Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Desperate and stupid are two very different kinds of crazy

Richard Nixon once devised a plan that he'd try to convince some of the US' cold war rivals the he was crazy. He thought that if they believed he was crazy they'd be more accommodating. I'm not sure if non-Americans understand the pull that idea has for the American psyche - how tempting the idea is that by acting crazy a person can easily trick his opponent into submitting to his wishes. It is the type of idea that resonates so well with the American psychology that the idea is believed before it is closely examined.

But if an American was to examine the idea, it really does not work. Where it fails is that there is a word "crazy" in English that can have two meanings, and the different meanings have vastly different implications for a party interacting with a "crazy" party.

I'm pretty sure we've seen a calculated act of craziness in the US rush to introduce a UN Security Council resolution the day after Iran agreed to terms presented by Turkey and Brazil for a medical reactor fuel deal.

I once saw a television show about a mother polar bear searching for food with her cubs over a winter. Along the way, a hungry male polar bear appeared, memory fails me but the male apparently wanted either to eat the cubs or possibly to kill the cubs to mate with the mother.

Male polar bears are far larger than female polar bears and in fighting a female polar bear is no match for a male polar bear. But the mother polar bear was not willing to live if her cubs were harmed and took a huge gamble. She stood between the male and her cubs and prepared to fight. The male bear would have won the fight, but the cost of that win would have been greater than what it would gain. The male walked off.

In English, there is a sense in which the mother bear was crazy. And because she was crazy, the male bear did not test his strength against hers even though he would have won. But this "crazy" was really desperate. This was not an act. The mother was really willing to fight and really willing to die for her cubs.

What if the mother bear had started biting her tail? What if the mother bear took some fish she was about to eat and threw them into the sea? In English, that is also crazy. Nixon's idea was that if the leadership of the US convinces its adversaries that it is "crazy" the adversaries would back off.

If the mother bear began acting randomly, it would not have scared the male bear. If the mother bear bit her tail, the male bear would believe that the mother is an easier victim than he would otherwise. What if the male bear made a demonstration of randomness? The male bear might think if he bites his tail the mother will not be willing to fight because he is "crazy". But the mother would fight a stupid bear just as quickly, even more quickly, than she would fight an intelligent bear. Desperate works. But it is not a trick. Stupid does not work for either party.

Hillary Clinton actually proposed to Barack Obama that in response to Iran's agreement to the terms the US asked for with the medical reactor deal, that she put a sanctions resolution before the Security Council weeks or months earlier than she had planned. Barack Obama actually heard that proposal and approved it. The signal they are trying to send is that they are, together, so "crazy" that they are willing to introduce a Security Council resolution earlier and with less preparation than they had planned.

This was not desperate. The US is not directly taking any risk. This is a pure performance. Desperate might be an attack on Iranian installations which would have huge consequences that the US is aware of. Introducing an unprepared resolution was random. This is slapping a NATO ally in the face and removing any pretense that the US is either willing to negotiate or has a reasonable position on the issue. There was no benefit from it, except that Hillary and Obama have read Nixon's "craziness" theory and are more impressed by it than they should be.

This was a stupid move, made in a rushed panic, but it is something the United States cannot take back. The ground that shifted with Iran's acceptance of the Brazilian and Turkish proposal has shifted more by the US response. Sorting out the full impact of the proposal and the US initial response, as well as later US responses still remains to be done, but the US position regarding Iran's nuclear program has suffered a loss and it will be a substantial amount of time before that loss is fully recovered.

My prediction in December was that there would be no sanctions at all in 2010. There have been moments when that prediction looked bad. There have been moments when that prediction has looked good. Fundamentally George Bush struck a good deal when in exchange for Iranian help in Iraq, he de-escalated tensions over Iran's nuclear issue. That is still a good deal for Obama, with Afghanistan playing the role Iraq played, and Iraq settling into a situation that Iran is for the most part happy with and the United States able to leave with with pride rather than humiliation.

Obama has many motivations to pretend he is going to break that deal. Both as a negotiation tactic and to reduce pressure from pro-Israel factions of his own administration. But Obama has fewer motivations to actually break the deal. Breaking the deal means causing US soldiers to lose their lives and at the same time making US regional objectives more difficult to reach or manage.

I can be wrong, but Clinton's performance yesterday is not evidence that I'm wrong. Clinton acted crazy, but crazy meaning stupid rather than crazy meaning desperate.


b said...

Having had a first read through the sanction draft (at the NYT site) I find it far less biting then I would have expected.

The U.S. must have watered it down very much do get the Chinese and Russian OK for it this fast.

There is certainly nothing "crippling" in there.

How much was this desperate move influenced by the bill walking through Congress?

lidia said...

Arnold, just to let you know, Israel's leaders used the same (or almost the same) wordings - if I remember it right they spoke about being "mad dogs" to scare their foes.