Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The madness of King George

After Iraq, if Bush wants to strike the posture of a madman, I guess he has earned enough credibility to pull it off. But Fred Kaplan looks only at only one side of the equation. It is not enough to consider the probabilities regarding the Bush administration's true intention or strategy. Assume they aren't really mad (enough) but are highly successful in convincing the world they are. What are the implications?

One thing about threats, and postures of irrationality/extremism, is that if your opponent calls the bluff, you're in the uncomfortable position of sacrificing either your reputation or peace. There isn't an easy option. One doesn't have to be completely delusional, merely somewhat of a pragmatic hawk, to decide that the credibility of America's future threats needs preserving. Raising the stakes tilts one's own incentives towards hard line actions, in case the opponent doesn't give in. Barking dogs which do not bite face an unhappy future; which may be a good enough reason to bite once the bark failed to scare off the enemy. Will it?

Assume the Iranian leadership becomes convinced that the Bush administration has a dangerously short fuse, and may be serious about launching attacks (nuclear or otherwise) on very slight grounds. Kaplan seems to think that if this perception can be successfully planted, the Iranian reaction will be to back down. This is unwarranted for several reasons.

First, people like Ahmadinejad show no fewer signs of irrational, messianic zeal than Bush himself. If their rhetoric is, to some degree, sincere expression, it is by no means certain that revelations of the Great Satan's malevolent plans will lead to cowering concessions rather than a firmer resolve to acquire nukes or precipitate a showdown. Genuine extremists feed off the extremism of their enemies, psychologically and politically.

But let's assume that the Iranian leadership is shrewdly pragmatic, and is playing a similar bluff. That Ahmadinejad is a decoy planted to scare the West into a conciliatory posture. What if Kissingerian mullahs come to believe in the madness of King George? Is it their best rational response to fold, take their losses and go home? Again, it's not clear at all that this should be the case. In fact, good arguments can be made that the opposite will be true.

All depends, of course, on the degree of Bush's perceived lunacy (or reckless imperialist mission), but if the Iranians think that it's in a fairly advanced stage, the reasonable conclusion is that halting their nuclear program would be merely postponing the inevitable. Sooner or later, a zealously bellicose American administration will find some pretext to bring about "regime change" by military means. It makes strategic sense to risk an earlier defeat (together with some kind of shot at earning immunity) if defeat is certain in the long run otherwise.

There is a glaring similarity in the strategic postures adopted by Iran and North Korea ever since Bush's incendiary Axis of Evil speech, and the invasion of Iraq. These two countries have not only ratcheted up their nuclear programs, but have practically shouted from their rooftops that they're doing so. This is puzzling if one thinks that the intention is offensive (e.g. wielding greater regional power or destroying Israel), since stealth is always the predator's best friend – arm yourself as quietly as possible, minimizing obstruction, and then throw your weight around. The overt manner is a strong indication that the motives are defensive. The Iranians and North Koreans have come to believe (quite rationally) that their heads are on the chopping block, and nuclear deterrence is the only way out. Note that for deterrence purposes, what matters is not that you actually have nukes, but to convince your enemy that you have (or are close to having) them. It is telling that the bluster emanating from the Axis of Evil has the comic desperation of a teenager bragging about his size in order to get laid.

If one buys this analysis, that what has driven Iran or North Korea towards nuclearization (or more accurately, a nuclear posture) is their perceived madness of King George (or, more accurately, extremely aggressive preferences imputed to the Bush administration), it follows that anything which bolsters that perception will likely reinforce the trend. Herein lies the major flaw in Kaplan's analysis. He worries that Bush is actually insane, not merely trying to send a message to the Iranians that he is. Instead, he should worry that the Iranians will believe him, even though Bush may be quite sane in reality. If Seymour Hersh's report was fed by the White House, it betrays a higher order madness – a dangerously mistaken belief that the image of madness will be of advantage in the current world situation.

Convincing postures of irrationality can be useful in many strategic scenarios, because they allow a commitment to punish others even at a cost to one's own self. It may achieve concessions or deterrence that wouldn't be possible otherwise. But in a complex world, one has to guard against applying this principle willy nilly. America's principal strategic interest, at the moment, lies in convincing the world that it is not in the grasp of belligerent, imperialist forces. Otherwise, every vulnerable nation will be driven to as much armament (and therefore, non-cooperation) its resources will permit. Two, at least, are well on their way.

Posted by Gregor_Samsa.
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