Immaturity, as the alienists tell us, expresses itself in various psychological strategies to cope with a reality that challenges self-image – e.g. a recalcitrant Islamic Republic of Iran that threatens the ingrained belief of American leaders that they can coerce weaker states to bend to their will and thereby fulfill the United States’ self-defined needs. Such an ego defense mechanism becomes pathological when its persistent use leads to recurrent maladaptive behavior that impairs the ability to act rationally and to pursue realistic goals – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali. These ego defense mechanisms and strategies try to protect the exalted self from the acute anxiety of adjusting basic images of self identity and relation to others. They construct a refuge for a threatened ego.
What are those strategies? Denial that anything fundamental has changed – in oneself and out there. Denial entails unconscious attempts to find resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality. So, excuses and rationalizations are avidly seized upon to explain failure to achieve objectives. Reiteration of established behavior such intimidation, coercion, bluster – e.g. repeated futile efforts at “nation-building” in uncongenial settings. Parsimonious changes at the pragmatic margins of one’s outlook and worldview – changing the packaging but not the content of terms for unconditional surrender that we extend to Iran. Cultivated ignorance – taking liberties to pronounce on matters of which one knows next to nothing. There is a double advantage here: the facts of actual reality are not speed bumps on the way to a pre-determined conclusion; shifting realities on the ground make no difference when the baseline is ignorance. Ignorance creates space for dogma. As examples, choose any of the above.
When these mechanisms fail, there arises the danger of delusional projection, i.e. grossly frank delusions about external reality. Eventually, there is the even greater risk of regression, i.e. reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way, e.g. Robert Kagan, William Kristol, John Bolton, Mitt Romney, a large slice of Congress, and sundry syndicated columnists – not to mention some high placed officials in the Obama administration like Leon Panetta.
The realities of the Iran situation are these, in a nutshell.
• Iranian leaders of all stripes will not give up the nuclear weapons option unless there is a credible, comprehensive set of multi-party security agreements for the Persian Gulf. They must accommodate Iranian security concerns as well as those of antagonistic states.
• Coercion via economic sanctions will not change that reality.
• Out mode of address that humiliates them exacerbates matters.
• Intimidation via spotlighting the prospect of an Israeli attack will not work – for a number of reasons. It is not technically credible; the United States – rightly – will be held accountable by Teheran; the reaction will be severe and endanger both American forces and American interests; it will not eliminate the spectre of a “nuclear” Iran.
• An all-out American assault could work technically. It is logical were Washington prepared to accept the adverse consequences and could take on the burden of dealing with an aggressively hostile Iran thereafter.
If the United States is not ready for all-out war and its aftermath, then it should make the necessary intellectual, emotional, political and diplomatic adjustments.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.