The Top 4 Reasons I Think the North Korea “Standoff” is Being Overhyped.

The Top 4 Reasons I Think the North Korea “Standoff” is Being Overhyped.

While buying tires today, I had to sit in a waiting room with the news on TV, and it reminded me why I don’t watch TV news. Turns out the world is on the brink of thermonuclear war! I even had a brief discussion with the tire guy about it. Don’t head down to your bunkers just yet.

1.) The news is turning the rhetoric up to 11, but still talking about other things.

What would be more urgent: thermonuclear war, the Facebook killer guy, or the potential ramifications of the congressional special election in Georgia? Listening to CNN, you’d think they were roughly equal. If they actually thought something was going down, they wouldn’t be talking about anything else.

2.) They sent Pence to the DMZ.

Can you imagine if North Korea killed the Vice President of the US with its opening salvo? If that idea brings you joy, please set aside your feelings about this specific one. This is a huge calling-out of the Kim regime.

3.) North Korea is completely full of it.

I mean seriously, have you been paying attention for the past 20 years? Every week there’s a new, creatively-worded threat.

4.) They’re not ready to substantially hit the mainland U.S.

Foreign Policy had a handy infographic:


This was as of a month ago, but only so much can change in that time. The way a war would play out is: they hit a couple US targets, maybe, and then they get glassed (I love that verb).


When “They” Becomes “We:” A Crude Experiment

I got onto a very wide tangent from the post on health care I was working on, and started wondering about framing government as “us.” Why do people do it?


“We should raise/cut taxes.”

“We shouldn’t have invaded Iraq.”

“We need to throw that person in prison.”

“We” aren’t really doing any of these things. They are the job of a very specific subset of “us.” To call the state “us” is only slightly more accurate than calling a favorite sports team “us.”  I do this sort of thing sometimes too, of course. Only the most dedicated Ron Swansons would not.

I began wondering if this phenomenon factored at all into consent for government action. Can people be substantially manipulated by in-group framing? I started writing “if I could perform a study on this…” but then I realized I kinda could, thanks to Al Gore’s Information Superhighway.


If I frame a government policy proposal along the lines of “we must do xyz,” then it will have higher approval than the exact same proposal framed along the lines of “the government must do xyz.” This may vary by respondents’ ideology.


I constructed an 8-question Google Forms survey. The first question asked if the respondent identified as liberal, conservative, or moderate/in between/neither. The second question asked the first letter of their last name, the answer to which directed the participant to one of two versions of the next 6 questions. Both versions asked, in one way or another, whether government should intervene to address a given problem, and presented two answer options, constructed from common talking points. One answer advocated government action, the other government inaction.

Version 1, given to last names A-M, in-grouped the state for purposes of action. I asked whether “we” should carry out the proposed policy, and retained the “we” phrasing on the action response, while framing the inaction response as “they.”

Version 2, given to last names N-Z, out-grouped the state for purposes of action. I kept the exact same wording, except replacing “we” with “the government,” and “they.” I moved the “we” wording to the government inaction response. So survey was as follows:

Version 1 Q1: Should we raise taxes to pay for healthcare for everyone who needs it?

A1: We have a responsibility to provide for those in need.

A2: They need to let people be responsible for themselves

Version 2 Q1: Should the government raise taxes to pay for healthcare for everyone who needs it?

A1: They have a responsibility to provide for those in need.

A2: We need to let people be responsible for themselves.

V1 Q2: Should we expand electronic surveillance to fight terrorism and crime?

A1: They need to respect people’s privacy.

A2: We need to do what it takes to keep people safe

V2 Q2: Should the government expand electronic surveillance to fight terrorism and crime?

A1: We need to respect people’s privacy.

A2: They need to do what it takes to keep people safe.

V1 Q3: Should we intervene militarily to defend innocent civilians around the world (example: Syria)?

A1: We need to use America’s power for good.

A2: They need to stop wasting tax dollars fighting wars that don’t concern us.

V2 Q3: Should the government intervene militarily to defend innocent civilians around the world (example: Syria)?

A1: They need to use America’s power for good.

A2: We need to stop wasting tax dollars fighting wars that don’t concern us.

V1 Q4: Should we keep marijuana illegal at the national level?

A1: We need to protect people from this dangerous drug.

A2: They need to stop putting people in jail for something so harmless.

V2 Q4: Should the government keep marijuana illegal at the national level?

A1: They need to protect people from this dangerous drug.

