Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Irrationality as policy?

Moshe Arens has an interesting column in Haaretz saying that just maybe, Olmert's choosing Lieberman as minister of strategic threats was a shrewd move.

He explains that, in game theory, an irrational player (Ahmadinejad) has a decided advantage due to his irrationality. Since no one can predict what he might do, he can expect the world to play it safe and give him a wide berth so he can pursue his plans.

Arens is saying that Lieberman is (almost) equally irrational and throwing him up against the Ahmadinejad problem may be more effective in making the madman from Iran pause before making his next threat or pronouncement.

There is something to be said for irrationality as policy, keeping your opponents off balance. I'm just not as convinced that Ahmadinejad is acting irrationally in the real sense of the word.

We've discussed before Iran's geopolitical goal: to become the world's superpower.

Ahmadinejad is a sincerely religious man, and his vision of the future is the vision of a worldwide Islamic 'ummah. The establishment of this universal caliphate can be accomplished a number of ways, all of which are happening simultaneously:

  • Demographically, by converting large numbers of people to Islam and by ncreasing the birthrate of Muslims;
  • Politically, by making Europe irrelevant and targeting the US and Israel exclusively; and
  • Militarily, by becoming a nuclear power.
Ahmadinejad is not acting as the head of state of Iran; he is acting as the putative leader of the Muslim world. He has that pesky Shiite/Sunni thing to overcome but for the most part he is ignoring the differences between Muslims and focusing on the commonalities.

His seemingly irrational statements about Israel, the Holocaust and the US make much more sense when one realizes that his audience is not Iranians but a billion Muslims. If he can unify them behind him, he effectively becomes the superpower.

His manipulations of the West may be somewhat attributable to studied irrationality, but I think it is more focused - it is clear that old Europe is so paralyzed with fear of confrontation that they are more than happy to believe anything conciliatory he says and ignore the outrageous parts. Also, any head of state, no matter how nutty, has the opportunity to frame debates, and since Ahmadinejad has started his "wipe Israel off the map" and "Holocaust is a myth" memes, both those ideas have been taken more seriously by the world, albeit in watered-down forms.

If Islam is what makes him act how he does, then coming up with a counterattack is much harder. The only reason acting irrationally works is if one of the possible irrational actions will hurt the enemy more than it helps him, and almost anything Israel (or the US) does would increase Ahmadinejad's prestige and power.

The best policy I can think of, as I've stated before, is a unilateral, severe economic boycott against Iran by the US - as well as against any country that trades with Iran. The main US strength is economic and it is a weapon that is not used nearly enough. It would send stocks into a tailspin but that is a hell of a lot better than a nuke.

Arens has a point, though - the fear of an Israeli first nuclear strike by the irrational Lieberman may slow down the Iranian program. I think a few well-placed rumors that the Iranian nuclear brain trust has been thoroughly infiltrated by Zionists can work wonders as well. (And don't forget how effective a single bullet can be.) But Israel's options are very limited, no matter how many "strategists" are elevated to cabinet positions.