Muscular Nonrationality: Amitai Etzioni and War with Iran
By Marsha B. Cohen July 21, 2010
IN A RECENT ARTICLE FOR THE U.S. Army’s Military Review, Amitai Etzioni, a well known public intellectual and a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, argues that the United States will have to bomb Iran to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons. Offering at times banal arguments about how the United States must demonstrate it is a real global power, Etzioni has added his voice to an increasingly raucous chorus of right-wingers and militant “pro-Israel” groups who warn that Tehran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons at all costs.
Commenting to a reporter in Israel, where his Military Review article has received widespread attention, Etzioni said recently, “The U.S. will have to confront Iran or give up the Middle East.” 
Etzioni’s status as a renowned scholar of social policy whose work has won praise both nationally and internationally warrants paying close attention to the potential impact of his utterances on U.S. foreign policy discourse. Additionally, his increasingly strident stance vis-à-vis purported threats to the United States and Israel comes at a time of growing polarization in the United States over whether the country—and, in particular, its Jewish community—should support the hardline policies pursued by Israel’s leaders.
How is it that Etzioni—a self-described “peacemonger” who was once dubbed “the Everything Expert” by Time magazine —has come to adopt stridently hardline prescriptions for U.S. foreign policy? And are his arguments on Iran valid?
The Rise and Decline of Communitarianism
In the 1970s, Etzioni was at the forefront of an emerging class of social science mandarins who set the tone of public debate on foreign and domestic policies. As Time magazine reported more than three decades ago, Etzioni had a knack for “acquiring influence by attracting federal and foundation research dollars, handing out jobs, showering newspapers and magazines with articles on every conceivable subject, and producing hard-nosed, workable programs that politicians like.”
Over the past half century, Etzioni has authored two dozen books, some 600 articles in newspapers and magazines, and well over 300 scholarly papers. In 2001, Etzioni was included on a list of the top 100 U.S. intellectuals, measured by sheer number of academic citations. A professor at George Washington University since 1980, Etzioni also taught at Columbia University for twenty years, was a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and served as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
Now an octogenarian, Etzioni has adapted to the Internet-Facebook-Twitter age, blogging regularly on his own website and nurturing an echo chamber for his views by cross-posting his commentary on a number of websites that span the political spectrum, including the Huffington Post, Politico’s Arena, Talking Points Memo, Global Security, and PoliticalMavens.com (a right-wing site that also hosts the likes of Steve Emerson, Michelle Malkin, Frank Gaffney, Bill O’Reilly, and Thomas Sowell).  The “Everything Expert” is now the everywhere expert.
Founder of the Communitarian Network, Etzioni has served as director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies (ICPS) since 1990. ICPS describes itself as “a nonpartisan research organization dedicated to finding constructive solutions to social problems through morally informed policy analysis and open moral dialogue.”
Initially, Etzioni’s communitarian policy prescriptions were almost entirely limited to the domestic sphere. “The essence of the communitarian position is that strong rights entail strong responsibilities,” Etzioni wrote in a recap of the first year of the movement, elaborating a “Communitarian Platform” that called for everything from strengthening families by making marriage and divorce more difficult, to reforming welfare and expanding the kind of evidence that can be used to prosecute suspected criminals.
The 1990s were Etzioni’s professional heyday. He regarded several of President Bill Clinton’s policies, such as welfare reform, as affirmations of his ideas. But interest in communitarianism began to wane in the latter half of Clinton’s second term. Etzioni recounts in his autobiography, My Brother’s Keeper: A Memoir and Message, that “by the late 1990s, there were more and more days, then weeks, when no one called. Invitations to speak and to attend conferences ceased to pose scheduling problems; there were no longer any who wanted me to be in two places at the same time.”
In 2003, Robert Boynton argued that Etzioni’s proposals, when closely examined, reveal themselves to be either “stunningly obvious” or “absurdly Utopian,” and that some of his policies even seem “downright creepy.” In a review of My Brother’s Keeper, Boynton wrote, “It becomes clear that Etzioni’s criteria for offering advice depend less on ideology than access. We witness him regress from a passionate intellectual to a Loman-esque figure, desperately hawking his communitarian wares to anyone who will listen.”
