Iran Reading List: Bluff, Deterrence, and the Madman Theory

As the Netanyahu visit impends and the bomb-Iran drumbeat continues, here is another item worth considering. (Apart from Robert Wright's latest dispatch, with its reminder that a "clean" and "surgical" air raid is likely to be as messy as other Middle Eastern wars. Or this, from Paul Pillar, on mainstream Israeli skepticism about the consequences of a strike on Iran. Plus one that I understand Jeffrey Goldberg has in store very soon -- I will be offline for the next 12 hours and won't see what he has until this evening US time.)

Beyond those I point you toward an essay on the Oxford University Press site, called Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour. My endorsement is the more sincere given that the essay's  authors, Louis René Beres of Purdue and retired Air Force general John Chain, are people with whom I've disagreed. Chain, then a big figure in the Pentagon, was not a fan of my book National Defense back in the 1980s. Beres is generally much more hawkish than I am, for instance as chair of Israel's "Project Daniel" a few years ago.

The value of this essay is that it deals with some of the factors that complicate and often distort the current discussion about Iran. One is whether Iran's leadership should be considered either "crazy" or "irrational" (they explain the difference). Another, related question is whether a nuclear-armed Iran could in fact be "deterred." They argue that it may have to be:

Perhaps a nuclear Iran can still be prevented by preemption. But in the more likely absence of any remaining options for "anticipatory self-defense," Israel's best available stance will be to effectively deter an already-nuclear Iran.

The most valuable part of the essay may be discussing the tangled web of posturing and deception that goes into all parties' approach to this issue. Decades ago Richard Nixon popularized the "madman theory" of negotiations. If your adversary thought that, in a pinch, you really might do something extreme and nutty and even self-destructive, then you got much of the negotiating power of an extreme stand, even if you were too rational ever to actually carry out the threat.This kind of bluff is part of any negotiation, but it seems to matter most in international relations -- versus, say, finding the right level for Medicare premiums or the estate tax.

The ramifications of bluff need to be factored into all sides' approach on the "bomb-Iran" issue:
  - the Israelis', in seeming on the verge of a preemptive strike for quite a while now;
  - the Americans', in convincing the Netanyahu government that the U.S. would act if need be, so they shouldn't (even if the Administration concluded, as I think it should, that actually carrying out that threat would be disastrous);
  - and of course the Iranians', since they are far too sophisticated not to recognize the leverage they are getting in remaining on the verge of weaponization.

Read, decide for yourself, and follow the news. I will say that only twice before in my memory, and maybe thrice in American history, has there been as much carefree talk about war and unprovoked strikes as we've had concerning Iran in recent months, including from candidates other than Ron Paul in the GOP race. The twice in my experience were: during the runup to the invasion of Iraq in 2002, and in the "bomb 'em back to the stone age" moments of the early Vietnam era. The time that even I don't remember was the "you furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war" yellow journalism drumbeat before the war with Spain in 1898. This is not good company for today's fevered discussion to join.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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