Foreign Affairs

Nixon’s “Madman Theory” Doesn’t Work with Trump

If you want to pressure Iran, you have to be clear about what you actually mean to do.
May 17, 2019
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Last week, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced the deployment of Carrier Strike Group 12 to the Persian Gulf. The group is led by the USS Abraham Lincoln and consists of destroyers, guided-missile cruiser warships, and attack submarines.

But there was some confusion about what America’s objective with this deployment was. Bolton blamed Iran’s provocative missile posture as well as concerns about Iran-affiliated Arab militia attacks against American troops in the region.

A day later, however, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson rebuked the White House and suggested that this deployment had been pre-planned. At which point there was more confusion.

Richardson’s rebuke was itself rebuked by the Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.

This lack of clarity has left Americans and our allies confused. Neither our objectives nor our strategy is clear. The danger is that this confusion could impede the deterrent effect of moving American assets in the first place. Because effective deterrence is based on the ability of our adversaries to clearly understand our intentions and make rational calculations as a result. It is entirely possible that Iran could misread America’s objectives and act more aggressively than they would if they understood what the consequences would actually be.

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But put aside last week’s miscues. What is actually happening with America’s Iran policy?

Deployment of Carrier Strike Group 12 is a good step towards deterring Iran from naval aggressions in the Persian Gulf, but not the rest of the region. Iran has literally gotten away with murder of American troops in the past. Following the inauguration of President Trump, it suspended its harassments of U.S. ships. But a few months later, the regime decided to try its luck again. Again, there was no response by the United States. And so the harassments have continued. And these tensions have led to concerns about a potential war with Iran.

Figuratively speaking, Senator Tom Cotton recently suggested that it would take only two strikes to win a war with Iran, by which he reminded his audience of the conventional military imbalance between the United States and the Islamic Republic. But of course, the Islamic Republic is well aware of this imbalance.

Yet, it’s not clear that this is true because it is not clear what American objectives in a war with Iran would be. Cotton’s two-strikes comment suggest a short-term campaign. There is a world of differences between an airstrike campaign and a full-fledged invasion with 120,000 troops as been reported by the press and denied by President Trump. And Trump has said that if the United States were to engage Iran militarily, it would be a larger campaign than just 120,000 troops. (Which further adds to the confusion about our objectives.)


Iran’s leaders are holding a weak hand. They suspect that very few Iranians would be eager to fight against the United States to preserve their regime. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has changed his tone and is now suggesting that war will not happen. So now is the time to press our advantage. Which means that America’s leadership should have clearly understood and clearly articulated objectives.

Senator Cotton is close with the White House. His instincts on and knowledge of national security affairs are far better than those of the president and most of his peers in Congress. It would be helpful if he would synchronize with the White House, or better yet, get the White House on his own frequency.

Admiral Richardson, for his part, should know better than to publicly undermine his civilian superiors in an attempt to ease tensions.

The President, for his part, is using President Nixon’s “Madman Theory.” Nixon believed that portraying himself as erratic and ambiguous to Brezhnev would deter the Soviet Union. The trick is that Nixon’s Madman Theory was a calculated gambit, and even then, it increased the chances of conflict; it is not obvious that this is the case with the current president who is, at the very least, inconsistent in his enthusiasms.

Intentionally engaging in a military conflict after doing the proper analyses is not always bad. Sometimes it is wise; sometimes it is a mistake. But there is nothing worse than becoming ensnared in a shooting war by accident, as a result of miscalculations and miscues.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri is a graduate student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He grew up in Iran and left the country in 2011. He is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. Follow him @ShayKhatiri.