One gets a certain amount of respect on the international stage if one goes kooky. Look at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, look at Moammar Qaddafi, look at Kim Jong-Il, look at George W. Bush. Don't get me wrong. Respect and admiration aren't the same thing. But if you act in such a way that the rest of the world thinks you're irrational and dangerous (and maybe you just are), then the rest of the world pays you lots of attention. The Cold War - at least the cold war over nukes - was fought as a hyper-rational war game. I think it's a mistake to think of it as having been irrational. The rationality of the game was bred by nuclear warhead technology less than any particularly rational leader. What caused alarm were odd things like Kruschev banging his shoe on a desk, Reagan saying that the bombing would start in five minutes. They were odd because they betrayed the hyper-rationality and showed that just maybe the guy with the finger on the button was insane and wouldn't play the war game properly.
As I've said elsewhere, there's a strong case for viewing Ahmadinejad's handling of Iran's nuclear development and US war-grumblings as quite rational, even if he nurtures an international image of the nutcase by making absurd comments about the Holocaust or writing schoolchild letters about religion. (And we know that typical Bush policy - both internationally and domestically - is to demonize its supposed enemies first of all). In fact, the latter may help preserve concerns that Ahmadinejad is dangerously unstable and capable of who knows what. This has a certain rationality to it. Ahmadinejad recognizes that anything other than a very limited attack on Iran by the US would be a disaster for the US. Iran might well be able to withstand various increasing degrees of attack well up the scale of proliferation. But the extent to which those attacks would rise in degree of intensity is the extent to which US foreign policy would itself be increasingly suicidal.
A full-stop war with Iran is nuts. Ahmadinejad knows this, and also sees that the Bush administration has placed the US in a very precarious position, economically and politically. There's some talk of Iran moving equipment and soldiers on the ground to make it appear that they're hiding their nuclear activity. They might be betting that by seeming to confirm the Bush administration's publicly stated concerns about Iran, there's a fair amount of international capital to be earned. That is, in one scenario the Bush administration goes out on a limb by making the case that Iran is a nuclear state and then doesn't act ( a case which is heavily disputed, as we know). What would this say for the truth of the Bush story about Iran, the capabilities of the US, and US political clout? Pretty damaging. On the other hand, if the US/Israel attacked Natanz in a limited strike, say, there could be serious international and domestic political fallout. Any escalation beyond the limited attack and the limited stated objective of halting Iran's nuclear program would be politically suicidal for the US (and potentially suicidal for American troops in Iraq). Talk about "nuking Iran" is insanely stupid. But even an attack on Natanz could have serious repercussions, especially now that nobody trusts the Bush administration's intentions. All Ahmadinejad would have to do is not respond (by bombing Israel, etc.) - which would be irrational after all because it would provoke a much more damaging attack - take it, and let international opinion wreak havoc on the US. Remember, Persians and Arabs are apparently much better political strategists than the Bush administration.
Yet, despite all the concerns and the idiocy of the prospect, this is precisely where the Bush administration appears to be going: war with Iran. So, here's a hypothesis: Bush is now playing the kook. Hear me out. I know that Bush policy, the Iraq War, torture, domestic spying, his general stupidity as a human being, are all very serious cause for concern. I actually think, and readers know this is true, that this administration has been so damaging for the US that it will take decades to recover. The American place in the world is changed perhaps forever, and almost exclusively negatively. After a while, the world stops viewing the Bush administration has simply incompetent and starts viewing them as dangerously irrational (or perhaps rational, but directed at goals of economic and political domination and even oppression) as well as vile.
But what if, in a stroke of genius of which we've previously had no intimation of its presence, the Bush administration is going Mr. Furious on the world? What if Ahmadinejad and others around the world, believing they can no longer count on the American administration to behave rationally, are genuinely worried about being "nuked"? That would be a coup for the Bush administration in that it would finally find its international leverage, and this would be borrowed from the precedent set by Qaddafi, Khomeini, Kim, et al. The leverage would be that nobody knows what Bush will do next - it could be highly irrational and thus unpredictable, it could be criminal, it could be anything. Granted, we have to be a long way down the road towards having a foreign policy in tatters before the kook card would actually work. But isn't there a case to be made that we're at that point?
Now, let's turn back the other way. Let's say that there's some truth to the kook approach to international affairs - it's a sophisticated one, no doubt, what with Condi Rice's elegant outfits and all. Now, isn't it interesting that the US fits into the same group as those international pariahs it supposedly seeks to uproot?
I keep finding that, in whatever actual or hypothetical sphere we play out the logic, the Bush administration turns out looking tyrannical.