Entry from April 3, 2007

Listening to a CBS radio report in America on the Iranian hostage crisis last weekend, I heard the reporter speak, almost in the same breath, of the “heavy-handed” British approach to the crisis and of the need to find a solution that would be “face-saving” for the Iranians. The ideas that there might be just the wee bit heavier hand involved in kidnapping the hostages in the first place, or that Britain’s saving face might also be a consideration, had obviously never occurred to her. Nor, I think, would they occur to most Western listeners. The assumptions built in to the reporter’s conception of what was going on were as follows: first, that attacks of any kind on Western troops in the Middle East are invariably the consequence of some provocation to the attackers — which it then becomes the task of diplomacy to find out and correct — and, second, that “saving face,” like avenging a slight or an act of disrespect, is something that only non-Westerners can or should be expected to do. It is the job of those from enlightened nations like Britain or the U.S. to accommodate the heightened sensitivities of Third World honor cultures, but not to evince any honorable scruples of their own.

In a way you could say that this is the British version of the “Blame America First” syndrome first identified by the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, but I think there is more to it than this. Honor is a tricky subject for Britons and Americans alike. Paradoxically, there is a certain sense of shame for us in thinking of ourselves as subject to the same honorable strictures as those who engage in the vendetta, or who turn violent when they feel themselves disrespected, or who insist on keeping women covered in public places — all things associated with honor cultures like those that still exist throughout the Islamic world. It’s all very well for them, but such behavior on our part would mean that we were “descending to their level.” Oddly enough, however, the men of the Islamic honor culture don’t think that they occupy a lower level than we do. They think that when we greet what would be to them an outrage to their sense of honor with diplomacy and legalisms, by running to the U.N. or the E.U. for strongly-worded condemnations rather than striking back, that we are displaying the sort of shameful weakness and cowardice that it was their purpose in taking the hostages to elicit. They feel it as their triumph, a boost to their honor, when they can make us look weak.

Should this matter to us? Perhaps not. For who could doubt that when we disdain to stoop to petty vengeance and the violent resentment of trivial slights we are engaging in the morally superior course? Yet it is also true that those who, like the Iranians and others who still place the highest importance on honor, are stubbornly unimpressed by our high-mindedness and will continue to twist the lion’s tail, just as if they honestly couldn’t tell the difference between meekness and morality, for so long as they are allowed to think they can do so with impunity. Indeed, the rationale behind all terrorism — or “asymmetrical warfare” as it is more precisely known, depends crucially on the assumption, so far proved accurate, that the victims of terrorist acts will be collectively more afraid of a making a “disproportionate” response to them than they will be of the terrorist acts themselves.

That’s why we in the West continue to indulge our obsession with who is in the right and who is in the wrong with respect to the alleged trespass of H.M.S. Cornwall and her boats into Iranian waters — as if there were the remotest possibility that British innocence could under any circumstances be so clearly demonstrated to the Iranians that they might be driven to say, “So sorry, old chap. Don’t know how we could have got it so wrong. Please accept our apologies.” In exactly the same way, many in the media and government are still obsessing about Weapons of Mass Destruction or the 45-minutes till Doomsday scenario that took us into Iraq as if correcting those mistakes somehow provided a sufficient reason for pulling troops out of Iraq with all the disastrous consequences that would entail for Iraq. It reminds me of the prize-winning entry in a German newspaper contest of the 1920s for most implausible headline: “Archduke Franz Ferdinand found alive! World War a Mistake!”

In honor cultures, might makes right — as the “confessions” of the 15 British sailors and Marines implicitly demonstrate. That’s one reason why Western traditions of law and evidence and reason are inimical to honor cultures. We in the West collectively decided after the First World War that national honor would not do anymore, either, as the organizing principle of international relations. Even during that war, there were plenty of people who insisted, along with the American president, Woodrow Wilson, that it was all about “the rights of small nations” or to “make the world safe for democracy” — not, that is, the honor of the combatant nations. But declaring our independence of honorable considerations for the sake of a moral (at best) or material foreign and military policy directed either to human rights or to “the national interest” narrowly conceived didn’t mean that honor simply went away. That’s one thing we ought to have learned by our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the larger War on Terrorism of which those theatres of conflict are a part. The word “honor” is constantly in the mouths of those who regard themselves as our enemies, and it behoves us to understand what they mean by it if we are to understand why they do the things they do.


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