When Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said he considered Iran to be a "rational actor" in congressional testimony in February, he soon came under attack from hawks in the United States.
A string of Republican politicians, from Newt Gingrich to Lindsey Graham, soon lined up to attack General Dempsey's judgment. His point, that Iran is playing the geopolitical game with an eye to advancing its own interests and security, was soon lost in a feedback of insisting that the country doesn't reason at all. And that's a frightening thought, since the implication of that claim is they can't be cajoled, threatened, or coerced by any means at all beyond force.
Today, MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough took it a step further, suggesting Dempsey's comments show he's unfit for command. On his morning program, Mr. Scarborough said. "Why did the chairman of the joint chiefs say that about the country that has been the epicenter of world terrorism since 1979? And if he truly believes that, why is he chairman of the joint chiefs?"
Scarborough called Iran the "epicenter of world terrorism" at least three times in his brief remarks, notwithstanding that more terrorist attacks that have damaged US interests have been carried out by the Sunni Al Qaeda, not by Iran. And that rather misses the point. Terrorism may be illegal, it may be morally reprehensible and ruthless, but it can have strategic and, yes, rational uses.
But the host was having none of it.
"To say, though, we can't be drawn into yet another war is one thing that a lot of people in the Pentagon believe. To call Iran a rational actor, I would say, is almost disqualifying of a chairman of the joint chiefs, especially because as you said before, the most disturbing part is it seems like this is calculated. How can this guy run our armed forces, if he believes the epicenter of international terrorism since 1979 -- and I can say that as a guy who wants our troops home, I can say that as a guy who doesn't want to be drawn into another war, but Iran is not a rational actor, they've been the epicenter of international terrorism since 1979 and we've got the guy that's running our armed forces saying they're rational," Scarborough said.
His comment "it seems like this was calculated" was in reference to guest Richard Haass, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Haass had said it was his "hunch" that many at the Pentagon are eager to avoid another war at a time of budget cuts, with the Iraq war just ended, and with the Afghan war lurching towards its conclusion. "They don't want another crisis," said Haass. The strong implication of Scarborough being "disturbed" by this is that he thinks in seeking to deflect a war, Gen. Dempsey is failing in his duty. Scarborough's "Morning Joe" is the second-ranked cable morning news show, with about 350,000 viewers.
So who should you trust, Dempsey or Scarborough?
Dempsey is a 1974 graduate of West Point. He commanded troops during the first Gulf War, and led the 1st Armored Division for a little over a year during the occupation of Iraq before taking over command of the training of Iraqi security forces from 2005-2007. He has Masters degrees in English, Military Arts, and National Security Studies. His Masters thesis from the US Army Command and General Staff College in 1988 is titled "Duty: Understanding the Most Sublime Military Value."
Mr. Scarborough was a Republican congressman from Florida from 1995-2001, and earned a law degree at the University of Florida in 1990. He has mostly been an MSNBC talk show host since leaving Congress.
Dempsey responded to some push-back from Congressman Tom Price (R) of Georgia last week. Rep. Price said that Dempsey's comment that Iran is a "rational actor ... stunned me and many of my constituents.... Do you stand by that statement?"
Dempsey (who sounds just like the former Marine and fellow New Yorker Harvey Keitel): "Yes, I stand by it because the alternative is almost unimaginable. The alternative is that we attribute to them that their actions are so irrational that they have no basis of planning. You know, not to sound too academic about it but Thucydides in the 5th century BC said that all strategy is some combination of reaction to fear, honor, and interests. And I think all nations act in response to one of those three things, even Iran. The key is to understand how they act and not trivialize their actions by attributing to them some irrationality. I think that’s a very dangerous thing for us to do. It doesn’t mean I agree with what they decide, by the way, but they have some thought process they follow."
Price continues: "Maybe you can help me to understand then what you believe to be the rationality of an assassination attempt on the Saudi Ambassador in our territory."
Dempsey: "I'm not here to justify Iran's actions.... I don't understand their rationality, but I'm not them." Price: "But you've described them as a rational actor. Dempsey: "What I'm suggesting... [is] that they are, they are calculating. What I'm suggesting is we need to be equally and maybe even more calculating."
Me? I'm with Dempsey, as the Lord Palmerston quote I selected for Backchannels indicates: "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests." Nations may be wrong, they may be thuggish, the may do horrible things, but it's interests that drive them.