Throngs of self-appointed psychotherapists (and even some real ones) have seen fit to diagnose President Trump as suffering from a debilitating case of narcissistic personality disorder. But what about the narcissism that afflicts America as a whole?
Of course, I can't muster evidence to prove that all Americans suffer from extreme self-centeredness. But what is obvious is that much of the country's political leadership, and especially its foreign policy establishment (sometimes not so flatteringly described as "the blob”), displays precisely this tendency.
The latest example is the blob's reaction to protests against the theocratic regime in Tehran over the past week. From fulsome praise for the Trump administration's statements in support of the protesters to angry posthumous denunciations of the Obama administration's more muted response to the previous wave of protests in Iran back in 2009, the consensus seems to be that it is crucially important to the outcome of the unrest for the U.S. government to take a strong public stand in favor of those resisting the mullahs.
The reality is that what the American president says in this situation will make next to no difference to the outcome, and it almost never does. The fate of the protests will be determined in Iran, not in Washington. Thinking that public statements by American presidents (and former presidents) matter in anything more than a peripheral way is delusional. Yet it's a delusion that permeates the thinking of those who devise and enact foreign policy in this country.
The habit of presuming that presidential declarations shape the unfolding of events in foreign countries began during the Cold War. It intensified once America's leadership class drew specific lessons from the way that decades-long conflict came to an end. In the narrative eventually endorsed by the vast majority of political actors and analysts on both sides of the partisan divide, a handful of aggressive Ronald Reagan statements (describing the Soviet Union as an "evil empire”; calling on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!”) proved decisively important to the eventual collapse of communism.
If this isn't a narcissistic fantasy, I don't know what is. Sure, such statements may have bucked up the spirits of some Soviet dissidents, and that alone may have justified them. But that hardly means that these half-dozen words brought a superpower to its knees.
Then why so much emphasis on public statements — praising President Trump now for speaking out, lambasting President Obama today for his silence in 2009?
Because the American foreign policy establishment (along with its mouthpieces in the media) are addicted to grandiloquent displays of moralism. They love it when The Most Powerful Man on the Planet and the Leader of the Free World takes a strong, forceful stand for What's Right. They can just feel it in their bones that when might and right come together, they can and will triumph over their enemies. That's because they are equally convinced that justice ultimately prevails in history — and that justice is clearly, obviously advanced by the triumph of American-style democracy in the world.
That's the nobler (if also foolish) explanation. The more cynical one is that making emphatic moral pronouncements that comport perfectly with the tenets of American civil religion is far easier, as well as more emotionally satisfying and politically advantageous, than learning the languages and cultures of foreign countries and studying the complicated and often mysterious internal politics of a closed regime.
Those are the reasons why so many self-described experts make the grade-school assumption that all people everywhere are basically American democrats ready and eager to establish stable and functioning experiments in self-government the moment tyrants are deposed. That assumption helped give us the Iraq War, it encouraged us to end up creating another failed state in Libya less than a decade later, and it would have gotten us mired more deeply in the morass of the Syrian civil war had President Obama listened to the entreaties of such hawks as his first secretary of state.
This doesn't mean that presidential statements of solidarity with the Iranian protesters will do any harm. They probably won't. (Though I also quite doubt that those risking their lives on the streets of Iranian cities care very much about President Trump's expressions of support, and I'm quite certain they want nothing at all to do with Benjamin Netanyahu's endorsement of their cause.) But it's important to recognize that such statements also won't do much good. They invariably end up being primarily about us — expressions of our longing to display to the world that we are on the side of the angels, fulfilling our providential role as divinely appointed envoys of democracy on Earth.
By all means let's hope and perhaps even pray for the success of the protesters in Iran. For all we know these thoughts and prayers will even end up exercising a greater influence on the unfolding of events than a sweeping declaration by the American president.