With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Is Bush Trying Out the Madman Theory?

Responding to questions about United States policy toward Iran’s nuclear program, President Bush bluntly said in Brussels, Belgium, on Tuesday, February 22: “This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. And having said that, all options are on the table.” His response reminded Europeans, members of Congress, and many American citizens of statements he and his administration had made during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, as well as of similar statements he had made in January about U.S.-Iran differences: “I hope we can solve it diplomatically, but I will never take any option off the table.” That comment was in part a response to questions raised by Seymour Hersh’s argument in his article, “The Coming Wars,” in the January issue of the New Yorker, that Iran might be the next target in Bush’s “war on terror,” because Bush and the rad-cons in his administration favor military over diplomatic approaches toward Iran.

Amid growing concerns in Europe and elsewhere about the apparent contradiction between Bush’s belligerent words and his conciliatory remarks about wanting to cooperate with European diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program, Bush said on Wednesday, February 23: “You know, yesterday I was asked about a U.S. decision, and I said all options are on the table. That’s part of our position. But I also reminded people that diplomacy is just beginning.” Later that day, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition described this comment as Bush’s attempt to “clarify” the “mixed signal” he had given on Tuesday.

For the most part, the press has avoided serious attempts to explain the causes of Bush’s repeated “mixed signals”—his repetitive or persistent ambiguity. The world is left wondering whether such ambiguity is the result of the president’s legendary inarticulateness, his admitted tendency to voice his deepest emotions, or his reputed ignorance of global—and especially Middle East—realities. Hersh’s explanation is that an ideologically rigid Bush administration is serious about using military force against Iran while the president and his spokespersons blunt criticism and placate allies with conciliatory rhetoric.

Considering the administration’s 2002-2003 march toward war in Iraq, Hersh’s claim about Bush’s intentions regarding Iran seems plausible. Seventy percent of Germans at least, according to a recent poll, believe it is plausible. Many diplomatic and military experts and wonks disagree, because a strategy of making war against Iran for the purposes of regime change and nuclear containment is not credible against the backdrop of the colossal problems the United States now faces and would face after an attack on Iran: an already overstretched U.S. Army; the opposition of allies and probably the majority of Americans; soaring U.S. budget and trade deficits; a two-front war, one in Iraq and another in Iran; the inherent military and political difficulties of subduing a country almost four times the size of Iraq with a population about three times that of Iraq’s; an increase in hostility toward the U.S. in the Muslim world; and so on. Even the prospect of a “limited” attack against Iran—strikes against its nuclear facilities—is not credible: these are widely dispersed, and experts maintain that they could be quickly rebuilt.

On the other hand, if Bush and the rad-cons are truly madmen, perhaps Hersh’s prediction is not only plausible but credible. Despite everything, I do not yet accept this assumption. There are militaristic radicals in the White House, yes, but they are not truly irrational, mad, or crazy. Perhaps I am naïve. Perhaps I want to believe this. In any case, I suggest a third and more likely reason for Bush’s ambiguity: he is and has been embarked on a deliberate course of projecting his putative irrationality through threats or hints of using military force in order to instill uncertainty and fear among his adversaries. It is, in other words, a coercive strategy directed against Iran and other states, such as North Korea, but also Syria, and perhaps, indirectly, China. Other small states are, of course, also supposed to be intimidated.

Historians and political scientists—the reasoning intellectuals that we are—usually dismiss such explanations. To my knowledge political science even lacks a theory of “irrational compellence.” Nonetheless, this strategy has a long recorded history, dating at least as far back as the Hittites—and we should not forget Attila, the Mongols, and countless other wielders of power in the past who threatened opponents with excessive force in order to coerce them into yielding. In American history, over three thousand years after the Hittites, the principle of excessive force became an essential component of strategic bombing, “atomic diplomacy,” and nuclear deterrence. The administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower openly practiced “brinkmanship,” and President Richard Nixon and his aide Henry A. Kissinger secretly implemented Nixon’s self-styled “madman theory.”

Policymaking strategists and decision-makers continued to incorporate the madman theory, or the appearance of violent irrationality, in their concepts of nuclear deterrence and coercion in the decades after Nixon. A declassified 1995 study commissioned by the U.S. Strategic Command, for example, observed: "The very framework of a concept that depends on instilling fear and uncertainty in the minds of opponents was never, nor can it be, strictly rational. Nor has it ever strictly required rational adversaries in order to function" (“Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence,” [ca. April 1995]).

In 2002 the George W. Bush administration openly touted the uncertainty principle in its strategy of nuclear ambiguity and preemption as spelled out in public statements, public documents, and leaked documents; namely, the Nuclear Posture Review, a classified version of which was leaked in January 2002; the administration's "National Security Strategy," a version of which was issued in September 2002; Bush's "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction," released in December 2002 (it was a companion to the National Security Strategy); a classified version of the latter, the National Security Presidential Directive 17 (NSPD 17), which was signed by Bush in December 2002, portions of which were leaked in December 2002; and several statements by Bush and officials in his administration.

Together, these documents and statements assert that nuclear weapons "provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD and large-scale conventional military force." Nuclear weapons are seen as useful to "hold at risk a wide range of target types. . . . Nuclear attack options that vary in scale, scope, and purpose will complement other military capabilities" (NPR).

In addition, there are hints in these documents and statements that the Bush administration includes the first-use of nuclear weapons in its preemptive, or first-strike, doctrine. Commenting on these papers and statements, some journalists and others argued that the main significance of the new Bush administration policy was that it broke tradition with the policy of ambiguity that had suffused the nuclear strategic doctrines of previous administrations and that the Bush administration had also altered previous policies in aiming their threats at non-nuclear states. But these commentators, I think, missed the point on the first issue and were in error on the second. Regarding ambiguity, the administration, through its public statements and leaks, had been attempting to bolster the credibility of its doctrinal threats through what could be called "enhanced ambiguity"; that is, by dropping more robust hints of the possibility of nuclear use, while at the same time refraining from formal or direct statements on nuclear use. On the second point, we must remember that previous administrations had either issued nuclear threats against non-nuclear states or had considered the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. The Bush administration was, in effect, simply ramping up both longstanding doctrines.

In so doing, the administration was pursuing a course that was scarcely more credible than in the past. Yet, it was a more dangerous course, inasmuch as its threats were likely to encourage real or potential adversaries—such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea—to respond by stepping up their military and nuclear programs. Or their statements and actions might lead to an unstoppable momentum toward threat escalation and nuclear use.

The strategy of ambiguity or irrationality is not, however, defined solely by nuclear threats. It can also apply to apparently irrational threats of conventional force—which today is highly destructive—against smaller states. “Conventional” aerial terror doctrine has been followed to the present, for example, now in the form of "shock and awe." As its author, Harlan Ullman, writes: "Intimidation and compliance are the outputs we seek to obtain. The intent here is to impose a regime of shock and awe through delivery of instant and nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large. Through very selective, utterly brutal, ruthless, and rapid application of force to intimidate, the aim is to affect the will, perception, and understanding of the adversary. . . . The adversary becomes impotent and entirely vulnerable."

I believe this is the kind of threat that Bush is now directing toward Iran. Ironically, Hersh’s marvelous investigative reporting, which has uncovered the rad-cons' self-proclaimed proclivity toward military measures, serves Bush’s purpose of lending apparent credibility to his apparently ambiguous threats—his mixed signals.

Related Links

  • Jeffrey Kimball & William Burr: New Evidence on the Secret Nuclear Alert of October 1969