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Attack Iran! Or Not.

[ 54 ] November 7, 2011 |

David Rothkopf thinks that Obama may order an attack on Iran before the election:

But in the end, as dangerous as an attack might be militarily and politically, if the President believes there is no other alternative to stopping Iran from gaining the ability to produce highly enriched uranium and thus manufacture nuclear weapons, he will seriously consider military action and it is hardly a certainty he won’t take it. From a domestic political perspective, right now Obama’s strong suit is his national security performance. For the first time in years, he has taken the issue away from the Republicans. Right now they simply cannot attack him as being weak or assert they understand defense better. That is why they are so silent on the issue. Obama has only four real areas of vulnerability on this front. First, if he pushes too hard for defense budget cuts before the election, the Republicans will go after him. He won’t. He will seek cuts but will be comparatively cautious. Next, if there were a terrorist attack of some sort and the administration seemed unprepared or responded weakly, that would create a problem. But that is a perennial wild card. Third, if he distances himself from Israel, the Republicans will seek to capitalize on the sense some supporters of that country have that Obama is not a committed friend. There is already plenty of activity in that area … and the Israelis are eager to take advantage of their perceived election year leverage. And finally, if Iran were to detonate a nuclear bomb, Obama would be blamed and fiercely attacked for a policy of engagement that ultimately proved to be toothless.

Three levels of thinking on this; I’ll try to keep them separate.

First, I think that an attack on Iran is a terrible idea.  I really do believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon will change virtually nothing with regards to the balance of power in the Middle East; take or leave that for the moment, I’ll have more on it later.  Most of the dangers that people warn of with regards to an Iranian nuke (Iranian hyper-bellicosity, terrorist attacks, etc.) are more likely to come about if the US (and/or Israel) undertakes preventative war against the Islamic Republic. To be sure, I’d rather Iran not build a nuke, and I strongly support a panoply of efforts to make the building of a nuke more expensive, but this is a different question than whether Iran will enjoy significant strategic advantage from possessing a nuclear weapon.

Second, I don’t at all think that Rothkopf is wrong in believing that Obama may order an attack.  Consensus Washington has utterly convinced itself that Iran Must Not Be Allowed to Have Nukes Because The World Will End Or Something, and the advisors Obama has chosen are part of that consensus, although by no means the most enthusiastic faction.  This doesn’t mean that an attack will necessarily happen, but it means that there’s a chance; I’d guess 25% given the latest from the IAEA.  If it happens, this will represent a gruesome mistake in what has otherwise been a fairly credible foreign policy record.

Third, while Rothkopf seems to think that Obama will enjoy a significant domestic bump from the attack, I’m not at all certain.  It’s true that Presidents tend to get a temporary bump during foreign policy crises, but it’s just as well known that this bump fades.  In this case, I suspect that Obama would enjoy temporary support from “independents” while permanently losing a small but crucial portion of his base.  I also doubt that the international uncertainty surrounding an attack will have any benefits for the US economy. It is by no means clear, however, that Obama and his advisors share this view of the domestic consequences of an attack.

Comments (54)

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  1. sleepyirv says:

    If foreign policy is not a sideshow in the next campaign, it will mean WWIII started in the meantime. Foreign policy pundits tend to overstate how important these issues are to everyone else either as a form of projection or hoping that they can force a politician into action.

    Of course, Obama has a better understanding of the domestic scene than Rothkopf.

  2. The same people have been telling me for years that an attack on Iran is imminent. They’re like Austrian-school economics fans talking about inflation. Here it comes! No, wait here it comes! This time for sure! And now they’re at it again.

    I don’t know, maybe. Perhaps, contrary to all outward appearances, Obama really would like to bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran. I guess it’s possible.

    But the argument that he’d do it to boost his domestic prospects is just wanking. This is the President who ginned up absolutely none of the flags-and-honor b.s. that Presidents love so much before sending forces into the Libya operation, and instead gave a terse statement from another country, before going about his business. This is the President who took a political hit for increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. I can’t think of another President in my lifetime who has done less to gain political advantage for his military actions.

