“Deterrence,” as Dr. Strangelove explains it, “is the art of creating in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack.” Dr. Strangelove’s real life avatar, Henry Kissinger, would agree, as would Kissinger’s hero Nicollo Machiavelli, who said that sometimes it is “a very wise thing to simulate madness.” However you frame it, and I choose to utilize Richard Nixon’s name for it, “the Madman Theory,” it is a dangerous political strategy. The theory goes that a leader cultivates a reputation so extreme and so unpredictable and so paranoid that other major world powers are afraid to anger him. It’s dangerous because a powder keg world is never safe for long, and sooner or later some other power may make a fatal mistake from nothing more than jittery nerves. So don’t try this at home.
In the final analysis it may or may not have worked for Richard Nixon. Certainly Ho Chi Minh didn’t think enough of it to end the Vietnam war between Nixon taking office in January, 1969, and Ho’s death eight months later. Nor is it clear what effect it had on the next crop of Vietcong or Leonid Brezhnev or Mao Zedong. But for those of us who were alive at the time, the Cold War had its scariest beginnings in the Nixon years, and I don’t recall deriving any comfort from the knowledge that Nixon was a known paranoid.
It is against the backdrop of the angst created by America’s greatest madman, the Trump-thing, that Iran accidentally shot down a jet departing Teheran’s Ayatollah Khomeini International airport. What was almost certainly a mistake triggered by jittery nerves and incompetence led to the grave tragedy. Demonstrators in Iran have risen up and demanded the resignation of senior leaders. The regime in Tehran is walking a very careful line between its own unpopularity, its need for face-saving martial language about the death of Qasem Soleimani and its fear of what the madman Trump-thing will do next.
Some hapless minor officer in the IRGC (or whoever it may have been who accidentally shot the plane down) and the crew and passengers of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 are the current casualties of the madness of the Trump-thing. A terrible price so far, but similar prices have been paid at other times and will be paid again. Say what you will about the Madman Theory, expect much to be lost and little or nothing to be gained when a monster like the Trump-thing is allowed to remain in charge.