A2: We need to stop putting people in jail for something so harmless.

V1 Q5: Should we punish businesses for discriminating against customers?

A1: We need to make this a country where people feel included and have access to goods and services.

A2: They have no right to order businesses to serve anyone.

V2 Q5: Should the government punish businesses for discriminating against customers?

A1: They need to make this a country where people feel included have access to goods and services.

A2: We have no right to order businesses to serve anyone.

V1 Q6: Should we expand gun control laws?

A1: They need to respect people’s right to defend themselves as they see fit.

A2: We need to keep people safe from dangerous weapons.

V2 Q6: Should the government expand gun control laws?

A1: We need to respect people’s right to defend themselves as they see fit.

A2: They need to keep people safe from dangerous weapons.

I presented this survey to my immediate social network on Facebook and Twitter. I also placed it in a few places on Reddit in order to draw as large a sample size as I could. I didn’t expect ideological sample bias to matter, because I wasn’t looking at the actual results, but the differences in results between the two surveys.

There were two “rounds” of gathering participants from these sites. For the second round, it occurred to me to include a “where did you hear about this survey?” question, so I did. Glancing at the results, I also realized that many weren’t answering all questions, so I marked them “required” for the second round (give me a break, I’m not getting published in a journal, I’m just some dude with a computer).

I will discuss limitations of this method later.

Results and Analysis

Data is here. Additional sheets along the bottom are separated into categories for convenience.

There were 278 responses. 150 respondents (52.4%) identified as Liberal, 95 (34.3%) as Moderate/In Between/Neither, and 32 (11.6%) as Conservative. 1 respondent failed to identify, prior to my making it a required question.

There were 174 (62.6%) A-M names sent to Version 1, and 104 (37.4%) N-Z names sent to Version 2.

I’m not going to parse out every last detail, but I’ll point out what I found most interesting, both for and against my hypothesis.

The first thing I should say is that overall, there was a slight increase in approval for state action among Version 2 respondents:

Overall Percent
If my hypothesis were correct, then the bars would be going down, not up.

The Conservative sample was especially small, so it should be taken with a larger grain of salt. I won’t dwell on it too long for this reason, but there were substantial differences between how people reacted to re-framing each question.

Conservative Change

Here were the results for moderates:

image (3)

And here were liberals:

image (4)

There is something of a pattern here: approval increases for public healthcare, surveillance, and military intervention, when it’s “the government” doing it vs. “us.” It decreases or stays the same for marijuana prohibition (can’t decrease below 0: see below), and consistently decreases for gun control. Discrimination is the only area where there was a qualitative inconsistency, and this may have been an artifact of the small conservative sample size.

Not related to anything I was looking for, but only 10 total respondents across all versions and ideologies, or 3.6%, opposed marijuana legalization: 3 Conservatives, 7 Moderates and 0 liberals.

Methodological Flaws

I threw the survey together in half an hour. I tried to keep it simple to make it easy to answer. What could go wrong?

1.) It would have been good to include “where did you find this survey?” from the very beginning. I would have been able to divide up responses by audience type.

2.) Sample size (and sample biases?). I have no means to randomize participants, so I can only try to artificially “balance” demographics. Even though apparently I live in a social media environment where conservative voices disproportionately dominate, the actual population I have access to is mostly liberal.

3.) Perhaps some question about how informed they consider themselves or how much political news they consume. I’d expect low-information participants to be more easily swayed by question framing than participants with clear and consistently-reinforced ideas.

4.) It wouldn’t have hurt to randomize question order, but I didn’t know how that worked.


My hypothesis, at least as it was stated, is clearly not supported. Perhaps there is no relationship between in-group framing and approval, perhaps it is more nuanced. The consistency by question across demographics is interesting. That big change for moderates on the intervention question is also interesting. I don’t see any solid conclusions I can draw from it, though.

But if I hadn’t done this, I probably would have just assumed most people are tribal atavists at heart. Having done this gives me pause. Thanks, Science!

Due to focus group responses, a gif of Bill Nye the Science Guy has been replaced by this gif of Bill Nighy, not-a-science-guyghy

I’m Sure It’s Fun to Throw Around the Word “Impeach,” but Where Does it Lead Us?

I’m Sure It’s Fun to Throw Around the Word “Impeach,” but Where Does it Lead Us?

by Jonathan McGeachen

I hear the word “impeach” getting thrown around by my liberal friends, but I don’t see it happening. I would be a little surprised if Donald Trump were impeached by this Congress, and very surprised if that impeachment led to a conviction.

