Duss take on Helle Dale of the Heritage Foundation on the subject of bombing Iran to Freedom:
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.
Matt Duss takes on James Fly in this week’s installment of Foreign Entanglements:
Yeah, good luck with that. Telling that Fly can’t offer any examples of successful regime change through the air, or really very much in terms of what a target set would look like. Excerpt time, wielding James Scott in the service of whacking strategic bombing!
Theories of strategic bombing, conditioned by the belief that the fog of war can be pierced, represent the essence of high modernist thinking. They posit an essentially intelligible target population or organization, and propose a relatively programmatic series of steps for influencing and reorganizing that population. The most sophisticated theories of strategic bombing delineate the social, economic, and organizational impact of the destruction of particular targets. Destroy this police station and criminality will ensue. Destroy worker’s homes and industrial production will slow. Destroy this factory and the German economy will collapse for lack of ball bearings. Destroy this communication facility and Saddam Hussein will lose control over his military and security services. Sufficiently damage North Vietnamese industry, and Hanoi will conclude that further war is too expensive. All of these theories presuppose a social system that is both highly legible and highly susceptible to outside influence.
However, the state can only see certain things. Many social structures and human relationships are essentially invisible to the state, beyond the ability of bureaucracies to catalogue and organize. In active and passive ways, these structures resist high modernist efforts in such areas as urban planning, agricultural reform, and social revolution. Experience in the twentieth century, not just in the case of strategic bombing but across the universe of state activity, has demonstrated that states tend to have a vastly over-optimistic sense of both the legibility and malleability of social institutions. In this context, it is hardly surprising that strategic bombing campaigns have failed in particularly destructive ways. Even strategic bombing campaigns that do not depend on deep insight into a target population do demand a very sophisticated understanding of how the enemy thinks about costs and benefits. Strategic bombing campaigns fail because they cannot meet the huge informational demands for success. The campaigns run up against concrete limitations on the reach of the state, and the ability of nations to force the world into their preferred shape.
Thoughts on the recent USN rescue of Iranian fishermen:
To be sure, this version of the rescue represents public relations spin, but soft power often amounts to framing narrative for the purposes of public relations. The Iranians’ claim that Iran frees pirate hostages all the time without the same degree of fanfarerepresents an implicit acknowledgement of the success of the hostage rescue in this regard. The Iranians surely also understand that the logic of positive-sum seapower — that the entire world benefits from freedom of the seas — contrasts sharply with their own threats to close the Straits of Hormuz in the event of an expanded oil embargo and their warning to the United States not to deploy another aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. It can also be applied antagonistically to any Iranian attempt to follow through on those threats. Pirates are the original hostis humani generis, but states that threaten maritime freedom, especially when maritime freedom has been construed in terms of common rights and common good, can also become “enemies of humankind.”
In short, the rescue illustrates the way in which CS-21 provides an internationalist vocabulary for the pursuit of national ends. The U.S. desire to contain and confront Iran may or may not be wise, but one of the purposes of a strategic document is to provide civilian leaders with sufficiently flexible policy tools to pursue national ends. In this case, the internationalist focus of CS-21 does not constrain U.S. action, but rather reframes it in terms much more palatable to regional allies and competitors. CS-21 plays a similar role in the South China Sea, placing U.S. national ends squarely on the same side as an internationalist vision of free navigation and exploration. From the point of view of the U.S. desire to tighten the screws on Iran, the rescue could not have come at a better time.
Last night I was on Alyona, talking drones and Iran:
My final entry into the Yale Journal Iran nuclear debate is up:
Ackerman and Cohen accept many of these lies at face value. Ackerman apparently believes that the autocrats in Bahrain would not have suppressed demonstrators, but for the specter of Iran. Dead protestors in dozens of states not threatened by Iran might wonder whether the Bahraini government is telling the truth about its motivations. He and Cohen believe that the Israelis will act irrationally, mostly because the Israelis insist that they will act irrationally. To my mind, the Israeli response to the Iranian nuclear program has been quite rational; they have pursued low cost, relatively low impact ways of disrupting the Iranian nuclear program, all while repeatedly insisting to their patron state that they are extremely concerned, and will very soon be launching a disruptive attack that could destabilize the whole region, and wouldn’t it be better if the Americans solved the problem? There is nothing even mildly irrational about this strategy, and there is no reason whatsoever to suspect that the Israelis will become more irrational, or the Bahrainis less autocratic, after an Iranian nuclear test.
Also see Michael’s excellent, long comment defending his perspective.
On last night’s Alyona, I discussed the same issue:
Today we’re revisiting the Iran: No Big Deal argument. First up, my column at WPR makes the case for thinking about Iran in terms of the behavior of other nuclear powers:
The problem with nukes is that there are strong material and normative pressures against their use, not least because states that use nukes risk incurring nuclear retaliation. Part of the appeal of nuclear weapons is their bluntness, but for foreign policy objectives requiring a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, they are useless. As a result, states with nuclear neighbors quickly find that they can engage in all manner of harassment and escalation without risking nuclear retaliation. The weapons themselves are often more expensive than the foreign policy objectives that they would be used to attain. Moreover, normative pressures do matter. Even “outlaw” nations recognize that the world views the use of nuclear — not to mention chemical or biological — weapons differently than other expressions of force. And almost without exception, even outlaw nations require the goodwill of at least some segments of the international community.
