Rhetoric and Reality

Rarely do I have cause to link approvingly to Matt Yglesias, but he's just written a real corker on the sloppy thinking that defines so much of the current hubbub over Iran. It's hard to pluck out a single choice quote, but for my money this is the point that really deserves emphasis:

. . . the idea that any Iranian leader would commit national suicide in order to harm Israel is ridiculous. Lots of “crazy” leaders -- Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Il -- have had nuclear weapons and they’ve never done anything like that. What’s more, if Iran wanted to start a war with Israel, kill a bunch of Jews, and get wiped out in the process they could do that with conventional weapons. But in more than 20 years in power, the Islamic Republic’s never done any such thing. Indeed, just over the weekend Iran announced it would offer up a paltry $50 million in aid to the new Hamas-ified Palestinian Authority compared with many hundreds of millions in funding the PA lost from Europe and the United States. Just as they taught me in Hebrew school, the Islamic world’s governments like to talk a big game about Israel, but don’t actually give a rat's ass about the issue and never have.

They’ll do anything to help the Palestinian cause unless it involves spending money, risking the stability of their own regimes, or deploying their military assets. Now we’re supposed to believe that, suddenly, the Mullahs are willing to guarantee their own destruction in order to turn the holy city of Jerusalem into a radioactive wasteland.

One of the largest sources of error in reasoning about other people's behaviour is paying more attention to what they say than to what they do. It's the kind of error that causes people to continue to think of Republicans as being the party of small government, or that the unions stick up for "the workers" rather than just the unions, or that Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes actually give a damn about Israel as anything other than a useful political prop. (It's often joked that if Israel didn't exist, they'd have to invent it.)

It's a fallacy on par with the fundamental attribution error, and so ubiquitous as to deserve its own name -- perhaps "the rationalistic fallacy" (better suggestions welcome). As mi amigo Razib likes to repeat often: there is what people say they believe, and there is what they really believe, and there is how they act -- and these things are nowhere near perfectly correlated, to say the least.

(I dissent from Yglesias' final sentence, however: military action should never be taken completely off the table in principle, because the threat of it is often necessary to prevent the necessitation of its use. I don't understand why so many people have trouble with this concept either, but there it is.)

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I've noticed that everyone

I've noticed that everyone has been ignoring some of the most clear evidence of Iran's unwillingness to cause problems for itself: the relative lack of mischief in Iraq. If Iran was as aggressive as people thing they are, we'd have lost Iraq months ago.

Persian predicament Over at

Persian predicament
Over at Catallarchy, Matt McIntosh links to a piece by Matt Yglesias castigating what he sees as sloppy thinking on Iran. Matt Yglesias: They’ll do anything to help the Palestinian cause unless it involves spending money, risking the stability of

there is what people say

there is what people say they believe, and there is what they really believe, and there is how they act – and these things are nowhere near perfectly correlated, to say the least.

Yeah, revealed preference is often a powerful argument against stated preference. Perhaps the "Bark Fallacy". (i.e., their bark is bigger than their bite) Or the "Smack Fallacy" (where smack talk is confused for action).

Iran is full of shit As the

Iran is full of shit
As the saying goes, "Actions speak louder than words." Or how about, "Sticks [Guns] and stones [nukes] may break my bones [country] but words will never hurt me."?

Matt McIntosh over at Catallarchy points out via Matt Yglesias that there's a d...

Yeah, and apparently this

Yeah, and apparently this whole "annihilation" thing was the result of an entirely misleading translation (This is the nice thing about having a few liberal watchdogs at my blog; they always find this stuff so I don't have to put the work in myself :))

While I completely agree --

While I completely agree -- Iran's not going to nuke Tel Aviv, there are a few devil's advocate arguments that popped into my head.

- Couldn't the same argument have been applied to Germany in 1939? Surely they'd never risk the vicious international reprisal that would result from invading Poland! Perhaps the people rattling sabers are not doing so because they like rattling sabers, but because they have to maintain the threat of reprisal in the mind of their potential enemies.