    This line of thinking about wars and bombings being carried out for domestic political consumption – that we can just assume that consideration is a major driving force behind any decision to use the military – seems like one of those off-the-shelf arguments that is simply taken on faith as a universal truth by the people who make it. It’s never a case to be made; it’s just considered to be obviously true anytime the shooting starts.

    • mds says:

      The same people have been telling me for years that an attack on Iran is imminent.

      You need to stop reading Israeli news sites, or at least skip over the articles that quote President Peres.

      Of course, that’s the repeated talk from Israel of threatening to illegally assault Iran for daring to emulate Israel’s own approach to nuclear weapons. But unless President Obama has decided that they’re on their own (a decision with definite domestic political ramifications), there is a nonzero chance that the US will get dragged into any Israeli military action by its AIPAC short hairs. Though I suppose if they wait until after the end-of-year troop drawdown before violating Iraq’s airspace, we could have vaguely plausible deniability.

      (No, I don’t think Israel is necessarily committed to attacking Iran; they’re much more committed to talking about attacking Iran, as a further club against an international community that has the temerity to keep suggesting that Palestinians aren’t simply cockroaches to be exterminated. And if they don’t follow through, they can always blame the Obama administration, in hopes of getting him replaced with a bloodthirsty theocrat.)

      • This is no different from what I was hearing in 2004.

        Except, back then, it was the American presence in Iraq that made and Israeli attack so likely. Now, it’s the American withdrawal from Iraq that makes it so likely.

        • Ed Marshall says:

          The difference was that the mandarins were split between “must get rid of centrifuges now1!!1!!”, and “We have time, you can only process uranium so fast, lets let sanctions work” in that time frame. That time is running out, Iran is up to a mass of MEU that can be dialed up to HEU in quantities to make a number of weapons. There aren’t any foreign policy elite voices that I can think willing to stick their neck out and say “an Iranian bomb isn’t the end of the world”.

          • Jason says:

            “There aren’t any foreign policy elite voices that I can think willing to stick their neck out and say “an Iranian bomb isn’t the end of the world”.”

            And yet they do exist.

            http://www.iar-gwu.org/node/361

            http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/4679/4679

          • There aren’t any foreign policy elite voices that I can think willing to stick their neck out and say “an Iranian bomb isn’t the end of the world”.

            True. On the other hand, we managed not to attack the USSR and China, at that was during a much-more hawkish period in American history.

            The discussion about the Chinese bomb, especially, was like what we’re hearing about Iran. ZOMG, that Maoists are crazy! Fanatics who’d gladly take a retaliatory strike in order to hit us!

            • Ed Marshall says:

              Iran isn’t the USSR or China, it’s a comparatively weak state surrounded by enemies that are quietly agitating behind the scenes for the US to do their dirty work for them. I don’t mean Israel either. They are loud and they aren’t offering any carrots, just sticks that the administration is used to anyway (meaning Israeli bleating is a factor, but it’s omnipresent, it’s a factor, but on it’s own it wouldn’t work).

              The Democratic national security team is allergic to proliferation (as it should be), in a way that the Republican elite isn’t as serious about. The conservative foreign policy elite understand on a vague level that they have some responsibility to the three legs of the NPT. With them, it can easily be sublimated to realist concerns in their schema (it wouldn’t help much in this case).

              You start putting the vectors here together and they are adding up in a crosshair on Natanz. I’ve been working on security issues, and I’ve lately had access to people who have or are very close to the people who have the Iranian portfolio not just nationally, but internationally, and this isn’t a perspective I would have had a couple months ago. I wouldn’t take the over on some sort of “cripple Iran’s nuclear program” mission, but I would peg it higher than Farley’s 25%. Gates is gone, and he was the best break on that sort of nonsense. Leon Panetta is going to be on the other side.

              • ajay says:

                Iran isn’t the USSR or China, it’s a comparatively weak state surrounded by enemies

                Iran isn’t surrounded by enemies. One obvious non-enemy neighbour of Iran: Iraq.

