The Wall Street Journal is troubled that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is not irrational:
In a single sound bite, General Dempsey managed to tell the Iranians they can breathe easier because Israel’s main ally is opposed to an attack on Iran, such attack isn’t likely to work in any case, and the U.S. fears Iran’s retaliation. It’s as if General Dempsey wanted to ratify Iran’s rhetoric that the regime is a fearsome global military threat.
Viewed more soberly, Gen. Dempsey’s statement was an attempt to reduce worsening tensions and to state the merely obvious. A “successful” Israeli strike will delay Iran’s nuclear program by just a few years, and the U.S. has good reason to be concerned about retaliation against our forces in response to an action that would be widely perceived as U.S.-supported and approved, so there is no reason to incur dangerous risks by launching an attack that isn’t going to achieve its objective. Reinforcing the impression that an Israeli attack is inevitable gives Iran the incentive to concede nothing and to assume that the diplomatic track is nothing more than a distraction. If the U.S. were not openly discouraging Israel from attacking, Iranian hard-liners would conclude that nothing can be done to satisfy Israel and the U.S. in any case, so they may as well brace for what is coming.
The WSJ makes the same slippery use of the word rational that I was discussing yesterday:
This would be the same rational Iran that refuses to compromise on its nuclear plans despite increasingly damaging global sanctions, and the same prudent actor that has sent agents around the world to bomb Israeli and Saudi targets, allegedly including in a Washington, D.C. restaurant.
Is it actually irrational for a government that perceives enrichment as a national right to continue to insist on that right despite intense pressure from other governments to give it up? Not really. If the Iranian government perceives the nuclear program as important for Iranian national interests, why is it going to sacrifice those interests to satisfy avowedly hostile states? Let’s understand that Iran is not just being called on to compromise, but to capitulate completely on enrichment. It is possible to be rationally self-interested and nationalistic at the same time. Even rational actors have non-negotiable positions that they are unwilling to abandon.