The E-word 

The United States has rivals and competitors, not enemies

PHILADELPHIA—"A Gallup poll," Libby Quaid wrote for the Associated Press on June 2, "found that two-thirds of [Americans] said they believe it would be a good idea for the president to meet with the leaders of enemy countries."

Who are they referring to? An enemy is a country with whom a nation is at war. "Enemy countries?" We have enemies (hi, Osama). We have critics. We even have competitors. But the United States doesn't have enemy countries.

September 11 aside, citizens of the United States should feel secure. We border big oceans and two close allies—more like wholly owned subsidiaries. As for the rest of the world, well, they've been pretty nice to us.

Not that we deserve it. Since 1941, the United States has attacked, among others: North Korea, North Vietnam, Cuba, Cambodia, Laos, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Grenada, Panama, the Philippines, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Not once were we defending ourselves. We were always the aggressor. Over the course of six decades during which we were the world's leading instigator of armed conflict, no one attacked us—not even the people we attacked. No one declared war upon us.

Yet everywhere you turn, on every channel and in every newspaper, there's some politician or journalist using that word to describe another country: enemy. John McCain bashes Barack Obama for appeasing "the enemy" (he means Iran). Writing in the Wall Street Journal, also about Obama and Iran, Joe Lieberman sniped: "Too many Democrats seem to have become confused about the difference between America's friends and America's enemies." After 9/11, self-loathing, gay, neoconservative blogger Andrew Sullivan called opponents of the Bush administration "the enemy within the West itself—a paralyzing, pseudo-clever, morally nihilist fifth column." The Bush administration even incorporates the E-word in a term it invented, found nowhere in U.S. or international law, to describe its political prisoners: "unlawful enemy combatants."

Enemies! Enemies! Enemies! Enemies everywhere, but never an attack.

Slacker enemies.

Iran isn't an enemy. It's a regional rival, a competitor, and a relatively good-natured one at that. Not only did the Iranians open a western front against the Taliban during America's 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, they offered assistance to downed U.S. pilots. Iran has requested talks leading to the establishment of full diplomatic relations. We keep refusing. The British have since backed away from their claims that new Iranian-made improvised explosive devices were killing U.S. occupation troops in Iraq. (The story never made sense, given that they were used by Sunni insurgent groups—who hate Shiite Iran.)

Occasionally someone tries to point out the obvious: we're not at war. No war = no enemies. It's the truth. But the truth doesn't go over well.

James Rubin, assistant secretary of state under President Clinton, was interviewed recently by the Journal's Paul Gigot on Fox News. "I think it's quite clear that Iran and North Korea and others are a danger to the United States," Rubin said.

Gigot laid into Rubin: "You said a danger, but you didn't say enemies. Are they enemies?"

Rubin: "Well, I don't know, you know, enemies—we're not in a state of war with Iran. Traditionally, the word 'enemy' is for a state of war. We're in a state war with the Shiite militias, with al-Qaida, we're in a state of war."

Gigot: "But they're contributing—"

Rubin: "Iran has policies that we object to and we reject, and we should confront."

Gigot: "But they're contributing to the deaths of Americans, if you listen to the American military, in Iraq, by supporting some of those rogue militias. Doesn't that make them enemies?" [Ted here: These claims were debunked two years before this exchange.]

Rubin: "That makes them a country that is dangerous to the United States, and we need to confront that danger directly." In other words, a country can supply weapons to your enemy without becoming your enemy. Which, considering that the United States is the world's largest arms merchant, is a good thing. The last thing we need is more enemies. (Not that we have any now.)

Why do we call states with whom we disagree "enemies?" Religion writer Eboo Patel blames radical Islamists, and 9/11 for spooking us. "Terrorism," Patel wrote in Slate, "is more than heinous murder and guerrilla-theater. It is a kind of macabre magic intended to create the illusion of enemies everywhere."

Trouble is, Americans were freaking out long before 9/11. The reason? American conservatives, whose views are automatically accepted as conventional wisdom before eventually getting discredited, constantly see monsters in closets full of nothing but outdated fashions. "Iran has been at war with us for 27 years, and we have discussed every imaginable subject with them," shrieked The National Review's Michael Ledeen during 2006's Iranian-IEDs-are-killing-American-soldiers propaganda campaign. "We have gained nothing, because there is nothing to be gained by talking with an enemy who thinks he is winning. From [the Iranians'] standpoint, the only thing to be negotiated is the terms of the American surrender."

Twenty-seven years—what a war. How on earth did we fail to notice it?

And "surrender?" How exactly would surrendering to Iran work? Wouldn't they have to attack us first, you know, just for show? Do snotty remarks about Israel count as actual attacks with bullets and stuff? How would the Islamic Republic's modest military occupy the United States and beat its 300 million heavily armed citizens into submission?

Enemies? Not yet. But we're working on it.

Ted Rall is the author of the book "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?," an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.

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