Twisting Arms, Kicking in the Pants
The end of the 1990s brought George W. Bush, 9/11, and the “war on terror.” It also coincided with Etzioni’s growing interest in foreign policy. In particular, Etzioni, who fled Nazi Germany as a child and took refuge in pre-independence Palestine, increasingly sympathized with hawkish views of Israeli security. In the pages of the Weekly Standard, for instance, Etzioni criticized “new historians” like Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris (who challenge traditional Zionist views of the creation of the state of Israel), accusing them of “concocting wholly misleading interpretive frameworks.”
In 2003, Etzioni defended Israel’s decision to build a concrete security barrier around its unilaterally modified borders and major West Bank Jewish settlements, separating them from towns and villages where Palestinian Arabs were concentrated. Most U.S. and European news sources called it “the wall,” but Etzioni, like most Israelis, referred to as a “fence.” Justifying the barrier as a security measure that would allow time for “tempers to cool off” and create a respite from violence, Etzioni attempted to reassure those who objected to the barrier, writing that it could “quite readily be relocated when a peace treaty is forged,” a claim that patently ignored the construction of Israeli settlements and outposts inside and beyond “the fence.”
In 2004, Etzioni published From Empire to Community: a New Approach to International Relations, in which he claimed to offer an alternative to “might makes right” neoconservatism and what he called “hyper-liberalism,” which relies heavily on international laws and institutions. A sort of kick-in-the-pants version of communitarianism, From Empire to Community aimed to describe a “new global architecture" that would rely less on force and more on shared values.
Three years later, in his book Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy, Etzioni revealed a more aggressive attitude toward international relations with his notion of “muscular” morality. He argued that enforcing global security, rather than the promotion of democracy, ought to be the basis of U.S. foreign alliances and interventions. Echoing the early hard-nosed realism of some first generation neoconservatives like Irving Kristol, Security First proposed cooperation with “illiberal” regimes willing to renounce violence, even if they reject democratic values.
While insisting that the “golden rule” continues to provide the core of his communitarian vision, Etzioni’s views on foreign policy have become increasingly strident. This past January, for example, he faulted President Barack Obama for adopting “kumbaya communitarianism” when the times call for a “muscular” variety that “can twist the arms of, even give a kick in the pants to, those who refuse to collaborate.” Topping Etzioni’s list of candidates for a good pant-kicking is Iran.
Although he asserted in Security First that Russia and Pakistan represent the greatest threats to global security—because of their alleged inability to adequately protect their nuclear materials—Etzioni has in recent years gradually turned up his rhetorical attacks on Iran.
Until recently, however, Etzioni’s recommendations have been somewhat inconsistent. Eight years ago, for instance, in the months following the 9/11 attacks, Etzioni, visited Iran as the guest of political reformers. The visit spurred him to propose “engaging Iran, slowly,” arguing, “I have little doubt that the United States is better off engaging Iran, as it does China, rather than trying to isolate it, as it does Iraq.”
Six months later, Etzioni called for regime change in Tehran, simultaneously claiming that “Iran may present a greater threat than Iraq,” while pointing out that “Iran has by far the greatest chance of becoming the Middle East’s most liberal society.” Too important and urgent to be left to the Iranians themselves, Etzioni argued, “We cannot wait for the reformers to win their way in an election.”
The more recent focus of his attention has been challenging the efficacy of deterrence. In his article for Military Review, Etzioni argues that in pursing the dictates of “muscular morality,” the United States and its allies must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons because deterrence will not work in this case.
In the article, which was thrust into the limelight when it was picked up and selectively summarized in the Israeli press, Etzioni insists that all non-military options to prevent Iranian nuclearization—engagement (which Etzioni claims the Iranians have repeatedly rejected) and sanctions (“an unreliable tool”)—are doomed to fail. Instead of presuming that deterrence would adequately contain a nuclear-armed Iran, says Etzioni, the United States should escalate its prevention efforts by bombing non-nuclear sites in the country as part of an approach designed “to compel the regime to change its behavior, by causing ever-higher levels of ‘pain’.”
