Pompeo’s speech has demonstrated that this administration has no knowledge of or interest in history. If it did, it would have learned the lesson that meddling in other countries’ internal politics usually ends with a failed state, a new dictator, or a feeble client hated by his own people and in need of constant American support. As I used to tell my students, “Those of you who forget history are condemned to repeat…sophomore year.” This group seems constantly ready to repeat at least sophomore year.
Among the many ironies of Pompeo’s speech was its staging under the auspices of the Reagan Foundation. Perhaps doing so was another part of the administration’s historical ignorance or another effort to rewrite history. The reality is that Reagan’s dealings with Iran led to fiasco and came within an eyelash of destroying his presidency. His misguided effort to strengthen non-existent anti-Communist Iranian factions and his trading of arms for hostages to finance the Contras in Central America freed just a handful of prisoners and did nothing to encourage moderation in the Islamic Republic. When the secretary invoked Ronald Reagan’s memory on Iran, he no doubt missed this irony.
A smart strategist always seeks to know his enemy, but Iran hawks will never be confused for being smart or thinking strategically. They don’t understand Iran or its government, and they don’t seek to understand them. They prefer to substitute easily digestible ideological nostrums for analysis, and so they rely on outdated or otherwise inaccurate assessments of Iranian intentions and goals when they describe Iranian regime behavior. They not only take the regime’s propaganda at face value, but they are more convinced that the regime is pursuing “revolutionary” goals than most of the people in the regime are. It doesn’t matter to them that Iranian foreign policy has mostly been reactive and defensive for the last forty years. Iran hawks keep saying that the regime is “committed to spreading the revolution to other countries, by force if necessary,” as Pompeo said earlier this week. That makes it easier to exaggerate the Iranian threat, but it makes for terrible analysis that misses why the regime does what it does.
As for the Reagan Library setting, Republican hawks have been misappropriating Reagan’s name and misrepresenting his achievements to justify their post-Cold War obsessions for decades. First they credited Reagan with bringing down the Soviet Union, and then retconned the record of his presidency to claim that he achieved this only through hard-line policies of subversion and confrontation. When Iran hawks invoke Reagan in connection with Iran today, they certainly aren’t citing his dealings with Iran as a model. They are calling to mind the myth that it was the hard-line Reagan who caused the USSR to implode. They simultaneously give Reagan too much credit, they applaud him for all the wrong things, and then they apply it to a completely different country and situation. Iran hawks want to inflate Iran into a threat on par with the USSR, and they would like to pretend that they are imitating Reagan in their efforts to bring down the Iranian government, but the comparison of Iran with the Soviets and the misrepresentation of Reagan show just how far down the rabbit hole of ideological blindness they are.
Limbert correctly says that the administration “has learned nothing from the last 40 years,” but then ideologues have no desire to learn because they think that their pat oversimplifications are all that they need to know.