Richard Haass Pretends Not To Understand What “Rational” Means

March 06, 2012 4:08 pm ET — Walid Zafar

Richard Haass, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, continues to misrepresent the words of General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During a segment on MSNBC's Morning Joe yesterday, Haass, an Iran hawk who has been advocating for regime change, characterized Dempsey's comment that internal Iranian decision-making is rational as not much different than supporting an Iranian weapon. Haass made the same charge a few weeks back in another appearance on the show, where he is a frequent guest. During his most recent exchange, host Joe Scarborough claimed that Dempsey's analysis of Iranian rationality "is almost disqualifying of a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs."

SCARBOROUGH: Explain about what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said a week ago, and how disturbing that was for some people in the foreign policy.

HAASS: Well, General Dempsey, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff talked about Iran being a rational decision maker. Again, in the nuclear world, to call someone a rational decision maker it means it's okay if you have nuclear weapons, you will be a responsible custodian —

SCARBOROUGH: So why did the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs say that about a country that has been the epicenter of world terrorism since 1979? And if he truly believes that, why is he the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs?


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.


Scarborough's incredulity about the suggestion that Iran is rational and his call for General Dempsey to be fired comes from a pundit who might not understand the issue or the terminology of national security and foreign affairs. But Haass, a high-ranking State Department official in the Bush administration, should know better.

General Dempsey almost certainly does not believe that "it's okay if [the Iranians] have nuclear weapons." Rather, he has explained that Iran has developed its nuclear program based on its own cost-benefit analysis. (As President Obama pointed out during his speech before AIPAC, "the United States and Israel both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon.")

It's easy to see why Dempsey's words are so controversial and why people like Haass choose to mischaracterize them. War hawks have been behind a sustained and very well-funded campaign to depict the Iranian regime as fundamentally unstable and irrational, and therefore, uncontrollable by means of diplomacy, sanctions or anything short of war. Add the nuclear element and you have a rogue nation that could blow up the world. Dempsey's words, therefore, undermine one of the right's most enduring arguments for war.

To his credit, Dempsey, who originally called Iran a rational actor in a CNN interview last month, reiterated his point in testimony before a House committee last week. Asked by Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) if he wanted to clarify remarks, Dempsey stuck to his guns, explaining:

DEMPSEY: Not to sound too academic about it but Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. 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.

If the Iranian threat is as real as hawks like Haass contend, then it is important to understand how the regime makes its decisions so that we can devise a strategy to convince it that a nuclear weapon isn't in their own best interest. Jumping on Dempsey, a decorated war hero, for doing his job and making a point that's consistent with the intelligence on Iran's nuclear program shows how far hawks are willing to go to get their war of choice.