Sen. Saxby Chambliss went on Hardball the other day to criticize what he sees as Barack Obama's insufficiently assertive response to the Iranian crisis. Chambliss's arguments were measured and respectful and in no way loony or intemperate, but along the way he demonstrated that he doesn't know much about how Iranians actually think:
MATTHEWS: What do you make of the president`s concern that our history over there -- he`s voiced this in the Cairo speech -- that our history over there of getting involved with Kermit Roosevelt and the CIA, overthrowing those elections back in the `50s, getting rid of their democracy when they had one, gives us such a bad reputation in that country that if we go in there now, it`ll look like we`re just trying to grab influence in Iran again to our advantage, to get the oil back, to get the influence back that we had there under the shah?
CHAMBLISS: Well, that election was, what, almost 60 years ago now. The world has changed dramatically since then. And I dare say that you go up to any of those people in Teheran who are protesting in the streets and say, Hey, what about the United States meddling in your election in the `50s, they would shake their heads, like, What in the world are you talking about?
ASLAN: You know, he mentioned the CIA coup of 1953, which most Americans don't know anything about, but which, I got to tell you, is like the core event, the ur-event of the 20th century as far as Iranians are concerned. It's their revolutionary war, civil war all wrapped up into a single thing. And to hear a president even mention it, let alone acknowledge it in that way, had a huge effect in the cafes in Iran.
It's no sin that Chambliss doesn't know how our history with Iran has affected Iranians' views about us. Aslan is probably right that few of us have any idea how Iranians feel about the 1953 coup -- why would we? The problem is that Chambliss doesn't know that he doesn't know how Iranians think. Without conscious awareness that he's doing it, he fills the gaps in his understanding with his own preconceptions about how Iranians think. This inevitably causes him to presume that the Iranians think pretty much exactly the way he thinks. As a result, he wants to base our policy on what are in fact misconceptions about how Iranians think.
I suppose others fall into the same trap when they think about us, but this tendency has caused us a lot of trouble. For example, it helped us to imagine that Iraqis would be grateful if we invaded and occupied their country. It leads us to imagine that Afghans are as philosophical as we are about the "collateral damage" our operations cause. It encourages us to imagine that all the "good" Muslims will understand we aren't talking about them when we refer to "Islamofascists". It seems to me that if we're going to righteously intervene in others' affairs we ought to be more curious about what the objects of our supposed beneficence actually think about that.