                • dan says:

                  Heh

                  Let’s do the rounds properly.

                  Turkey? Nope – major energy and commercial dealings, military cooperation over Kurdish irredentism, the subject of much anguished, hysterical squealing in certain quarters re Obama losing Turkey to Iran.

                  Armenia? Nope – Iran supported/supports them against Azerbaijan.

                  Azerbaijan? Unhappy with Iran over their relations with Armenia.

                  Russia ( maritime border on Caspian sea )? Nope, not much in the way of enmity there.

                  Turkmenistan? Nope

                  Afghanistan? Nope, Karzai seems to be quite happy with his Iranian counterparts.

                  Pakistan? Nope. Would like to buy gas/leccy if the US would only stop interfering.

                  Oman? Nope. Generally good relations all round.

                  Qatar? Nope. Generally good relations all round – see recent Qatar airlines deal for a flavour.

                  Kuwait? Desperate for there not to be a war, as they’re guaranteed to be the biggest losers.

                  UAE? Don’t like Iran, but, Abu Dhabi apart, need the money and the trade to keep going. Parts are virtual Iranian colonies – obviously sanctions are good for business.

                  Saudi Arabia? Almost an official enemy – but still manages to maintain diplomatic relations.

                  Iraq? Wholly owned subsidiary of Iran?

                • Ed Marshall says:

                  Quick link

                  There is all sorts of stuff that came out of wikileaks. That isn’t where I’m getting my assessment from, but there is more than meets the eye here. Many of those countries may even protest publicly if a strike happened, while privately wheeling and dealing for the U.S. to do their dirty work.

              • ajay says:

                I’ve been working on security issues, and I’ve lately had access to people who have or are very close to the people who have the Iranian portfolio not just nationally, but internationally,

                I doubt it, frankly.

                • Ed Marshall says:

                  I could care less if you believe or disbelieve that, but my encapsulation of the Turkish position was made (and he said it in a public forum) by Kikmet Cetin, and the Egyptian position was relayed by Nabil Fahmy.

                • ajay says:

                  my encapsulation of the Turkish position was made (and he said it in a public forum) by Kikmet Cetin

                  Hikmet Cetin (not Kikmet) said in public that Turkey was weeks away from building a working nuclear weapon? When? Where? Link?

                  …and you believe him?

                • Ed Marshall says:

                  GZ Summit, LA, two weeks ago, and yes, I believe that. GZ is where governments send people to be frank. That is why everyone there is Frm. something, but everything they say is the position of their government. I believe what is said there far more than what is said by officials. If you are waiting for a Turkish minister to call a press conference and announce THAT, you are going to be waiting for awhile.

  3. c u n d gulag says:

    Maybe I’m stupid, but Pakistan scares me a hell of a lot more than Iran.

    The youth in Iran is largely pro-West and some are very pro-US.
    Nothing will turn them against us quite like an attack. Why would you risk turning a generation or two who might end up being your allies, and turn them into lifelong enemies?

    Pakistan has shaky leadership, a ton of religious nuts in the military, and it already has nukes.

    And we’re fretting about Iran?

  4. mpowell says:

    On this issue I agree with JFL that I don’t expect Obama to try this as an election stunt. If he did it in Oct or thereabouts, I think it might give him a 1-2 pt boost because you’d get the ra-ra benefits but not so much of the downside. George Bush Sr made the mistake of ending the first Iraq War too soon to help his re-election chances.

    But let’s just hope it doesn’t happen. I’m hoping that the DC elite just get used to Iran being ‘close’ to a nuclear weapon as the new normal so they don’t feel the need to bomb away. Or Iran surprises everyone with some tests one day and they gain the NoKo immunity on the issue overnight.

  5. hass says:

    In 2003, Iran offered to make complete peace with the US and even to recognize Israe. This and many other Iranian concessions have been ignored, because Iranian ‘nuclear weapons’ are just an excuse for forcing regime change in Iran, just as “WMDs in IRaq” was just an excuse for a war.
    http://www.iranaffairs.com/iran_affairs/2011/11/iran-offered-to-recognize-israel-in-2003.html

    • I don’t doubt that there are those who want to use the Iranian nuclear program to push a regime-change agenda: there obviously are.