The Meaning of the Word

First, let’s be clear about the term “impeach.” Impeachment does not mean removal from office. It refers, specifically, to the initiation of the process in the House of Representatives, requiring only a simple majority. A conviction by 2/3 of the Senate is necessary to remove a President from office.


Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House in 1868, but not convicted by the Senate, so he remained President. Same way with Bill Clinton. They were preparing to impeach Nixon before he resigned. And that’s about it. No president has ever been impeached and then convicted.

Current Makeup of The House

There are 435 voting members of the House. A simple majority therefore requires 218 votes. 241 representatives are Republican and 194 are Democrat. Assuming every Democrat voted to impeach, they would still need to flip 24 Republicans in order to achieve their majority.

Current Makeup of the Senate

There are 100 Senators. 67 would make a 2/3 majority, required to convict. 52 Senators are Republican and 48 are Democrat or Democrat-leaning independent. Assuming every Democrat votes to convict, they would need to flip 19 Republicans.

The Risks for Republicans

There’s always a new headline about Trump’s overall poll numbers, but consider: Gallup polls show Donald Trump having a whopping 86% approval rating among Republicans.


These are the voters that Republican Representatives and Senators have to answer to in primaries, and no one else. These voters live in a media environment where any charge against Trump is Fake News, or answerable with a tu quoque, or both. The risk of being branded a traitor, a RINO, and losing one’s seat is tremendous.

The Risks for Democrats

President Mike Pence.

What Would the Substantive, Provable Charges Be?

Not just circumstantial evidence or poor “optics.” I put this last because it matters least; we live in an era when perception is everything. But it’s something to chew on.

Russia’s Never Giving Back Crimea, So Why Did Trump Say He Expected Them To?

Intro: A Bit About Why I Choose Certain Topics

I’ve had at least three different people I know in real life (outside of my family!) mention that they liked something they saw in my blog. I had no idea people actual read this, so I’m going to try to post a bit more. Thank you for reading!

I have this problem where all the things in the news that I find most interesting, and therefore want to write about, are the things no one really talks about or cares about, and I know it. Sometimes it’s because political writing (and news consumerism!) is slowly devolving into a tabloid enterprise, but sometimes it’s because I just nerd out too much about geopolitics, beyond its actual importance to everyday life. This is why I unduly focus on the Middle East, East Asia, and Russia.

Even so, the things I find interesting in the news are the things that are truly unexpected, things that actually bend or reshape existing trends. Domestic politics offers almost none of this, except for the occasional electoral college upset. Once in office, Donald Trump has spoken worse than I had hoped, but almost all the ink spilled these days is about that. His actual domestic policy initiatives have been unsurprising, and therefore rather uninteresting to me. Don’t get me wrong, I do pay attention to them, but I only have so many hours in a day.

Donald Trump saying something undiplomatic is very expected. That “something” getting blown out of proportion is also expected. The specific content might be unexpected, but these general trends are well established, so I don’t pay much attention to the parry-and-thrust of the narrative wars on this subject, and I have little memory for it, which makes it hard to participate even when I want to. Some of his calls and tweets to foreign leaders have been a bit interesting, but it’s hard to assess what’s real policy and what’s bluster, whether there actually are “head fakes” or “4D chess” occurring (I still don’t think so, but I sure do hope so, because that is preferable to flailing chaos).

Donald Trump exempting Russia from even mild attack is very par-for-the-course, also, so it was interesting to see in this Reuters article last week that he expected Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine. He even Tweeted on the subject, reinforcing my impression that American politics, from top to bottom, has become less about solving problems and more about who can most convincingly blame the other party:

Why Is This Interesting?

the Implication

Assertion: Donald Trump has made an unrealistic demand.
Questions: Does he know it or not? Why did he do this?

My Attempt at Brief, Unbiased Background, If You’re Unfamiliar With the Crimea Situation

What is Crimea?

Crimea is a peninsula off of the southern part of the nation of Ukraine, jutting out into the Black Sea:

Image courtesy of Google Maps

It’s a little more than 3 times the area of New Jersey, with about a quarter as many people.

What’s going on with Crimea?

