Friday, January 06, 2012

Irrationality begets the same

There are too many contradictions in US foreign policy to tease out in a single post, but as the drum beats ever louder for war with Iran, I wanted to take the opportunity to examine at least some of them.

During the Cold War, the United States operated under a paradigm of mutually assured destruction. While those who ran the Soviet Union weren't concerned with the deaths of the proletariat in whose name they were ostensibly ruling--and who they were actually murdering by the millions--the leaders weren't too keen on suffering bodily harm to themselves.

Since nuking the United States would produce a retaliatory strike, the Russians were disinclined to exercise that option, however much they loathed us capitalist pigs. The two great powers managed to muddle through without the war turning hot.

The same logic ought to apply in our war against Islamic extremism--or terrorism, or Al-Qaeda, or whoever it is we're supposed to be fighting. But it does not, we are told, because the enemy is inherently irrational; he longs for death and therefore will not be disinclined to wipe Israel and the US off the map.

Now it is true that some people--suicide bombers, for instance--value other things more than their own lives. Since suicide bombing has been a weapon on the arsenal of the terrorists, it seems to follow that Islamic leaders would have no problem bombing some part of the Great Satan.

Yet this argument only make sense if we assume that the terrorists act only to inhibit the enemy, rather than to further some other goal. But the head terrorist himself, Osama bin Laden, has stated that such goals do exist. The aim of Islamic terrorism is not to destroy the west so much as it is to bleed and bankrupt the United States, forcing it to relinquish its presence in the Arabian world. Ironically then, U.S. military policy has proven indispensable in advancing bin Laden's objectives.

The argument that the terrorist hates us for our freedoms is imbecilic, but it is requisite for our foreign policy. If the terrorist has real objectives, he is at least partially rational. We are then faced with a decision to fight to thwart these aims or abjure them and refuse to fight. Only if the terrorists are totally consumed with hate are the wars essential.

Or are they? Are they not then even more futile than if our enemy were partially rational? If we assume that the leaders of Iran, let us say, cannot be reasoned with, this implies that they will answer only to force. Yet this is the very thing which they most desire. Those who wish to avoid another war are deemed appeasers, yet, in another irony, if Iran wants a civilization conflict, the warmongers are the real appeasers.

Moreover, it becomes impossible to levy criticism against foreign policy in respect to the allegedly irrational countries. Republicans have been claiming that Obama is showing weakness in front of Iran. The implication is that Iran would cease to agitate if confronted with strength, but this argument only makes sense if Iran is behaving with some modicum of rationality. Yet this alleged irrationality is the whole reason weakness is being decried; it's not as if any Americans fulminated when, say, Israel obtained nuclear weapons.

This illustrates that one cannot assume irrationality among others without falling into hopeless contradictions. Unless we have incontrovertible evidence that Iran's leaders are irrational--and I don't see how we could ever know this with any degree of certainty--it behooves us to treat them as at least passably rational beings. This would have the effect of returning our own policy into the realm of rationality, which would be a pleasant change indeed.

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