Iran Drumbeat: Doomsday Clock, Chickenhawks, Chessmaster?

By James Fallows

I am on the road and out of range a fair amount of the time, so let me try to catch up today on a number of emerging developments. Of greatest importance: the drumbeat for an attack on Iran.

1) Pictures in our head. The Atlantic has gotten a lot of attention for its "Iran War Clock"; someone asked me about it yesterday here in Sydney, Australia. I read its intention as being both worthy -- keeping attention on an important issue -- and constructive, in warning about the danger of talking ourselves into war.

A reader sees it another way, in a note that indirectly reveals a fascinating aspect of historical analogy-drawing. The reader writes:

I think the idea behind the war clock - a compilation of the views of people with deeply informed views on an absolutely pressing topic of our day - is a fantastic thing for the Atlantic to contribute to the public discourse.  The format, however, is deeply troubling.

For one, the gimmicky nature of the clock strikes me as undermining the severity of the issue at stake.  Second, and far more importantly, the person who came up with the idea for a clock is either wholly ignorant of how cognitive psychology works, or is very aware and very much in favor of a strike.  One of the great contributions of behavioral psychology in recent years has been the way the brain works when triggered by certain markers.  One of these is a so-called time crunch, which anyone in sales can verify.  When your brain is told to believe that there may not be enough time to do what you want, it increases your impulse to do it now, even if your brain in more "normal" circumstances may not have the same balance of "do/do not."  It has nothing to do with the merits of a certain action (i.e. is the jacket/watch/pair of shoes/etc. really worth the money?) but with the situation your brain is put in when trying to make the decision.  The Iran War Clock strikes me as exactly one of those things, something innocently meant to be a dramatic hook to bring people to the website, or something meant to increase the likelihood of public pressure demanding a strike.  Regardless of the intent, the possible impact really worries me.
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As I read this note and thought about why I hadn't reacted in the same way, I realized that it was almost certainly because of different "pictures in our heads." The reader was thinking of "Act now! Time is running out!" sales tactics. And I was thinking of ... the original "Doomsday Clock," from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, as shown at right. Through the Cold War era this was a highly publicized measure of nuclear tensions. The setting was as ominous as "two minutes to midnight" after the Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb, in 1953, and as reassuring as 17 minutes to midnight in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the official end of the Cold War. It's now at five-minutes-to, because of proliferation and climate-change threats.

Here is the part I find interesting. For me, with the original Doomsday Clock in mind, neither of the reader's complaints about our new Iran War Clock make sense. It doesn't trivialize the threat of war, because for me the obvious allusion is to nuclear "doomsday." And it doesn't imply a rush to "Act now!" since the clear intent of the original clock was to keep those last precious seconds from ticking away.

I haven't asked, but I am sure the creators of our clock had the original model in mind. For one thing, the clocks look pretty similar. Main point: a reminder of how analogies have "constructed" rather than intrinsic meanings. And, with the passing years, the different pictures that people of different generations have in their minds. Kids today!

2) Chickenhawks. Even more than was the case a decade ago with the Iraq war, there is a strong "chickenhawk" factor in the bomb-Iran drumbeat. In both the United States and Israel, the voices cautioning against reckless war talk often come from the uniformed military or from combat veterans. Much (though not all) of the harshest talk comes from people with no military background or exposure. For instance: of the remaining Republican candidates, Ron Paul is the only one who has served in the military. He is also the only one not urging bellicose threats toward Iran. The correlation through the rest of the political / media / policy establishment -- toughest talk from those who have least experience in uniform or especially in combat -- is not perfect, and obviously it does not in itself disprove the pro-war argument. But the pattern is noticeable. 

I mention this to put it on the record, and as a segue to Steve Clemons's interview article yesterday about Senator Jim Webb. The title is "Webb to Hot Head Senators: Cool It," and while the "it" in the title refers to military action against Syria, it is fair to apply Webb's warning more broadly. For instance, from Webb, in a press release:

When people are talking about the need for leadership, we need to have a little sense of history. Leadership is not always taking precipitant action when the emotions are going. It is in achieving results that will bring about long-term objectives. . .Probably the greatest strategic victory in our lifetime was the Cold War. That was a conscious, decades-long, application of strategy with the right signals with respect to our national security apparatus.

3) Chessmaster? Part four zillion. Did Obama increase his operating freedom, or paint himself into a corner, through his presentation to AIPAC and his meeting with Netanyahu? As with so many other things he has done, interpretations differ widely. Our own Clive Crook says he has committed himself more than it seems; Robert Wright says peace now, war later.

I will return to this in the next few days, but I am betting, peace. For now, two reader-quotes and a link. Further elaboration later on. One reader writes:

I think Obama has succeeded in his most important goal with Bibi: Putting Bibi in a box until after our elections. He let Bibi, the American public and the Israeli public know that, If Israel goes to war, it goes alone for now. What can Bibi do now? Even retired senior Israeli officials are now telling Bibi: "Don't do it." They know Obama will not undermine them after Obama's statements.

A bonus for Obama is that the Republican field must go to agitating for immediate war with Iran or shut up. Your move Mitt.

Mission accomplished.

Another:

There will be no war with Iran. I would bet you $10,000 on that. And that's a good thing.

Finally for now a link, from an essay by Attila Somfalvi about Obama's understanding of his audience not so much in the United States as among the public in Israel:

In a brilliant step, Obama's speech writers made his words "Israeli." At a certain point in his speech, he spoke "Israeli" - he talked about sending soldiers to the battlefield, about the fatalities that never returned, about his thoughts and about the trials and tribulations of war.
 
Obama spoke exactly like every Israeli leader spoke in recent decades. He spoke like Rabin, Peres and Barak, and even like Sharon and Olmert. He spoke of bereavement and the pain of the families, and said war should be the last option. If there is no choice, the president stressed, I will not hesitate to resort to the military option, and I will not prevent Israel from defending itself.

Last rather than first resort, sober exercise of power rather than bombast -- this is the way genuinely strong leaders, from whatever nation, have spoken. The question is whether this tone genuinely buys Obama more time and freedom of action, rather than constraining his next decisions. I am betting we will look back on this as a chessmaster move. I am hoping that, too.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/iran-drumbeat-doomsday-clock-chickenhawks-chessmaster/254295/