At the heart of Etzioni’s argument against deterrence vis-à-vis Iran is his notion of “nonrationality.” In Military Review he avers that “the champions of deterrence” erroneously regard states as either “rational” or ”irrational.” Since only a “rational” state—one that would choose to act in accordance with its own best interests—can be successfully deterred, those policy-makers who believe deterrence to be a viable option for dealing with Iran must also believe that Iran’s leaders are “rational,” rather than “irrational,” since they have proven themselves willing and able to act in their self-interest.
Etzioni, however, thinks he knows something about human behavior that the advocates of deterrence do not: that there is “a third category of decision-making and behavior,” the “nonrational.”
According to this notion, people often act in response to deeply held beliefs that cannot be proven or disproven—for example, their sense that a higher spiritual power commanded them to act in a particular manner. Writes Etzioni:
“People have long shown that they are willing to kill for their beliefs, even if they will die as a result. True, they respond to fact and pressures, but only as long as those factors affect the ways that they implement their beliefs—not the beliefs themselves. Thus, a religious fanatic Iranian leader may well believe that God commands him to wipe out Tel Aviv, may calculate whether to use missiles or bombers, and what season to attack, but not whether or not to heed God’s command to kill the infidels.”
“Etzioni’s rational-irrational-nonrational trichotomy, derived from Talcott Parsons, has been widely criticized,” said William O. Beeman, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Anthropology, in email correspondence with this writer. “It is truly antiquated, hide-bound thinking from another age of sociology—the sociology that Etzioni learned as a graduate student eons ago. Decision-making is not so easily compartmentalized. It has elements of all three. Certainly the United States makes decisions based on quasi-religious ideological basis.”
Ironically, in support of his nonrationality thesis, Etzioni cites the example of Israel. While Israelis are rarely considered to be irrational, they nonetheless “have a strong Masada complex, which led their forefathers to kill each other and commit suicide, rather than surrender.” According to Etzioni, Israel’s Masada complex, which refers to the decision by first century Jewish rebels to kill each other instead of being taken prisoner by Roman soldiers, is echoed in other biblical stories like that of Samson who, in the biblical Book of Judges, brought down the Philistine stronghold in which he was imprisoned, killing himself along with his captors.
Etzioni asserts that today’s Israelis also model themselves on the small minority of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, who fought to the death against the Nazis, although there was no chance they would emerge the victors. Such deeply held beliefs, says Etzioni, might lead Israel to attack Iran even when rational considerations indicate that such an attack would be extremely detrimental. Such an attack would serve their beliefs and is rational in this technical sense—but the beliefs are based on nonrational commitments that one cannot argue with on the basis of facts and logic, and thus cannot be reliably deterred.
One might expect Etzioni to follow up on his comparison of “nonrational” Israelis and Iranians by discussing the dangers posed by Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. “I’m not in favor of anyone having nuclear weapons,” Etzioni replied when asked about this in a phone interview with this writer. “I’d like the Middle East to be completely free of weapons of mass destruction.” However, while ideally he would prefer to see Israel safe and secure to the point that it would not require a nuclear arsenal to ward off attack, Etzioni appears to view the Israeli arsenal as reasonable given its circumstances.
In a commentary titled “Israel, Samson’s Children,” published last fall, he shared his admittedly “morbid ruminations” on the vulnerability of the beleaguered Jewish state. He chastised President Obama for not supporting Hillary Clinton’s statement that an attack on any U.S. ally, including Israel, would be regarded as an attack on the United States. He also offered harsh words to the “so-called Israel lobby” for its inability to pressure the Obama administration “to protect Israel from Iranian attack, and berated “reliably pro-Israel members Congress members such as Howard Berman and Carl Levin” for having “read Bibi Netanyahu the riot act” during his visit to Washington D.C. in May 2009. 
