Streetwise Professor

May 26, 2015

Contrary to What Obama Says, the Ayatollahs Don’t Believe That It’s the Economy, Stupid

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 12:48 pm

Obama gave an interview with his Boswell (on Middle East matters, anyways), Jeffrey Goldberg. In it, Goldberg asked how Obama could be confident in making a deal with a virulently anti-Semitic state. (Goldberg omitted  that it is also a state that has “death to America” as its rallying cry, which is as or more important to Americans.) Respondeth the (self-identified) sage:

“Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—” [Of course, Obama can’t resist slagging Americans by comparing them to “Death to Israel” ayatollahs and “European leaders”, e.g., Hitler.]

I interjected by suggesting that anti-Semitic European leaders made irrational decisions, to which Obama responded, “They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. [Does Obama believe that anti-Semitic rhetoric was an “organizing tool” for the Nazis? If he is excluding them from this, then he is dodging Goldberg’s question.] At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.”

That all sounds coolly analytical and everything (“organizing tool”, “at the margins where the costs are low”) but it is poppycock dressed up in academic jargon grounded in a category error. Specifically, Obama profoundly misunderstands rationality, and projects his own views of what is rational on others, specifically the Iranians (though he projects on others, including Putin, in other contexts).

Obama argues that “being rational” involves things like “staying in power” and “keeping your economy afloat.” Conversely, he believes that except as an instrument to achieve these ends, anti-Semitism, expansionism, and presumably anti-Americanism and Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic exceptionalism, are irrational. Obama further believes, apparently, that rational imperatives (e.g., a stronger economy, better living standards for Iranians), will trump these irrational urges.

This fundamentally misunderstands what Hayek pointed out long ago: rationality relates to the application of the means best calculated to achieved desired ends. It does not relate to the desired ends themselves, which are inherently subjective and effectively beyond objective reason or logic. In economic terms, if the Iranian leadership gets subjective utility out of killing Jews and Americans and Sunnis, and extending the reach of the Islamic revolution, “rationality” involves the effectiveness of the means chosen to kill Jews, Americans, and Sunnis, and extend the reach of the Islamic revolution, not these objectives themselves. Again, the Nazi example is instructive. Given the costs of pursuing the Holocaust, it may seem irrational. But the Nazis pursued it with a purpose despite these costs. This was rational because they got intense satisfaction out of killing Jews. The huge cost of exterminating the Jews is a testament to its importance to them, not an indication of their irrationality.

In other words, Obama is engaged in the worst kind of mirror imaging, defining his preferences and world view to be “rational”, and projecting them onto the Iranians. In the near term, the main implication Obama and the administration draw from this is that “rational” economic imperatives will drive the Iranians to moderate their aggressiveness and imperial ambitions. The administration is basically the ventriloquist for this article from Reuters.

This is flatly at odds with their current behavior. A severely economically constrained Iranian regime is bending every fiber and digging deep into its limited resources to prop up Assad, foment revolt in Yemen, and fight Isis in Iraq. This indicates what its strong preferences are, and if it receives tens of billions of additional resources, it will inevitably indulge these preferences by increasing its spending on them. Expand their opportunity set, and Iran will engage in more anti-Semitism, more anti-Americanism, more Islamism, and more Persian imperialism. Further, it will respond to domestic discontent not by appeasing it through focusing like a laser on the economy, but by focusing like a laser on crushing the opposition, as it did in 2009 (when Obama stood aside, clearly signaling that he had chosen the ayatollahs over the Iranian people). And all that will be perfectly rational.

Narcissist that he is, mirror imaging comes naturally to Obama. And this very mirror imaging explains why Obama has been surprised so frequently by world events, most notably in the Middle East, but not limited to there by any means. People don’t do what he expects because he expects them to do what he would even though they inhabit different universes. These surprises have translated into failures and fiascos, and the most dramatic decline in America’s strategic position since at least Vietnam, and perhaps even including Vietnam. John Kerry says to give him and Obama the benefit of the doubt. Sorry, but sad experience tells us that would be truly, well, irrational.

Mirror imaging was bad enough when the Soviets were the object of it, but it is beyond insane with the Iranians, who inhabit an entirely different mental, moral, cultural, and religious universe than most Americans do, and certainly different than the one that transnational progressives like Obama inhabit. Ayatollahs don’t believe that it’s the economy, stupid. They believe it’s Islam and Shia Persian superiority, stupid. Given their very different values and preferences, they will make very different choices than Obama projects on them, meaning that he will be surprised, yet again.

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  1. Expanding on the “rationality” of Nazi anti-semitism, the Holocaust may have been an “irrational” waste of resources, but throughout the 20’s and 30’s exploiting anti-semitism was a very effective rhetorical tool for the Nazis and helped propel them from a bunch of drunk clowns running around Munich into the government of Germany. If the goal of the Nazi party and it’s leaders was political power and control over the German people anti-semitism would seem to be have been an extremely effective, and therefore rational method of achieving this.

    I would try and come up with a more recent example of a large State with power in Europe where the leadership is going beyond “irrational” rhetoric and taking costly “irrational” actions in order to, successfully (ie. rationally), protect and enhance their domestic political control, but I just cannot think of one. Even if I could come up with such an example, I cannot possible conceive how that could play out in Iran, or a region as stable as the Middle East.

    Comment by JDonn — May 26, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

  2. So logically Obama must believe that for enough money, Iran would sign and honour an alliance with Israel.

    Comment by Green as Grass — May 27, 2015 @ 5:46 am

  3. @green. And do it while singing hava nagila.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 27, 2015 @ 6:21 am

  4. – The Nazis never had a Bomb program, which would have been very useful to them, because they considered nuclear and theoretical physics to be “Jewish science”, and defunded them.

    – The USSR let Lysenko get away with his shit because the Party considered Darwinist opponents “bourgeois”.

    – Mao killed 40 million Chinese (and shrank the economy for decades) because he thought Marxism had something to say about farming.

    – Obama favours climate change “solutions” that do not address any proven problem but will definitely cost trillions regardless.

    Trouble is Hillary will be worse.

    Comment by Green as Grass — May 27, 2015 @ 9:09 am

  5. > In other words, Obama is engaged in the worst kind of mirror imaging

    Which raises the question: given what kind of subjective goals would such behaviour be rational?

    Comment by Ivan — May 27, 2015 @ 2:55 pm

  6. Giving Hayek credit for Hume’s insight about not being able to derive a (categorical) “ought” from an “is” pains me, but it amazing how often non-economists have trouble accepting this fairly ironclad philosophical argument.

    Comment by srp — June 4, 2015 @ 8:27 pm

  7. I find it hard to take anybody seriously who rails against what politicians say. It’s not beyond conception that Obama has done what he has done for one set of reasons, and justified it publicly with another. That’s not to suggest nefarious aims, or any weirdo tinfoil hat stuff… It’s just reality in politics – you do what you do because you need to do it, then you sell it the best you can however you can. Ultimately, you really can’t draw a conclusion because we’re too close to the events to have full information.

    Do you honestly believe that Obama doesn’t have people around him who understand exactly what you’ve just laid out?


    Comment by P White — June 13, 2015 @ 4:09 pm

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