Given all this, it is not at all surprising that many countries eschew nuclear programs, even when they could easily attain nuclear status. Setting aside the legal problems, nuclear programs tend to be expensive, and they provide relatively little in terms of foreign policy return on investment. Brazil, for example, does not need nuclear weapons to exercise influence in Latin America or deter its rivals. Turkey, like Germany, Japan and South Korea, decided a long time ago that the nuclear “problem” could be solved most efficiently through alignment with an existing nuclear power.
Why do policymakers, analysts and journalists so consistently overrate the importance of nuclear weapons? The answer is that everyone has a strong incentive to lie about their importance. The Iranians will lie to the world about the extent of their program and to their people about the fruits of going nuclear. The various U.S. client states in the region will lie to Washington about how terrified they are of a nuclear Iran, warning of the need for “strategic re-evaluation,” while also using the Iranian menace as an excuse for brutality against their own populations. Nonproliferation advocates will lie about the terrors of unrestrained proliferation because they do not want anyone to shift focus to the manageability of a post-nuclear Iran. The United States will lie to everyone in order to reassure its clients and maintain the cohesion of the anti-Iran block.
Over at Yale Journal, Michael Cohen and Spencer Ackerman both responded to my op-ed on the Middle Eastern regional balance of power. Cohen takes a historical track, arguing that nuclear weapons have been important in past crises, while Ackerman points out that many regional actors are quite insistent about the dangers of Iranian nukes. Both are good; check them out. I’ll have a response later that discusses how Cohen gets the history wrong and Ackerman, for lack of a better phrase, gets the ontology wrong.
Last Sunday I found myself in a twitter brawl after declaring that a nuclear armed Iran, while hardly ideal, would have no significant effect on the Middle East balance of power. Yale Journal of International Affairs asked me to write a longer piece on that argument:
The following facts about Iran are largely beyond dispute. It is outspent militarily by three of its closest neighbors, including Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Its only friends in the Middle East are a few terrorist groups and Syria, a nation beset with domestic furor. It has extraordinarily hostile relations with the United States, and only relatively polite relations with Russia and China. Iran’s existing conventional military forces are obsolete by regional standards. The country suffers from substantial domestic discontent and has undergone serial crises of governance structure since at least the late 1980s. Iran is heavily dependent on resource exports, inextricably and directly linking its economy to the international market and inviting all of the problems normally associated with the “resource curse.”
These things are true today. They will remain true the day after Iran tests its first nuclear weapon.
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.
Hey now, it’s not as if knowing whether China has nuclear weapons is at all relevant to the practice of American foreign policy:
I do view China as a potential military threat to the United States… we already have superiority in terms of our military capability, and I plan to get away from making cutting our defense a priority and make investing in our military capability a priority, going back to my statement: peace through strength and clarity. So yes they’re a military threat. They’ve indicated that they’re trying to develop nuclear capability and they want to develop more aircraft carriers like we have. So yes, we have to consider them a military threat.
In the interest of balance and of due fairness to Herman Cain, the argument against the Chinese nuclear program is startlingly similar to the case against the Iranian, although I don’t believe that Iran is buidling aircraft carriers…
On a related note, the thought that Avigdor Lieberman was the only remaining obstacle to an Israeli-Iranian war is… alarming. At times like this, I take some solace in the fact that the world exploding is Good for Rob. If the long nightmare of peace and prosperity that prevailed under Bill Clinton still held, I might not even have job…
Who could have known that Michael Oren wasn’t an entirely reliable source regarding Israel’s military plans? After all, he totally predicted that Israel would strike Iran within eighteen months of January 2007. That must mean that he’s really, really well connected. The only other explanation is that members of the Israeli strategic class are quite comfortable lying to American journalists about Israeli interests. But really, that’s just too crazy to be believed.
In related news, Jeffrey Goldberg is now arguing that publicly noting that attacking Iran is a bad idea undermines Israeli deterrence and makes Israel more likely to attack Iran. Clever. I’m curious, however, how seriously Goldberg took this argument when he was writing the original article. For example, would subjecting the self-interested claims of Israeli policymakers to a trifle more scrutiny have accidentally revealed Israel’s reluctance to strike, and therefore damaged Israeli security? Would depicting the Israeli strategic class as divided on the wisdom of strikes against Iran have undermined Israel’s “deterrent credibility?” In other words, given Jeffrey Goldberg’s deep concern about the wisdom of pointing out the abject stupidity of attacking Iran, I have to wonder how credible he is as a reporter on Israeli strategic thought.