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Rational Actors and Stuff

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Editor's note: by Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison.

The idea behind economic sanctions is simple: If you deprive the people in a warlike country of enough “stuff,” they’re rational actors and they’ll stop their aggression. Or at least make their leaders stop. The only problem with this theory is that it doesn’t work.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton are touting the latest round of sanctions against the human rights violators in Tehran. They are “rational actors,” says Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Whether it is rational to shoot down your own people in the streets of your capital, threaten nuclear war against your neighbors, and unleash terror attacks on your opponents we leave to others to decide.

The real question is: Are we rational actors? What experience of sanctions and stuff has convinced us that this course of action will work? We’ve noted how it didn’t work with other dictators in the past.

Not with the Soviets, not with Saddam Hussein, not with Mussolini in the 1930s. The U.S. imposed sanctions with real teeth on the Japanese militarists in the 1940s. Does anybody remember “Torah! Torah! Torah”? Pearl Harbor was their answer to our cutoff of petroleum exports.

We need to consider this scene: It’s July, 1914. Wilhelm II is Kaiser of Germany. He’s taking a leisurely cruise in frigid Norwegian fjords. He does this every summer. The Kaiser’s yacht is named Hohenzollern. Unlike most royal pleasure craft, however, the Kaiser’s 380-foot vessel is bristling with armament. Cannon, machine guns, torpedoes.

And belying the pacific appearance of this white, swan-like ship, radio traffic to and from the yacht’s radio room crackles trough the air, furiously preparing for war.

What “stuff” could we have deprived the Kaiser of that might have deterred him? He had his own yacht, his own railroad car, a fleet of automobiles, stables of fine horses. He could even have aircraft had he wanted them. Palaces and hunting lodges he had in abundance.

What motivated Kaiser Wilhelm II was deep in his wounded psyche. He had been born with a withered arm and, extremely self-conscious about it, sought to make up for his deformity with aggressive and bullying action. His own mother and father feared him. His father, “Good Kaiser Fritz” was Friedrich III, who reigned only one hundred days as Kaiser in 1888, dying tragically of throat cancer. His mother was Queen Victoria’s beloved daughter, Vicky. She was so unhappy with her ruthless son that when she died of breast cancer, she had defied her jackbooted Prussian son. She had her self buried shrouded in Britain’s Union Jack.

Like Kaiser Wilhelm II, what is motivating the clerics and their mouthpiece, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is hatred. We have only to listen to their “president’s” wild rants at the UN to see this.

Gen. Dempsey should consult this address to the UN General Assembly by Ahmadinejad before pronouncing the Iranian rulers “rational actors.”

We should also take note of the generous applause from the delegates to the UN that greeted this lengthy diatribe against the United States and Israel. American taxpayers are paying for the desks that thump with thunderous approval of these outbursts from the podium of the “world body.”

 There is not a word in this address—filled as it was with messianic triumphalism—that should convince us that the Iranians can be deterred by denying them “stuff” It is our leadership, unfortunately, that fails the test of rational actors.

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