First, as should be obvious, I'm the new poster hilzoy mentioned. I'm a Major in the United States Army Reserve. I served ten years on active duty before moving to the reserves, and I've been on active duty since January 2003. I've been blogging since October 2001 over at andrewolmsted.com, and it's an honor to have been asked to contribute over here at Obsidian Wings, one of my favorite blogs. In fact, in a recent interview I listed Obsidian Wings as one of five blogs I'd recommend. I'll do my best to maintain the high standards of Obsidian Wings.
And given the interest in North Korea in hilzoy's open thread, that seems an excellent place to start. I'm not a subscriber to The New Republic, so I can't read the details of John Judis' piece that inspired Matt Yglesias to wonder if anyone really subscribes to the 'madman theory' of international politics. Matt's synopsis:
This is, roughly speaking, the idea that the United States is beset by a number of leaders who are "crazy" and might just attack the country for what amounts to no reason at all. If you believe the world is like this, there's a whole new approach to national security policy that suddenly makes sense. Judis writes that "the Bush administration, backed by Democrats as well as Republicans, has conducted foreign policy in this bizarre manner--and the results have been predictably disastrous."
While I can't argue with Judis' description of the results, I think that the madman theory cannot be ruled out as one input to our foreign policy. Not because I think we are beset by madmen, but because perfectly sane people frequently do things that appear mad to others. I particularly enjoyed Diane's comment regarding the sanity of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the open thread, and that seems like a good place to illustrate the point. I'll certainly agree that OIF was a mistake (full disclosure: I didn't think so at the time), but it doesn't seem like an insane mistake to me, likely because I was for it before I was against it and therefore understand some of the logic that could have gone into that decision. I think we should have stayed out of Iraq, but I don't think that advocating the invasion per se makes one insane. It just suggests that the people making the decision failed to properly anticipate the consequences of their decision. If that makes you insane, then I suspect the vast majority of us have been crazy at one point or another.
But if people can think that President Bush is crazy for that decision, how much more crazy might foreign leaders appear to us? Again, I'm not saying that they are crazy, only that they may well do things that appear crazy from our perspective. What does Kim Jong-Il really want, for example? I assume that is primary goal is to keep himself in power, but if that were all he wants he could do it easily enough by keeping his mouth shut and not making himself appear such a threatening figure. Maybe he has other goals, like simply getting the world to pay attention to him so he can think he's a world figure. Maybe he really believes that the United States is working to remove him from power by any means necessary (a not-unreasonable thesis after Iraq), and his actions are akin to an animal's threat display when it feels threatened, trying to make himself appear too difficult target to make his removal worthwhile. Or maybe he really is completely insane, in which case we've got a real problem.
Therein lies the challenge to conducting our foreign policy. Even assuming he's a rational actor, we can't assume he'll react the same way we would in his shoes, because his perceptions and perspectives are vastly different from our own. What seems wholly illogical to us may seem the only reasonable response to the other guy. Saddam Hussein provides another excellent object lesson. Here in the United States, it was pretty obvious we were going to war and we were going to remove him from power by late 2002. Yet it's clear now that Hussein honestly believed that the United States was not going actually evict him from office, in part because he knew that he had no more WMDs and he assumed that we knew that as well. I suspect most of us assumed that Hussein still had WMDs because he acted like he did, and I know I believed that Hussein would show us he was in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 687 if he was, in fact, in compliance. We now know that Hussein assumed that we had much better intelligence than we did, and that he could use the uncertainty provided by not formally complying with the resolution to create doubt in the minds of the Iranian government. Viewed in that light, Hussein's actions appear reasonable. Looking at what was happening at the time, it seemed like he was quite crazy. With the greater challenge of knowing what is happening inside North Korea, interpreting Kim Jong-Il's actions to determine if they're rational or irrational is not possible with any degree of certainty.
That does not excuse a foreign policy that acts on the madman theory without a great deal more intelligence than our agencies have proved capable of providing. While I cannot be certain of the sanity of any world leader, the process of becoming leader of an entire nation requires a certain degree of reason. A leader wholly detached from reality would be relatively easy to remove from power, since he might well not even notice the preparations (or even the fact he had been removed from power, for that matter). To stay on top of a military dictatorship requires a certain degree of understanding of human nature and a great deal of sensitivity to events occurring in one's immediate vicinity. It seems logical, then, to assume that a world leader is rational in the absence of significant evidence to the contrary. Which means that when someone like Kim does something we see as irrational, our first impulse ought to be to ask ourselves what we don't know about his situation that makes such an action appear logical, rather than assuming that he's nuts and we can either ignore him or should take preemptive action to remove him. Even with a leader like Kim Jong-Il, in possession of nuclear weapons and on the way to owning intercontinental ballistic missiles, leaders should maintain a conservative (in the basic sense of the word, not relating to a particular ideology) foreign policy that attempts to understand other nations so we can deal with them effectively via diplomacy rather than force of arms.