Monday, September 21, 2015

Get Tough: The Fear-Based Politics of the Dirty Harry Fantasy

Last week's Republican candidate reality TV show put on display one of the most pervasive and persistent myths in American political culture. I call it the Dirty Harry doctrine, although someone else can undoubtedly come up with a better movie reference.

The Dirty Harry doctrine goes something like this: the US is the most powerful country in the world. But unless we demonstrate that power by "standing up to" various bad actors, our enemies tend to forget how powerful we are and will do bad things. But if we are tough, our enemies will back down and do what we want. If we don't "act tough", others will walk all over us.

This doctrine spreads itself to a general belief in the efficacy of implicit threats. Thus, Congressional Republicans talk about how they need to "stand up to" President Obama about this or that issue (health care, Planned Parenthood - pick one). Political candidates use the word "leadership" to mean "issuing nonspecific threats to cow others into submission", and their tribal fans eat it up. Even many pro-gun arguments are built on this same premise, that the threat of force solves all problems:

As I've pointed out before, these are emotional arguments. They feel good, which explains why they are so prevalent. Unfortunately, they have little bearing on reality.

Threats and intimidation - what people in my business call Deterrence and Compellance - only work under certain circumstances. They are not universally effective, and sometimes they make things worse. Anyone who walks around with only this one tool in their toolkit is pretty much guaranteed to fail much of the time, no matter what they're trying to do.

Take the assertion that a show of force in international affairs will change an enemy's behavior and get them to back down. There have been plenty of folks (mostly but not exclusively on the Republican side) arguing that the agreement with Iran is a bad idea, and that what is really needed to get Iran to stop developing nuclear weapons is a "get tough" approach, possibly including inflicting some actual damage to show them that we're serious.

What determines whether such a policy would work? Like all bargaining interactions, it's a function of actual power, perceived power, and perceived credibility. It's also a function of the motives and interests of both sides.

Japan attempted precisely this tactic in 1941. Its near-simultaneous attacks on US forces in the Philippines and at Pearl Harbor were designed not to defeat the United States outright but to convince the US to stay out of a war it wasn't yet involved in. The Japanese High Command believed that, if it could take away much of the US Navy's power in the Pacific, America would realize that it was dealing with a powerful and committed foe and we would back away from the fight, leaving Asia to the Japanese. Japan never wanted to invade the United States, and didn't much care about what we did within our own country - they just wanted us to stay out of their "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere".

This calculation, of course, was a spectacular failure for two reasons. First, the Japanese underestimated the real nature of power: industrial productive capacity, which America had in far greater quantity than Japan (or, indeed, than all of the Axis powers put together). Second and more important, Japan misjudged American resolve. The attacks caused a counter-reaction which drove the US from being somewhat concerned about Japan's behavior to being bent on its total and complete defeat.

How would Iran likely react to a "get tough" policy from the US? Iran clearly has the capacity to develop a nuclear weapons program even in the face of American sanctions. If Iran becomes convinced that the US is bent on the overthrow of its government, it has more motive to acquire nukes, as fast as possible. The Iranian people are likely to rally around their government, as nearly all people will do when presented with an outside threat. They may or may not like the Ayatollahs, but nobody reacts well to foreigners telling them what to do.

What about direct military action? The US' only practical option is to launch airstrikes on some specific targets. This might have the effect of slowing Iran's progress towards deployable nukes, but they would also seriously increase the motive for doing so. Airstrikes alone cannot stop Iran's nuclear program, and there are no other alternatives. Invade the country? Not a chance. Strike at Iranian sites with our own nuclear weapons? I can't imagine a faster way to get the US ostracized from the international community. Europe would abandon us in a heartbeat, and our economy would suffer far worse than in the recent collapse.

The point is, Iranian leaders know all of this. They have thought through all of these scenarios, just as American officials have. The reason we arrived at a negotiated solution is that leadership in Iran, the US, European countries, and Russia all came to the same conclusion: this is not only the best option, it's the only option.

And yet politicians want to sell us the "if only we had 'gotten tough' with them Iranians/Russians/what have you, things would be better" line. Their motives for doing so are clear: they traffic in the politics of fear. When people feel afraid, then emotional fantasies about how we're going to "get tough" on their watch make people feel better and therefore more likely to vote for them. It's shameless and ridiculous on all sides.

But as much as this is bad politics, it's worse for our soul. Fear clouds judgment, inflames our worst passions, and suppresses our best instincts. It makes us into worse people than we could be. It drives away, to borrow Lincoln's phrase, the better angels of our nature. Indulged in over time, it makes us far less than we are capable of.

At this moment in history, fear is the last thing most American should be feeling. In terms of traditional power, the United States is so far ahead of the rest of the world that the increment is hardly measurable. There are no serious threats to Americans' lives, jobs, communities, or culture. Iran is a regional power with regional ambitions at best, Russia is a shadow of its former self, and the Islamic State is just another minor insurgency with a savvy marketing campaign.

While we face serious challenges at home, things are far from dire. Our economy has a significant inequality problem, but it remains the richest and most productive in the world. The vast majority of American communities are safe, comfortable, nice places to live. Net migration of illegal Mexicans is actually flowing out of the country, not in - no "crisis" there. Violent crime is down in most places. Americans remain, on the whole, decent people who pull together when times are really difficult. There are problems that need to be addressed, and when we are in danger it is generally from ourselves. But a "dying civilization" or a "crumbling society" we are not.

Most of this, of course, doesn't have much to do with who occupies the White House. The government can nudge things in various directions, but the President does not determine outcomes. Blaming Obama for non-existent problems is wrong on two fronts: the problems aren't real, and even if they were the President didn't cause them. Especially not by simply "not being tough enough".

As Joseph de Maistre wrote in the 19th century, every country gets the government it deserves. If we allow ourselves to be governed by fear, if we continue to drink the spiked punch our "leaders" so desperately want to serve us, we will get exactly what we deserve. Moreover, fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we indulge in its pleasures, the more we see things to be afraid of everywhere.

So in our politics at all levels and in our daily lives, let's drop this "get tough" dogma. The Dirty Harry fantasy is the cry of the insecure bully ruled by fear. If you want to see different politics, or if you simply want to contribute to a better community, stop listening to the fear. If you attend to the better angels of your nature, you may be surprised at what takes its place.


  1. Another terrific post that deserves a much broader audience (not that Tenacious Muse doesn't have millions of regulars).

  2. Steve - Unfortunately, "millions" is a little out of reach. On a good post I'll get over 100. I'm in no danger of winning any awards :)

  3. Another article I find myself in total agreement with. Sharing for sure.

  4. Yes, our greatest challenge is fear-mongers who are trying to divert us from the real issues we face. This is a breath of fresh air and I hope more people read this!

  5. *looks (down the barrel of my gun)