Well Do You, Punk?

by Belle Waring on February 3, 2006

One Lee Harris, quoted by Glenn Reynolds, on Iran and its nuclear capability:

There is an important law about power that is too often overlooked by rational and peace-loving people. Any form of power, from the most primitive to the most mind-boggling, is always amplified enormously when it falls into the hands of those whose behavior is wild, erratic, and unpredictable. A gun being waved back and forth by a maniac is far more disturbing to us than the gun in the holster of the policeman, though both weapons are equally capable of shooting us dead. And what is true of guns is far more true in the case of nukes.

Reynolds: “A corollary is that the United States probably needs to be scarier and less predictable itself.”

Umm, not to dispute the basic point, which is sound enough in its way, but how much scarier and less predictable is the U.S supposed to get?



ben alpers 02.03.06 at 10:53 am

If we told you how much scarier and unpredictable the US could get, it wouldn’t be unpredictable, would it?

Seriously, though, this represents a particularly impressive (if not entirely novel) fall-back position for the Bush administration’s defenders: sure the policies make no sense whatsoever…but that’s the point!


Commenterlein 02.03.06 at 10:56 am

The point Reynolds seems to be missing (surprise!) is that then gun-wielding maniac usually ends up dead. Scare people too much and they might just decide that it’s not worthwhile having you around.


Belle Waring 02.03.06 at 11:19 am

the thing is, it’s true that the “I’m crazy as fuck” strategy can be an effective one in certain circumstances. it’s just that I thought we had already turned that up to 11.


Tim 02.03.06 at 11:24 am

I started off saying that we do our crazy thing within certain limits and those limits are widely known (if not entirely certain)–we won’t use nukes, for example. But I searched my head for examples and found — “preemptive war,” which is our new doctrine, and the desire for bunker-busting nukes, that might actually, god forbid, be used.

Excuse me while I go drown myself in the bathtub.


nick s 02.03.06 at 11:38 am

Reynolds: “A corollary is that the United States probably needs to be scarier and less predictable itself.”

Project much, un-scary white guy?

(I do think that Prof. Eugene T. Bass may well have suicide-by-cop fantasies.)


perianwyr 02.03.06 at 11:44 am

I dislike the American habit of calling all of our enemies insane.

It’s the old Klingon problem- Klingons may be outwardly rowdy and dangerous, but SOMEONE had to do the fucking mathematics and metallurgy to get them into space.


Donald Johnson 02.03.06 at 11:45 am

Reynolds is simply channeling Tom Friedman, who already gave a stirring defense a few years ago of why it’s a good thing Rumsfeld is such an unpredictable lunatic, but I don’t have the link for it.


Matt 02.03.06 at 11:46 am

Wasn’t this Nixon’s strategy in the 60’s and 70’s, for dealing w/ Vietnam and the Soviet Union? The “Mad Man” strategy? It doesn’t seemed to have been a wonderful success, even though he apparently was actually mad (or at least hopped up on booze and pills) a fair amount of the time.


freddie 02.03.06 at 11:49 am

The comment from Glenn is amusing in that he is a law professor.


M. Gordon 02.03.06 at 11:58 am

The only economics I ever took was Econ 101, so I always feel a bit stupid posting anything about economics on CT, but this particular bit of hackery reminds me of something I realized when i was taking Econ 101 way back in the day, which was the idea that, to first order, monetary policy is only effective if nobody is expecting it. So, the optimal monetary policy is to have the Crazy-as-Fuck Fed Chariman who is totally unpredictable. Sure, it won’t get you anywhere. But at least it’s effective.


Brendan 02.03.06 at 12:15 pm

How the hell would Reynolds (or Harris, whoever he is) know what rational and peace loving people think? It’s not as if he is one himself, or knows any, or reads any such people (well he does, but he seems to spend a lot of his time persuading himself that people who are apparently rational and peace loving are in fact irrational, warmongering stooges of ‘the other side’).

In any case, do these people actually realise how absurd and stupid they are (or, to be charitable, sound)? I mean really? Just to take an example: ‘a corollary of the corollary is that (of course) Iran should also behave more scarily and unpredictable, in order to frighten off the scariness and unpredictability-ness of the US’. (And I suppose everyone else should as well). Can you fault my logic?

Reynolds, let’s not forget, has gone on record as saying that the main problem with the US is that it is not aggressive and violent enough in foreign affairs (don’t have the link but let’s face it, it’s in character).

