“Know your enemy” has been the guiding principle for some of the most successful political, business, and military leaders for centuries. This almost self-evident dictum first appeared in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in the second century. In contradiction to this wise advice, the House Foreign Relations Committee has proposed legislation that would make it “illegal for any American diplomat to have any contact with an Iranian official.” Besides raising serious constitutional issues over the separation of powers, this preposterous law would make it illegal for the U.S. to know its enemy.
Successive U.S. administrations have put off learning about Iran and having direct contacts with its officials for more than 30 years. The Iranian leadership has been complicit in this dangerous game of avoiding contact. Our leaders and experts have depended on intelligence information; indirect, often biased reporting from émigrés and other self-interested sources; and the occasional scholar, journalist, or religious leader who braves the unknown of Tehran. Can U.S. officials “know Iran” without talking to Iranian officials, working with them, visiting their country, speaking their language, and even negotiating with them? To know a nation does not require that you agree with it, love it, or even accept its worldview. It requires that you understand it.
This proposed law makes the task of “knowing the Iranians” even more impossible. We have had virtually no official contact with Iranians since the 1979 revolution. It is fair to say that no official of the U.S. government has any direct knowledge of the Iran of today. That ignorance of this powerful adversary dangerously weakens our ability to know how to achieve U.S. objectives and protect U.S. interests.
The most successful practitioners of Sun Tzu’s counsel have found that the more one knows about the adversary, the more likely it is that war can be won or, better yet, avoided altogether. The Art of War suggests that knowing both your enemy and yourself is a sure winner. Since its first translation into French in the early 18th century, The Art of War has been used by Mao Zedong and the leaders of North Vietnam, Douglas MacArthur, Napoleon, and countless others. It also has become a guide for business and managerial strategies. American generals and admirals have bought into Sun Tzu’s thinking.
American civilian and congressional leadership has not adopted Sun Tzu’s winning proposition about knowing your enemy. There have been impressive exceptions. Roosevelt opened relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, and Nixon with China in 1971, to learn more about adversaries and resolve problems without becoming communists. The U.S.S.R. became our valuable ally in World War II. Nixon’s opening to China enabled us to learn much more about this giant potential adversary.
Lessons learned from presidential advisers invariably attribute failures of U.S. war efforts to ignorance of our adversary, and victory to having an American official in the room who knows the enemy. George Kennan, arguably the most knowledgeable American diplomat on Russia of his era, laid the bedrock of America’s “containment” policy for successive presidents who never quite figured out the Soviet enigma. Bobby Kennedy famously looked back, in his book Thirteen Days, on the Cuban missile crisis and charged future decision makers to “depend heavily on those with solid knowledge of the Soviet Union.” The members of Kennedy’s “excom” recounted later that the most valuable player in the room was Ambassador Tommy Thompson, who had just returned from Moscow.
More tragic are the lessons learned from our military failures. Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect, his valuable effort to seek expiation for his role in the Vietnam War, summed up 11 mistakes centering on the fact that “our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people of the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.” Our lack of knowledge of Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion and in the management of the war has become the legendary legacy for that misbegotten war.
A war with Iran would be madness, and catastrophic for U.S. interests. Surely even the most hawkish on the Hill and in our chattering class must know in their heart of hearts that fact. The alternative to war should be guided by Sun Tzu. We should learn so much about Iran that we can achieve the highest reward of the teachings in The Art of War—to work out our differences without conflict. Congress should more correctly encourage the administration to get to know Iran and Iranians as the time-tested way of protecting our interests while avoiding conflict.