“Iran, Turkey, and the United States: Power Triangle of the 21st Century”
On Tuesday, January 26th, prolific author, former New York Times bureau chief and correspondent (who has reported from 50 countries on five continents), and Northwestern University lecturer, Stephen Kinzer will speak about “Iran Turkey and the U.S.: Power Triangle of the 21st Century.” Sponsored by the International Women Associates, the lecture will be held at the Film Row Cinema (8th floor) of Columbia College Chicago,1104 South Wabash Avenue.
A reception with Kinzer, with light refreshments will be held at 6 PM. The lecture will be at 6:45 PM, followed by a question and answer period. Cost for the reception and lecture is $20. per person. Reservations are preferred in advance and can be purchased online at: www.iwachicago.org or by calling 312.263.1421. Payment at the door will be $25.
In his speech, Kinzer pleads for the United States to rethink its approach to the Middle East and surrounding regions. He sees Turkey, and in the future, a democratic Iran, as logical partners for the United States. He will discuss this new “power triangle” and explain how it could help calm crises from Palestine to Iraq to Afghanistan–if only the US would break out of what he calls “the prison of old policies, assumptions and alliances.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Stephen Kinzer about what he believes necessary to effect change in American foreign policy. In our discussion, he repeatedly stressed how important it is for Americans to know their history, and to stay informed, to remain knowledgeable enough about both foreign and domestic policy to be able to effectively direct their representatives.
“Nations are like individuals. We all want to be liked. We see ourselves through a positive light. The United States is no exception. We feel that we’re a force for good in the world. We look around our country and we see the prosperity and the success of our society. We imagine that everybody should like us, and if they don’t like us, if there’s a country or a faction or a group or a leader that’s angry at us, or doesn’t like the United States, there can only be two reasons; one reason is that person or that country or that group doesn’t really know us, doesn’t know how good we are. The other reason is that’s an evil person, that’s a brute, that’s a dictator, that’s a repressive regime.
My own view about America’s role in the world is that all countries do what’s in their own interest. It’s logical. I think that’s true with most countries of the world. Americans have a problem with this. Americans, for some reason, don’t like to think that our country would ever do anything so base as to act in our own interests. We like to maintain this illusion that we only act on behalf of humanity, human rights, and global freedom. We should take a more realistic view and do what other countries do, which is to realize that we do what’s good for us. I always try to speak in terms of American interest. We want to do what’s good for our country and for ourselves, and for the ideals that we believe we represent. I think that’s fine. Everybody should be able to share that. That’s not a view that’s of the left or of the right, our national security policy or our foreign policy. We should be guided by what policies will produce, in the long run, a more secure world.
Let’s think clearly about what really is good for us over the long run, and not do things that seem like they’re good for us right now, but in the long run, create terrible problems for our national security and our position in the world. National interest is fine. But just define it fully, not vaguely. Don’t take steps that make you feel good for a little while, and in the long run, weaken you. I think the beginning is with the old truism, ‘Knowledge is power’. Before you can act, you have to know. That’s where I see myself fitting into this chain. I see myself, in a way, as an educator. I teach. But also, through my writing, I’m hoping to broaden people’s horizons. All of my books, if there’s one thing that ties them together, are untold stories. I’m always looking for a story; really big and important, but you don’t know about it because nobody has told this story before. I think that if people begin to understand how America looks to other people in the world, we will then be able to act in a way that’s more in concert with our own principles.
Too often, the United States, has worked to undermine or overthrow foreign leaders who embrace the fundamental American principles and replace them with tyrants who despise everything the United States stands for. We have often imposed and supported regimes in other countries that we would never tolerate at home, and then we are puzzled why people in other parts of the world are not so friendly toward us. Another aspect that I think differentiates us from people in many other countries, including the countries in which we intervene, is our short memory span. We intervene somewhere, and usually, are able to succeed, because of our military and political power, and then, we assume the job is over, and we forget the episode ever happened. But the people in that country don’t forget. The memory of that is passed down over years, sometimes, even generations. It burns in the hearts and souls and minds of people in other countries, and later on, sometimes it can come back to bite us. We shouldn’t be shocked at that. Episodes leave scars and shape people’s minds, so It’s not ignorance alone that’s the problem.
The problem with us is that our ignorance is also tied to great power. It’s one thing to be ignorant and then not do anything about it, but to be powerful, and then, to act on your ignorance, is very dangerous. So that’s why I think ignorance of the world among Americans is actually more dangerous than ignorance of the world among people in many other countries. We are a very young country; for example, we’re one tenth as old as Iran. And the Iranians have a very good sense of that. They are steeped in their thousands of years of culture and history and they’re a little bit puzzled, naturally, when a country thousands of miles away, that by their standards has just arrived on the world scene, comes to shake a finger at them, to tell them what to do.
We do have this sense of being a special nation, that we’ve been kind of chosen to raise up the world. This comes from our history of American exceptionalism. We feel that we have the right to impose rules on other people although we don’t necessarily have to obey those same rules. We are able to intervene, for example, in other countries because our intervention is always benign; it’s always good for everybody. Other countries intervene for negative reasons and their interventions have bad results or they shouldn’t be allowed to do it. When we’re going into another country, we’re going to help, and to support good people. When China or Russia or France or some other big power does it, they’re doing it for base reasons, and they wind up exploiting, and alienating populations. They’re completely different than us. We all like to think this.
As far as America’s position in the world goes, I do think that since September 11th, we have understood that we can’t function apart from the rest of the world. What I don’t think we’ve done yet is escape from this paradigm that tells us, since we have such great military power, we should use that power to respond to all the threats that we face. What has sustained America for so long is to use our military power. Now that we realize everybody doesn’t love us and that there are threats out there in the world, how do we deal with that? I’m hoping that slowly, we’ll come to realize over the long run, that military power does not make us more secure. Military power alone can’t do it. I’d like to see military power placed as part of a spectrum of options; not always to be the first or only option that we use when we respond to the very real threats that exist in the world.
