Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The art of not waging war


As we could predict as reliably as the sunrise, President Obama’s muted and nuanced response to the Iranian crackdown on advocates of democracy has aroused from the Republicans a blustery rhetorical call to arms in defense of the Iranian people.

The president has been derided as “tepid,” "timid" and “weak” by the full-metal-jackanapes chorus of the GOP. What’s been left unsaid by the conservatives in Congress and their media puppeteers is the idea that, in the case of a foreign government in turmoil (and especially that government), saying less has a way of yielding dividends that saying too much would destroy.

“The Art of War,” Sun Tzu’s aphoristic 2,000-year-old study of the interplay of organizations in conflict, has been the bane of military and political leaders and fire-walking business executives for decades. Among its central principles is the idea that (from the introduction to the Thomas Cleary translation) “to overcome others’ armies without fighting is the best of skills.”

Cleary observes: “The strategy of operating outside the sphere of emotional influence is part of the general strategy of unfathomability that The Art of War emphasizes in characteristic Taoist style.”

Whether the new president of the United States has read a word of Sun Tzu’s text or not, he has thoroughly absorbed its essence and applied it, deftly, to the American response to the current situation in Iran. “What everyone knows,” says The Art of War, “is what has already happened or become obvious. What the aware individual knows is what has not yet taken shape, what has not yet occurred.”

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That’s not to paint the new commander-in-chief as some kind of Zen shaman wandering the White House wearing a monk’s robe after hours. But others in a position to know — Iranian scholars, political analysts and ordinary Iranian citizens weighing in online — have given Obama high marks as much for what he hasn’t said as for what he’s volunteered on behalf of Iranian democracy.

Last night, Jon Gazvinian, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, offered an assessment of the Iranian democracy movement that properly historicizes current events. He also provided a thoughtful interpretation of Obama’s responses and how they’re received by Iranian cirtizens, and the Iranian government and theocracy.

“The key point about the Iranian democracy movement is, it didn’t start with Twitter,” Ghazvinian told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. “It’s been going on for a hundred years — 120 years, arguably. And throughout that entire time, it’s been unique in the sense that the movement for democracy has gone hand in hand with a passionate, passionate desire to see no foreign interference in Iran … thankfully, we have a president of the United States who has at least some awareness of that history.”

“ … These protests have taken the regime off guard. They seem to have spent the last ten days somewhat confused, directionless, not quite sure how to respond. There’s nothing they want more right now than some galvanizing piece of heavy-handed American rhetoric they could hold on to. That would be the greatest gift we could give them.”

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Maybe the reaction from GOP lawmakers and thought leaders is understandable. Americans in general have had so little of what could be called nuanced American foreign policy over the last eight years. We’ve gotten accustomed to having a demolition team in the White House; we haven’t fully adjusted ourselves to the microsurgeons running the place now.

The constitutionally impatient American media, often more enamored of conflict than of results, have played the role of attack dog, jumping on the conservative bandwagon with none-too-subtle digs at President Obama for not indulging his rhetorical inner John Wayne in statements about Iran.

Obama has sharpened his tone in recent days, it’s true; but it’s been a sharpening of a pro-democracy sentiment that the president made clear from the beginning of the crisis. As events continue to unfold in Tehran and elsewhere in the Iranian Republic, we can expect to see more rhetorical adjustments from this president — tweaks of language, statecraft and delivery that properly react to the situation to the ground, rather than trying to anticipate it.

President Obama has embraced the unspoken kernel of The Art of War: the real art of going to war, rhetorical or otherwise, is in not going to war. It's recognizing that, in a boardroom, a military theater or the court of public opinion, the best war is one you don’t have to fight in the first place.
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Image credits: Obama: White House photo by Pete Souza. Art of War: Kallemax (released to public domain).

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