Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The fools, the stupid crazy fools..

Oh Lord. Apparently Glenn "Instawhatsit" Reynolds has been advocating some fool's paean to the Madman Theory, that wonderful old idea that you can and should get your way in international politics by deliberately projecting the impression of irrationality. The Crooks have (of course) already made the point that the current US government would have to work hard to be any more dangerous and unpredictable - perhaps they should do something sensible in order to get the point over? But that's just low-grade snark, really.

18 months ago I wrote an MSc thesis for Steve Haines's IR course on exactly this subject, and specifically the 1973 superpower crisis arising from the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war. (You can read it here.) A couple of relevant contemporary points. First of all, the principles. As someone on the CT thread points out, deliberately appearing irrational and dangerous requires that the other party is rational enough to be scared of your bizarre behaviour. If they're faking it too, following the same strategy you are, this is wildly dangerous. But if they are genuinely mad, it's even worse. It's more complicated than that, though.

If you are trying to induce them to accept some sort of negotiating proposal - which is after all the point - you have to leave yourself an out. You have to be barking enough to scare them, but not so barking that your barkingness obscures the prospect of a reasonable solution. In fact, you have to pretend to be mad enough that they will give in rather than risk your madness whilst simultaneously demonstrating that you aren't mad at all. Which is itself arguably insane. Mr. President, we only needed to be mad enough so that they see we are not mad but will go mad if they don't come to their senses! The risk being, of course, that if you overdo the madness they may decide there is no point talking to you and that it's high time to whack you over the occiput with something long and leaden before you go ape. Of course, you see that one coming and go madder earlier.

There's also a negative side. The practicals. Just as you have to ensure that your display of creative psychopathy is recognisable as a display, you have to ensure that any signals you use to demonstrate it are recognisably signals. It's rather like the distinction between the latent and manifest content of the dream. Yes, it looks like a B-52, but really it's..a symbol! Something which looks very different when you see the bugger on the radars. Even words can do this. You ask that cartoonist. Oh, we were only upholding the principle of freedom of sp..

Applying anything like this to Iran would be incredibly stupid. First up, the whole argument for attacking Iran is based on the assumption that there can be no stable deterrent relationship between Iran and Israel, because the Iranians aren't logical, Captain. Well, if they are really, genuinely mad, pretending to be mad in order to scare them is not very sane. Second, if we then say that, well, they sound mad but they are smarter than they let on, we run up against the problem of assuring what might be termed credible implausibility - after all, it's no good if they decide we really are mad after all, being surrounded by hostile or semi-hostile states as they are, and initiate their own madman defence. And there's no point anyway, as if they are sane enough to recognise our madness they are sane enough to be scared by 200+ Israeli nukes.

Finally, once you are sure you've secured that credible implausibility, the other side are free to recognise that you aren't really mad and ignore your ravings (as Brezhnev and at other moments Golda Meir did in 1973).

It's just not worth it, although it was a fun thesis and contained the only MiG-25R in the year.

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