Two Words That Should Make the West Wary of Iran

Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg

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Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg

When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, an overused compound adjective may be playing havoc with our rational faculties.

Consider CNN’s account of last week’s historic meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “appointed Zarif, a western-educated former ambassador to the United Nations, as his lead nuclear negotiator. The move was similarly seen as a gesture at improving relations with the West.”

Then there was this, from the Associated Press: “The Western-educated Zarif again repeated Tehran’s position that it has no desire for nuclear weapons but has the right to continue a peaceful nuclear program.”

And this, from the Times of Israel: “The Western-educated Zarif said that Iran would open its nuclear facilities to international inspectors.”

Again and again, the trope appears: “Western-educated” as a sort of marker for “moderate” or “a man we can work with.” It’s hard to see what other purpose could be served by the constant invocation of the same compound adjective except to suggest to the (Western) reader that Zarif is somehow “one of us.”

And Zarif -- contrary to the worried accusations of his critics, who see him as the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing -- may indeed turn out to be a reformer. But whether Zarif is or not, the puzzle is why so many journalists seem to think that the fact that he was educated in the West makes him likely to be a reformer.

Misleading Shorthand

Zarif isn’t the first to receive this treatment. Long before the Syrian civil war began, we were favored with endless references to the “Western-educated” Bashar al-Assad, whom starry-eyed observers seemed to expect to return home and overturn the dictatorship his father’s party had built. More recently, the intrepid Anna Therese Day sat down to interview a quartet of “Western-educated, radical jihadists” affiliated with al-Qaeda.

What exactly is going on here? Why do journalists find it so important to tell us when foreign leaders -- particularly around the Middle East -- have been educated in the West? Perhaps they believe that the encounter with Western values, Western texts, Western thought will work an ineluctable change for the better in those exposed to them.

But this is hope, not fact. The notion that education possesses such power to set the young on the proper moral path has an undeniable appeal, especially to those of us in the academy. But it is almost certainly false. Indeed, one need not strain terribly to hear in such commentary the distant echoes of the British Empire, whose colonialism was justified by the need to bring civilization to what they used to call the lesser breeds without the law. The idea was that the encounter with the West (Europe, civilization, modernity) would change traditional societies for the better.

We like to think those bad old days are behind us. In truth, the Western instinct for self-congratulation is never far away. The well-educated Westerner tends to think that all well-educated people see the world in a similar way, that they share a vision of justice and goodness not available to the masses.

But maybe we think too much of ourselves -- and of what an education in the West actually means. Former State Department official Robert M. Danin warned a few years ago of our tendency to lionize Arab leaders schooled at Western universities -- a group, he pointed out, that includes not only Assad but also, for example, the corrupt Gamal Mubarak of Egypt, son of the former president, and the murderous Seif al-Islam Qaddafi of Libya, son of the dead president. There are reformers and democrats in every country, wrote Danin, but there is no particular reason to assume that they will be found predominantly among those who happen to hold degrees from the West: “Our most reliable partners are not necessarily going to be the people who sound and look just like us.”

Superficial Readings

Alas, we have become stuck somehow with an irrational certainty that exposure to the Western intellectual tradition will miraculously transform tyrants into democrats. A useful tonic for this illusion is Yvonne Sherratt’s recent book, “Hitler’s Philosophers.” Sherratt traces the evolution of Adolf Hitler’s self-conception as “philosopher leader,” an image that he developed largely through his readings of the great texts of Western philosophy.

Martin Heidegger’s support for Nazism is a matter of record, but he was far from Hitler’s only muse. Hitler revered Kant and Hegel, and quoted easily and at length from Schopenhauer, Schiller and, of course, Nietzsche.

Hitler’s readings of the great thinkers were often superficial, Sherratt tells us. He evidently made a habit of leaving difficult texts unfinished. (Alas, neither characteristic distinguishes him from many an undergraduate today.) Sherratt’s larger point is that many of the great works of Western thought are susceptible to interpretations that allow them to be cited in support of great evil, for those who take the time to look.

It’s not my purpose to compare any of the figures I’ve mentioned to Hitler. What Sherratt’s exemplary volume shows is that a leader’s familiarity with, or even intimate knowledge of, the great texts of Western thought is no guarantee that he will not turn out to be a monster.

Education at the contemporary university is not aimed at instilling a deep sense of right and wrong. As Yale University historian Donald Kagan pointed out last spring in his moving farewell address, today’s academy does an excellent job of teaching the skills of critique but fails to provide a sufficient grounding in Western values to explain what critique is for. Adds Kagan: “There is, moreover, no attempt to shape good character, for the better universities lead the country in the direction of a kind of relativism, even nihilism.”

Kagan is right. A Western education that fails to defend Western values is unlikely to make a moral difference in the life of the student. One can know all the great texts and still do terrible things. Perhaps we should retire the phrase “Western-educated,” at least as an index of moderation. That someone has attended even the best schools the West has to offer tells us nothing about the degree of his ideological drive or the depth of his love of power. Certainly we cannot, on such little information, hazard a guess about anyone’s taste for Western-style democratic reforms.

(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.

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