Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this year's presidential election campaign has been the extent to which American mythology and self-deception have prevented an honest discussion of issues and forced us into false choices.
Did you see the approval meter rise at the bottom of your television screen when Mitt Romney responded to one of the questions during Monday's night's debate by saying that : "America doesn't dictate to other nations. It frees nations from dictators"? It was a good line and obviously resonated with the self-image and national image of viewers in the United States. I wished that there was also a meter showing the reactions of foreign viewers to that line. Because pleasing and reassuring as the line was to the American electorate, it was patently deceptive and false and likely only to lead to further misunderstanding and conflict between Americans and others around the world.
Iran was mentioned a score of times in the debate. Both candidates insisted that they would not allow Iran to obtain nuclear capabilities under any circumstances. Both effectively indicated that they would take the United States to war with Iran if necessary to prevent such an eventuality. Behind this policy position were several assumptions and elements of received wisdom. One was that Iran is an oppressive and dictatorial theocracy whose leaders are irrational and lusting above all else to use nuclear weapons to destroy first Israel and then the Great Satan, America. Each candidate spoke on the basis of an implicit conviction that Iran had nothing to fear from its neighbors and thus no possible need for nuclear capability and thus no right to such.
Neither moderator Bob Schiefer nor either of the candidates bothered to discuss whence this Iranian government had come nor the strategic and geo-political landscape it might see itself facing.
But the truth is that Iran was a secular democracy in the early 1950s. Its prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and a majority of its freely elected parliament attempted to increase the royalty the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was paying the country to fifty percent of its profits, same amount the major oil companies were paying to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela at the time. Half owned by the British government and with exclusive marketing arrangements with Exxon and Mobil, Anglo-Iranian refused. Mossadegh then nationalized the company in Iran and the big oil companies responded by organizing a boycott and refusing to buy Iranian oil. In desperation, Mossadegh turned to Russia for help. The United States, which, given its own history, might have been expected to sympathize with the Iranians against British imperialism, instead used the CIA to organize a coup that deposed Mossadegh and that installed in the place of his democratic government the dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlevi.
He immediately received an emergency grant of $45 million from Washington to help him get established as well as $860 million over the next six years. He also received assistance from the CIA and from Israel's Mossad secret service in organizing and training what became the truly dreaded SAVAK, the Iranian secret police service that was later harshly condemned by the United States for the oppression and brutality that led to the overthrow of the Shah and the occupation of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers.
When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran's oil fields in 1980, Washington embraced him as a kind of quasi ally and even supplied him with military intelligence, including spy satellite photos, and weapons when he began to lose the war in 1982.
Given this history as well as the fact that Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers such as Russia, Pakistan, and Israel and also by U.S. bases with easy availability of nuclear weapons, one might be able to understand that in Iranian eyes the United States might be seen as being completely comfortable with dictating to other countries.
The 1954 overthrow of Guatamala's democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz and the subsequent installation of a series of right wing dictators was also the work of the CIA. And in Chile 9-11 refers to the U.S. sparked overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and the installation of the murderous military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Subsequently , thousands of persons simply disappeared in circumstances that the world later learned were shockingly barbaric. Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Greece, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea round out the list of countries in which the United States either installed dictators or lent them vital support.
In another realm, both candidates spoke of creating jobs by promoting exports, and completing new free trade arrangements that would create a "level playing field" on which they insisted that American workers would always win. Again, this kind of talk makes Americans feel good. On the one hand, it flatters their pride to be told that all their trade problems must be due to a tilted playing field. On the other, it sounds macho and tough to be talking about breaking down barriers and enforcing the rules.
But, again, the truth is otherwise. Exports don't create net new jobs if imports are rising faster than exports in related industries. This is what has been happening for forty years in U.S. trade. U.S. exports are way up from forty years ago or twenty or ten or five years ago. But imports are up more, and jobs have been lost rather than created.
New trade agreements will almost certainly not create level playing fields or any shift in the underlying trade patterns. This is because the agreements mostly do not deal with the things that make the playing field tilted. These include currency manipulation, investment subsidies, government pressure to transfer technology and production and jobs as a condition of market access, and the conditioning of publics to buy national. By way of example, we can look at the recently concluded and ratified U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Already, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea is soaring as Korean exports to the U.S. grow faster than U.S. exports to Korea. The new deals of which Romney and Obama speak will not change this pattern.
Another aspect of this phenomenon of self-deception is seen in the repartee of the two candidates with regard to the Arab spring and the dramatic changes taking place in the Muslim world. Each spoke as if it is America's obligation to guide and control the Arab spring and the new regimes to which it is giving rise. More broadly, each spoke also of changing the views of the Islamic world with regard to the role of women, and the relationship between the state and organized religion.
Why was there no question from anyone with regard to whether it is at all within our competence to do these things?
We are living in a fantasy land in the United States. Our political discussion is constricted within the walls of the fantasy and is increasingly meaningless and irrelevant to the rest of the world and to our very real problems.
Clyde Prestowitz is the president of the Economic Strategy Institute and writes on the global economy for FP.