The Bomb-Iran Plan
At the heart of Etzioni’s plan to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is a broad U.S. bombing campaign targeting Iran’s civilian infrastructure, including “bridges, railroad stations, and other such assets, just the way the U.S. did in Germany and Japan in World War II.” A concerted attack of this kind would, he argues, be the only way to dissuade Iran from attempting to develop nuclear weapons.
Because the objective of such attacks on non-nuclear targets would be causing pain to the entire Iranian population, “it matters not if one misses some,” Etzioni said. He even proposes that the strikes be carried out at night, and with “proper warning,” in order to minimize civilian casualties.
Etzioni leaps from muscularity to outright machismo in his disregard for pragmatic objections to bombing Iran. For instance, in an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, Etzioni dismissed the notion that Iran might regard such bombing to be an act of war. Responding to the argument that such an attack could complicate the situation of the overstretched U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan or disrupt the flow of oil, Etzioni opines in his Military Review article that if the United States is unable to deal with such countermeasures it should “forego its claim to the status of a superpower.”
Says Beeman, “[Etzioni] is operating in this article entirely from a set of ‘theoretical’ assumptions that are unproven or completely false, with breath-taking conclusions based on nothing—not even good sociology.” Beeman adds that Etzioni “assumes from the beginning that Iran is making weapons, and coolly posits a whole range of unwarranted consequences—that if Iran got nukes then so would Brazil, for example … or that Iran’s having weapons would mean that Hezbollah and Hamas could or would therefore automatically be more violent. However, his idea that somehow Iran would be deterred if their non-nuclear sites were bombed is just crazy. Does he think that Iran would just sit back and allow itself to be attacked?”
“A Unifying Opportunity”?
Etzioni’s call for military strikes on Iran comes at a time of deep division among U.S. Jewish groups over U.S.-Israeli relations. Iran has “represented a unifying opportunity for groups that were facing a Jewish community more divided than ever by fundamental issues of war and peace,” wrote James Besser in the Jewish Week. Besser quotes Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn, who considers the Jewish community’s “leading the charge on the Iran issue” to have been “healthy.” “It was an opportunity for an issue on which people can agree, across the spectrum—liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats.”
Yet American Jewish leaders have—until now—been reluctant to call for outright war against Iran. The perception that “if Washington initiates war with Iran over the nuclear issue, it will be primarily in response to pressure from Israel and the more Likudnik parts of the pro-Israel community in the United States” —is deeply troubling to most American Jews. If leaders of Jewish organizations become proponents of a U.S. military strike on Iran, it becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss such perceptions as inaccurate or unfair.
Etzioni’s warmongering also comes at a time when the U.S. military is rethinking the premises that drew it into Afghanistan and Iraq, even as increasingly shrill voices on the right are working to push the public to support an “inevitable” attack on Iran. Beeman suspects that “people like Etzioni are hoping to goad Iran into defensive military action to allow Israel to then really launch a full-scale attack.” Etzioni’s insistence that the United States treat an attack on Israel as an attack on its own territory supports this interpretation.
It is worth noting that the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center publishes Military Review as “a forum for the open exchange of ideas about military matters of importance to the U.S. Army with a focus on the concepts, doctrine, and warfighting at the tactical and operational levels of war.” Its author submission information states, “Military Review is specifically looking for cutting-edge articles. As a result, well-researched, well-written, persuasive articles that espouse a view that differs from conventional or doctrinal views often find a home at Military Review whereas they might be rejected elsewhere.”
That Etzioni would interpret the publication of his article as an endorsement of his personal views and publicize it as such—as he did in his recent interview with Haaretz —is troubling. That Military Review apparently finds Etzioni’s Iran insights to be “well-researched” and “persuasive” is alarming. The possibility that U.S. military strategists might regard them as plausible is downright scary.
Dr. Marsha B. Cohen is a Middle East analyst and a contributor to IPS Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org/) who specializes in Iranian-Israeli relations and U.S. foreign policy.