Doubts, Cognitive Dissonance, & American Jewish Iran Deal Static

cogniticve dissonance

A friend asked on FB why the Jewish conversation is so all over the place about Iran Deal. On one hand, there are those prominent Israeli military people who think the Deal is not all that catastrophic. And then there are all those people in the U.S. and in Israel who think Obama just sold Israel to the Iranians. Much of the blame for the static goes to U.S. partisan politics and its manipulation by Prime Minister Netanyahu. On the other hand, President Obama seems to think that once the logic is laid out that that’s the end of the argument. Obama and his supporters have both oversold and undersold the Deal. “There’s no alternative” is not really a winning argument; neither is calling critics “warmongers.”

One might be tempted to suggest that, for their part, Jews  tend to be “hysterical” about perceived existential threats, and they have more influence in the echo chamber that is U.S. politics –unlike other Deal critics and skeptics like the Saudis, who seem to be making a bitter peace with the Deal. You can say that the GOP and Netanyahu are manipulating fear, but that ignores the intentional character of affect. To be able to manipulate, there has to “something” to manipulate. If Jewish opinion is so all over the place it’s probably because American Jews have a perceived stake in this Deal and the toxic regional politics in which the Deal is embedded. “The Jews” are like canaries in the coalmine. Their anxiety is only more palpable, but it’s generalizable, not unique to them.

Let’s first assume that anxiety, like any affect and emotion, is “intentional” in character; that is to say that affect and emotion are reflective and thoughtful in significant part. What I found most interesting reading the responses on the thread to my friend’s initial query was this. These are largely, I’m assuming, liberal Jews with no bone to pick with the President or necessarily with the Iran Deal; and on evidence there on the thread was confusion as much as fear. Jewish doubts about the Deal have lots to do with fear and anxiety, but that “something” that generates the anxiety has a cognitive component that Deal supporters ignore at their peril. Complementing the destructive dynamics of contemporary U.S. partisan party-politics and Israel’s part in it, the Iran Deal fundamentally lends itself to the very confusion it has generated.

My own sense is that the genuine confusion about the Deal is part of a larger confusion about Obama’s larger policy in the Middle East. That policy has been, I think it’s safe to say, confused and confusing to a great many watchers. In no necessary order, Iraq and Syria and Egypt are items number 1, 2, and 3. Add to that the very bad fraying of alliances for which the Administration is largely responsible. “Bad” (i.e. overly optimistic) overselling of the Deal only adds to the confusion because it seeks to tamp down hard the genuine questions that need to be asked about the Deal and U.S. policy in the region, which has been marked largely by inaction.

The President and his supporters have won the point, what’s the alternative? Having made this point, they think they’ve won the argument on the merits. It should remind one of President Bush on the aircraft carrier declaring, “Mission Accomplished.” Perhaps there’s no better alternative, but is that the end of the argument? The President and supporters have not begun to answer the next set of critical questions, what next and now what?

A bit more skepticism would actually help sell the Deal by reducing some of the cognitive dissonance that may in the end scuttle the Deal.

What might actually kill the Deal is the inability and even refusal to cede points and address in an honest way the many doubts about the Iran Deal, which are really doubts about U.S. policy and the Iranian regime. At the end of the day, it’s the President who’s in charge, which means that the burden of proof lies on him, not his critics.  And he’s the one ultimately responsible for all the multiple things that could go wrong with the Deal (a nuclear arms race with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Iranian cheating, a crackdown by hardliners on Iranian moderates, renewed fighting across the Lebanon border with Israel, God knows what in Syria and Yemen).

If the Deal gets scuttled, it will be primarily President Obama’s  fault, not the fault of his critics –again, because he’s the one in charge. Alas he’s now off on vacation. I would not be surprised if the Administration loses complete control of the discourse over August.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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