BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. If there's one thing that can distract the nattering nabobs from the war in Iraq, it's rumors of a new war in Iran. This week the press and the public responded to reports that no options are off the table for dealing with the perceived Iranian threat, not even the possibility of using nuclear bunker-buster bombs to take out Iran's burgeoning nuclear capabilities. The plans came to light last weekend in an article by New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh. It made Slate columnist Fred Kaplan wonder not only about President Bush's intentions but also those of Hersh's anonymous sources. Kaplan proposed four explanations for why insiders would leak word of a possible nuclear option to the press. He called the first one “the madman theory," the idea that portraying a trigger-happy President could back an enemy down. It's a scenario with a clear historical precedent.
FRED KAPLAN: When Richard Nixon was President, he came into office thinking that he could get the North Vietnamese to back down by making them think that he was crazy, he was a madman, that he might even use nuclear weapons. So when he first got in there, he put bombers and missiles on a higher level of alert, knowing the Russians would notice this and that they might pressure the North Vietnamese to back off. That didn't do anything. Later, he stepped up bombing in North Vietnam to make it look like he was crazy. That didn't do anything.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there's a second version of the madman theory that you posit, and that is that the Europeans, who have been reluctant to impose economic sanctions on Iran because of their close trade ties, especially for energy, might be more willing to do so if they think the alternative is madman President Bush suddenly going nuclear in Tehran.
FRED KAPLAN: Right. And whether or not that's Bush's intent, it seems like it's having that effect to some degree. And it's right there in Hersh's article. He quotes a European diplomat as saying, you know, “maybe we have to get together on this to bring the Iranians to their senses and keep this nuclear juggernaut from getting out of control.”
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there's another more mundane scenario, what you call "bureaucratic politics." Tell me how that works and how Sy Hersh and the rest of the mainstream media figure into it.
FRED KAPLAN: Yeah. I think this is probably the most likely, and it's certainly most transparently the case. This happens a lot. A policy is formulating in the White House or the Pentagon. There's a group of people who don't like it at all. It's also a kind of policy that would be unpopular if it were revealed, so the people who don't like it leak that it's about to happen. And then pressure builds, questions get answered, the President or the Secretary of Defense get uncomfortable with the questions, and maybe they back off the policy.
BOB GARFIELD: Then there's one other theory which intrigues me, and that is that it's a Trojan horse in advance of a much tinier Trojan horse. You call it the "three options theory."
FRED KAPLAN: Right. Well, this is another kind of standard bureaucratic tactic. Let's say you're an Assistant Secretary of Defense or something, and you're writing a policy memo where you want to make sure that your recommendation gets the best play. You know, it's like option one, declare all-out war, option two, surrender, and then option three is what you want to do. So it could be that the nuclear option is put on the table so that if Bush ends up attacking Iran but doesn't use nuclear weapons, it'll look like a relative act of restraint.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the risks of all this, I guess, is that it can spiral out of control and force the President's hand in maybe a catastrophic way.
FRED KAPLAN: Well, yeah. There's a term for this. It's called playing chicken - you know, two guys driving cars straight into each other on the highway at midnight and you hope that one of them or both of them veer of the road before they crash into each other. Herman Kahn, who was a nuclear strategist in the early 60s, said that one way that you win a game of chicken is that you remove your steering wheel and wave it out your window so that the other guy knows that he has to pull off. He has no choice. Well, you know, the problem is both sides - the Bush Administration and the Iranian president, are revving their engines so loudly that they could both be, to use Kahn's metaphor, unscrewing the steering wheels off the panel now and forcing a situation where they both crash into each other. I mean, it's one of the great dangers of playing these clever strategic games--is that you could end up killing yourself.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. So a game of chicken can happen on a back road and nobody sees it – or it can happen in full view of a [CHUCKLES] world audience. Does that change the dynamics of the game itself?
FRED KAPLAN: Yeah, I think it does. You know, Congress finds out about it. Congress holds secret hearings. They ask, you know, “Is this real? We want to know about it if you do this. This is a bad idea.” People come and talk with the President. People come and talk with the chiefs. Maybe a general or two resigns in protest. And this, no doubt, is at least one of the motives for Hersh's sources, to bring it out into the open so that enough people express such horror at it that maybe it won't happen.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Fred. Well, thank you very much.
FRED KAPLAN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Fred Kaplan writes the War Stories column for Slate. Full disclosure – he's married to Brooke.