A Foreign Enemy is a Tyrant’s Best Friend

Iran Great Satan
An Iranian woman wearing a hijab walks by anti-American graffiti on the former US embassy in Tehran.

The recent Iran nuclear deal represents a thaw in the American cold war against that country. It is a welcome sequel to the Obama administration’s partial normalization with Cuba announced late last year.

Hardliners denounce these policies as “going soft” on theocracy and communism. Yet, it is such critics’ own hardline, hawkish policies that have done the most to ossify and strengthen such regimes.

That is because war, including cold war, is the health of the state. Antagonistic imperial policies — economic warfare, saber-rattling, clandestine interventions, and full-blown attacks — make the citizens of targeted “rogue states” feel under siege.

This activates what Randolph Bourne called their “herd mind,” inducing them to rally around their governments in a militaristic stampede so as to create the national unity of purpose deemed necessary to defend the homeland against the foreign menace. When you lay siege to an entire country, don’t be surprised when it starts to look and act like a barracks.

Rogue state governments eagerly amplify and exploit this siege effect through propaganda, taking on the mantle of foremost defender of the nation against the “Yankee Imperialist” or “Great Satan.” Amid the atmosphere of crisis, public resistance against domestic oppression by the now indispensable “guardian class” goes by the board. “Quit your complaining. Don’t you know there’s a cold war on? Don’t you know we’re under siege?”

Moreover, cold wars make it easy for rogue state governments to shift the blame for domestic troubles away from their own misrule, and onto the foreign bogeyman/scapegoat (“bogeygoat?”) instead. This is especially easy for being to some extent correct, especially with regard to economic blockades and other crippling sanctions, like those Washington has imposed on Cuba, Iran, etc.

Imperial governments like to pretend that affairs are quite the reverse, adopting the essentially terrorist rationale that waging war against the civilian populace of a rogue state will pressure them to blame and turn against their governments. In reality, it only tends to bolster public support for the regime.

The imperial “bogeygoat” is an essential prop for the power of petty tyrants, just as rogue state bogeymen are essential props for the power of grand tyrants like our own. Thus, it should be no surprise that the staunchest opponents to the Iran nuclear deal include both American and Iranian hardliners. Just as there is a “symbiosis of savagery” between imperial hawks and anti-imperial terrorists (as I explain here), there is a similar symbiotic relationship between imperial and rogue state hardliners.

The last thing hardliners want is the loss of their cherished bogeygoat. Once an emergency foreign threat recedes, and the fog of war hysteria lifts, people are then more capable of clearly seeing their “guardians” as the domestic threat that they are, and more likely to feel that they can afford to address that threat without exposing themselves to foreign danger. This tends to impel governments to become less oppressive, and may even lead to their loss of power.

Thus after Nixon normalized with communist China and belatedly ended the war on communist Vietnam, both of those countries greatly liberalized and became more prosperous. Even Soviet reforms and the ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union only arose following American detente.

Simultaneously, as the American cold wars against communist Cuba and communist North Korea continued without stint for decades, providing the Castros and Kims the ultimate bogeygoat to feature in their propaganda, the impoverishing authoritarian grip of those regimes on their besieged people only strengthened.

Similarly, ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the puppet dictator that the CIA had installed over Iran in a 1953 coup, the Ayatollahs have been able to exploit ongoing hostility from the American “Great Satan” to retain and consolidate their repressive theocratic power.

All this is an object lesson for US relations with Putin’s Russia, Chavista Venezuela, and beyond. Disastrously, it is being unheeded.

Even while thawing relations with Iran, the Obama administration has triggered a new cold war with Russia over Ukraine. This has only made Russian President Vladimir Putin more domestically popular than ever.

And even while normalizing relations with Cuba, Obama recently declared Venezuela a national security threat, imposing new sanctions. As journalist Alexandra Ulmer argued, these sanctions “may be godsend for struggling Venezuelan leader,” President Nicolas Maduro. As Ulmer wrote in Reuters:

“Suddenly, the unpopular leader has an excuse to crank up the revolutionary rhetoric and try to fire up supporters, copying a tactic used skillfully for more than a decade by his mentor and predecessor, the late socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez.

A new fight with the enemy to the north may also help unite disparate ruling Socialist Party factions and distract Venezuelans from relentless and depressing talk about their day-to-day economic problems.”

A Venzuelan woman walks by anti-American graffiti and a portrait of Hugo Chavez in Caracas.
A Venzuelan woman walks by anti-American graffiti and a portrait of Hugo Chavez in Caracas.

The horrors inflicted on the people of North Korea, as well as the oppression and impoverishment of the people of Iran, Cuba, Russia, and Venezuela, are a damning indictment of the regimes of those countries. Yet the blame must also be laid at the colossal feet of the US empire: the aggressive and fearsome global hegemon that has driven those people into such abusive arms in the first place.

Cold wars freeze into place a solid foundation for despotism. As cold wars are allowed to thaw, the indispensable crisis footing of despots melts away, leaving them with nothing to stand on. If you are not merely trying to acquire power through fearmongering, and you sincerely want to see tyrants weaken and ultimately fall (without leading to something even worse), stop waging war against their subjects.

Also published at David Stockman’s Contra CornerDanSanchez.me, and Medium.com.

Dan Sanchez runs the Mises Academy e-learning program at the Mises Institute and is a columnist for Antiwar.com. Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, and TinyLetter.