Saturday, July 05, 2008

Notes on War with Iran

Thomas Powers' essay in the New York Review of Books is right on the mark regarding potential war with Iran. It is, of course, an absolutely crazy idea, but the Bush administration doesn't appear to want to disabuse anyone of that crazy idea. Read the piece.

There are three points I want to highlight here:

1) Iran's leaders are not "crazy." I discussed this two years ago in a slightly different context. But the point bears repeating for a targeted reason: the Bush administration uses this claim as one of the many ideological blinders in its ideological toolbox. Powers, however, writes,
Nothing in the modern affairs of nations has been more exhaustively analyzed and debated than the utility and dangers of nuclear weapons, and yet the dangers posed by Iran with a bomb have been barely discussed. They are treated as a given. The core idea is that Iran cannot be trusted because the country is run by religious fanatics crazy enough to use a bomb if they had one...

The seriousness of American threats is confirmed by the fact that no significant national leader in the United States has ever disowned or objected to them in clear, vigorous, principled language. It is as if the whole country listens to the administration's threats with breath held, wondering if Bush and Cheney really mean to do as they say, and in effect leaving the decision entirely to them. Americans may count on the President to think twice, but why would leaders in Tehran, responsible for the lives of 70 million citizens, want to depend on President Bush's restraint for their survival and safety? Bush has a history. On his own authority, without the sanction of any international body, he attacked Iraq five years ago and precipitated a bloody chain of events that shows no sign of ending. It would be natural, indeed inevitable, for any government in Tehran, seeing what has happened next door, to ask what could save Iran from a similar fate. An answer is not far to seek: nuclear weapons with a reliable delivery system could do that.
The logic is pretty simple, but apparently beyond the hawks' grasp. The threat dynamic is precisely the inverse of what the Bush administrations says it is. The threat from Iran is vague and ill-defined by the administration. The threat to Iran from the Bush administration, however, has been clear for years. The invasion of Iraq gives the threat a concrete reality unmatched by any purported threats from Iran, which tend to remain local and rhetorical. People and governments who are threatened respond by defending themselves or preparing to defend themselves. Administration policy is, in this sense, making Iran stronger by giving its defensive efforts - whether nuclear or not - rather clear legitimacy.

2) The US military are currently the rational ones in the area of Iran policy. Recall that Admiral William Fallon, entered into early retirement in March, had said that an Iran attack wouldn't happen on his watch. Powers writes,

When a reporter asked Gates if Fallon's departure "means we're going to war with Iran," the secretary called the idea "ridiculous." But he didn't leave it at that. He began his own campaign of public remarks stressing the importance of a peaceful resolution of the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear program. As he had at West Point, Gates held fast to the administration's basic stance—"all options are on the table"—but he drained the pugnacity of the claim with Fallon-like flourishes. "We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage...and then sit down and talk with them," Gates said in mid-May. "There is no doubt that... we would be very hard-pressed to fight another major conventional war right now." Admiral Mullen sounded a similar note when he recently told a television journalist in Israel that he was "very hopeful" that the US could avoid a conflict with Iran, which he evaluated as "a very significant challenge." Mullen added:

I certainly share the concern about Iran and about the leadership, and I think it is very important that we increase as much as possible the financial pressure, the diplomatic pressure, the political pressure, and at the same time keep all the military options on the table.
An anecdote.... In the recent past, I taught a graduate course in which the students were comprised of a number of people from across the intelligence and defense world in Washington, DC. There were civilians and there were military people in the class. By far, the military people were sharpest, most willing to engage ideas from a number of different perspectives, and most eager to find and develop the best arguments. Some of the civilians trotted out reactionary patriotic claims as arguments or blurted out "nuke them all" types of conclusions. The military people, on questions of war and foreign policy, were very careful, analytical, and understood that actions give legitimacy - whether right or wrong - to the operative principle underlying them. That is, if the US tortures (which was viewed as morally wrong by the military students), this opens the way for other countries also to torture. If US actions violated the principles of just war doctrine, this opened the path for others to do the same. Justifications for such views were not simply based on self-interest, but on ideas of principled conduct. These students sought objective moral and political arguments. The "nuke them all" civilian patriots, on the other hand, upheld the moral relativist claims of the Bush administration that if the US does it, it cannot be wrong.

It's important to understand that there are many in the military leadership and lower ranks - perhaps most? - who view war as a last resort and a great human evil. This contrasts with Bush administration policy and rhetoric, which is quick to the draw and which glorifies war. The latter plays well with its political audience, especially the "nuke them all" civilians of the right. But this rhetoric is not reflected in military analysis, intelligence, and leadership. A sane Iran policy is, thus, not to be sought form the administration - hardly a controversial statement - but from real military analysts independently considering the facts on the ground in conjunction with the best available tools of theoretical analysis.

3) Regarding the statment by Gates excerpted above, Powers writes again,
Develop some leverage...sit down and pressure, diplomatic pressure, political pressure.... These are unfamiliar words coming from the Bush administration. They roughly echo the approach of Barack Obama, who has said he would "talk" to the leaders of Iran, meaning that he would commence discussion of serious issues without first demanding concessions. The Bush administration rejects this idea.
That speaks for itself.

1 comment:

troutsky said...

Unfortunately, these military analysts are unwilling to confront and speak up when it really counts (right after 9/11, for instance) and the constitutional reliance on civilian leaders puts them in a tenuous, subserviant role to elected morons. (think Jesse Helms, George Bush, etc)If they don't like the "war on terror" they should say so when they have a little power, not after they retire and write a book.