18 Jun The Psychopaths Want War
The Psychopaths Want War
Tensions are once again rising in the Middle East as analysts warn that the ongoing strategic contest between the US and Iran might result in war. On the 13th June, two oil tankers were attacked and set ablaze in the Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of Iran. Who the perpetrators were is not clear, although inevitably the US placed the blame on their regional nemesis, Iran. The US military released video footage and photographs that are purported to back up these claims, although the governments of several nations, including Germany, have expressed scepticism. The incident was the latest in a series of unexplained attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. The US blames Iran for the previous attacks although official investigations were inconclusive.
For its part, Iran denied involvement and essentially argued that it is being framed. The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated that the attacks were “beyond suspicious” whilst Iranian media noted that the occurrence of an attack on a ship sailing under a Japanese flag whilst Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting the country was indicative of a plot to sabotage talks.
It is certainly possible that the Iranian denials are truthful. The United States has a long and varied history of conducting false flag attacks to provide justifications for its actions. In the lead up to the US backed coup to overthrow the Mossadegh government in Iran in the 1950s, the CIA paid a group of Iranians to pose as communists and harass religious leaders and even stage the bombing of a cleric’s home in an attempt to discredit leftists in the country. More famous is the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Here the US announced that their warships had come under attack off the coast of Vietnam. That the attacks never occurred did not stop them from being used as a justification for the escalation of US military involvement in Vietnam. The US has based their actions upon lies in more recent times too; remember the ridiculous line that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.
It is, therefore, credible that the US might have staged these attacks, especially when one considers the track record of the CIA and the composition of the Trump administration. Of course, that is not to say that they did. It is also plausible that this was indeed an Iranian attack. The Iranian government certainly have a motive; their economy is under severe pressure due to American sanctions and Iranian leaders have previously threatened the closure of the Strait of Hormuz if their oil exports are threatened, as they currently are under the American sanctions regime. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard (Iran’s elite military force, tasked with protecting the Islamic Republic) are certainly not averse to undertaking risky, dangerous actions in the Strait of Hormuz. Indeed, the crew of the Japanese tanker that was hit on Thursday reportedly saw an Iranian military vessel nearby.
Whoever is responsible, it is clear that these actions run the risk of plunging the region into a terrible war, a war which both Iran and the US claim not to want. But statements in favour of peace do not preclude war from breaking out. On the contrary, one side believing the other does not want a conflict may make such an outcome all the more likely. Responses to provocation may be more forceful if one side believes the other will not escalate, thus encouraging brinkmanship and raising the stakes overall. Miscalculation by either side could lead to war. The situation is all the more fraught given that the two countries have no diplomatic relations with each other and conduct no meaningful dialogue. Ali Vaez, of the think tank International Crisis Group argues that “this is a 1914 moment for the region [and] that a single incident could put the entire region on fire”.
If all-out war were to break out between the US and Iran, there would be devastating consequences for both sides. Iran’s military would be in a fight with the world’s premier military superpower and would have no hope of winning. The country’s infrastructure would be destroyed and tens of thousands of Iranians would be killed. Many more would face injury, poverty, even famine. The Iranian regime would not survive such a war.
But the costs would not be borne solely by Iran. Iran is capable of effective counter attacks and would be able to significantly disrupt the global supply of oil, sending the world economy into freefall. Iranian missiles would rain down on American military bases and those of their allies. The United States would be facing a much stronger adversary than the Iraqi military they steamrolled nearly two decades ago. Iran, with a population of 80 million and a difficult, mountainous terrain would be much more difficult to conquer than Iraq. The cost for the US would be immense in terms of lives and money spent.
Such a war would likely be regional in nature with both sides utilising their allies to attack each other. From Afghanistan to Lebanon, Iran has proxies that could attack the US and its allies throughout the Middle East. American partners such as Saudi Arabia and Israel may become involved as the conflict spirals into a multi-front regional conflagration. A massive humanitarian crisis would result, with millions of refugees fleeing multiple areas. All of this is to presume such a conflict does not escalate into a global war, with Russia and China intervening to support Iran. Thanks to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, World War III may not break out, but a global cyber conflict could occur, with all sides seeking to shut down the digital infrastructure of their foes. Global chaos would be the result.
With all of this in mind, whoever is responsible for the attacks on the oil tankers is playing an extremely dangerous game. Why play it then? The answers differ depending on who you believe is responsible. For the sake of argument, let’s assume Iran carried out these attacks. Why would Iran be willing to risk such a disastrous war? One explanation is that with pressure rising on Iran from the US they are demonstrating that they are not push-overs and are willing to stand up for their interests. With American sanctions crippling the Iranian economy, elements within the Iranian establishment may believe that by attacking shipments of oil they can indicate that adopting a confrontational stance towards them will come with significant costs; in this case increased insecurity of global oil supplies. If Iran is responsible for the attacks, then their leaders are perhaps calculating that the risk of a war with the US is worth taking, despite the catastrophic consequences that would result. It seems nonsensical.
