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August 31, 2015 7:35 am

The Stockdale Paradox and the Iran Nuclear Deal

avatar by Stephen Rutenberg

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Nuclear negotiatons in Lausanne in March, leading up to the nuclear deal. From left to right: Ernest Moniz, John Kerry, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Ali Akbar Salehi. Photo: Wikipedia.

Nuclear negotiatons in Lausanne in March, leading up to the nuclear deal. From left to right: Ernest Moniz, John Kerry, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Ali Akbar Salehi. Photo: Wikipedia.

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.

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  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Any effort to explain the impact of the Shoah on the conscious state of mind of the Israeli psyche by those living in the Diaspora would a priori be laced with understatement at the least and grossly inaccurate at the most. Having never lived through a war, such as the one fought last summer, or terror events occurring on a regular basis in your city and living some 700 kilometres from a country run by a regime whose population is some ten times yours and whose size is 636 times yours that threatens your existence very frequently can certainly conjure up formidable existential images in one’s past collective consciousness, such as the Holocaust for Jews. I lived in the Chicago area for sixty years and here in Israel for six. From the expanse of a mere ten percent of my life experience, I have learned that the experience of an American Jew may not be a very accurate indicator of what an Israeli Jew has to endure living in this type of extremely hostile environment. Just as an example of the contrast in existence between the uSand Israel, I remember teaching English at the regional high school at Kibbutz Newe Eitan, located in the Beit Shean Valley, and at Kibbutz Maoz Haim, located in the Jordan valley, during the academic year 1976-1977. During the entire year, I lived on Kibbutz Newe Ur, located exactly one kilometre from Jordan on the western side of the Jordan River, and slept in a room with an M1 rifle loaded and ready for immediate use should the necessity occur. At one point during the summer break before the school year hd begun, I alone was called upon to defend 100 children living in the children’s houses during the day because all of the other men were working in the fields, the fish ponds, or outside of the kibbutz. I was twenty-six year old and had not undergone any military training. This is still life here in Israel in many places throughout the country.

  • John Kerry

    Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Several nuclear missiles detonating in Israel could have a similar effect. Iran’s leaders have referred to Israel as a “one-bomb” country and state that their goal is to wipe Israel off the map. Why minimize the dangers posed?

    This author was more convincing when he argued in his last column that Alisa Doctoroff should be lauded for donating to the BDS-supporting New Israel Fund.

    For his next article, I hear that Rutenberg will explain to us how Hamas should be praised because it brings Jews closer together (in the bomb shelters).

  • shloime

    first of all is the “stockdale paradox” applicable? is israel in the position of a prisoner-of-war, with no control over the situation? and how exactly will israel’s “attitude” make any difference at all to whether iran builds a bomb, or uses it?

    more importantly, is the “stockdale paradox”, as outlined here, even true? how many of the prisoners, who shared stockdale’s outlook, were killed anyway? how does passive optimism, in the face of genocide, work? it didn’t save the jews from the nazis, or the christians from the romans. and since stockdale’s survival was the exception rather than the rule, isn’t it more reasonable to attribute his survival to luck?

    a more reasonable analysis of israel’s position is that israel is quite capable of dealing with her enemies (optimism), if the united states would only stop interfering and helping them (realism). and if obama and kerry could learn some basic negotiating skills, instead of their grovelling capitulations, we could leave the heroics to american admirals

  • You are looking at the wrong end of things

    First, given the factual polling results of YEARS now, Israel has been a partisna issue for while. A majority of democrats feel as Obama does (the problem in the ME for a retreating USa, IS Israel).

    Next, this deal IF ADHERED to depends on an unknown (since Iran WILL get nukes) …. can they even be deterred from getting a nuke into Israel one way or another.

    Last, the OBVIOUS consequence of this deal to a SELF CONFIDENT Israel is therefore, that on the expiration of this deal, when Iran will have nukes, is that Israel will have a usable, deployed, intact, trained, LARGE dedicated, separate FIRST STRIKE NUCLEAR FORCE.

    Keep in mind, that in 1944 and with only that tech, the USA in 10 months isolated enough U-235 for a weapon so reliable we didn’t even test it, we just dropped it on Hiroshima (Alamogordo was a plutonium device)