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Irrationality and BMD

By Taylor Marvin

David Weigel closes his Slate profile of Senator Rand Paul’s recent trip to Israel with an interesting quote. When asked what he thought of Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system, Paul took his support of the system further, proposing that the US field a similar system:

“But absolutely I’m in favor of it. Think about on 9/11. There’s no reason our White House, our Capitol, and our major cities shouldn’t have a missile defense… I argue that there will be irrational actors on the stage. There’s no way to stop irrationality from eventually getting weapons into the hands of people who might attack us.”

Really, it’s pointless parsing this statement: Senator Paul clearly means this less as a carefully considered defense policy position and more of a hyperbolic demonstration of his support for Israel: whether policy or military hardware, when it’s good enough for Israel, it’s good enough for the US.

But it’s worth remarking just how misguided this proposal is. Iron Dome is a worthy system that has saved lives. But it is a particularly poor analog for a US-based ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. The Qassam rockets Iron Dome is designed to intercept are short-range, travel relatively slowly, do not maneuver, and do not mount decoys or other systems to increase their survivability. No terrorist would ever fabricate a similar limited-range rocket in the US. Instead, a ballistic missile launched at Washington, DC would be exponentially more difficult to successfully intercept than a Hamas rocket to the point that the two are incomparable. A prospective city-defense ABM system would more resemble the 1970s-era Safeguard program proposed to defend US ICBM sites from a Soviet counterforce attack, which relied on nuclear interceptor warheads and was only briefly operational. Anyway, this entire discussion ignores that fact that terminal-phase BMD for civilian targets is probably unworkable — even a successful interception by a modern non-nuclear interceptor would still leave fast moving debris flying towards the target — and can easily be defeated by low-cost countermeasures.

More pertinently, Senator Paul appears to not devote much time to contemplating strategic rationality. As is frequently noted, the concept of rationality does not denote any moral judgement, only that a rational actor’s behavior follows a reasonable cost-benefit calculation and is in accordance with their desired end. Al Qaeda’s attack on the US was not irrational; rather, it was a rational outcome of bin Laden’s desire to kill Americans given his limited means. Deeming it — and other terrorist campaigns — rational is not an endorsement of its morality.

Paul’s focus on irrationality is simply a rhetorical strategy. A rouge state launching a limited ballistic missile attack on the US would indeed be an irrational act — that’s precisely why it is unlikely. Despite protestations to the contrary, legitimately irrational regimes rarely arise; after all, attaining and holding leadership status in an organization as complex as a nation-state — thus far the only groups capable of deploying the ICBMs required to attack the mainland US via missile strike — requires sophisticated decision-making, the precise decision of rationality.

This is important, because accusations of irrationality are a frequent argument by neoconservatives keen to justify military intervention. This argument was a prime driver of the Iraq War, and is repeated today to justify a strike on Iran. Reasonable observers conclude that an Iran armed with nuclear missiles would be unlikely to risk national destruction by launching a nuclear strike on Israel. Hawks sidestep this conclusion by arguing that, contrary to all evidence, Iran’s leaders are not rational at all — in this argument, mutually assured destruction may have deterred the Soviet Union, but the fanatical Iranians only care for destruction. Of course, this argument is more based in racist assumptions of Muslim fanaticism than any real scholarship. While Paul is a relative moderate on US-Iranian relations, his willingness to adopt the same rhetoric as hawks is support of a nonsensical BMD advocacy is lazy. Today accusations of strategic irrationality have become more of a rhetorical shortcut to war than a evidence-based concept.

When the word “irrational” leaves a politician’s mouth, be doubtful.

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