May 23, 2006
Why Mahmoud may be madder than MaoBy James Lewis
It is very scary to think about the unthinkable. Liberals are therefore all over the media trying to rationalize the nuclear threat coming from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his merry Mullahs. Paul Starobin just had such an article in the National Journal called "Experts Consider Ability to Deter Iran."
According to Starobin, Iranian nukes are much ado about nothing. He begins:
So we were scared about good old Uncle Mao in 1963. And we were wrong! (Phew!!) No Yellow Peril, no Armageddon.
Starobin's whole point is that it is irrational to be worried about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the little fanatic who runs the Tehran regime. But historical parallels can be selected for the opposited conclusion, too.
Japan in World War II was run by a nationalistic suicide cult of militarists grounded in Bushido. Dying for the Emperor was celebrated and honorable. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, in a gesture that Admiral Yamamoto, a man who had attended Harvard and knew America, considered futile in the long run. He was overruled by the fanatics. At the war's close, fanatic militarists contemplated resistance to the last man, woman, and child, and forced this approach on many unwilling Okinawans forced into suicide rather than the dishonor ofsurrender.
Hitler in his bunker would surely have used nukes to destroy Stalin and Churchill, and with better rockets, he would eventually to threaten the United States.
And nobody wants to think about another Jim Jones or Aum Shinri Kyo with nukes.
Reality is a stern master. It doesn't allow us to pick feel—good scenarios.
The fact is that "the experts" don't know what to predict about Ahmadinejad and the Khomeinist regime. Starobin quotes Bernard Lewis, about as expert as anybody:
So much for the experts telling us not to worry.
But contrary to the appeasement crowd, Mahmoud isn't Mao. Here are some important differences.
1. Mao didn't belong to a suicide cult, but Ahmadinejad says it over and over again
2. Mao didn't look forward to Armageddon — he was an atheist. Mahmoud believes in the return of the Twelfth Imam, to bring about the conversion of the heathen amidst flame and fire.
3. Mao was personally corrupt to the eyeballs, but Mahmoud's been put into power by Counsel of Guardians, in part because he is personally ascetic, "the street sweeper of the people." As the UK Guardian quaintly puts it, he is "A devout working—class hero." Mao liked an endless series of underage girls. Mahmoud may get off on self—flagellation.
4. Mahmoud came of age as an Islamic Revolutionary Guard during the Iran—Iraq war, when he would send men and boys (and possibly himself) to kill Iraqis behind enemy lines. According to some sources, boys with plastic "keys" to martyrdom would be sent into minefields to blow themselves up, and clear the way for assault troops. Iranians recruited the devout followers of Khomeini to assault Iraqi artillery until the trenches piled high with the dead.
Experiences like that mark any human being, traumatize them, and in the context of a suicide cult, can make it easier to start another war. Hitler was a poison—gas survivor in World War I, but it didn't stop him from starting World War II — just the opposite. For Hitler, World War II was revenge for the "stab in the back" that made Germany lose World War I.
Mahmoud's personality therefore may be frozen in his past. He may think of himself as a miraculous survivor, and may harbor deep guilt feelings toward his dead comrades. That kind of guilt about holy martyrs is a powerful theme in the Persian Shiite tradition, updated by Khomeini circa 1979.
5. There is reason to think that Mahmoud believes himself to be appointed by Allah. That kind of grandiosity is consistent with a nuclear suicide—homicider.
All that doesn't mean Ahmadinejad will push the button as soon as he gets one. The fact that he's a scary guy is one reason why the Mullahs put him into place. They know all about psychological warfare. (They always accuse the United States of using it.) Mahmoud acts as a scary guy because that's the message they want to send. But he may not be acting.
So Tehran has set up a confrontation that is entirely unpredictable.
To understand the limits of our knowledge is the beginning of wisdom.
Political game theorists figured out how Mutually Assured Destruction should lead to deterrence between two rational actors, each of whom can destroy the other. When the Soviets became convinced about that, the Cold War stabilized. We learned to relax with ICBMs pointed at each other.
The Mullahs are now (at least) using psychological warfare to persuade the world that the Cold War logic of deterrence no longer holds.
But what happens if a nuclear opponent is really unpredictable?
1. Defense is always the best option. So Iran's neighbors and Israel are building up anti—missile defenses. Even the Europeans are dropping their hysterically irrational opposition to anti—missile defenses.
2. There are no foolproof defenses, although they are getting better.
3. Mutual deterrence therefore continues to be important. The urgent question is whether we should follow the Bush doctrine: Not just deterrence, but preemption.
4. In a world where an enemy is pointing a gun at you, preemption makes a lot of sense. That's like shooting the gunslinger before he can get his gun pointed at your heart. It follows that Israel, which is directly threatened, has a rational case for preemption.
5. The Europeans have long felt they were not directly threatened, and therefore "allowed" Uncle Sam to defend them for the last half century. This time they will be within range years before we are. But they don't know what to do, because they are not used to protecting themselves. It will take a long time to figure it out, and chances are good that they will try to buy protection from Tehran.
Once Europe is successfully blackmailed, all the other mad actors in the world will follow, of course. Kim Jong—il will soon have an ICBM within range of Paris.
6. The United States is therefore in a difficult position. In the next few years our survival will not be directly threatened. But the world oil supply will be, and as much as Europe claims to be above "blood for oil," the fact is that it will follow whoever controls the oil supply. The same applies to the Sunni nations of the Middle East. If Mahmoud gets de facto control over the oil from the Gulf, the entire international system will be turned upside down under the new Persian Caliphate.
Israel's determination to survive may drive US policy. If Israel's government becomes convinced that Tehran is about to go nuclear, it may decide to destroy critical facilities in Isfahan and Natanz. With 200 nuclear weapons, Israel is a formidable power. But at the same time, Israel is a democratic country, in which every adult male has his life on the line. Israel is therefore extremely reluctant to engage Iran, to put it very mildly. Apart from the first assault, nobody wants to deal with all the consequences down the line.
Recent leaked estimates from Israel talk about a six month point of no return. That may be off by a year or two, but it doesn't change the fundamentals.
Denial is not an adult response to danger.
James Lewis is a frequent contributor.