The president "reached out" - that awful term - to Iran this week, sending a video message to the Iranian government and people. The first reviews are in from Iran, and they are less than raves. It seems that no one in the mullah regime is buying tickets to the negotiations with America. Instead, Iran's leaders have lectured the president, insisting that Washington must change its policies before there can be any progress in reconciling the two nations. It would appear that the Iranian regime's eagerness for mutual warmth is limited - unless we abandoned Israel, stopped objecting to Tehran's support for terror, and went easy on this nuclear-bomb business. In other words, when the mullahs can inspect the towel we've thrown in, they'll smile.
Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, Iran's supreme leader, was particularly stark: "Mr. Obama insulted the Islamic Republic of Iran from the first day. If you are right that change has come, where is that change? What is the sign of that change? Make it clear for us what has changed," he said.
Hamas, which has been known to follow Iran's lead, wasn't far behind, but with a slightly different tactic. It praised the president's language, but only to get a foot in the diplomatic door. America must still change its policies:
ROME (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama is using a "new language" in relations with the Middle East and an official overture toward Hamas is only a matter of time, the Islamist group's leader Khalid Metal said in a newspaper interview.
"A new language toward the region is coming from President Obama. The challenge for everybody is for this to be the prelude for a genuine change in U.S. and European policies. Regarding an official opening toward Hamas, it's a matter of time," Metal told Italian daily La Republican in an interview published on Sunday.
The newspaper said Metal was reacting to Obama's offer of better ties with Iran, Hamas's main backer along with Syria.
We are assured by a variety of "experts" that this is the opening round of diplomatic posturing, and not the final word. Some say the Obama approach will weaken Iranian hardliners by showing that the United States is playing fair with Iran. Kari Sadjadpour, of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, in a story reported by Warren P. Strobel for the McClatchy newspapers, that the new U.S. diplomacy "will undermine (hardliners) and their narrative of a hostile U.S. government bent on oppressing Iran."
Are the experts right? Well, we don't know. But we should be concerned that they could be very wrong, that the Iranian leadership means exactly what it is saying, that it will manipulate us as it works toward a nuclear weapon. If this is true, it will not be the first time. After all, Neville Chamberlin was widely praised for his "outreach" to Adolf Hitler, and those who cautioned against Chamberlain, including Winston Churchill, were denounced as war mongers and militarists, intent on involving Britain in another world war. The support for Chamberlain's diplomacy continued even after the synagogues of Germany were set afire on Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938. Every warning flag was ignored.
Walter Lippmann once said that "we are all captives of the picture in our head -our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists." We have a tendency to assume that everyone thinks the way we do - that if only we act "reasonably," others will respond in kind. That is, after all, the world we have experienced. Very few of us have personal experience with people who want to wipe whole nations off the face of the Earth. Most ambitions we encounter in our lives are more modest.
We also have another picture in our heads, that of the fanatic in love with his rhetoric, but incompetent - a screamer, a person consumed with passion but not skill. Looking at the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is easy to get that sense.
But that is a dangerous conception. In World War II we saw the Japanese as irrational, in part because of their use of the kamikaze, the suicide pilots who would crash their planes into American ships. There was a Japanese vice admiral named Matome Ugaki, who left a remarkable diary of his wartime thoughts and actions. Ugaki was, by our definition, a fanatic. Rather than see Japan defeated, and despite his exalted rank, he became a kamikaze in the final days of the war. He wasn't a trained pilot, so a volunteer went with him on his final mission, which ended in failure. Ugaki and his crewman crashed into the sea.
But in Ugaki's diary is this entry:
"Even though it becomes impossible for us to continue organized resistance after expending our strength, we must continue guerrilla warfare under the emperor and never give up the war. When this resolution is brought home, we can't be defeated. Instead, we can make the enemy finally give up the war after making it taste the bitterness of a prolonged conflict."
In three sentences, Ugaki the "fanatic" brilliantly foretold the age of guerrilla warfare and its effect on democratic nations. Far from being irrational, this fanatic thought clearly and effectively, and in the most precise strategic terms. We must today be careful not to underestimate the religious fanatics ruling Iran. As we seek "reasonable" replies, they may be way ahead of us in strategy, predicting our next move, and luring us into a diplomatic trap.
That view has been set out very well by Scott Johnson, a Hudson New York contributor, at Power Line, when he writes of his frustration over President Obama's message to Iran:
"Get a clue, man! The mullahs who rule Iran with an iron fist hate you and everything you represent. They hate you in part because they view you as an apostate. They hate you in part because you represent the United States. They hate you in part because you represent the American people. They don't hate us because President Bush didn't talk nice to them!
"Make no mistake. The mullahs love the weakness and stupidity that President Obama transmits at ear-shattering levels in his message to them (and in his earlier Al Arabiya interview). They rebuff his advances because they know he will only treat their rebuffs as reasons to pursue them with renewed ardor."
We hope President Obama takes that view very seriously. History demands that he do so, that he be a Churchill rather than a Chamberlain.