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Sunday, July 23, 2006


Premises about human nature

posted by Razib Khan at Sunday, July 23, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
A common refrain I hear in the blogosphere is about "mad mullahs" and the possibility that Iran might destroy Israel, or subsidize a nuclear attack via terrorist proxies on a US city. Of course, if the state of Iran does such a thing then it seals its own fate in a self-induced Götterdämmerung as it invites massive nuclear retaliation from either the US or Israel. How plausible is this scenario? In my opinion, not very, and the reason is simple: the commanding heights of government does not select for individuals with suicidal intent because those individuals are not by their nature good at manipulating politics and playing the "game." To put a not too fine point on it, political leadership tends to select for a somewhat craven sort, the Churchill's of the world stand in contrast to the run of the mill political leader, and this includes autocrats like Stalin or Hitler. The idea that Iran would engage in a nuclear attack proactively seems to defy a host of premises that I hold in regards to the nature of politics and human psychology. My premises could be incorrect of course, but the issue I tend to be having is that those who make pronouncements about the mad intent of the mullahs on the whole share these same premises about human nature from all I can tell. In their day to day lives they make situational allowances for the needs of political expedience, but in this case they do not. The key here I suspect is that individuals are making a cost vs. benefit analysis, "what if Iranian leaders really are suicidal and there is no accountability and check on any level of government on their impulses?" Note that there are intersecting conditional probabilities here, but, even given all these, some would justify invasion on the grounds of even the smallest possibility of nuclear attack. Well, all I would offer in response is this:

a) Let's not pretend that conquering a coherent nation of 70 million won't entail massive costs on "our" end (whoever "we" are).

b) Let's not pretend as if the risk that we are mitigating is a high one.



Your application of evolutionary analysis to the efficacy of deterrence sounds good, but I humbly ask you to consider:

1. Iran and NK ran a substantial risk in pursuing nuclear weapons in the first place. Indeed, given the demonstrated will and means of the U.S. to destroy regimes that attempt to acquire them (Saddam Hussein's), their nuclear programs were suicidally risky, once you note that they appear to be safe bets only in hindsight. So the Iranian and NK appetite for risk in the pursuit of their objectives is demonstrably substantial.

2. And what about our risk-calculus? It appears that your cost-benefit analysis leads you to recommend acquiescence to their nuclear ambitions, on the grounds that the costs of preemption could be substantial and they wouldn't dare use them. But what if they threaten to use them unless we do or stop doing XXXX? Short of XXXX = "submission to foreign occupation", XXXX will inevitably seem the safe option, considering the possible alternative, regardless of our retaliatory capability. We have that ability now, and seem unwilling to use it, hardly an encouraging precedent.

My point is that, yes, there are costs and risks associated with preemption, but that those costs and risks are presently at a minimum, compared with what they will be. (Unless preemption means an Iraq-style counterinsurgency, which I would NOT recommend.)


I disagree that they ran a risk. NK holds Seoul hostage. Destruction of that city is a price no one wants to risk.

And Iran also had no risk. They are essentially immune to land invasion. Iraq was easy pickings bbut no rational analyst ever thought we could pull the same feat on Iran, even before we committed to Iraq.


Let's stipulate, for a moment, the security from invasion of NK and Iran. The question that must be asked, then, is "To what purpose will they put their nuclear capability." The answer cannot be "To protect themselves from invasion;" they already have that! I can't say that I know what they will do, but I can say that it will certainly be inimical to U.S. interests.

Further, a land invasion is not what I would recommend, but rather airstrikes against known and suspected nuclear and missile facilities. This limited approach would almost certainly be effective in the case of Iran. Granted, it would not protect Seoul from NK artillery, so this artillery would have to be added to the target list.

But I would dispute the notion that Iran is immune from land invasion. Our military has shown itself to be extrememly capable at projecting force into the most hard-to-reach places against conventional targets. (But we suck at counterinsurgency; see above.)

As for Seoul, we need to quantify our risk analysis. If "no one wants to risk Seoul," does that mean that we should meet ANY NK demand to preserve it? Where do we draw the line? And what happens when not just Seoul, but Tokyo and Honolulu are at risk as well? The psychology of appeasement has no logical end point.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.