I suppose in the interests of the ‘diversity’ that Reynolds and his bug eyed, drooling, loonbat friends keeps on championing, we should have mad people as well as sane people teaching in our Universities. So by that logic, I guess his job is safe, in a sorta ‘loonbat affirmative action’ typa way.


Daniel 02.03.06 at 12:16 pm

Hmmm, I am lucky enough to have taken Economics 102 or whatever it is, at the place where they teach you why the world works as it does rather than as elementary game theory models say it might (never was there a field in which “a little learning is a dangerous thing” was so apt). A few supplementary questions.

1. Realistically, how crazy and unpredictable can America credibly threaten to act?

2. How crazy and unpredictable are some of the people out there who Iran could quite easily slip a bit of uranium to?

3. Who’s going to win this impromptu craziness contest?

The big strategic issue with respect to Iran is that we can’t account for every single bit of uranium they’ve got or enriched. So the option is always open to them at any stage to go hands up, say “ok fair cop” and we only find out what the secret plan is when it goes boom in the middle of somewhere I’m likely to be.


Steve 02.03.06 at 12:22 pm

“the thing is, it’s true that the “I’m crazy as fuck” strategy can be an effective one in certain circumstances. it’s just that I thought we had already turned that up to 11.”

You’re obviously not an historian.



abb1 02.03.06 at 12:25 pm

It’s called the ‘madman theory‘:

The Madman theory was the defining characteristic of the foreign policy conducted by Richard Nixon’s presidential administration.

The administration attempted to make the leaders of other countries think Richard Nixon was mad, and that his behavior was irrational and volatile. Fearing an unpredictable American response, leaders of hostile Communist Bloc nations would avoid provoking the United States.

“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” H. R. Haldeman, The Ends of Power

The administration employed this strategy to force the North Vietnamese government to negotiate a peace to end the Vietnam War. Along the same lines, American diplomats (Henry Kissinger in particular) portrayed 1970 incursion into Cambodia as a symptom of Nixon’s supposed instability.

Didn’t quite work for Messrs. Nixon and Kissinger, or for Mr. Hitler for that matter.


Brendan 02.03.06 at 12:25 pm

Incidentally guys, you really owe it to yourselves to read


which Reynolds also recommends.

The tone of it is interesting. Cultural theorists may well correct me, but I seem to recall that Walter Benjamin wrote about a certain strand of ‘right wing’ prose that he called (I think) a ‘blague’ wherein you write ‘outrageous’ statements which you then justify by saying ‘Well it was so outrageous, you don’t actually think I meant it do you? What’s wrong? Don’t you have a sense of humour?’

Again, from memory the example he chose was various right wing writers in the ’30s writing in an ‘ironic’ style that ‘if things get any worse we are going to have to kill all the Jews’, which was of course, justified as a ‘joke’ at the time. After the war, of course, we all found out the punchline.


abb1 02.03.06 at 12:51 pm

Link to the abovementioned Friedman’s piece: CRAZIER THAN THOU.


paul 02.03.06 at 12:56 pm

I guess J P Barlow’s “Sympathy for the Devil” piece might be relevant here.

Veteran Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory accompanied me on one of my futile visits to his office, where she spent better than an hour listening to us argue about `circular errors probable’ and `MIRV decoys’ and the other niceties of nuclear nightmare. When we were leaving, she, who had seen a lot of politicians in her long day, turned to me and said, `I think your guy Cheney is the most dangerous person I’ve ever seen up here.’ At that point, I agreed with her.

What I was not thinking about, however, was the technique I once used to avoid being run off the road by Mexican bus drivers, back when their roads were narrower and their bus drivers even more macho.

Whenever I saw a bus barrelling down the centerline at me, I would start driving unpredictably, weaving from shoulder to shoulder as though muy borracho. As soon as I started to radiate dangerously low regard for my own preservation, the bus would slow down and move over.

As it turned out, this is more or less what Cheney and his phalanx of Big Stategic Thinkers were doing, if one imagined the Soviet Union as a speeding Mexican bus. They were determined to project such a vision of implacable, irrational, lethality that the Soviet leaders would decide to capitulate rather than risk universal annihilation.


Kenneth Rufo 02.03.06 at 12:56 pm

Just so I get it: a wielded gun is more dangerous than a holstered gun? What the fuck does the maniac have to do with it? It’s the placement of the gun that matters, yes. Good analogy, oh yes.


