American Thinking about Enemies

Americans’ manner of viewing foreign adversaries today is rooted in the history of their country’s past relations with the outside world. Their attitudes have been shaped especially by the most costly and all‐consuming episodes in that history, in particular the wars—hot and cold—of the twentieth century. Not having the same experience as, say, Europeans have long had of continuous and unavoidable contact with a variety of neighbors having an assortment of conflicting and parallel interests, American attitudes are disproportionately molded by the great conflicts in which the United States has crossed its ocean moats to confront enemies deemed awful enough and threatening enough to warrant such expeditions. Most Americans thought of the conflicts then, and still think of them, as morally clear struggles between good and bad forces, even if, as with the world wars (and worldwide communism during the Cold War), they actually were complicated multilateral affairs with varieties of interests within the warring coalitions. In short, Americans have a profoundly Manichean way of viewing their interaction with the outside world and their confrontation with foreign adversaries.

The Manichean outlook leads to demonization of the most salient of those adversaries.They are viewed not just as having interests that conflict with those of the United States, but as genuinely evil. Some of those adversaries really have been undeniably evil, with Adolf Hitler being at or near the top of almost any such list. The lasting influence on American thinking of the experience with the Nazis stems partly from the sheer scale and disproportionate impact of World War II and from how the dealings with Germany in the 1930s were tailor‐made to become the historical analogy most frequently invoked by anyone arguing that it is necessary to confront some other adversary. The evil of Hitler has, in effect, been transferred by analogy to various later foes of the United States.

Once the United States has become locked in conflict with any adversary, especially if warfare is at least a possibility, other incentives accentuate the demonization. Gaining popular backing for an expensive war (or other expensive confrontation, such as the Cold War) is more feasible when the enemy is perceived as evil rather than being merely the other side of a conflict of interests. This aspect of gaining popular support is reinforced by the American self‐image as a peace‐loving people who go to war only in response to someone else’s aggression. Accordingly demonization, including the Hitler analogy, played an especially important role in the selling of a war that clashed with that image: the one against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was an offensive war of choice and thus itself an act of aggression.18

Americans need a foreign villain. That has been the case since, beginning with World War II, the United States has had large and expensive overseas commitments that can be sustained only if American citizens support them and believe they understand the need for them. The need for a villain is a matter of public psychology and, because of that, also a matter of politics. As for who can play that role, Saddam Hussein is gone, and the unpleasantness of the Iraq War has provided a political incentive to erase quickly the memory of it (and along with that, some of the lessons from it). Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda have, of course, been prominent foes over the past decade. But a terrorist group can never fill the same role as a state, and now bin Laden is gone, too. Well‐suited on several counts to play the current role of villain is that other state on the Persian Gulf with oil resources and radical politics: Iran.

Current American attitudes toward Iran illustrate several consequences that commonly flow from demonization of a foreign adversary. One is a disinclination to see any reasonable basis for the adversary’s actions, or at least a basis that is compatible with one’s own needs or interests. Another is a tendency to underestimate how much of what the regime on the other side does may have broader support among its own population. Yet another is a tendency to see the other side’s ambitions as more negative and farther‐reaching than they really are. Related to this is an underestimation of the other side’s willingness to compromise.

Excerpted from pg. 371-3 of Pillar, Paul R. 2016. "The Role of Villain: Iran and U.S. Foreign Policy." Political Science Quarterly 131:2: pg. 365-385.