      But it’s a mistake to treat the entire issue as a phony pretext, like the Iraq WMD fraud. Unless you want to claim that the IAEA and the Russians are in on it.

      Personally, I’m concerned about a regional arms race. Israel and Pakistan have them, so now Iran’s getting them. If Iran gets them, Saudi Arabia will do so. If the Saudis do, Egypt will want them.

      Which isn’t to say that a military response is a good idea.

  6. shah8 says:

    That was an exceptionally sketchy and stupid column. While it was usefully brought to our attention as an example of what the hawk elite faction is thinking, I see very little chance that Obama would see things their way.

    The simple fact of the matter is, you’re effectively declaring war on a sovereign country, one that isn’t going to care about any legal fig-leafs for that action. It’s not going to end with the bombing, you know? Iran is, also, well embedded in the region with a palette of options that would hurt us far more than we intend to hurt them. Of course we could threaten them about not retaliating, but that would just challenge their creativity.

    Lastly… Arab Spring? We would no longer have soft power in the region, power that is much more valuable than any attempt at ending the Iranian nuke drive. We can’t afford that in the general financial crisis.

  7. Ed Marshall says:

    It isn’t the fact that Iran has a bomb in *itself* that is problematic, it’s the aftermath of an Iranian bomb test. I was told by the frm. Turkish Foreign Sec. that Turkey would follow suit and test their own weapon within weeks of that event. The frm Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. said they would give it a month or so to see what happened on the diplomatic front, but that they would test a weapon fairly quickly to. I didn’t have access to the Saudis, but yeah…that is a gimme.

    Leaving aside a bunch of speculation about what Iran might do with a weapon (I believe the U.S. is more concerned with who they might hand off a couple hundred kg. of HEU to), there is the unfortunate problem that you will have transformed the middle east from a region with one nuclear power into one with at least four that all loathe and distrust each other. I don’t think that situation would hold together long. There is going to some sort of mistake or miscalculation.

    None of this is to say that I think the U.S. has any business trying to launch a military attack on Iran. It would probably take a burrowing nuclear device on highly populated areas with unspeakable consequences to actually knock the program out (until Iran put itself back together after going apeshit in every possible way that it has power to strike back). However, I think that an Iranian bomb would shift the power balance in the middle east in extremely dangerous ways.

    • Barry says:

      “(I believe the U.S. is more concerned with who they might hand off a couple hundred kg. of HEU to),”

      Precisely nobody, for the obvious reasons.

      • Ed Marshall says:

        You would think so, but the U.S. position on enrichment is far more hardline than the Israeli position in negotiations. I don’t know why exactly, but that is all I can come up with.

    • ajay says:

      I was told by the frm. Turkish Foreign Sec. that Turkey would follow suit and test their own weapon within weeks of that event.

      Turkey is weeks away from having a working nuclear weapon? Really? I think someone is drawing the long bow here.

      • Malaclypse says:

        Turkey is weeks away from having a working nuclear weapon?

        And discusses that in casual conversation with people, rather than keeping that secret closely-guarded. That seems likely, yes.

        • Ed Marshall says:

          He said it to a room full of people that included James Baker, George Schultz, and James Cartwright. I don’t think this is a particularly closely guarded secret. I’ve got pics if you want.

          • Ed Marshall says:

            Hell, for that matter, Mike Shuster from NPR was in the seat in front of me. He heard that. Then he went and wrote an article called “bringing the Left and Right together” about the summit. That is NPR for you.

        • Barry says:

          This nicely points out the facts on the ground here – the bleating about how we need to attack Iran is largely from those who urged the Iraq War on us.

  8. ..if the US (and/or Israel) undertakes preventative war against…

    Screw Iran. You know what I’d like to see nuked to oblivion? That word: “preventative”.