Steve LaBonne 02.03.06 at 1:06 pm

The Nixon references are right on the mark. Just look at the actual Nixon retreads in this administration, as well as the Nixonian attitudes, policies, and ethics, and you may start to suspect (as I do) that what we’re actually living through is the Nixon Restoration.


Doctor Slack 02.03.06 at 1:12 pm

Harris writes: A gun being waved back and forth by a maniac is far more disturbing to us than the gun in the holster of the policeman

Reynolds’ “corollary” apparently being that all the policemen should promptly start behaving like maniacs… because that would really improve things for everyone. Like freddie says, that’s some funny stuff coming from a supposed law professor.


Brendan 02.03.06 at 1:15 pm

‘that’s some funny stuff coming from a supposed law professor.’

Well of course Reynolds already does behave like a bug eyed loonbat, and no one messes with HIM. You can’t say he doesn’t walk it like he talks it.


kharris 02.03.06 at 1:22 pm

What do we do with gun-waiving lunatics? Get on our knees and say “please don’t hurt me”? Only if no other choice presents itself. We leave the area, regroup, find a SWAT team and have the guy killed.

Do we need allies? That was a question Bush II answered in a way that admirers of crazy gunman foreign policy might like, but it has not paid great dividends. Bush I answered differently, and got the results he wanted. You might disagree his result, but they were the results he was seeking. Bush II, so far, cannot credibly make that claim.

Do we want to maintain (or recover) diplomatic soft power? Hard to do if you undertake crazy gunman foreign policy.

Crazy gunman has the appeal of being simple, dramatic and easy to explain. It has the drawback of being shallow, ill-considered and unsupported by the facts under Nixon or Bush II. Where did Glenn Reynolds stand on Bush’s attempt to gut Social Security because Treasury debt is a “worthless IOU”? That, too, was simple, dramatic, and wrong.


Tim 02.03.06 at 1:31 pm

A policeman waving a gun babbling lunatically wouldn’t be mor effective; he’d be scarier.

The real question is to what extent fear is an effective motivator on a given scale.

Nuke the Moon was frickin hilarious, but a lot of things are hilarious until they’re real.


MQ 02.03.06 at 1:39 pm

The U.S. is already scarier and less predictable than Iran. Iran has not started a war in the entire 20th century. Compare the U.S. record.


Hogan 02.03.06 at 1:57 pm

That’s it, Waring. You’re on the list.


Jacob T. Levy 02.03.06 at 2:33 pm


WTFF huh?

Basic concept from game theory: the game of chicken. Yes, a player who appears suicidal has an advantage of a sort, but that kind of crazy isn’t the same as “wild and erratic.” The dominant strategy is to rip out your steering wheel.

Deterring the Soviets in Europe during the Cold War, China in the Taiwan Straits now, North Korean reinvasion of South Korea for decades, and Saddam Hussein from using chemical weapons during the first Gulf War were all triumphs of being extremely predictable– the more the U.S. was able to successfully create the impression of “tripwires,” of mechanical thresholds and responses, the more effective its deterrence has been.


luci 02.03.06 at 2:43 pm

It’s a man thing. Ya’ll just don’t understand.


Dan Nexon 02.03.06 at 2:46 pm

Schelling discusses the advantages of appearing irrational in, IIRC, both Arms and Influence and The Strategy of Conflict. There are times that it makes ‘rational’ sense to be unpredictable, but most of the time it is a bad strategy of trying to compel or deter adversaries and would-be adversaries.

If Reynold’s hadn’t already convinced everyone with an ounce of sanity that his views are worthless, that post should do the trick.


Steve LaBonne 02.03.06 at 2:47 pm

Note the irony that wingnuts like Reynolds foam at the mouth whenever people in other countries- doing, one would have thought from his desire for the US to be “scarier and less predictable”, precisely what he should want them to do!- cite the US as the biggest danger to world peace.


J Thomas 02.03.06 at 3:09 pm

Jacob Levy, if we were playing a game where there was one best strategy that always worked, then we’d be stupid not to use it.

One trouble with being completely predictable with tripwires etc is that we then sometimes run into other players who game our responses.

When they see an advantage in provoking us — say, for domestic political gain or whatever — then they trip our first warning tripwire and get the response they intend, and then back off. And then they trip it again and get their predictable response, and do that however they think they’ll get the best benefit. And how far they go depends on where they think their advantage lies.

