On February 28th, Obama issued one of his usual empty threats towards Russia saying “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine”…the next day, Russia annexed Crimea. (x) Everything the West does in an attempt to contain Russia is met with Putin laughing in the faces of NATO leaders and doing the opposite. Arms buildups. Weapons Transfers. You name it.
To be honest, I was really dreading a whole big fight over this thing. When you first condemned the seizure of Crimea as patently illegal and in breach of the Ukrainian constitution—which it absolutely was, by the way—I feared for the worst. But then everybody stopped short of doing anything to actually prevent what was essentially a state-sponsored landgrab, and I just thought, “Wow, these guys are a pretty laid-back and easygoing bunch!” It really was a huge load off when you let everything slide like that.
But all kidding aside, it’s clear that if Russia really is the enemy and needs to be stopped, empty threats from Obama and NATO leaders or faux pivot attempts with no tangible backing are not the way to deter further aggression. A new strategy is needed.
A strategy seemingly lost in the annals of the Cold War, so called “Madman Theory”, might be just what the West needs.
Dating back to around 1517 in Niccolò Machiavelli‘s Discourses on Livy when he said “[i]t is advantageous…to play the fool” (x), “Madman Theory” is the idea that if the leader of a great power acts erratic or unstable – in other words, insane – other great powers will back off.
The logic, or illogic, behind it in the nuclear age is rather simple. You see, leaders currently operate under a realist framework and the unspoken recognition that if a leader is rational, the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) will prevent any one state from instigating a nuclear conflict. Under MAD, states recognize that any nuclear strike they instigate would be met with “massive retaliation” from the other side and thus, as the WOPR in the 1983 film WarGames concluded, “[t]the only winning move is not to play” (x).
It is for this reason that some scholars conclude that
[t]he iron logic of deterrence and mutually assured destruction is so compelling, it’s led to what’s known as the nuclear peace: the virtually unprecedented stretch since the end of World War II in which all the world’s major powers have avoided coming to blows (x).
But as is the case with all claims made about the anarchic landscape of international relations, a fundamental assumption is relied upon…that leaders are rational. You see, rational leaders tend not to do things that get them killed. Irrational leaders on the other hand are, by definition, unpredictable and if a leader is irrational (or at least seems irrational), then the logic of MAD would not apply for they don’t care about self preservation, they only care about their power at one specific point in time and thus cannot be deterred.
Imagine the following scenario. There are two men, one with a pistol (person A) and one suicide bomber with a pistol and who’s explosives are triggered by a “dead man’s switch” (person B). If person B shoots person A, they become the sole hegemon. But if person A shoots person B, the dead man’s switch is triggered and they both explode. Now suppose person B says “give me $500 or I will shoot myself”. Person A, realizing that person B has no fear of death due to the C4 strapped to his chest, has no choice but to comply or else he dies (not complying is not a rational move). Now extend the scenario to two nuclear powers and you get the barebones of “Madman theory”. If an insane person has a stockpile of nuclear weapons, it’s best not to upset the insane person.
In October, 1969, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were done with the Vietnam war but did not want to accept defeat and so they planed. Their planning ended with the somewhat homoerotically named “Operation Giant Lance” which was a plan designed to make Nixon look like he was insane and to scare the Soviets into encouraging Hanoi to surrender (it failed, but I will explain why).
The operation consisted of, among other things, flying 18 thermonuclear weapon equipped B-52 bombers right around Soviet airspace for three straight days and slipping the Soviets the word that “Nixon [was] obsessed about communism”, couldn’t be restrained when annoyed, and had “his hand on the nuclear button”. This attempt to simulate madness was supposed to scare the Soviets into not funding North Vietnam and get Ho Chi Minh himself to surrender for fears of a nuclear attack.
Ultimately, the plan failed because Nixon wasn’t public enough about his “insanity” for fear of domestic backlash and thus the Soviets didn’t know what the hell was going on, much less the defense condition of the United States (x) and so the war ended on less favorable terms. (I imagine this was the face Nixon made)
But it is where Nixon failed, that Obama can succeed. Nixon was too afraid of public outrage (rather ironic considering “Watergate”) but Obama doesn’t shy away from controversy. From Benghazi to the IRS scandal to the NSA spying, Obama is no stranger to hatred and thus is the perfect president to feign insanity. Putin has shown that he doesn’t care how people view him as long as he has power and so he has been able to act with impunity. Obama needs to match that.
Step up troop patrols in Poland and Romania. Sit down at a conference with Putin and NATO leaders and get pissed off and leave. “Accidentally” fly a drone into Russian airspace. Re-base nuclear weapons. Attempt to unilaterally take control of NATO. Reposition troops in Turkey and around Eurasia. Indiscriminately drone strike some more weddings (this one is a joke, please cut that out). Hell, even prank call Putin on the “red telephone”. And the more the GOP and Democrats freak out, the better – it proves insanity. But do anything to one-up Putin.
Putin is a rational leader and even he, despite swimming in frigid lakes, wouldn’t bite off more than he can chew. Just like the average leader (Hollande) wouldn’t punch a bear, Putin wouldn’t mess with a United States that is out of control (look to Russia’s lack of action during Iraq and Afghanistan). Obama’s previous actions have failed to deter Russian aggression and thus there’s nothing else left to lose.
I say, out crazy the crazies – bring back the “Madman”. Obama only has 969 days left, make them count!
1: I’m not convinced that this is true…but let’s assume it is for the sake of argument.