Who hasn’t heard about the Knobe Effect? Thus:

The “Knobe effect” is the phenomenon where people tend to judge that a bad side effect is brought about intentionally, whereas a good side effect is judged not to be brought about intentionally.

The best known cases used to demonstrate the Knobe effect are Knobe’s two chairman cases:


The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.”

The chairman of the board answered, “I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.”

They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.


The vice-president of the company went to the chairman of the board and said, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also help the environment.”

The chairman of the board answered, “I don’t care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.”

They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped. (Knobe, 2003a, p. 191).

About 82% of the participants given harm say that the chairman brought about the bad side effect (harming the environment) intentionally, while 77% of those given help said the chairman did not bring about the good side effect (helping the environment) intentionally (Knobe, 2003a, p. 192). These results have been replicated across a variety of cases involving side effects…

Hmm. Philosophers and psychologists can and do profusely squabble away over what if anything this tells us about human nature, ethics, intentions and so on. The underlying idea (namely that people seem much more ready to see blame than give praise) shows itself across modern politics, with opponents of Party X scrambling to proclaim why anything bad that might have come from Party X’s policies was deliberate or reckless, whereas anything good that came from the same policies would have happened anyway or was sheer luck.

Note too the sly gender bias in using a callous chairman. Maybe the Knobe Effect (if it exists) says nothing at all about ethics but rather plays on subtle risk-aversion (insofar as that too is not an ‘ethical’ issue) or even trite post-modern linguistic framing tricks. How can anyone not even CARE about all the HARM they’re causing, especially if they’re just MEN wanting PROFITS??

Anyway, the point for now is that when we look at the idea that lumbers on in international relations theory about the leaders of such-and-such a country being ‘rational actors’, we need to bear in mind that what is or is not ‘rational’ comes laden with all sorts of subliminal qualifications and ‘bias’.

That said, the clamour over the Trump Administration’s decision to send Qassem Suleimani to a richly deserved explosive end raises important questions of international negotiation principle, and they in turn make us ponder what is or is not ‘rational’.

Some quick thoughts.

First, do not be impressed by anyone who uses the word ‘assassination’. That frames the issue in a tendentious way. Suleimani was a hi-octane fanatical villain who for years had been busy killing Iranians, Iraqis, Americans and many others who got in his way. This looks like a well briefed account of his recent machinations. If any one person was ever a legitimate military target, he was that person.

The more interesting question is why it took so long to get him. This points to a key weakness in modern democratic politics: it’s hard to respond decisively to cunning sustained micro-aggression. It did not take long after the Iraq invasion for Iranian-sponsored IED bombs to begin killing Allied soldiers. If there was a firm response to Tehran then to bring home to the Iran leadership that this had to stop, we all missed it.

But why, they holler, did Trump not follow the wise example of Obama and negotiate with Tehran? Jaw-jaw > war-war and all that!

This completely misses the point. Blowing up Suleimani IS that negotiation. You might even see it as the most important part. It both sets the tone and defines what the negotiation is in fact about. You mess with us? We mess with you! There’s bleak clarity and bleak rationality in that business model.

This is the dark point of Apocalypse Now and Colonel Kurtz’ culminating monologue:

We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms.

And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget.

And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.

And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that.

If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment!

Because it’s judgment that defeats us.

Kurtz is saying that in the violent negotiation between the North Vietnamese and the Americans, the Vietnamese were stronger: they were ready to do whatever it took to win. And, of course, they won.

So, question. What are ‘rational actors’ prepared to do to win?

As rehearsed here many times, there are no good answers to Bad Leaders, people or regimes who deliberately go outside any normal framework to try to get their way. They prey on our restraint and judgement, confidently expecting us to make a trite cost-benefit analysis that leaves them in business. We think that by smothering them in diplomatic process we limit their practical scope for mischief: the problems they may continue to cause can be contained. Add some sanctions and blandishments and gushing media spin here and there, and you have a nice tidy policy.

This was the nub of the Obama Administration policy towards Iran. Constructive engagement aimed at tying down their nuclear weapon ambitions, in part by letting the Tehran regime know that it could stay in business. This is also the nub of the Trump Administration’s policy towards North Korea.

The problem is that this steady-as-she-goes policy comes with a cost. It’s like a nervous teacher avoiding confrontation by allowing a nasty kid with rich parents to bully other children in the playground as long as it does not ‘get out of hand’. The bully is secure. Even legitimised.

These regimes know that they now have a blank cheque to crush domestic opposition, as Western governments now have some weird stake in these regimes’ survival. They also (not unreasonably) treat this policy as a sign of Western weakness, and go out of their way to mount escalating provocations to test what if anything we really want. Duck and weave on technical nuclear commitments here, or launch a new missile there, or kill some US soldiers/contractors off to the side, or probe away with cyber attacks on Western infrastructure, or find a mob to attack a US embassy.

Garry Kasparov knows a few things about threats and bluff on the chessboard. Here he is on Twitter:

Deterrence is based on standing up against small aggressions in order to prevent big ones, when the price will be much higher. Many years of success led Iran & Soleimani to feel invincible, to attack a US embassy, when of course a US president had to respond.

This is how appeasement kills. This is why inaction can be a deadly choice. It raises the stakes, postpones the inevitable, and encourages aggressors to assume they can act with impunity until the eventual response is massive and destabilizing.

Action has clear costs because it is the reality of the road taken, making it politically unattractive. Inaction hopes to pass the dire consequences and blame to a successor, as has happened with Syria and Iran.

We’ll never know how many more innocents Qasem Soleimani would have murdered or how many hundreds of thousands more refugees he’d have helped create. But don’t pretend you know that what is to come is worse than the world with such a person in it.


It’s hard to take seriously the idea that the Tehran regime are ‘rational’ in any sense that we use that term. They have run Iran for some forty years now and achieved truly wretched results, resorting to escalating brutality against their own people with Suleimani’s death squads to the fore. They nonetheless are cunning enough to cling on to power and so keep their corrupt businesses and nasty ideological schemes staggering on for as long as possible.

Now, at long last, as they gnash their teeth and froth up public outrage and make belligerent threats of retaliation, the Iranian leaders can’t be sure that Washington will sit back and watch when Iranian domestic discontent next starts to boil.

This is why the End of Suleimani is a horrible shock to Iran’s ruling elite. They may or may not be rational. But in either case they have to think hard and long about their next moves.

Gosh! That crazy Trump really means it. Maybe we’re next?