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Iran and the crazy factor

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A question relating to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program: Is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad crazy like Adolf Hitler, or is he crazy like, of all people, Richard Nixon?

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Nixon had a term for his own sort of craziness: "I call it the Madman Theory, Bob," he said to his aide H.R. "Bob" Haldeman during the 1968 presidential campaign. Nixon was talking about how he would deal with the Vietnam War. "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.' " The strategy, while cunning, didn't work on the North Vietnamese. Maybe they were crazier than Nixon.

Ahmadinejad is some version of crazy, too. His denial of the Holocaust is either proof of a drooling sort of insanity or a kind of Nixonian craziness designed to keep enemies and adversaries off balance: What will this guy do next?

In tandem with his Holocaust denial, Ahmadinejad has repeatedly urged the destruction of Israel. While some experts differ on the precise translations of his words, his general goal is clear. What's not clear, though, is whether he is expressing a wish or making a vow: "The Zionist regime will be wiped out." "The Zionist regime is on its way out." "This regime's days are numbered." "Thanks to God, your wish will soon be realized, and this germ of corruption will be wiped off the face of the world." I could go on and on as, in fact, Ahmadinejad has.

On the face of it, these statements could be nothing more than the ranting of a demagogue intent on appeasing the mob. After all, Ahmadinejad has to know that any attempt to convert his rhetoric into action would be met by force. Israel is a nuclear power, and it will not go down without a fight. The Iranians cannot be that crazy. They are, in a Nixonian way, merely trying to impress. Maybe.

But the belief that the world operates rationally is itself irrational. The example of Hitler both instructs and warns. The Nazi leader was not just an anti-Semite who actually believed his insane theories; he also made decisions that were in themselves crazy. For example, why did he declare war on the United States after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor? Why did he invade the Soviet Union before he had defeated Britain? In both cases, he had his reasons. And in both cases, his reasons were crazy.

Israel, of all countries, has little faith in the rationality of mankind. It simply knows better. So the question of whether Ahmadinejad is playing the madman or really is a madman is not an academic exercise. It has a real and frightening immediacy that too often, in too many precincts, gets belittled as a form of paranoia. For instance, when Israeli leaders warn that they might take preemptive action against Iran -- say, an attempt to bomb its nuclear facilities as they did in Iraq in 1981 -- it is dismissed as irresponsible saber-rattling. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski even suggested that if Israel tried such a thing, the United States might have to back it down with force. The Brzezinski Doctrine is refreshing in its perverse boldness: We shoot our friends to defend our enemies.

An Iranian bomb is not a matter that concerns only Israel. It would upend the balance of power throughout the Middle East and encourage radical/terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas to ratchet up their war against Israel. Other Middle East nations, not content to rely on an American nuclear umbrella, would seek their own bombs. An unstable region would go nuclear. (It speaks volumes about Middle Eastern reality and hypocrisy that Egypt serenely lives with an Israeli bomb but breaks out in diplomatic hives at the prospect of an Iranian one.) Have a good night's sleep.

I have no idea whether Ahmadinejad merely acts crazy or is crazy. I do know, though, that Iran seems intent on getting nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. I also know that nothing the United States and its allies have done has dissuaded Ahmadinejad (or the mullahs or the Revolutionary Guard Corps) from his goal. It may be time for Barack Obama, ever the soul of moderation, to borrow a tactic from Richard Nixon and fight crazy with crazy. The way things are going, it would be crazy not to.

cohenr@washpost.com


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