Crimea is not independent: ownership rights are currently disputed between Ukraine and Russia. Actual control is currently exercised by Russia, following a military invasion, and a vote by Crimeans to join Russia in 2014 (Edit: added link. Warning: coarse language) (more on that in a bit). It was a big story/crisis in early 2014, until ISIS got big in the summer and then people forgot about it.

How did Crimea become disputed?

Crimea has some history as part of both countries. Crimea had bouts of its own independence and dominion by various empires until it became part of Russia in 1783.

This lasted with only small interruptions until 1954, when the Soviet Union, which ruled over both Russia and Ukraine as subject republics, transferred Crimea to Ukrainian ownership. This was no big deal, because the Soviet Union would last forever.

But it didn’t, of course. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine and Russia became separate sovereign nations again, Crimea remained part of Ukraine, and remained that way with little argument until 2014.

In that year, there was a successful revolution in Ukraine to overthrow president Yanukovich, a president whom the Russians liked and supported. Russia expressed concern about the tide of Ukrainian nationalism, anti-Russian sentiment and the safety of the overall Russian minority in Ukraine. Crimea, along with some of the eastern parts of Ukraine, has a majority of Russian-speakers, with 65% Russian, 16% Ukrainian, and 12% Tatar

Boil ’em mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew

Thanks for asking, Gollum. They were at one time a dominant native ethnic group. Anyway, these current demographics owe to Crimea’s prior history as a Russian province, and, depending whom you ask, historical ethnic cleansing. Putin, with a veneer of deniability, directed his military forces to take control of the peninsula, and, following a propaganda blitz, a vote was taken to leave Ukraine and join Russia.

There are plenty of precedents for territories voting for their own independence, but less so for directly joining a neighboring nation. Combine this with the dubious information tactics, the use of force, and the potential for vote-rigging, and the legitimacy of this secession becomes questionable.

Why does it matter to an American?

Mainly because of the potential for conflict with a major power. We do not have any specific commitment to defend Ukraine, although Russia did agree in the 90’s to respect Ukraine’s territory. Do we allow Russia to violate agreements and take territory from neighbors? If we allow it, where will it stop? If we don’t allow it, how do we approach it without accidentally ending the world?

Could we even return Crimea back into Ukrainian control, if we tried?

I don’t think so at this point. The military option contains too much risk (nuclear escalation) for too little gain (returning a small chunk of land to a non-ally). embargo

Maybe if the West had imposed a total embargo on Russia back in 2014, Putin would have caved, but the E.U. couldn’t stomach that because they need oil and natural gas imports from Russia. The world has pretty much moved on by now, and by the end of the Trump presidency, Crimea will be firmly established as a status quo Russian province, and Russia is pretty unequivocal that they consider it theirs now.

Finally Enter Trump: What’s going on in that big ol’ melon of his?

So why the extreme shift in Trumps’s rhetoric on this issue, from no demands to implausible demands? Whether or not you believe any conspiracy theories about him, Donald Trump has, objectively, the most Russia-friendly policies of any president in generations. He questions the importance of NATO and the value of its defense commitments, he lets Russia mostly have their way in Syria, he has barely talked about the Ukraine conflict except to criticize Obama, and expressed little desire to expand or maintain sanctions on Russia. Really the only thing on his plate that is inconvenient for Russia is expanding the US energy sector, which would hold down global energy prices a bit and bite into Russian revenues.

But then consider the conspiracy theories: whether or not some hold water, their very existence is a threat to Trump. It would be wise to undermine their credibility by at least appearing to push back against Putin. But rather than hash this all out in paragraph form, I made a table of different possibilities, treating Trump’s mindset as a black box. These possibilities are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. I do not consider these possibilities equally likely.