- Because of the obvious fingerprints Iran would leave if a nuke exploded in Israel, we can assume they won't do it. But countries (except for the US in 1944) don't develop nukes in order to actually use them, they develop them so they can threaten to do so and therefore get stuff, be it concessions or security. Even if nuclear conflagrations are off the table, Iran acquiring nukes radically changes the way they can interact with the US, Pakistan, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, as well as the future Iraq. No matter your political leanings, Iran having lots of leverage doesn't seem like a good thing, even if we accept that we can't avoid it.

Couldn’t the same argument

Couldn’t the same argument have been applied to Germany in 1939?

Not really. Hitler became chancellor in 1933 and then fuhrer in 1934. One year later he repudiated Versailles and reintroduced conscription. In 1936, he invaded the Versailles-demilitarised Rhineland. Two years later, he annexed Austria and forced Czechoslovakia to hand over the Sudetenland. Then, finally, in 1939, he invaded Poland.

I don't see anything comparable to Iran. The Islamic Revolution happened 27 years ago. Since then, Iran has invaded exactly zero countries - Iraq started the Iran/Iraq war. Iran has made no moves to annex parts of Iraq containing Shi'a Muslims during the current Iraqi civil war (comparable to Hitler taking the Sudetenland because it was mostly German). Iran did/does support Hizbullah in Lebanon, but plenty of countries picked sides in the Lebanese Civil War, and every side committed atrocities, so that's a case of pot, kettle, black.

If the Ayatollahs are the new Hitler, they're sure taking their sweet time about it.

- Josh

Steve -- Yeah, this is

Steve -- Yeah, this is especially odd coming from the same people who point to Iran's meddling in Iraq as evidence of their perfidy. They have been causing trouble, but it's nothing compared to what they could potentially do.

Jon -- I'm not sure those quite capture the full flavour of this phenomenon. You see this in more than just smack talking; people's articulated positions on issues like abortion often don't match their emotional attitudes toward it either.

Adam -- Yep. The errors are generally multiplied when there are linguistic and cultural barriers that add noise to the communication channel.

Caliban -- Beware of arguments from historical analogy, because it's so easy to cherry-pick to get the results you want. (I'm probably guilty of this sometimes too -- I've been known to run with Tom Barnett's analogy of "Iran as Breznhev-era USSR", even though all such analogies are imperfect.) The Germany analogy fails grossly for several reasons, in addition to the ones that Josh mentions above: 1) Germany's government was highly centralized around Hitler; Iran's government is much more collegial and conservative. 2) The psychological profiles of the leadership just don't match -- Khameni et al just aren't very much like Hitler at all. 3) There was no hegemonic power with the capacity to reduce Germany to a parking lot if they went too far. And so on.

If the tough talk is all just a game of saber-rattling to discourage Iran's government from getting too cocky then so be it. But then the purpose of it is to avoid military confrontation; many pundits are going further than that and treating it as a virtual inevitability. Ed Luttwak is a good example of someone who understands how the game is played -- he gives good reasons to avoid military confrontation, but still leaves plenty of room for credible threats against Iran. Contrast this to know-nothing gasbags like Mark Steyn who are openly cheerleading for a full-bore regime change campaign.

The second objection is perfectly true: this would give them increased leverage. I'm making a calculated decision that this is less bad than the alternatives, and that it's manageable until such a time when the "old guard" gets pushed out and the generation who didn't experience the Iranian revolution takes the governmental reins.

I’m not sure those quite

I’m not sure those quite capture the full flavour of this phenomenon. You see this in more than just smack talking; people’s articulated positions on issues like abortion often don’t match their emotional attitudes toward it either.

Yeah, good point. How about the:

1) "say/do fallacy"

2) "talk/walk" fallacy

Not sure why I'm fixated on the nomenclature involved. :)

Beware of arguments from

Beware of arguments from historical analogy

How else are we supposed to satisfy the terms of Godwin's law?

