The Earthling

Crazy for Star Wars

As the United States gets closer and closer to spending $60 billion on a missile-defense system designed to fend off attacks from “rogue states,” I would like to get a bit clearer on what a rogue state is. All commentators seem to agree that rogue states exist, and pro-missile-defense commentators believe there is something in roguishness that renders a state impervious to the normal logic of nuclear deterrence. But what is this special something? To find out, I turned to my Random House unabridged dictionary.

I found several definitions of “rogue.” A rogue could be a “tramp or a vagabond.” That didn’t seem to fit. Also, a rogue could be a “playfully mischievous person; scamp.” As in: That zany rogue Saddam—he’s flinging nuclear warheads at us again! (Where does he get the energy?)

No, I don’t think that’s what William Safire and George Will have in mind when they fret about rogues. This definition is much closer: “a dishonest, knavish person; scoundrel.” In fact, this is roughly what policy wonks who have bothered to define the term say: Rogue states are outlaws, not bound by international norms.

Now, you can certainly argue that the rogue states most commonly cited in the missile-defense debate—Iraq and North Korea—deserve this designation. But what does this designation have to do with missile defense? Missile defense is needed only against leaders who—in contrast to a whole Cold War’s worth of Soviet premiers—wouldn’t fear the nuclear retaliation that a nuclear strike against America would invite. The question isn’t whether there are rogue states, but whether there are crazy states.

The term “crazy state,” actually, was in vogue a decade ago, applied to the same kind of nations that are now called rogues. But then people quit using the term. Why? Here’s one theory: It’s indefensible. Even if you examine the unabridged list of rogue states—Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Lybia, Syria, etc.—you will search in vain for a national leader who aspires to early death.

Muammar Qaddafi, for example, may seem erratic, but look what happened when Ronald Reagan gave him a sanity test. American jets bombed Qaddafi’s house as punishment for sponsoring terrorism. The question was: Would Qaddafi a) retaliate, b) not retaliate but maintain a conspicuous association with terrorism, or c) start keeping a lower profile? He chose c) and thus passed the test.

What about Saddam Hussein? He certainly miscalculated before invading Kuwait: He assumed George Bush wouldn’t mind. But is he crazy? A few months after the invasion, Secretary of State James Baker gave him the test. Baker warned ominously that devastating force would be the punishment for using chemical weapons against U.S. troops. Saddam kept his chemicals in their canisters, thus passing the sanity test.

Kim Jong Il may seem a bit daffy, wearing that funny suit and launching missiles helter-skelter. And, as George Will notes in supporting his claim that North Korea is a “rogue nation” with a “mysterious government,” Kim keeps building missiles even as North Koreans, “by the scores of thousands, die of starvation.” Yeah, Stalin was the same way—a bad guy. But whatever you say about someone who manages to stay in power even while his citizenry is starving to death, you can’t say he’s indifferent to his own survival. In fact, you can’t even conclude that he’s pursuing his survival irrationally. Kim Jong Il is about to embark on a dialogue with South Korea that may well lead to enough Western aid to feed the masses and thus save his political future. And one reason he’ll get so much aid is that he fired those missiles and scared George Will half to death. That isn’t crazy. It isn’t even “mysterious.”

If people want to argue that Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il are literally insane—which is what the pro-missile-defense argument requires—then fine. But in that case, can we at least resurrect the honest term “crazy state”? The term “rogue state” is just too easy: Missile-defense advocates throw it around, vaguely insinuating that the Husseins of the world are beyond reason, without having to actually support that unsupportable claim. 

Years ago, William Safire did get explicit on this point. He imagined a scenario in which an Iraqi dictator proves immune to the logic of deterrence. “When the U.S. President warns Iraq of total annihilation, the dictator shrugs it off as his way to Heaven.” As Janne Nolan and Mark Strauss pointed out in an article in the Brown Journal of World Affairs, this was an odd scenario to conjure up for a country whose current leader is undeniably secular (notwithstanding the occasional pious pose designed to gin up anti-Western fundamentalism). But Safire’s broad-brush rendering of Arab states is consistent with the whole “rogue state” rhetorical strategy: to depict rogues as a breed apart, all of them equally lacking in the sort of rationality possessed by leaders of European heritage.

Which brings us to one last definition of “rogue” that was in the Random House unabridged and may be closer to what the users of “rogue state” actually have in mind. The definition comes from biology: “a usually inferior organism … varying markedly from the normal.”

Dear Saddam: You’re dead. Is it possible that some rogue dictator would dismiss the threat of American retaliation not because of an insouciant disregard for continued existence but because he doubted American resolve? That would be ironic. After all, since rogue states are the least entangled with the United States economically and the least likely to have American tourists, exchange students, etc., they are actually the states that are most plausibly subject to American retaliation. (Saddam Hussein may be laboring under a misconception or two, but American reluctance to drop bombs on Iraq isn’t one of them.) Still, in the event that the credibility of American retaliation is a problem, I have a solution. The United States is currently prohibited by law from assassinating foreign heads of state. If Congress conspicuously passed a law authorizing the assassination of leaders whose states had launched a nuclear attack, that might help clarify their thinking. You think I’m joking? Hey, it would cost $60 billion less than missile defense and be much more effective.

Fact-check update: In my last rant against missile defense, I highlighted this sentence from a pro-missile-defense column by William Safire: “But many who insist it will never work were doubtful our technology could ever put a man on the moon.” I asked readers to e-mail me if they could find even one person who was on record as saying missile defense would never work and as having said the moon shot would never work. So far no one has managed. I’m all ears.