individual sectors of the diplomatic front when that force is felt to be too strong, and thus more rational in the logic and rhetoric of power. On the other hand it cannot be easily defeated or discouraged by a single victory on the part of its opponents. And the patient persistence by which it is animated means that it can be effectively countered not by sporadic acts which represent the momentary whims of democratic opinion but only [by] intelligent long-range policies on the part of Russia's Iran's adversaries -- policies no less steady in their purpose, and no less variegated and resourceful in their application, than those of the Soviet Union Islamic Republic itself."

7. Ideological fatigue has set in.

"The mass of the people are disillusioned, skeptical and no longer as accessible as they once were to the magical attraction which Soviet Iranian power still radiates to its followers abroad."

8. The succession of power in the Islamic Republic is uncertain.

"[A] great uncertainty hangs over the political life of the Soviet Union Islamic Republic. That is the uncertainty involved in the transfer of power from one individual or group of individuals to others.

"This is, of course, outstandingly the problem of the personal position of Stalin Khamenei. We must remember that his succession to Lenin's Khomeini's pinnacle of pre-eminence … was the only such transfer of individual authority which the Soviet Union Islamic Republic has experienced.… Thus the future of Soviet Iranian power may not be by any means as secure as Russian Iranian capacity for self-delusion would make it appear to the men of the Kremlin Islamic Republic."

9. You can't reach an accommodation with a regime that needs you as an adversary.

"It is clear that the United States cannot expect in the foreseeable future to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet Iranian regime. It must continue to regard the Soviet Union Iran as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena. It must continue to expect that Soviet Iranian policies will reflect no abstract love of peace and stability, no real faith in the possibility of a permanent happy coexistence of the Socialist Islamist and capitalist liberal worlds, but rather a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power."

10. U.S. policies can expedite, but not engineer, political change in Iran.

"It would be an exaggeration to say that American behavior unassisted and alone could exercise a power of life and death over the Communist Islamist movement and bring about the early fall of Soviet power the Islamic Republic in Russia Iran. But the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet Iranian policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin Islamic Republic a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet Iranian power."