Trump is not a Russian puppet. He’s a red-blooded, pure-hearted American patriot. Trump is under Russian influence, because he finds common cause with Putin the autocrat and/or Putin can help him with information warfare. Trump is under Russian influence because they have dirt on him and/or he relies on business connections in Russia.
Trump has a firm grasp of geopolitics. He’s a brilliant dealmaker with real convictions who can think circles around opponents. Trump perceives that the narrative could slip away from him, and even though he genuinely believes rapprochement with Russia is in the best long-term interest of the U.S. vis-a-vis terrorism and China, he can’t pursue it if he gets impeached. He adopts tougher rhetoric against Russia, knowing it won’t change the situation on the ground, to undermine the Russian-connection narrative. It was all a negotiating tactic! Having gained Trump the election, Putin has outlived his usefulness, and Trump is now pursuing his real plan to stare down Russia and cement American hegemony in Eastern Europe. Take the red pill and I’ll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes! The Kremlin may have told him to make a demand they would never actually grant, as a cost-free gesture to try to shift the narrative, with a tacit threat to spill the beans. Trump sees an opportunity to brace for the storm by trying to undermine the Russian-connection narrative.
Trump does not know what’s going on, because he’s an ignorant, impulsive reality show narcissist. Trump wants to sound tough and get a shot in at Obama, whether or not it’s consistent with anything he’s said before. Maybe he believes that good ol’-fashioned American gumption and derring-do will always win the day. The Kremlin told him to make a demand they would never actually grant, as a cost-free gesture to try to shift the narrative, but he doesn’t need to know that. The Kremlin told him to make a demand they would never actually grant, as a cost-free gesture to try to shift the narrative, but he doesn’t need to know that, with a tacit threat to spill the beans.

Believe what you will.

The Top 1 Reason I Support Constitutional Originalism (Even When I Don’t Like Its Conclusions)

1. If you’re not measuring the meaning of a text by your best, honest estimate of the intent of its author(s), you are creating your own willful fiction and engaging in falsehood.

But that leads to policies I disagree with!

That’s what amendments are for.

But that’s terribly inconvenient!

It’s supposed to be; that way broad systemic changes are guaranteed to have the weight of consensus behind them, so that they can endure beyond the accidents of which party happens to be in power when it’s time to appoint justices.

Something something Trump doesn’t care about the Constitution!

Maybe not, but Gorsuch seems to.

Why Krumm is the Ideal “Ideal Male Body”

Been taking a break from commenting on or consuming politics; if your reaction is any of the following:

-“Unacceptable: you need to do your part to #resist and slow the onslaught of right-wing fascism”

-“Unacceptable: you need to do your part to MAGA and slow the onslaught of left-wing fascism”

-or “Good, because I only listen to viewpoints that can be expressed within a Tweet”

then you’re the reason I need a break.

Instead, I’m going to talk about a meme image I came up with, which the mere thought of made me laugh out loud, so I put it together using memegenerator.

If it doesn’t make you laugh, that’s OK, I will explain why it’s the funniest thing ever. Dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog– it kills it. But this is progress. So, here it is:

Something to which we can all aspire

Background: The “Ideal Male Body” Meme

Know your meme is always an amazing resource, but this one is pretty straightforward. The text reads: “This is the ideal male body. You may not like it, but this is what peak performance looks like.”

So right off the bat, the bar is set extremely high. The use of the absolute terms “ideal” and “peak” leaves no room for imperfections, making the statement very arrogant, unless the pictured body is truly flawless.

A straight-faced utterance of this would mostly be expected to come from a particular subset of image-conscious men who are also concerned about Calvin Klein-style portrayals of the airbrushed, Photoshopped, “perfect” male physique. They counter such, declaring, “this is what a real man looks like.” They might also be concerned, in their minds, that too much attention is given to the female version of this problem and not enough to the male. They feel a need to push out a counter-narrative.

Derision is to be expected on the internet: various parodies floated around, depicting obviously imperfect bodies juxtaposed with the lofty text.

Asset #1: The Obscurity Triple Threat

If you don’t recognize the creature in my picture, he is Krumm from the Nickelodeon cartoon Aaahh, Real Monsters!!! So there are a few layers of “hey, remember that?”

-Hey, remember 90’s cartoons?

-Hey, remember Aaahh, Real Monsters!!!? It was decidedly secondary in popularity to, say, Rugrats? When was the last time you ever thought about it?

-Hey, remember Krumm, arguably the least important of the 3 main characters?

Asset #2: Krumm is Vaguely Human, yet Grotesque

Unlike the other characters from that show, Krumm is composed entirely of recognizably human components, just arranged in a manner that, upon reflection, is horrifyingly inhuman. Even the most staunch advocate against body dysmorphia would hesitate to call him “beautiful.” Add in the exaggerated armpit hair, and he’s flat-out disgusting.

Asset #3: Krumm is Outside the Spectrum of Human “Performance”

No amount or lack of body training can make a person look like that. The basic assertion of the meme is rendered not only false, but absurd.


“‘No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.’ -Socrates” -Michael Scott

A New Deal for Iran

The GOP sweep in the 2016 election means that the US approach to Iran will probably change. Obama’s “Iran Deal” has been subject to naivety on one extreme side and rumor-mongering on the other.

