The Stockdale Paradox and the Iran Nuclear Deal
Admiral Jim Stockdale was held as a prisoner-of-war for more than seven and a half years in the now infamous “Hanoi Hilton” camp during the Vietnam War. He was tortured to the point of near death on numerous occasions, while also spending years in complete isolation. As the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in the camp, Stockdale not only resisted providing his captors with any information, but he imposed order and gave inspiration to the entire camp.
Years later, Jim Collins, the author of the management book, Good to Great, asked Stockdale how he managed to stay alive and sane under such terrible circumstances. Stockdale replied, “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Stockdale was then asked if there was a character trait of the captives who did not survive that he could identify. He replied that it was those who were overly (and incorrectly) optimistic that didn’t make it out alive. The men who were certain they would be home by Christmas generally didn’t make it.
What has since become known as “Stockdale’s Paradox” is that to survive any challenge, be it personal, business-related or national, one needs to combine a sincere confidence in ultimate success with a realistic assessment of the severity of the situation. In other words, confidence must be combined with realism.
When it comes to those who oppose the nuclear deal with Iran, I see a very troubling failure of both components of Stockdale’s Paradox. In place of confidence in Israel and America’s survival, there is close to apocalyptic panic; and in place of reality as to what might happen if the deal was voted down in Congress, there are fantastical expectations of implausible outcomes.
It has become common to invoke the Holocaust in reaction to the proposed deal. Prominent politicians are allowed, and even encouraged, to make statements such as “Israel is being led to the ovens.” Even more nuanced and mainstream organizations often compare the Iranian regime to the Nazis.
Invocation of the Holocaust, the greatest destruction of Jewish life in history, in connection with our fears, demonstrates an utter lack of confidence in our own future.
As Stockdale and many others — such as neurologist/psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl — have shown, even those in seemingly hopeless situations can look inside themselves and find the confidence to persevere. Today, the state of Israel, with a leading air force, a nuclear arsenal and the promise of the continuity of the Jewish people, doesn’t need to look so deep to feel confident in its future. The same, of course, holds true for the long-term security of the United States.
Holocaust comparisons must not be used to explain legitimate concern about this deal, regardless of the perceived risk. There are plenty of bad deals to reference and nefarious regimes to compare to, which don’t nakedly demonstrate such lack of confidence.
Additionally, in relation to the second component of Stockdale’s Paradox, there is a dangerous lack of realism in much of the rhetoric expressed in opposition to the deal. It is not realistic to hope or assume that President Obama will change his mind and scrap the deal, regardless of how Congress votes.
It is also almost impossible the deal will be voted down with a veto-proof majority. And the P5+1 will not renegotiate the deal. Nor is the current level of sanctions pressure on Iran going to be maintained, even if Congress votes the deal down.
It is also unrealistic to ignore the costs that the opposition campaign is exacting: It is splitting the Jewish community, and making support for Israel into an increasingly partisan issue. Looking to the example of the prisoner-of-war certain he will be home for Christmas and then fatally despondent when Easter rolls around, I fear that the pro-Israel community may find itself more isolated, and its influence diminished, while the needs of Israel are only likely to increase with this deal in place.
None of this is to suggest that concerns and objections to the Iran deal are non-existent and should not be vocalized. It just must be done with an attitude of confidence, with realistic expectations and without any Holocaust connection or imagery. There are many things that can be done and ways to object to and/or improve the deal; one must simply be realistic as to what they are.