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Uncertainty and War: Iran Edition

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This week’s WPR column considers the rhetoric of war against Iran:

The case for attacking Iran relies overwhelmingly on the concept of uncertainty. We don’t know if the Iranians want to build a bomb, or whether they can build a bomb, or when they might be able to build a bomb. Even if they build one, the consequences will remain unpredictable, because we don’t know what they would do with a bomb, or how their neighbors would react to an Iranian bomb. The deterrent effect of an Iranian nuclear weapon might prevent us from seeking regime change or some other aggressive military option, thus creating even more uncertainty. Containment might be possible, but the costs could be high and much would remain out of U.S. control.

It’s understandable how so much uncertainty can trigger anxiety. What is less clear is how we arrived at the notion that airstrikes against the Iranian nuclear program can eliminate this uncertainty. Prospects for success of an Israeli strike remain iffy, and U.S. estimates suggest that an attack would only briefly delay Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, it’s difficult to say what precisely would count as “success” or how the Israelis would measure the effectiveness of their attack. Tehran would certainly declare victory as soon as the last Israeli aircraft left its airspace, and the Iranians would control public assessment of the damage to their nuclear facilities. Moreover, an Israeli strike on Iran, or a joint U.S.-Israeli strike, would hardly disarm the Islamic Republic. And once started, the war would end according to Tehran’s timetable, as Israel lacks the capability, and the United States the will or interest, to conquer Iran and replace the current regime. It is not certain that the regime of economic sanctions targeting Iran would break in case of an attack, but it’s certainly possible. Similarly, it’s not certain that Russia and China would become more forthcoming with military assistance to Tehran, but that, too, is certainly possible.

Spencer has an interesting post comparing the 2002-3 Iraq debate to the current Iran debate:

The war fever of 2002-3 was stoked by a government that had made up its mind. Whatever war fever exists in 2012 exists in spite of the current government’s national security apparatus. I work out of the Pentagon these days. People here do not want war with Iran.

You can even try to caveat that case to be fair to Shane’s thesis, but it still doesn’t hold up. For instance: there’s an argument that the Clinton administration didn’t want war with Iraq, but because of its reluctance to accept that the United Nations weapons inspectors actually disarmed Iraq, it seeded the bed for the Bush administration to co-opt its warnings about Saddam to portray the invasion as bipartisan, consensus wisdom. Could President Santorum do the same thing with Obama?

Not really. The Clinton administration did not argue, as Gen. Dempsey did, that a war would be destabilizing. It enforced a no-fly zone and administered a four-day bombing campaign called Desert Fox. That, obviously, wasn’t an invasion, but it provided a rhetorical opening that the Obama team hasn’t provided. The most you can say is that Obama has repeatedly argued that a nuclear Iran is a destabilizing force that can’t be allowed; but that’s baseline political discourse.

There’s an interesting counter-factual comparison to be made between the Obama administration and a notional first term Gore administration. I think there’s sufficient evidence to conclude that Al Gore was not personally interested in war with Iraq (just ask him!), but it is often argued (by Naderites and neocons, among others) that he would have been unable to resist the pressure for war that would have mounted from hawkish elements in the liberal internationalist fold and on the neocon right. We’re seeing an imperfect test of that proposition now; the cases are substantially different (Iraq, notably, lacked an “Iraq” as counter-argument), but nevertheless suggestive of how Iraq might have played out with an unenthusiastic administration.

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