We don't respect or understand any religious or nationalist fervor other than our own. That myopic distortion has been a persistent historical failure of U.S. foreign policy, but it has reached the point of total blindness in the Bush administration.
The latest exhibition of this approach was President Bush's thinly veiled threat this weekend to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities or even invade the country as a last resort, sparked by Tehran's troubled negotiations with the West over its nuclear program.
It is telling that Bush made the comments on Israeli television, which makes them exponentially more provocative. Israel is, of course, not only Iran's archenemy but is also believed to be the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the immediate region.
It is as if Bush is not content to rattle his saber at Tehran's hard-liners; he also wants to ensure that he infuriates and publicly embarrasses even moderate Iranians.
If diplomacy fails, "all options are on the table," Bush said. "You know, we've used force in the recent past to secure our country." But it was precisely Bush's use of pre-emptive force against Iraq that now makes it so difficult to pressure Iran to abandon its worrisome nuclear program.
Neither the security of the Iranians nor of the world is enhanced by any nuclear program that includes weapon capabilities. Nuclear weapons are inherently weapons of terrorism, and international monitoring of nuclear programs for all countries is in order. Iran insists that it only wants peaceful nuclear power, but we cannot assume it is telling the truth. If Tehran refuses to be transparent and open to inspections, the U.N. Security Council can take up the issue of imposing sanctions.
Yet as the head of the only nation to have used nuclear weapons on human beings and the one currently devising the next generation of "battlefield" nukes, it would seem that Bush should be a little more careful about trying to seize the moral high ground. This is especially the case because Washington has accommodated the nuclear programs of three allies (Pakistan, India and Israel).
The timing of Bush's bombast is particularly unfortunate. Only last week the world marked the 60th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The mayor of the latter city, which was apparently destroyed at least partly because the U.S. military wanted to test a plutonium-based bomb, was bold enough in his anniversary remarks to point out the hypocrisy of our current stance.
"To the citizens of the United States of America: We understand your anger and anxiety over the memories of the horror of the 9-11 terrorist attacks," he said. "Yet, is your security enhanced by your government's policies of maintaining 10,000 nuclear weapons?"
Bush's Iran policy is rife with contradictions. What, for example, is the point of publicly threatening Iran when doing so immeasurably strengthens the hand of hard-line nationalists and religious fundamentalists in Tehran? These are the people who, for more than a century, have secured much of their appeal by posturing as the protectors of the Muslim populace against Western imperialism.
And the reality is that we are in a much, much weaker position vis-a-vis Iran than we should be because of our invasion and disastrous occupation of neighboring Iraq.
Iran now holds some high cards in this poker match. It is closely allied with the most powerful force in post-Saddam Iraq: Shiite religious leaders. Any invasion of Iran might break our already strained military machine. If Iran were to send its fanatical revolutionary guards into Iraq as saboteurs, they could make the current carnage seem like a walk in the park.
And finally, Iran is one of the world's biggest oil exporters. At a time when oil prices are soaring, much of the rest of the world would be hesitant to back the United States in any adventure that could cut off the flow.
As German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder put it accurately on Sunday in response to Bush's comments: "Let's take the military option off the table. We have seen it doesn't work."
What can work is what has worked in the past: carefully maximizing international pressure on Tehran to comply with the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency so that Iran's program can be monitored and limited to nonmilitary purposes.
Perhaps this isn't as exciting to the neocon chicken-hawks in the Bush administration who love treating the world like a big game of "Risk," but it is certainly the most prudent approach if the goal is a more peaceful world.