A second trouble is, when you rip off your steering wheel so the bus will get out of your way, you need to be sure the bus doesn’t have its steering wheel ripped off too…. There’s only room for one out-of-control vehicle on the road, and then only if it’s a straight road.

On the other hand, if you’re playing a game of chicken and you try to persuade the other guy you’re crazy, you’ll win way more than half the time. But you’re also way more likely to get in a head-on collision. It’s pretty good if you’re the only one who plays that strategy.

When I was in high school and people played chicken with me, my response was to stay in my lane and slow down. The slower I go the less the impact, and if my brakes are on they’ll take more of the change in speed. They can call me a coward but I can call them idiots. And if they get out of the car to remonstrate with me, then I can play chicken with them while they’re on foot, to get my chance to drive off….

Anyway, it works exceptionally well to make careful measured precise threats with clear triplines to persuade our enemies not to do things they didn’t want to do in the first place. Works almost every time.


Grand Moff Texan 02.03.06 at 4:12 pm

the hands of those whose behavior is wild, erratic, and unpredictable

Uh, is he talking about that guy in Iran who doesn’t control Iran’s armed forces?

‘Cause that bullshit is getting old.


Backword Dave 02.03.06 at 4:54 pm

9 and 20 have sort of beaten me to the punch, but whatever.

If there’s any “right” way here as it “righteous” or “being the good guys” — both of which I want us to be, and am not satisfied that we actually are, it’s in sticking to the rule of law. Justice and fairness matter a lot here. And if we stick to the law (and I believe that most US and International law is available online) then how we behave is predictable.

I think the corollary is that we can’t be unpredictable and good.


abb1 02.03.06 at 5:09 pm

And here’s Michael Kinsley (Game Theory, Economics, And War):

So you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, chained by the ankle to someone else. You’ll be released, and one of you will get a large prize, as soon as the other gives in. How do you persuade the other guy to give in, when the only method at your disposal—threatening to push him off the cliff—would doom you both? . . . Answer: You start dancing, closer and closer to the edge. That way, you don’t have to convince him that you would do something totally irrational: plunge him and yourself off the cliff. You just have to convince him that you are prepared to take a higher risk than he is of accidentally falling off the cliff. If you can do that, you win. You have done it by using probability to divide a seemingly indivisible threat. And a smaller threat can be more effective than a bigger one. A threat to drag both of you off the cliff is not credible. A threat to take a 60 percent chance of that same thing might be credible. . . . Madness can be wickedly rational. If one of those two folks on the cliff can convince the other that he is just a bit nuts, that makes his threat to drag them both off the cliff much more plausible. Some defenders of Richard Nixon used to claim that the evidence of insanity that bothered a few Americans was actually a purposeful strategy to enhance the deterrent power of our nuclear arsenal.


spacemonkey 02.03.06 at 5:33 pm

It’s the old Klingon problem- Klingons may be outwardly rowdy and dangerous, but SOMEONE had to do the fucking mathematics and metallurgy to get them into space.

Klingons aren’t real. As nonexistant things they’ll not be doing any math or metallurgy and will not be going into space.

Just an FYI


dr ngo 02.04.06 at 2:49 am

From 14, above: The [Nixon] administration employed this strategy to force the North Vietnamese government to negotiate a peace to end the Vietnam War.

Actually, no. They claimed to use this strategy, but there’s no real evidence they ever succeeded in “forcing” the DRV to negotiate anything they didn’t want to. The chief audience for the “Christmas bombing” of 1972 – arguably Nixon’s “maddest” military moment – was not the DRV, who signed in January 1973 essentially the same terms they’d been willing to sign back in October 1972. It was RVN president Nguyen Van Thieu, who blocked the treaty in 1972 but went along with it in 1973, presumably because he was now convinced that Nixon would do whatever it took to pull RVN’s chestnuts out of the fire.

OK, I suppose convincing your allies you’re nuts can also be seen as an effective use of this strategy …


Ted 02.04.06 at 3:21 am

#14 & #35

uh … the tactic of madness – pretend or for real – did NOT work in the case of Vietnam.

History books across the political spectrum all conclude that the US LOST the Vietnam war.

Perhaps something to do with helicopters being pushed into the sea because there was no more room on the carriers.

