Feeding New Crocodiles: On Iran and the Dangers of Appeasement | Dr. Jose Yulo | April 4, 2007
"It is not difficult to determine the general character of the territory which is required (there are, however, some points on which military authorities should be heard); it should be difficult of access to the enemy, and easy to the egress to the inhabitants. This then is one principle, that it should be a convenient centre for the protection of the whole country" -- Aristotle, Politics
"In each case the demand was not expected to be met, but the plan was to discredit its object, make him the issue and the apparent cause of the city's troubles, and thereby create political turmoil and division in the enemy camp." -- Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War
The recent abduction of fifteen British naval personnel by Iran has served to focus sufficient international interest to a most volatile region. In particular, it has deflected salient and critical attention from Iran--attention it would have received not from its verbose criticism of the Hollywood feature film, 300, but from its refusal to halt its nuclear enrichment programs. On the heels of its decision not to be stopped by anything including United Nations sanctions, Iran saw fit to aggressively, yet opportunistically launch an early strike in what may amount to be an emerging strategy for regional hegemony.
In examining the ramifications of such a possibility, it is useful to pay adequate attention to the parameters laid out by Greek philosophy on the subject of a nation's defense. By comprehending some of the inescapable realties of war, a clearer--though more sobering--understanding of the current crisis emerges.
More pertinent however, is an analysis of the particular strain of aggression seemingly chosen by Iran to be directed at the representatives of Western democracies. The specific attacks now in evidence reveal much, not only of Iran's own ambitions, but of its and others' perceptions of the declining strength of the West.
In his Politics, Aristotle delineated, among other things, the most beneficial size an ideal city should possess. This may have been a lesson given by him to Alexander the Great himself, in one of the tutorial sessions between the two. Aristotle would echo the concept of moral virtue in his Nichomachean Ethics in that the ideal city's size was neither too large, nor too small. Seeking for the elusive mean between extremes, Aristotle knew that, historically, cities that were too large proved bloated in appearance and ponderous in action. Effective control over an overwhelmingly large spread of territory, with a correspondingly profuse population, was uncertain at best. This lesson would unfortunately be lost to Alexander as he became drunk with success and the opulent trappings of conquered kingdoms, namely (and most ironically) Persia. One hundred and fifty years after an unconquered Greece expelled Persian forces, Alexander, as Greece's and the West's great champion, was himself conquered by the seductions of the Persian court.
Aside from the warnings of a city's excessive expansiveness, Aristotle also maintained that a city should not be too small in terms of territory or population. The reason for this was, to the philosopher, self-evident. A city that was too sparse in terms of land and citizens simply was not able to defend itself against foreign aggression.
Aristotle listed the six requirements for a feasible city. Highest among them was what he called "service to the gods," a level of moral solidarity and piety that enabled citizens to find union and virtue as they acknowledged transcendent goods above human caprice. Not to be lost, however, was the need of arms, or some manner of organized wing protecting a city from dangers within and without. This latter point, though often taken for granted, deserves further reflection. Aristotle was not claiming that the relations between cities and nations sometimes held open the possibilities of armed conflict, and that it would be sound insurance to seasonally conduct ritualistic preparations against such threats. This option was not something a city should farm out, or "outsource" to another community. Rather, regardless of size, a well-ordered city should always make preparations for conflict because this was inherent to the human, and polis', condition.
One of the chief preliminary advantages the Iranian government possessed before the British naval crew's capture was that of surprise. On the surface, it is near impossible to predict the occasions and times when a nation may design to inflict belligerent actions upon another. On a deeper level, however, there is the shock and surprise of a modern West that refuses to believe a nation would conduct such actions, because the former itself chooses to renounce them. It is one thing to be caught off-guard by a punch one does not see coming. It is an altogether different thing to not know punches were even allowed in the midst of a conversation.
Viewing reason differently than the Greeks, the modern West holds true to the optimistic notion that by showing its best and most rational behavior others will likewise be inspired and strive to emulate it. Here one is reminded of the 2000 Camp David summit, wherein Yasser Arafat walked away from negotiations in which he would have received 91% of the West Bank and all of Gaza. Instead of rationally negotiating, an armed intifadah commenced, claiming scores of Israeli and Palestinian lives. Seven years later, Iran would respond to dialogue and investigation over its nuclear ambitions, both seemingly done for good reason by the international community, with an act of naked aggression.
The Greeks knew, as Aristotle most certainly did, that reason should guide human interrelations, not remake the populations involved. For the philosopher, conflict was inevitable, and the most prudent course of action to be taken was to ensure a city's ability to survive or triumph.