    Use “preventive”. Or in this particular case: “unprovoked”.

    (oh, sure, you might think what I write is hyperbole, but do you know how hard it is to eradicate crappy usage? Cockroaches and Deinococcus Radiodurans are delicate flowers by comparison.)

  9. ed_finnerty says:

    You know

    I never understood what placed Iran in the Axis of Evil. What evil thing did they do ?

    I can’t recall anything – can someone inform me.

    • Hogan says:

      Didn’t they disguise a civilian airliner as an F-14 to provoke the USS Vincennes into shooting it down?

    • witless chum says:

      Well, you can’t have an Axis with two countries in it. The Bush Administration was about that reckless, as I recall.

    • dave says:

      They helped bring Ronald Reagan to power by showing up Jimmy Carter as an ineffective crisis leader. Possibly the most evil act of the late twentieth century. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

  10. Downpuppy says:

    Beyond the obvious moral & legal issues, the military isn’t exactly pushing for Eagle Claw II. We don’t have anything like the force needed to take & hold Iran, and would probably end up getting thrown out of Iraq as a side benefit.

    Oil would hit $200, Europe & China would cut a separate peace, and we’d be left with some sort of neo-Confederate religious dictatorship under Mike Huckabee.

  11. gman says:

    Obama already has big problems w/ his base.
    I voted for him largely b/c I thought he was much LESS likely to bomb Iran.

    • John F says:

      “less likely”
      what’s scary is that other than perhaps Ron Paul I would argue that he is still less likely than any of the Republican contenders

  12. Pococurante says:

    Sounds like right-wing scaremongering.

    However a nuclear weaponized Iran means just that more difficulty reigning in their proxy fanatics in the region. Gaza missiles right now do occasionally kill but they mainly just disrupt daily life.

    A tactical nuke is just fine with that level of accuracy.

  13. mikeyes says:

    This whole story comes out of a report that the British have contingency plans to go to war with Iran.

    I guess this is the fall out from the educated classes not having to serve in the military. Of course GB has these contingency plans. We do too. We have plans to invade Mexico and Canada for that matter. The job of the various combat commands is to prepare for contingencies, no matter how remote.

    When Desert Storm occurred the plan was in place and had been for years. It would be remiss if we didn’t have these plans.

    But that doesn’t mean that we are going to implement the plans. To state that is a huge leap of logic.

    Every so often someone “discovers” that we have such plans. Not that it is a secret, anyone who has been through officer training in the military is aware of them. There is an entire group at Ft. Leavenworth that does nothing but plan.

    Let’s learn to google first and make statements later.

    • John F says:

      We have plans to invade Mexico and Canada for that matter.

      Of course we do, and between World Wars we had contingency plans to fight a war with Britain too…

  14. Juan Cole had a great piece on this subject.

  15. dan says:

    Heh.

    25%? That’s an order of magnitude too high – the chances of the US deliberately and calculatedly going to war with Iran, absent the Iranians doing something that they have shown absolutely no intention of doing, are zero; and the 2.5% represents the odds of a catastrophically stupid “accident”, made possible by the lack of any coherent engagement structures on the ground to mitigate that possibility.

    The problem with all these discussions is that they fundamentally elide any base-line discussion of the awkward reality that Iran is not a small, bankrupt, failed, failing or powerless state – it’s a fucking G-20 sized economy that owns some of the most important geo-strategic real estate on the planet; it cannot be trifled with a la Libya, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan, and anyone who suggests that it can just be “bombed” without resulting in a long, brutal and damaging war to ALL parties involved is a fool. The US military brass understood this very well during the Bush administration and senior staff constantly briefed against the idea; nothing has changed since then apart from the US being obviously too broke to contemplate fighting a real war, as opposed to the mickey-mouse wars of the last decade.

  16. Jerry says:

    I live in the Mountains of Southeast Arizona.I noticed an up tick in Military Helicopter activity this month.They practice out here because the terrain has lots of passes,washes,hills and mountains that then drop into large plains. I have not seen this much activity since 2003….

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