Or maybe it was something to do with the masses of North Vietnamese armour streaming into Saigon – Ho Chi Minh city.

But RWR’s comment about “… the bombing starts in 5 minutes” scared the crap out of the Soviets, didn’t it? And don’t tell me any of you buy that “story” about how an extremely experienced radio announcer/actor didn’t realize the mike was “live”.


Oskar Shapley 02.04.06 at 6:55 am

Actually, one could argue that this rationally explains Grenada: the use of disproportionate force to eliminate the small-scale cooperation with the Soviets that they had. To show that the US will counter any threat, you have to start with the small ones.


Jedmunds 02.04.06 at 1:15 pm

This post is un-american.


Stuart 02.04.06 at 10:17 pm

Oh, please.


Matt 02.04.06 at 10:22 pm

Ted and Dr. Ngo,
I’m pretty sure abb1 was being ironic about Nixon’s strategy working. (I know I was when I mentioned it.)


SusanC 02.05.06 at 7:13 am

I think there may be something in this line of argument, althougn at the moment I can’t see how to do the game theory.

My initial thought: If you have two populations of game-players (rather than two people playing a game once), then one population can prove to the other that most of its members are prepared to carry out threats.

It works something like this: the terrorist organization selects a dozen or so of its members at random (ideally, you need to do it in a way that can be proven random to the other side). All the selected members blow themselves up in a suicide bombing with conventional explosives. Then the nuclear weapon is given to one of the remainder.


J Thomas 02.05.06 at 9:31 am

Susanc, look at the question what the terrorist organisation is trying to accomplish.

There are terrorists trying to do national liberation, who’re so weak they can’t go after military targets but go after civilians. Like the IRA hitting civilians in england. (They may have made a real difference when they almost killed high government officials.) The point is to show the enemy that it isn’t just their soldiers against occupied civilians, everybody’s at risk.

There are terrorists who go after tourists, figuring that the tourist trade brings money to the enemy and they can try to shut that off. When it’s reducing tourists in the occupying nation (like palestinians trying to reduce tourists to israel) then it makes sense. When it’s reducing tourism in their own country, making their own supporters poorer as well as the government, then it’s a sign that they’re very very weak and probably don’t have much support.

There are terrorists who support some grand philosophy or religion. They might feel their ideals are worth killing millions of people for. But usually they have some intention of winning something, it isn’t enogh to kill millions of people and then get stamped out.

And there are terrorists who have no hope for the future, but want revenge for losses in the past.

And there are terrorists so very weak that any hope they can do something that people will notice is more hope than they can reasonably expect.

It’s only the last three that have reason to use nukes. If you’re trying to throw an enemy army out of your country, and you nuke the enemy country, what’s the chance the army will leave? Pretty slim. They can’t very well nuke your country while they occupy it, they can’t hold a whole cityful of your people responsible for what you did. But there’s no way they’re going to leave and let *you* run the place. They’re going to do everything they possibly can to find you. And your people will tend to understand them, and sympathise some, or at least be very, very afraid.

Unless you can nuke them decisively, so they lose their military threat, it’s a stupid thing to do. On the other hand, if you nuke some of their military forces in your own country, that’s a different story….

Persuading the public of some other country that their military actions might reflect back on them, that it’s personal and not just something their government is doing that has nothing to do with them — that can be a viable approach. Hurting the enemy public real bad is not. You want to get their attention, get them to notice that it matters, that they have a stake in it. You don’t want to make them insanely angry.

It makes far more sense for israel to nuke an american city and say the arabs did it, than for any arab or muslim group to do it — if it’s arabs who want us to leave them alone.

So it’s only those last three groups who might be willing to do it. The third group I discount. If they’re so weak they’ll do anything to get noticed, then they can’t get a nuke.

Mostly people who want their ideals to prevail aren’t going to do terrorist nukes; possibly some would. They can’t expect to do game theory. If they say “We have nukes and we might use them”, they don’t get negotiated with. They just get put first on the list to be tracked down and killed. You can’t negotiate on that basis any more than you can negotiate with the Danish.

They can’t expect to set off a nuke and then brag about it. “See what we did, give in or we’ll do worse.” The world will tend to cooperate with the attacked nation to track them down and kill them.

If they want us to do something, nuking us just isn’t the way to get what they want.

