US policy on Iran and the echoes of Britain's 1776 folly

US policy on Iran and the echoes of Britain's 1776 folly
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On this most chest-thumping of Fourths of July, with pyrotechnics bursting in air and tanks standing guard on Washington’s Mall as fierce sentinels, it would be valuable for the nation to reflect that America’s independence owes as much to British folly as it does to the colonialists’ valor and zeal for liberty.

I throw out this troublesome reminder because the ebullient president who’s so eager to wrap himself in a flag-waving display of American superiority and might has, even as the republic celebrates Independence Day, confronted Iran with a series of actions that are, in their wrong-headed way, as mercurial, ineffective and antagonizingly provocative as those that George III and his parliament hurled at the 13 colonies. And, like the certifiably mad British monarch, this “very stable genius” (to quote his self-appraisal) of an American president is charging down a path that seems doomed to result in the very opposite of what he hopes to accomplish.

It was the inestimable Barbara W. Tuchman who first laid out a cogent history of the colossal ineptitude of England’s foreign policy toward the colonies in her erudite and instructive book, “The March of Folly,” published in 1984 — a time when a hand-wringing America was still trying to make sense of the folly of Vietnam and had not yet begun to imagine the Gulf War fiasco or the apparently endless involvement in Afghanistan.


Consider a few of the counts in her damning indictment, mistakes the British made as they ratcheted up anger and ill will among the colonists with each misconceived action; it was almost as if the British were determined to push and shove the beleaguered colonies until they had no alternative but to declare their independence.

At the core of the British policy toward the American continent was parliament’s right to tax the colonies. To establish with clarity this inalienable (at least in the king’s mind) authority, duties were imposed on molasses, on cider, on sugar, and then, in 1765, there was the deliberately onerous Stamp Tax, the first direct tax ever levied on the colonies. Turning the screws even tighter, to enforce the collection of customs duties, England issued Writs of Assistance, or search warrants, that allowed customs officers to bull their way into homes and warehouses to ferret out smuggled merchandise.

But, Tuchman points out, what made these confidently aggressive policies so counterproductive was that the ill will they created was far greater than any tax revenues that could be collected. And losing the colonies — the continent’s natural resources and manufacturing potential, as well as its ambitious, inventive inhabitants — would do Britain more harm in the long term than a quick trickle of coins into the Treasury. As Benjamin Franklin warned at the time, “Everything one has a right to do is not best to be done.” Especially when these taxes could not be effectively enforced by a kingdom whose military might resided across a wide ocean.

Today, nearly two and a half centuries later, we have the troubling spectacle of a would-be American monarch posturing towards Iran with similar pugnacious, counterproductive actions. What, after all, is the goal of American policy toward the Iranian theocracy? And, no less significant, how are we going about trying to achieve that result?

It is in America’s self-interest — the planet’s, too — to stop Iran from manufacturing a nuclear weapon. Yet, consider what the Trump administration has done ostensibly in pursuit of that much-desired end. First, it withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord that would have put a 15-year hiatus on Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Then it doubled down on previous sanctions, making them even more intense, making it even more unlikely that Iran will be able to maneuver to sell its oil on the global market. And after backing a proud country into a corner, the president, whose pronouncements are as mercurial as his promises, growls: “Be careful with the threats, Iran. They can come back to bite you like nobody has been bitten before.”

In 1775, as a result of British intransigence and arrogance, a shot was fired on Old North Bridge in Concord, Mass., that “was heard ’round the world.” And now I fear that the nation which came into being in defiant response to impractical, self-defeating policies, will, under the leadership of a volatile president, unleash its own folly that will be heard around the world with a resounding boom.

Howard Blum is a writer and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former Village Voice and New York Times reporter, and the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books. His most recent, “In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies” (HarperCollins), was published in 2018. His next, “The Night of the Assassins,” will be published by HarperCollins next spring.