Many opponents of Obama’s deal, formally titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), say “we want a deal, but not this deal; this is a bad deal.” We could argue about whether that statement is accurate, but the GOP doesn’t care what I think; we should assume they will follow through on their hatred of the JCPOA.

If the current deal is bad, what would a better deal look like? How do we bring Iran back to the negotiating table?

I don’t even know if I’m advocating for a position, I’m just trying to lay out the facts as I see them to try to make people see how murky, risky, and uncertain this situation actually is.


My briefest summary of what has happened so far

U.S. and Europe impose economic sanctions, demanding Iran allow inspectors into their facilities to make sure they are not weaponizing Uranium. After many negotiations, a deal is reached which kind of does that, with some caveats of unclear effect, and sanctions are released.

Types of Nuclear Material

To build an atomic bomb, one usually needs plutonium or highly purified uranium-235 (U-235). Both of these are very rare in nature. Plutonium can be synthesized in an otherwise peaceful nuclear reactor. Trace amounts of natural U-235 (less than 1%) are typically separated out of more common and benign U-238, using centrifuges, and then concentrated together, over and over again, achieving higher levels of purity, a process called “enrichment.” U-235 enriched to 90% purity is considered “weaponized.” A uranium bomb requires 90% purity of U-235 in order to explode properly.

U-235 at less than 90% purity has some peaceful purposes, including as ship fuel, producing certain medical isotopes, certain physics research, and production of electricity, although the latter is possible with U-238.

The Most Important Caveat

It might anger some people to hear this, but we don’t actually have intel that there is weaponization occurring. All of this controversy is based on the precaution that Iran might be trying to weaponize uranium, and it is important to keep this in perspective when considering our options. There is no proof of 90% enrichment. Believe me, if there were, we’d be hearing about it, if not from the U.S. government, then from Israel. Even Netanyahu’s tour here was couched in terms of “breakout time” and what might happen, and offered no evidence of weapon-level enrichment, not from espionage, aerial reconnaissance, hacking, nothing. He did not even claim to have “secret” evidence, which is to his credit, because that kind of B.S. is becoming stock-in-trade of the post-fact era.
According to many experts, enrichment is not linear: Iran’s acknowledged 20 percent enrichment achieves 90% of the work needed to get to 90% enrichment.

Bibi at the U.N. (Courtesy of Reuters)

It does make sense that the Iranians would be trying to get to 90% purity and build a bomb for deterrence, given what happened to two of their neighbors:


But it made a lot of sense that Saddam was trying, too. Can you imagine if, for the second time in two decades, (actually the third in three decades) the U.S. went to war with a country rhyming with “Ira-” over weapons that turned out not to exist?

It’s worth considering that this regime has had almost 40 years to develop a nuclear weapon if it really wanted to, and yet they have not. It does not take that long. I would strongly recommend waiting for direct evidence. But what if that evidence is overplayed, or outright fabricated? We’ve seen it before, and our incoming president has a tenuous relationship with intelligence agencies. And I guarantee that any evidence presented will be messily questioned (which it ought to be, all things considered).


Most people agree on the following:

Goal 1: Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.

Why not? A few possibilities:

Scenario A) North Korea 2: Atomic Boogaloo

Even if Iran develops nuclear weapons and never, ever uses them, the mere fact that it has them would grant it admission to the exclusive deterrence club, those nuclear-armed nations which are rarely, attacked by other nations out of fear of escalation. These nations can thus can get away with (relatively) small acts of sabotage, terrorism or provo-cation that would otherwise bring retaliation.

In Iran’s case, most expect this to manifest through proxies, especially Hezbollah and the various Shi’a militias of Iraq, and probably an effort to resuscitate the Assad regime in Syria as well.

Scenario B) The First Use Nightmare

As I outlined in a recent post, it doesn’t make sense for anyone to actually use nuclear weapons first, especially not a nation in a technologically inferior position.

For a successful missile strike (one that they survive the aftermath of), they would need enough warheads to overwhelm interception systems and still do the necessary level of damage to prevent retaliation. They would need to be able to strike quickly enough to prevent retaliation. They would need their own interception system to deal with any land-based missile systems that survive their attack, as well as the submarine-based ones that would certainly survive. These conditions cannot be satisfied in the real world; for them to attempt a missile strike would be suicide, and they know it.