The one terrorist version that makes sense is the one where they’re in such despair at what they’ve already lost that they want to hurt us no matter how much worse it gets. I don’t know of anybody who’s approaching that except palestinians and chechnyans. I’ve read the claim that chechnyans have lost more than 10% of their population. That’s cause for a lot of grief but they still have 90% left with lots of babies, and they have that to lose. Palestinians have lost less so far, but the israelis have been pretty sophisticated at trying to make them give up all hope. There might be groups in either place that would use nukes if they could get them, intending that they’ll at least hit back before they go extinct. I don’t see anybody else.


Brendan 02.05.06 at 9:59 am

Yet more inspired prose recommended by Renolds.

‘Look, I just don’t get this stuff. I don’t want Iran to have nukes. I don’t think that’s a good thing for the world. I certainly didn’t want Pakistan or India to have nukes. But is a nuclear Iran really a threat to us? Certainly an Iran-with-nukes could blow the hell out of a city or two, but an Iran that did such a thing would pretty much cease to exist. It isn’t mutually assured destruction, it’s you fuck with us a little bit and YOU NO LONGER LIVE BITCHES!’




Brendan 02.05.06 at 10:04 am

Incidentally, I should quote the whole passage as quoted from Reynolds to make it clearer:


Certainly an Iran-with-nukes could blow the hell out of a city or two, but an Iran that did such a thing would pretty much cease to exist. It isn’t mutually assured destruction, it’s you fuck with us a little bit and YOU NO LONGER LIVE BITCHES!

Perhaps we could put this in a demarche?’

Definition of Demarche: ‘an action or gesture by a diplomat, esp. a formal appeal, protest, or the like.’


ponte 02.05.06 at 12:12 pm

Glenn Reynolds could learn something from Jacob Robida.


ajay 02.06.06 at 11:20 am

1. Realistically, how crazy and unpredictable can America credibly threaten to act?

Well, logically it can’t threaten to be unpredictable. If you threaten something, then it’s not really unpredictable. You can threaten to be aggressive, or passive, or even irrational, but not unpredictable.

Well, you could, but it would sound a bit weak. “I will do such things – what they are yet I know not, but they will be the terrors of the earth.”

Or you could announce the use of a dice-based foreign policy.

“I have this to say to President Ahmedinejad. The people of the United States have no desire for war with Iran. But unless Iran agrees to admit inspectors as a sign of its commitment to peace and non-proliferation, I will order the Joint Chiefs of Staff to roll 2d6 and consult the following table:

2d6 Foreign Policy Initiative

2: Dispatch Jimmy Carter to Teheran
3: Dispatch a special envoy (player’s choice)
4: Condemn Iran at NATO summit
5: Appeal to the UN Security Council
6: Enforce sanctions on Iranian assets
7: Blockade
8: Expel Iranian diplomats
9: Airstrikes
10: Sink Iranian tankers
11: Invade Iran
12: WILD CARD! Invade another random state!


bp32 02.06.06 at 12:52 pm

My thoughts here. While there is some validity to the “rationality of irrationality” notion I think it would fail to confer an advantage to either Iran or the US.


james 02.06.06 at 5:30 pm

Is it reading comprehension or a divergent set of presuppositions? Reynolds is not suggesting the US institute “wild and crazy” as a foreign policy. He is suggesting that a nuclear Iran is terrifying because they are “wild and crazy”.


Simstim 02.06.06 at 8:09 pm

Back as a teenager, I used to play regular games of Risk with the same bunch of friends. I developed this strategy of threatening other players with an ultimatum: do what I want or I will attack and destroy you, even if that means that I will lose the game. Sure, the first couple of times I lost the game as a result, but the player who dismissed my ultimatum also lost the game. Eventually the other players started taking my threats seriously, and I ended up winning a large number of games. So, in a sense, it works, but unfortunately in the real world you only get one shot at playing the game.


bp32 02.06.06 at 9:33 pm


Quote Glenn Reynolds: “A corollary is that the United States probably needs to be scarier and less predictable itself”

Pretty much sounds like he is suggesting we need to adopt aspects of unpredictability as well.


Alan K. Henderson 02.07.06 at 1:11 am

Vietnam failed because the US didn’t seek to conquer North Vietnam. At the start we played defense, waiting for the NVA to come to us. We did some random patrols, and in Nixon’s time threw punches at their invasion routes. All instead of seizing the source of the NVA.


