The problem with ideologues is that while they are ready to criticise others for their rigidly held viewpoints, they are rarely ready to recognise that they are equally rigid and intolerant.
Senator Tom Cotton, speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
Nowhere is that on better display than in the recent controversy surrounding the nuclear negotiations with Iran. It must have been a long time since a deliberately provocative, and downright rude, open letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader was penned, and even longer since such a letter was supported with the signatures of 47 US Senators.
Now I understand that junior senators like Senator Tom Cotton want to make a political name for themselves, have always had President Obama in their sights, and see issues such as this as a way to do it. But if 50 members of the Iranian Majlis had sent a similarly worded letter to the US President, what do you think the reaction of the US public, let alone the conservative faction in American politics, would have been?
What the letter did reveal though, is the sort of hubris that only committed ideologues can demonstrate. The sort of hubris that precipitated the White House's 2003 decision to invade Iraq as a precursor to a 'flowering of democracy' among countries and cultures and within a region that few (if any) of the key decision-makers had any idea about. The sort of hubris that also depicts the nuclear negotiations as a bilateral negotiation between Washington and Tehran. Greg Sheridan writing in The Australian said that the letter told '...the Iranian leadership...not to set too much store by any deal it gets from President Barack Obama on nuclear weapons.'
Unfortunately, as the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed out, the negotiations involve the P5+1 with an agreement that may eventually be backed by a UN Security Council resolution. So the US Senators' open letter should have also been addressed to the British prime minister, the Russian, Chinese and French presidents, the German chancellor and the secretary-general of the UN. Because, by Senator Cotton's logic, he also put all of these leaders on notice that none of them should expect Washington to keep its word on any future agreement. In Senator Cotton's world, the P5+1 should move over and make room for the one.
Now if it was only these people exhibiting such breathtaking and public audacity then we could simply see them as petty local politicians trying to hit a pinpoint target using a shotgun. The problem is their actions are not as random as we think and, like all good ideologues (particularly ex-army officers like the good senator), they encourage supporting attacks.
Thus a few days later The Washington Post ran a somewhat poorly written, but provocatively titled op-ed, 'War with Iran is probably our best option'. I like provocative, but I like accurate even better. So when the neocon author breathlessly claims that 'Iran aims to carry its Islamic revolution across the Middle East and beyond', he ignores the fact that Iran's revolution was Shi'a-specific, and has limited appeal even among the broader Shi'a community (which itself only represents at most 20% of the global Muslim population).
That's the problem with people who over-hype Iran's regional and even at times global ambitions. Tehran faces three significant hurdles in expanding its influence even at the regional level: it has the wrong religion, is the wrong ethnicity, and speaks the wrong language. To expand its influence, Iran creates proxies and courts allies in the time-honoured tradition of countries who seek to expand their influence but have limited means by which to do it.
There is a deep thread of exceptionalism that runs through both American and Iranian notions of self. The problem with conservative ideologues from both countries that harbour this notion of exceptionalism is that they rarely understand that it isn't a view shared by anyone outside their respective countries. Without a modicum of self-awareness, such mindsets can lead to foreign policy adventurism as they both believe in their divinely-ordained right to lead. And, while the embarrassing letter has been seen for what it is, it reveals a way of thinking that reminds us that not all dangerous ideologues reside in the Middle East.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.