Even handing a device off to terrorists wouldn’t fool anyone (“Gee, where did they get that?”). It would also fail to accomplish any strategic objective, unless it were a gargantuan, multi-target undertaking that somehow slipped through every crack in our ever-growing surveillance state. Even then, there’s no endgame where they escape counter-attack. Using a third party also entails a small risk that they will not behave as requested, and if there’s a nuclear bomb involved, that’s also a big deal.

If the Iranians successfully developed a bomb, I do think something more like scenario A) would be much more likely, but I understand that “probably” is small comfort to someone living in, say, Israel. Scenario B) is irrational from an Iranian perspective, but people are capable of being irrational.

Scenario A/B 1/2) Middle East Arms Race

Whatever Iran’s first-use disposition, it would suit its rivals well to arm themselves. Saudi Arabia is a prime candidate, but many of the wealthier gulf states could make an effort if they felt a need. Not only does this volatile region become held together only by the threat of Armageddon, but the risk increases that one of these weapons could be stolen. Frankly, it’s amazing it hasn’t already happened in Pakistan.

Goal 2: Force is used as little as possible, without compromising Goal 1.

The reasons for this should be obvious. Unnecessary killing is bad. Even if you don’t care about Iranian lives, and love to watch bombs fall on the tee-vee, a war would cost some American lives too, and it’s worth making sure that such a loss is necessary. War is expensive. False positives impact our credibility.

Methods (In Order of Escalation)

Stuxnet 2.0

A repeat use of a computer virus to undermine Iranian efforts. Whether such a thing could even occur again depends on many things on the end of Western intelligence: knowledge of the hardware and software being used in Iranian facilities, knowledge of sufficient zero-day exploits to create another virus that can go undetected and successfully reach the systems in question, and the ability to phish Iranian officials, again, into allowing the virus into their network.


Pursuant to Goal 2, using force as little as possible, this should be the first option. The point is to make sure facilities aren’t weaponizing uranium or plutonium. This can be achieved cheaply and humanely by having a team just go look at it, so long as they are trustworthy and have proper access (that’s the hard part). Inspection is impossible without consent via agreement.

I wouldn’t recommend any “self-inspections,” even limited to select facilities. This is one of the most suspect provisions of the JCPOA/IAEA side agreements.

What if there’s a secret facility we don’t know about? I discuss this possibility under the next option.

If a deal is not reached and they don’t allow inspectors, it creates a “what are they hiding?” argument that will permeate the discussion until the next option is pursued:

Surgical Strikes

This is where you drop bombs and missiles on an enrichment facility, or maybe even insert special forces, in order to stop its operation.

If a given facility is deep enough underground, this can be difficult. We have bombs designed specifically to penetrate underground, but there are limits to how far they can go.

You can’t target a facility if you don’t even know it exists. This creates a strategic risk with this option: what if we “miss a spot,” and there remains an operational facility that we don’t know about? Even more so than under the “inspectors” option, because we would have demonstrated a willingness to use force, Iran would then have every incentive to go full steam ahead with production in order to establish real deterrence, before they go the way of Saddam. And if they made that attempt, we may or may not discover it before they succeed. They were able to hide the facility at Fordow for a very long time.

And fear of this, I suspect, would lead inexorably to the next option, perhaps even if they cave and allow inspectors:

Operation Iranian Freedom

This is Shock and Awe, Trump style, so just imagine (maybe we can equip our fighter jets with red-white-and-blue chemtrails, spraying something that violates the Geneva Convention).

This would be by far the most expensive option, in terms of money spent and lives lost.

Assuming the initial combat operations are about as breezy as they were in Iraq and Afghanistan, there still remains an occupation and reconstruction period.

On the “plus” side, Iran is less riven by sectarian differences than Iraq, and more accustomed to centralized authority than Afghanistan. It also has some degree of existing regime opposition, and a burgeoning youth demographic that isn’t bound to the status quo.

On the downside, Iran has a larger land area to occupy and a larger population to “pacify” than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. It also combines some of the worst geographical features of both previous occupations: dense urban centers and rough mountain terrain, which would allow trained fighters to blend in and conduct guerrilla attacks, something that’s been on their mind for over a decade.

All this to say nothing of the losses to the Iranian people.


How do we get Iran to re-negotiate after they were satisfied with Obama’s deal? None of the below choices are mutually exclusive.