When you believe that there’s only one way to be democratic, and that is the way we do it, it’s hard for us to understand that in other countries, other cultures have other challenges and that they’ve come up, in many cases, over long centuries with systems that respond to their own cultural and political realities. We shouldn’t necessarily dismiss those. Americans have this view that one size fits all, that providence has given us the magic formula for prosperity and success. We look around our own society and see it work here, so it must work everywhere. If only everyone would do things the way we do them, they’d have the same result. That’s not true. We need to realize that other people have other kinds of solutions for other problems. And that we actually don’t have the magic key to prosperity and success as a nation. We’ve discovered what’s good for us but what’s good for us is not necessarily good for everyone in the world. And we have not been given by providence the right to decide, how other countries should live. This is the illusion that we live in.
I do see a more conflicted world ahead, partly because I don’t see this mentality changing. I think habits of empire are very deep rooted in our national psyche. The permanent military defense establishment is so enormous and so powerful, it’s hard to see how in any short immediate term, we could retool our approach to the world. Whenever I go to Washington, which is as rarely as possible, I’m always struck by the narrowness of the acceptable political spectrum. Any original thinking, in foreign policy, particularly, any new ideas or new concepts or new approaches, are treated like the bacteria of some terrible plague to be immediately stamped out before it infects our national psyche. We have certain ways of thinking and certain paradigms, and anybody that steps out of those is thought of as kind of a wacko. Doing things differently is something that Washington has a very hard time doing. For example, We have gone into Afghanistan thinking that there are two idealogical alternatives. One would be what the Taliban wants and one would be what we want. We feel that most Afghans would probably prefer the option that we’re offering. We’re right. Most people would rather have the kind of Afghanistan that we envision than the kind of Afghanistan that the Taliban envisions. However, Afghan people are not judging on that basis. They’re not saying, ‘Which political option is best?’ What they’re judging is who’s from here, and who came from another religion, five thousand miles away. They don’t even want to hear what our political program is.
Our foreign policy establishment and our security establishment is resistant to change. The people that we’ve put in charge of our policy in Afghanistan are all people whose experience is from years past. They’re military oriented; they’re not thinking about the broader spectrum, of how to create a society that is not going to be threatening to the United States. We have a hard time adjusting to that. We want a benelovent hegemon. But in fact, a benelovent hegemon is something like a unicorn- it’s a beautiful idea, but in reality, it doesn’t exist.
The idea that planning patiently for long term results is not something that Americans are used to. Yet our established approach to the world has not produced stability or peace. I’d like to see us get back to recognize that reality and ask ourselves; first of all, if some of our policies have not contributed to the upheaval of the world, and second, if that’s true, what could we do differently. Our desire to survive and triumph in the Cold War has carried over into the Post-Cold War era into a view that we need to be controlling events everywhere in the world. This only makes more enemies for us. I think maybe Americans are starting to ask themselves whether it really is our role or whether it’s really possible for us to reshape societies all over the world in our own image.
What can one American do? One way that we can begin to change our minds is to form our own idea of what’s important in America and in the world. A certain agenda is handed down by the press and by our leaders in Washington. When you pick up the newspapers, you can figure out what are the important issues. Those are only the important issues that somebody has decided are important. I would like people to start shaping their own idea of priorities. Don’t accept the agenda that’s being presented; of what’s important and what’s not important. Try to think for yourself about what’s really important in the world, what’s really right and wrong about our society. Don’t just accept the paradigm that’s handed to you. I think when you can break out of the official agenda, you’re on the path to liberation. Educate yourself about the world. I think that the internet has made this both more difficult and easier. It’s more difficult because there’s such a bewildering array of sources. On the other hand, if you can find some good ones, then you’re not always at the mercy of politicians and editors. I’d like people to find alternative sources of information and think for themselves, and then, maybe they can begin to challenge their political leaders to do the same.We are very creative, we’re very adaptable, what I’d like to see is us using those qualities and applying them not only to our own society at home, but to our approach to the world.
The ignorance of the masses is the most valuable tool of the status quo. An educated and aroused public is always the enemy of the traditional establishment. And that’s why our media and economic elite is so focused on feeding us pablum and needless news. For example, very few Americans have enough information to make an informed judgement on a question like ‘Should the United States attack Iran if Iran develops a nuclear weapon?’. Every American, however, has enough information to decide whether Brittany Spears is a good mom. It shouldn’t be that way. It should be the other way around.
My books are all stories. I love stories that illustrate larger challenges in society. I think there’s something in the human soul that responds to a story. My only goal in my writing is to try to illuminate what actually has happened. I want to make sure that we’re on the same page; that we don’t judge ourselves by one standard, while the rest of the world is judging us by another standard; that they know things or remember things that we don’t know or remember. What I hope for America is that you don’t allow yourself to be imprisoned by the official agenda. Figure out for yourself what’s important.”
For more information about Stephen Kinzer: http://www.stephenkinzer.com/
Kinzer’s books will be available for purchase and signing after his lecture, and may include
include a new edition of Crescent and Star, which describes the sweeping changes that have reshaped Turkey in recent years; All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, which chronicles the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh; and A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It, the story of Paul Kagame, the intriguing president of the Republic of Rwanda.
International Women Associates is a Chicago-based educational organization that promotes cross-cultural exchange, dialogue, and friendship. By creating links among diverse people and organizations, it advocates for global understanding and universal human rights, especially those of women and girls.