What may surprise the modern mind of the West more than Iran's chosen course is the manner through which the theocracy has performed. Here, the insights on warfare by the British military historian B. F. Liddell Hart, written over half a century ago, chide both casual observer and disciplined student. Liddell Hart would have seen in the Islamic republic's strategy an opportunistic use of the indirect approach.
One of the first elements betraying this particular machination is the way in which Iran views its conflict, and the particular targets it has chosen for attack. The nation's leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has in the past railed against the "Anglo-American" world, viewing the cultures of the United States and United Kingdom as the chief representatives of a past age of colonial imperialism. Interestingly, although he has verbally attacked the United States and its leadership on the floor of the United Nations, and though Iranian involvement has all but been confirmed in combat operations in Iraq, Ahmadinejad did not choose to capture American military personnel on naval patrol. This would correspond to Liddell Hart's perspective on fighting multiple enemies: "in a campaign against more than one state or army it is more fruitful to concentrate first against the weaker partner"
From its estimation, Iran considers the UK the weaker party between the two possible antagonists. Possibly factoring into this equation is Britain's smaller contingent in the region, along with Prime Minister Tony Blair's current state of political influence. Iran also may hope to drive a potential wedge between Washington and London because it knows the former's ability to lend assistance is compromised by domestic bickering and logistic distractions. Thus, whatever fraternal bonds that do exist between the two nations may be strained because London might resent Washington's reluctance to involve itself with the crisis.
By definition, a two-front war is usually unadvisable to wage. However, if Iran sees its strategy as reaping modest, but evident gains, it may push forward another goal of indirect warfare. Liddell Hart maintained that a "strategist should think in terms of paralysis, not of killing."
The Iranian hostage taking has been the dominant international news event story of the day. Thus, focus which would have been on Tehran's refusal to comply with United Nations restrictions on its nuclear program, or on the possible capture in Iraq of Iranian military personnel, has been suitably deflected. In addition to this cessation, another form of paralysis may have also been accomplished. As previously mentioned, many in the modern West do not readily desire to see an antagonistic act as just that. Instead of believing the British who hold that they were in international waters, the standard line from Tehran is accepted and adopted, if only to exhibit a chic, worldly tolerance for voices outside one's sphere of influence. Comically, daytime television personalities can at times be seen sounding this call for collective cultural guilt and deliverance. Meanwhile, behind the cover of this sideshow, Tehran continues its nuclear development.
Through this cultural shackling--a state where "the sword drops from a paralysed hand--an important goal of the indirect approach can be fully pursued. Liddell Hart believed the strategy's main aim was "to diminish the possibility of resistance." This was achieved effectively by adhering to "alternate" objectives while at the same time never being distracted from a central thrust.
Two points deserve notice here. First, by airing film of the captured British naval crew, Iran conducts crude, yet efficient propaganda. In most of its media releases on the subject so far, the hostages have all expectedly admitted their own guilt at trespassing Iran's watery borders. The one female captive is shown wearing Islamic attire, while her male counterparts wear military fatigues. This issues a message of strength from Tehran, as now the representatives of the West, disarmed and contrite, submit to Islamic culture. Letters from the lone female captive have also been released criticizing the West's policies in, of all places, Iraq. A hostage seen as the most vulnerable, having now to don the attire of a captor nation, becomes a source almost impossible for her own people to criticize. Knowing this, Tehran plays on British and American anti-Iraq war sentiment, further shielding its own policies toward nuclear feasibility.
Second, when pushed, Iran has maintained its "right" to nuclear development. This of course strikes an odd chord in that the concept of rights, including following one's chosen faith, seems alien within Iran's fundamentalist theocracy. Added to this is Iran's monetary strength derived from oil energy, strength that has only increased through rising gasoline prices worldwide brought about by this conflict. If a nation is so self-sufficiently prosperous in terms of an energy-producing commodity, what, aside from the obvious military options, explains a relentless push for atomic power?
It is in this last area of alternate objectives where one can read much of Aristotle's admonitions regarding the necessities of a well-ordered city. As has been discussed, arms and the ability to defend a people are requirements to this end. Not to be forgotten is the philosopher's calling for a people's "service to the gods." This did not merely refer to the carrying of out ritualistic and routine shows of mock piety, all too common in enlightened societies vying for the jealous approval of the other. Aristotle reminds modernity that a people who communally and transcendentally share avowed and just goods stand better chances when confronting those who would take even the possibility of rights from them. When cities, cultures, and nations reject the age-old bonds between free and reasoning peoples, there only remains, borrowing from Churchill, the feeding of a new crocodile.
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9/11 Revisited | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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Jose Yulo, Ed.D. teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization, United States history, and public speaking at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor's degree in the classical liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD.
Originally from Manila in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien. He has written several articles for IgnatiusInsight.com.
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