The proper policy depends on

The proper policy depends on which truth exists. 1.) Truth one: The Iranians feel threatened and just want nuclear weapons so they will not have to fear American or Israeli attack. Thus once they get a stock pile of nuclear weapons they will become a normal country pursuing its national interest as nations typically do. 2.) Truth two: Iranian leaders want to dominate their region and control its natural resources and populations in order to promote their world view. Knowing that their system cannot exist as a moderate and stable form of government, they will lie about their intentions and seek tremendous military and economic power and then spring their trap on the unsuspecting naïve peace loving West. As we have seen in the past from unsustainable Communism and Fascism, this dynamic results in expansive utopianism followed by human tragedy on a massive scale. Place your bets suckers.

Now we’re supposed to

Now we’re supposed to believe that, suddenly, the Mullahs are willing to guarantee their own destruction in order to turn the holy city of Jerusalem into a radioactive wasteland.

What steps would you favor if Iran did nuke Israel?

I think we've already been

I think we've already been over this, John. Standard nuclear policy: first person to make aggressive use of a nuke gets one (or more, if appropriate) fired back at them.

You are assuming they think

You are assuming they think that the destruction of Israel will lead to a nuclear reprisal. They may not think that. In fact they have been voicing the opposite opinion. They have been saying that we need them more than they need us.

I think you are also overestimating their intelligence. There is no rational reason for them to be talking this way in the first place since it only weakens their position. Talking agressive certainly isn't the best way to rally your side. Much better to claim the other side is somehow plotting, scheming, or otherwise sabatoging. This blows the whole "we want nukes for peaceful energy source" talk, not that we ever believed it since energy is the last thing on their scale of needs.

Their training and harboring of terrorists also shows their lack of intelligence. Merely doing that is an agressive move that can get them stuck with a war they do not desire. That in and of itself is sufficient casus-belli for an invasion, though not neccesarily sufficient reason for one in terms of our own self interests. If invading Afghanistan were deemed too costly then we could have just shrugged off 9/11 also and beefed up our civilian aircraft cockpit doors, and profiled Muslims instead of invading. Losing 2000 lives and 40 billion is certainly a lesser option than an addition 3000 and plus the financial costs of the Afghani and Iraqi wars.

So even we don't neccesarily act rationally. Of course, after a while of someone tweaking you over and over you have to get a little irrational on his ass to make him stop it.

Does anyone here really think that Iran is acting rationally in what it is doing. There is no reason why the Mullahs couldn't just stop with the terrorism, and threats, make peace and live happily ever after. Certainly the US and Israel would be no threat in that case. It is their behavior that is causing the problems, not ours.

"You are assuming they think

"You are assuming they think that the destruction of Israel will lead to a nuclear reprisal. They may not think that. In fact they have been voicing the opposite opinion. They have been saying that we need them more than they need us."

Source plz. In any case I'm all in favour of making it quite clear to them that we're serious about this whole nuclear deterrence thing.

The fact that Iran has not been behaving like a bunch of good little boyscouts isn't news. But it's a fraction of what they could be doing if they were serious about it, which leads me to believe they do in fact have a sense of self-preservation in there somewhere. And contra your assertion that it "weakens their position", it doesn't really seem to be hurting them much from what I can tell.

Whatever the merits of this

Whatever the merits of this argument, it should be noted that we've been lucky so far in avoiding nuclear war.

We've also been

We've also been exceptionally "lucky" in avoiding conventional great power war, precisely because of nukes. Raise the cost of any activity high enough and nobody feels like doing it anymore. On net, I think it's safe to say that nukes have been lifesavers.

"Those who use harsh

"Those who use harsh language against Iran need Iran 10 times more than we need them." -Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

I also remember reading a couple years back where some Iranian "clerics" had been talking about how Islam could survive a nuclear war whereas western civilization could not.

I'm disqualifying

I'm disqualifying Ahmadinejad's babblings from relevance. When the reformist Khatami had his job everyone (correctly) talked about how weak and ineffectual the Iranian president was. Now some of those same people have done a 180 and have started acting as if the Iranian president was somehow really important since Ahmadinejad came on the scene. If anything the president's role has been weakened since he won the last election.

The relevant question is whether the people holding the power to make major military decisions in Iran are eager to commit mass suicide, or otherweise believe that they wouldn't be effectively guarenteeing their own deaths by making a nuclear first strike. Nobody has provided compelling evidence for this. Something you remember reading somewhere about a couple of random clerics doesn't answer that challenge.