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The Importance of Ketman


With the help of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Moscow, the comedy around “Russian support for sanctions against Iran” is now unfolding for the world to see.

The first act took place last month, when President Medvedev, apparently responding to America’s decision to scrap the planned anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, said that sanctions against Iran may be “inevitable.” U.S. officials could not contain their joy over this confirmation of the wisdom of President Obama’s “reset of U.S.-Russian relations.” Unfortunately, the operative word was “may.” In Russia, what “may” be inevitable, in reality, is often out of the question. As a Russian proverb puts it, “To promise, doesn’t mean to get married.”

Secretary Clinton arrived in Moscow determined to press the Russians for “specific forms of pressure” in the event that Iran fails to prove that its nuclear program is peaceful. What she got was an assurance from Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, that sanctions against Iran would be “counterproductive.” The Russians will now add reasons that sanctions are counterproductive, with little regard for their plausibility. But this is unlikely to matter. Secretary Clinton said her talks confirmed the value “of the so-called reset.”

Unfortunately, no one prepared Clinton for her trip by explaining the rules of ketman. This is an Oriental form of dissimulation first described by the 19th-century French ethnologist Count Gobineau and perfected, as it happens, by the Persians. According to Gobineau, the people of the East believe that, “He who is in possession of the truth must not expose his person, his relatives or his reputation to the blindness, the folly, the perversity or those whom it has pleased God to place in error.” In other word, he must hide his true beliefs.

Russian officials are long-standing practitioners of ketman. They love nothing better than to deal with U.S. officials such as Secretary Clinton, because it allows them to demonstrate their psychological superiority. As Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet, explained in The Captive Mind, “To say something is white when one thinks it black, to smile inwardly when one is outwardly solemn, to hate when one manifests love, to know when one pretends not to know, and thus to play one’s adversary for a fool — these actions lead one to prize one’s own cunning above all else.”

– David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.