J Thomas 02.07.06 at 11:21 am


If we’d tried to conquer north vietnam at least we would have had a lot of vietnamese speakers for translators.


d c walker 02.07.06 at 10:42 pm

This debate about the danger presented by Iran is starting to become surreal. The US is already seen as a rogue cop by many. If the media and the documents coming out of the US are correct, then we are already walking the time honoured path of escalation against Iran.

For those suggesting the continued use of the ‘crazy president’ school of diplomacy, I would argue that you take a look at Iran’s reaction to Western threats so far. Far from deterring them, it gives them something to bounce off. Standing up to the US makes these guys look strong, domestically and internationally. If you want to counter Iran, don’t look to Nixon and Kissinger, take a cue from Bush Snr. and try a little coalition building. Use international pressure, it may take longer but it does work – did I hear someone mention South Africa? – and if you are going to go to war, make sure you know how to end it. As for charging through Tehran with a couple of armoured corps, ‘just like we did with Saddam’ counting as a serious solution, consider how well that has gone so far. Just remember, Iran has a population of sixty nine million people, most whom have been taught from the cradle that the US is the ‘Great Satan’ who will one day come for them.

What is really surprising is the straight faced discussion of Nixon’s foreign policy re Vietnam as a possible diplomatic method. Anyone who has read Anthony Summers’ book ‘The Arrogance of Power’ would realise that if Nixon was not mad he was, at the very least, crippled by paranoia exacerbated by massive abuse of drugs and alcohol. If the stratigies of a ruthless political operator, notorious for his unsound and unsavoury methods, are seen as a viable option, then I think we are all in need of an asprin, a cup of tea and a good lie down.

As for #51, is there is still a serious belief that the US could have won the Vietnam War by invading the North? You really need to brush up on your history. Here’s a recap – the US got itself involved in a civil war on the side of an inefficient, corrupt and illegal regime which was deeply unpopular with the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese had been fighting foreigners for a thousand years, hoping to establish and then defend their own nation. If you think by simply taking the North, the US and its allies would have caused the Vietnamese to lay down thier arms and cheerfully start working for the man, you are sorely mistaken. They would have kicked us out, even if it had taken another twenty years. Communist or not, and many were not, they were fighting for their homes. Does this scenario have a familiar and slightly contemporary ring to it? Military conquest does not kill the tiger, it merely changes your grip on its tail.


impor 02.08.06 at 1:14 pm

#51 Guys like you are why we’ll be losing soldiers and killing Iraqis for the next 20 years. ‘Conquering’ North Vietnam would have been just the beginning of our problem…kinda like Iraq, huh? Please come back to planet earth, if not for your sake for ours. The days of Hernan Cortez and Juan Pizarro are over. We can’t scare the natives with horses and gunpowder anymore! Oh and check out what’s happening in Venezuela and Bolivia, they’re even starting to to reject shiny bits of glass and colorful cloth as exchange for their natural resources! We’re in big trouble…. Oh, but wait, W says gasoline from coal and corn will save us! Barring that we can all move to his new colonies on Mars! We could have won in Vietnam if we had sent Sgt. Rock and Captain America though…..


Alan K. Henderson 02.09.06 at 3:18 am

I stated that the only way to win the war was to conquer North Vietnam. That is true; North Vietnam was fanatically determined to conquer the South, and would (and did) resume operations with us gone. The geography doesnn’t allow for a tidy DMZ – one would have to encompass the Viet-Laotian border. And we aren’t gone from Korea. Only one thing would stop the Communist government – its destruction.

The effectiveness of a nation-building exercise over there is another matter. LBJ and Nixon didn’t think about the necessary step of eradicating the NV commie government, so they certainly weren’t thinking about a) reconstructing a NV government, or b) negotiating the creation of a post-commie unified Vietnam.

I wrote about how to end the war. I didn’t speculate on the long-term success of various reconstruction plans.

Amusing that anyone would be idiotic enough to entertain an analogy to Imperial Spain – as if there were a parallel between reckless American do-goodery and Spain’s jackbooted looting of South and Central America. Spain did fight an evil empire – the human-sacrifice-happy Aztecs, who deserved to be thrown into the dustbin of history – but the similarities don’t go much further.

Maybe it’s that word “conquest” throwing you off. Many associate it with the bad guys. Conquest is what happens in both just and unjust wars. The Arabs conquered the Levant. The US conquered Germany and Japan. Germany and Russia conquered parts of each other on various occasions.

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