Carrot: Sanctions

Financial Sanctions

Freezing Iranian assets stored in U.S. and European banks, and various restrictions on companies doing business with Iranian government banks, or Iranian private banks. This stuff is complicated, and I’m not going to pretend like I understand all of it, but the idea is supposed to be: “you get these nice things back when you cooperate,” or, “that’s a nice struggling economy you’ve got there, it would be a shame if something were to happen to its monetary liquidity.”

A quick aside on this: it bothers me when people say that by lifting financial sanctions the first time, we “gave” Iran $150 billion. This makes it sound like the U.S. government paid them that much money. We unfroze money that they already had in the bank. If you think that we didn’t get enough in exchange for that courtesy, though, that’s a worthwhile discussion. And there may have been other, lesser monies more literally “given,” but I’ve seen arguments to the contrary as well.

This is the important thing to remember if financial sanctions are re-applied: if the Iranians eventually agree to a tougher deal, *they will get their money back,* because that was the whole point of taking their money away.

Trade Sanctions

Restricting companies from doing business with the Iranian government or Iranian companies. There is a snag here at this point: the Europeans will be reluctant to impose sanctions again. Europe is a much bigger chunk of Iran’s trade than the U.S. is, which is only natural because of how much closer together they are, and since the combined E.U. market is slightly larger overall than the U.S. market. This makes them a vital piece of the puzzle. I’ve compiled the difference into a handy graph:

Imports/exports reversed to show Iranian perspective, based on available data from US Census Bureau and European Commission Director-General for Trade

That big dip in the green line is the beginning of E.U. sanctions on Iran. I didn’t bother converting the currencies because the exchange rate would actually make the difference even larger, but this data makes the point well enough: E.U. trade with Iran dwarfs U.S. trade with Iran. At this scale, one can barely even perceive the 2009 dip from U.S. sanctions. 2016 E.U. trade data is not yet available, but it should be expected to be significantly higher than 2015 because of the eased sanctions.

One could argue that it wouldn’t be such a drastic difference if we lifted our sanctions, and this increases our leverage, but if you’re a hard-liner, is there any scenario short of a different Iranian regime where you’d actually be comfortable with the U.S. freely trading with Iran? I don’t think it’s something that would realistically be offered or would get past a G.O.P. Congress.

Obama and Kerry had to twist arms to get the Europeans on board with sanctions before the JCPOA was negotiated, because it hurts European business too. But even if you think Trump has some magic Art of the Deal to pull out, the fact remains that the Europeans were, by and large, satisfied with the JCPOA, and eager to lift the sanctions once a deal was negotiated. In order for sanctions to be effective, then leverage then must be exerted not only on the Iranians, but on the Europeans to get them to exert leverage on the Iranians.

One can only hope that the whole thing about withdrawing protection from underfunding NATO countries was a masterful 4D chess move to use as leverage to swing the Europeans against Iran (I imagine, like most “4D chess,” it will wind up being used as such ad hoc, but was not planned so from the start).

On our end, it should be relatively easy for the GOP majority to pass a new round of sanctions if they wished to scrap the current deal. But it would be unwise to do so without a broader plan, because U.S. economic leverage over Iran is limited. If you dig through that U.S. Census dataset I linked under the graph (don’t worry, I dug for you) you’ll see that Iranian exports to the U.S. only passed $1bn/year once, in 1987. They are completely accustomed to not selling in the U.S. A new round of sanctions from just the U.S. would produce no economic shock in Iran, just prideful outrage.

The new administration may have opportunities for cooperation with the Russians on sanctions, but it’s too early to say much more than that.

Stick: Just Straight-Up Threaten Them

Even Obama’s team suggested “all options” to be on the table in terms of dealing with a breach-of-agreement, but people didn’t take him very seriously because he ultimately lacked “escalation dominance;” that is, he didn’t care enough, his opening demand was low, and he was unwilling to walk away without a deal.

Grim though it be, Trump’s volatility may allow him to effectively conduct gunboat diplomacy in a way Obama could not.

The whole thing, in the end, resembles the Melian dialogue from Thucydides. Once you get past some of the archaic language, the whole thing is rather chilling: “we don’t care what’s fair (like how we possess WMDs and allow certain other nations to violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty because we like them better), do what we say or we will destroy you.”


If you’ve read this far, you’re a real trooper. This thing ballooned way longer than I intended, but I covered every corner I could think of. I welcome polite, constructive comments, and will respond to such in good faith.

Edits: Re-ordered “Inspectors” and “Stuxnet 2.0” subsections to make more sense.