Daniel W. Drezner

Could Iran-watchers please get a grip, please? [UPDATED]

Could Iran-watchers please get a grip, please? [UPDATED]

My FP colleague Marc Lynch has dissected Alan Kuperman’s New York Times op-ed on the wisdom of bombing Iran.  Lynch takes great pains (more on that in a moment) to rip apart Kuperman’s argument so I don’t have to, but I can’t resist pointing out the most tendentious point in the essay:

As for the risk of military strikes undermining Iran’s opposition, history suggests that the effect would be temporary. For example, NATO’s 1999 air campaign against Yugoslavia briefly bolstered support for President Slobodan Milosevic, but a democratic opposition ousted him the next year.

Now, this assertion contains facts, but is so radically incomplete as to  be f***ing insane.  

To add a bit of detail:  maybe, just maybe, the reason Slobodan Milosevic was ousted had less to do with the bombing itself, but because the Serbian leader completely capitulated to NATO’s demands on Kosovo after eight weeks of airstrikes.   The bombing angered those already on the outs with Milosevic; the acquiescence after costly punishment angered Serbian nationalists and technocrats.  So it wasn’t just the bombing that affected Serbian politics — it was Milosevic’s decision to alter Serbian policy in a manner favorable to NATO.

So, yes, if the Iranian leadership does what Kuperman wants them to do after being bombed — acquiesce on the nuclear program — then yes, they’ll be gone.  Now, raise your hand if you think the current Iranian leadership will respond to a bombing campaign by shifting their position closer to the U.S. position. 

So, yes, this is a pretty silly op-ed, and the New York Times wasted an awful lot of column inches on it.  Go ahead, heap some calumny on them. *

That said, the venom directed at it by Lynch and others seems a bit over the top.   Lynch’s explanation for why is that unless these arguments hit some strident pushback, we’ll be going to war again:

The Obama administration almost certainly doesn’t want to make such a wrong-headed move — but, then, there are a lot of things which the Obama administration doesn’t want to do but has been forced into by political realities (Gitmo, the public option, escalation in Afghanistan) and intentions aren’t enough.   Many people may have assumed that the legacy of Iraq would have raised the bar on such arguments for war, that someone making such all too familiar claims would simply be laughed out of the public square.  The NYT today shows that they aren’t.  I suspect that one of the great foreign policy challenges of 2010 is going to be to push back on this mad campaign for another pointless, counter-productive war for the sake of war. 

I would interpret things differently.  Changing the policy status quo is really, really hard, and it’s normally pretty easy to gin up significant political opposition to any proposed change.  The status quo on Iran is that we’re not bombing them , so I expect that to continue for a good long while. 

Indeed, the reactions to this op-ed remind me of the panic among progressives in 2007 that the Bush administration was gearing up to bomb Iran.  The truth was somewhat different.  

By all means, critique Kuperman’s argument.  But let’s not pretend that Dick Cheney is still vice president, or that Bill Kristol can start a war with a Weekly Standard column.  The world really has changed a bit. 

*UPDATE:  The more I think about the massive flaws in this op-ed, the more I’m beginning to wonder if this wasn’t a strategic move by the New York Times op-ed page editors to subtly undercut the neoconservative argument for war.  Indeed, I would not describe the GOP links to the essay as terribly enthusiastic.  I do love Tom Gross’ characterization of it as, "dry and academic and long (it runs to two pages online)."  Yes, because if you can’t make the case for military action in under 400 words, there’s just no point in bothering.