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Joe Scarborough's Twitter meltdown is everything wrong with how we talk about Iran

US sailors on a riverine command boat in Bahrain, the type of ship that Iran detained and then released.
US sailors on a riverine command boat in Bahrain, the type of ship that Iran detained and then released.
Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images

Americans had every reason, when news broke that 10 US sailors had been "detained" by Iran, to worry. This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror, that actively abetted the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq, and that, in 2007, held a group of British sailors for 13 days.

So I am sympathetic to those who met this news with outrage or panic, particularly common among those who fear that Iran's ever-so-tiny steps toward reconciliation with the West are a ruse that in fact heightens their threat. Nor am I going to pretend to be shocked that Republican presidential candidates leaped, before the facts were all in, to portray this as a humiliation and proof of President Obama's folly.

But the facts did come in, and the situation turned out not to be the crisis it had first seemed: Two small US ships had drifted into Iranian waters near a major Iranian naval base. Iran, as seemingly any country would, detained the sailors, and a few hours later released them.

An anonymous Pentagon official told the Times, "The Iran story is frankly embarrassing. We still do not know all of the facts, but these guys and gal apparently were just poor mariners." If anything, it looked like the US and Iran had succeeded in defusing the situation and negotiating a quick end. The Times's story ran under the headline, "Iran’s Swift Release of U.S. Sailors Hailed as a Sign of Warmer Relations."

So you might think, at this point, people would calm down. But that is not what happened. The generalized freakout, which oddly only grew, is best captured by this series of tweets from MSNBC host Joe Scarborough:

When Scarborough drew criticism for what Washington Post writer and Tufts University political scientists Dan Drezner called "macho foreign policy posturing," he responded by, as Scarborough might put it, doubling down and claiming to speak on behalf of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, illegally imprisoned for now more than a year in Iran:

Scarborough's position here is pretty clear: High-stakes geopolitical events do not matter for the actual content of those events or for their concrete consequences, but rather primarily for their quality as theater. Foreign policy is not the conduct of relations between states but rather a locker room competition of displays of toughness. The only appropriate posture is thus one of constant and maximal belligerence.

All the stuff about lives at stake, risks of war, and complex diplomatic issues are just window dressing for what really matters: the zero-sum competition for maintaining national pride or imposing national humiliation.

Scarborough's tweets are ridiculous and thus easy to mock, but he has only just stated unusually clumsily what is in fact the norm in how US-Iran relations are often discussed, particularly on TV: as something of a game. And it's a game whose primary, if not sole, implication is how it will play in Beltway politics and which American politician will come out looking good or bad.

It's not a coincidence that Chris Christie used a playground metaphor, saying that unless we punished Iran, the US will "get its lunch money taken every time."

This sort of thinking — in which foreign policy is just a game and America's primary responsibility on the world stage is to be belligerent and to make the American president look personally tough — should look familiar. This same application of racehorse, who's-up-and-who's-down political punditry to US foreign policy helped lead us into the Iraq War, which many in the media portrayed as important for demonstrating George W. Bush's personal toughness and imposing humiliation on Saddam Hussein, who had to be punished for thumbing his nose at America and thus wounding our pride.

A decade and a few thousand American lives later, this thinking was deployed again, this time toward Russia. That scoundrel Vladimir Putin had intervened in Syria, and American TV went nuts. Putin was said to be humiliating Obama and showing off his comparable strength and assertiveness. Never mind that serious foreign policy observers considered Putin's intervention to be poorly planned and self-defeating, a sign of his weakness and insecurity.

The actual consequences of Putin's actions were irrelevant. All that mattered was what it could be perceived as meaning for American pride and for Obama's personality traits.

This is all why, when it became clear that the Iran incident had been defused quickly and diplomatically, American TV focused rather on two entirely new scandals: that Iranian state media had photographed the US sailors kneeling while they were being detained, and that one of the sailors later called entering Iranian waters "a mistake" for which "we apologize."

This was treated as an unacceptable outrage not because it caused any actual harm to either the American sailors or to US interests — it did neither — but because it could potentially be perceived as a moment of awkward embarrassment for a few US sailors who had made a mistake. Or, worse, a show of minute deference toward the Iranians. Because the only appropriate posture toward Iran is one of constant belligerence, and because all US foreign policy is really just a means for demonstrating the president's personal toughness or lack thereof — remember that the world is just a schoolyard — this was thus a major and unforgivable violation.

You can see this playing out, for example, in this CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria on the Iran incident:

Zakaria strains to show sensitivity to American outrage over the incident while also walking through why, in grown-up terms, this all worked out basically fine. But the CNN host is not really having it. She repeatedly tries to push Zakaria to concede that, sure, both the US and Iran may have handled this generally responsibly and averted a potential crisis that could have endangered both the sailors and the fragile Persian Gulf peace, but isn't it possible that it could be perceived as personally embarrassing for Barack Obama?

The push and pull in this CNN clip seems, to me, to encapsulate the past 10 years of how we in the United States view and talk about our relationship toward Iran. Is it a story of two states, adversarial and often hostile but at least theoretically capable of navigating disagreements in ways that minimize costs while also seeing opportunities for progress? Or is it two kids on a playground posturing over who can appear toughest?

My inclination is to see the former as more productive for ensuring US interests in the world, not to mention healthier for Americans who are earnestly concerned about what they see as a hostile and frightening world. But it's been, and will likely long remain, an uphill battle to get that perspective across.