The Madman Strategy

Israeli officials explain to Noah Shachtman that their recent policies haven’t been erratic and irrational, they’ve been calculated to appear erratic and irrational:

Israeli leaders believe they’ve accomplished that task. “The Arab view is now that Israel is a crazed animal, locked in a cage, fuming to get out all the time,” a senior Foreign Ministry official tells Danger Room, approvingly. “Now, it’s the responsibility of the Arab leadership to keep the animal in the cage, by not provoking it.”

Despite my Forbes-based reputation for empiricism, in philosophical terms I’ve always put my allegiance with the pragmatists. In other words, I believe that a strategy that’s indistinguishable from an erratic and irrational one is an erratic and irrational strategy. Robert Farley observes:

The danger, of course, is that while erratic behavior might seem a plus in relations with the Arab world (not really, but stay with it), such a reputation most definitely isn’t a positive with the rest of the world. Some Israelis may sincere believe that they don’t need anyone; I suspect that this is the greatest strategic error of all.

To take an example, as Jon Chait points out Israel has traditionally counted on the United States declining to take an even-handed approach to Israel’s conflicts with the Arab world. That’s been accomplished in part by the use of institutions like The New Republic as ideological enforcers, but as Ezra Klein says the clout of such enforcers is often overstated. The larger factor has been a genuine lack of even-handed sentiment. But behaving in a “crazed” and brutal manner is not a good way to build social capital. When you ask, “why should Israel be, by far, the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid money?” The response, “well, Israel is like a crazed animal, locked in a cage, fuming to get out all the time” isn’t a persuasive reply.


It’s also worth repeating Rob’s parenthetic. People sometimes think that a reputation for erratic behavior is an asset in international relations, but they’re wrong. This is related to what I was saying yesterday about democracies and cooperation. You want the kind of reputation that makes your commitments credible to potential partners and potential adversaries.