Bruce Thornton: The Dangers of Obama’s Cognitive Dissonance

There are many moments from the past 6 years that demonstrate the criminal incompetence of this president and his administration. But for me, Obama’s interview with GloZell––whose claim to YouTube fame comes from eating Cheerios in a bathtub filled with milk––represents best the essential emptiness, triviality, and sheer dumbness of this president. 

Imagine Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 being interviewed by a carnival geek, and you can gauge just how low the most consequential political office in the world has sunk.

This interview, remember, took place the same time as problems requiring urgent presidential attention were escalating. Libya imploding, Iran inching toward a nuclear bomb, ISIS expanding in Syria and holding ground in northern Iraq, Iranian military assets active in Iraq, Yemen falling to an Iranian proxy terrorist group, another Iranian client, Bashar al Assad, strengthening his hold over Syria––and that’s just the Middle East. And don’t forget, the GloZell farce followed hard on Obama’s State of the Union address, a congeries of wishful thinking, narcissistic braggadocio, and outright-lies, a preposterous catalogue in which generous sprinklings of first-person-pronoun fairy dust transmuted every failure into an achievement.

It is the contradiction between fact and fiction, evident in every line of the president’s speech, that typifies progressives in general. This cognitive dissonance may simply be nothing more than the grubby machinations of those who will say and do anything for political power and the wealth and influence it brings. In other words, they know they are hypocrites. But it also could be something more dangerous than a venal character and moral corruption. One gets the feeling that many progressives actually believe what they say, that they are reciting the mantras of their ideological cult, no matter how contrary to reality or their own actions. What’s more important is that whatever the source, this failure to acknowledge reality, to think critically, and to respect intellectual coherence is dangerous to all of us, especially in the many foreign policy crises that have mushroomed on Obama’s watch.

And the worst crisis we face is the relentless progress Iran is making toward creating nuclear weapons, a development that would set off an arms race in the Middle East and destabilize an already chaotic region. The Islamic Republic has already extended its malign influence into Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, creating a Shi’a crescent that threatens our allies in the region, especially Israel, Jordon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. If a failed gangster-state like North Korea can demand so much international attention just because it possesses nuclear weapons, think what Iran––with 3 times the population and the world’s 3rd largest oil reserves––could do. Oil won’t stay cheap forever.

But in the face of this threat, Obama has appeased the mullahs under the guise of diplomatic “engagement” and negotiations, the time-proven way to avoid action while pretending to do something. Indeed, so besotted is he by his faith in diplomacy that he has threatened to veto a Congressional bill that would strengthen his negotiating position by toughening economic sanctions, the best non-lethal shot we have for changing the Iranians’ behavior, given the current decline in their oil revenues. But what we see here is a problem that transcends any one president or Secretary of State, for it reflects the intellectual error and failure of imagination peculiar to modernity.

The heart of this mistake is the belief that whatever their professed beliefs, all peoples everywhere are just like us and want the same things we want. Since our highest goods are peace and prosperity, we think other nations’ privilege the same things. If peoples behave differently, it’s because they are warped by poverty or bad governments or religious superstitions, and just need to be shown that they can achieve those boons in rational, peaceful ways, especially by adopting liberal democracy and free-market economies. Once they achieve freedom and start to enjoy the higher living standards economic development brings, they will see the error of their traditional ways and abandon aggression and violence, and resolve conflicts with the diplomacy and negotiation we prefer.

The problem with this scenario is not that other peoples don’t want freedom and prosperity, or are incapable of achieving them. Rather, it is that they often have other goals more important than the ones we prize. Like religion, for example, or national honor, or revenge. We may think such motives are irrational avatars from an uncivilized past, but they are still drivers of action in individuals and nations alike. They may be, to quote Orwell on the Nazis, “ghosts” out of the premodern world, but they’re still “ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.”

Of course, if weaker than an enemy or rival, such a people may conceal these motives, and pretend to play by the rules of the more powerful, until they are strong enough to use force to achieve their aims. In such situations, diplomatic engagement becomes a tactic for achieving through words what cannot be gained through deeds. As Robert Conquest said of our Cold War negotiations with the Soviets, “The Soviets did what their interests required when the alternative seemed less acceptable, and negotiation was merely a technical adjunct.”

History shows the truth of this insight, from the Munich Conference in 1938, to the many arms reduction treaties with the Soviet Union, which we know the Soviets and now the Russians have serially violated. More pertinent for Iran is the sorry history of the diplomatic attempts to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. For decades we indulged in cycles of concessions, agreements, conferences, and violations that all ended up with the North announcing it had gone nuclear. The failure to learn from that recent history is evident in Obama’s current reprise of that sordid dance in his engagement with Iran.

This is not to say that diplomacy can’t ever work. But to be effective, negotiation has to start with a clear understanding of the other side’s motives. One must avoid the “trap,” as Conquest called it, “of thinking that others think, within reason, like ourselves. But this trap is precisely the error that must be avoided in foreign affairs.” The rulers of Iran may lust after wealth and secular power, the default materialist motives recognized by the West. But that greed can coexist with their messianic, apocalyptic strain of Shi’a Islam, and the acceptability of violence in service to their faith that characterizes traditional Islam.

Thus when Muslim warriors tell us, as they have for 14 centuries, that they love death as we love life; when they proclaim, as Mohammed, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, Osama bin Laden, and the Fort Hood jihadist did, “I was instructed to fight all men until they say there is no god but Allah,” we’d better listen and take them seriously, rather than brush aside such profound religious beliefs as mere camouflage for materialist motives. Yet so blind is Obama to this truth, that he and his officials stubbornly refuse even to utter a phrase like “Islamic extremist,” since he has decided that all the Muslim violence roiling the world every day has “nothing to do with Islam.”

Second, diplomacy can work only when backed by a credible threat of force. The other side must believe that mind-concentrating violence will punish them for negotiating in bad faith and violating agreements. In the case of Iran, the mullahs must believe that we will put to the test their love of death and longing for paradise. But our long history with the Islamic Republic has proved the opposite. Iran has never been punished for taking our embassy staff hostage in 1979, for instigating the murder of 241 of our soldiers in Beirut in 1983, or for training and funding the terrorists who have killed our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, or for being the world’s leading promoter of terrorist violence.

Obama, in short, can say that “all options are on the table” all he wants, but the mullahs know he will not take military action against them, nor help Israel to. They know that Obama has withdrawn from the region, and at best will make only token gestures of engagement, like the current bombing campaign against ISIL. They know his ultimatums and “red line” threats are empty. They know he wants a deal more than they do, so he can burnish his legacy. Thus the Iranians are spinning out the negotiations, cadging extensions, pocketing concessions without reciprocating, and giving Obama just enough hope to think he can achieve what he thinks will be a Nixon-goes-to-China foreign policy coup, but will in fact will go down in history as a humiliating and dangerous blunder like Chamberlain’s Munich debacle.

So much is obvious. Yet in his State of the Union speech Obama astonished even his loyal media retainers when he asserted that his negotiations have “halted the progress of its [Iran’s] nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.” In reality, Iran continues to enrich uranium and is building new nuclear reactors, not to mention constructing missile sites and nuclear facilities in Syria. International inspectors are still barred from numerous sites in Iran, and so the West has no real idea of how many facilities exist there. This means that even if an agreement is signed, it will be worthless if it leaves Iran with the knowledge and technology needed to make nuclear bombs at a time of its choosing. And it means that someday we all will pay the price for our president’s cognitive dissonance.