If Iran is not responsible, the attacks might have been a covert operation designed by the US to increase pressure on Iran. Or they might indeed be intended as a justification for a future war. This would be a war of imperialism. The US seeks to be a hegemonic power in the Middle East, and it attempts to impose its will on the governments of the region. Iran is one of the few countries that has eluded US subjugation and is in fact a competitor in the imperial realm, in the sense that it too seeks to exert influence over neighbouring countries. The US may ultimately be seeking regime change in Iran. They may want to install a government that would play the role that the US wants it to; namely to use its oil revenues to reinvest in Western banks and to buy Western made military equipment. But given the potential costs of the war that might be unleashed (and the risk of being caught), it is hard to imagine rational people ordering the covert sinking of oil tankers.
Whether responsibility lies with Iran, the US, or someone else entirely, what is striking is that the potential gains of such a risky act seem completely at odds with the potential risks. Ultimately, whoever is responsible either wants a catastrophic war to break out or is willing to risk it for gains that may not in any case materialise. Furthermore, the overall context of all of this is the competition over the ownership of oil and the possession of nuclear weapons, both of which threaten the very existence of industrial civilization. What is going on? Are the perpetrators, be they in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or in the CIA, out of their minds? Are they complete psychopaths?
Perhaps they are.
There is a school of thought that holds that certain personality disorders or psychiatric conditions are more commonly found amongst those holding positions of leadership than in the general population. For example, narcissists may prove to be particularly successful in the corporate sector. Michael Maccoby, author of The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership, argues that narcissists make ideal leaders, stating “These people have freedom from internal constraints and this gives them the ability to change the world”. The idea that undesirable personality traits may be widespread amongst elites is a view held by several respected academics. One well known theory is that psychopathy, a personality disorder characterised by a lack of empathy, a tendency toward manipulation, the possession of superficial charm and an inflated sense of self-worth, is particularly prevalent amongst people in corporate leadership roles.
Researchers have argued that psychopathic traits such as “glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self, need for stimulation, pathological lying, cunning and manipulativeness, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect, lack of empathy, poor behavioural controls, and failure to accept responsibility for ones own actions” may be ideally suited to those in leadership roles, or at least suited to the process of acquiring such roles. One well known study found that the rate of psychopathy amongst corporate leaders was nearly four times that found in the general population. Another study surveyed 39 senior leaders in business and found that they matched or exceeded the psychopathic traits of patients in Broadmoor special hospital, a facility that holds perpetrators of serious and violent crimes.
If the corporate sector is full of psychopaths and narcissists, who is to say that the American and Iranian governments are not? And if psychopathic traits such as a lack of empathy and a seemingly charming personality facilitate the climbing of the corporate ladder, does it not make sense that the same might apply to those in the upper echelons of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or the CIA? Indeed, the phenomenon is likely to be even more pronounced in organisations such as these since they appear to have very limited civilian oversight. If psychopaths are disproportionately to be found amongst corporate leaders, it is a near certainty that they are to be found amongst policy makers, particularly amongst military policy makers where the advantages of having low or no empathy are obvious.
If this is indeed the case then it certainly shines a light on why someone, be it a CIA agent or a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, or a high ranking Iranian, Saudi or American official, would authorise the attacks on oil tankers, thus escalating a confrontation that could lead to a war in which tens of thousands of civilians would die. The attacks are perhaps an example of how the combination of low empathy and high tolerance of risk makes a psychopath a very dangerous person to occupy a leadership role in military or intelligence organisations.
One can point to strategic or ideological reasons for individuals taking actions that might risk war; these are motivations that we cannot ignore. But we must remember that there are human beings behind these decisions. When John Bolton advocates war on Iran (as he has done on many occasions), is this a well-adjusted individual weighing up all the options and making an informed choice? Or is this someone driven not only by ideology but by a natural tendency toward risk-taking and by, above all, a complete lack of empathy toward those who will be harmed by his choices. Was Dick Cheney, as he manipulated his country toward a disastrous invasion of Iraq, thinking of the human cost? Or was he fundamentally incapable of doing so? Was it the most natural thing in the world for him to use lies to justify the invasion of Iraq? The answers to these questions might frighten us, especially given the destructive forces that men in such positions have at their disposal.
We should feel very grateful that the US has such a well-balanced and emotionally stable individual at the helm. Sleep well.