Marc Lynch

Mainstreaming the Mad Iran Bombers

Mainstreaming the Mad Iran Bombers

Today’s New York Times runs what I believe is its first op-ed explicitly advocating a military campaign against Iran.   Such agitation for war isn’t new — John Bolton and friends have been obsessively demanding such an attack for a long time, adapting the argument for war as the only solution to whatever the current situation may be.  It’s one thing when the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Fox News or other conservative outlets advocate such a war.  You expect that, and discount accordingly; an op-ed in Fred Hiatt’s Washington Post demanding war on Iran is like a DC-based blogger complaining about the Redskins… it happens constantly, nobody takes it very seriously and it doesn’t accomplish anything.   But the New York Times doing so is a serious step towards mainstreaming the idea, akin to how Ken Pollack and Tom Friedman’s support for the invasion of Iraq persuaded a lot of centrists and liberals. It’s as if we as a country have learned nothing from the Iraq war debate.  

Alan Kuperman, the NYT op-ed’s author, is best known for defending the U.S. non-response to the genocide in Rwanda (leading the late, lamented Alison Des Forges to accuse him of playing "word games to rationalize the West’s ignominious failure to halt genocide in Rwanda").   While he has no evident expertise in Iran, he has determined that Iranian domestic politics and a few months of negotiations conclusively prove that negotiations can never work and that there’s only one way to stop Iran — war.  

His argument is like a caricature of such war advocacy, hitting each predictable theme like a sledgehammer.  

  • Does he rule out the alternative policy by default?  Yes he does!  "peaceful carrots and sticks cannot work."
  • Does he reduce the policy options to two extreme positions, one of which is guaranteed to be rejected?  Yes he does!   "the United States faces a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons." 
  • Does he warn that  Saddam, um, Ahmedenejad will give WMD to terrorists?   Yes, yes he does.  "if Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal, the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb." (the "neighborhood bully" is a nice touch.) Will, pray tell, the smoking gun be in the shape of a mushroom cloud? 
  • Does he exaggerate the prospects for success?  Yes, he does.  Well, first he says  "As for knocking out its nuclear plants, admittedly, aerial bombing might not work." But he quickly moves on from that, since that will not do.  Oddly, his main example of success comes from Iraq, where he claims that the first Gulf war led to the uncovering of the Iraqi nuclear program — not the Osirak raid — which is accurate, but rather completely contradicts his argument. 
  • Does he minimize the risks of military action?  Yes, he does.  "Yes, Iran could retaliate by aiding America’s opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does that anyway."  Try telling that to U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to leaders in the Gulf, who are slightly less cavalier with the lives of their people.
  • Does he suggest that if all else fails regime change would be easy and cheap? Yes, dear lord, he does. "If nothing else, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the United States military can oust regimes in weeks if it wants to." Truly, this was the lesson to be drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m still marveling over how easily we overthrew Saddam and the Taliban and got out of Iraq and Afghanistan more or less costlessly.   That was special. On the other hand, as Matt Duss helpfully points out, "if we don’t have an Iran war, how are we supposed to have an awesome Iran surge?"
  • Does he accuse those who oppose military action of appeasement?  Yes, yes, of course he does.  "in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement."

Why spend so much time on a mediocre,  unoriginal op-ed?  The better question is why the NYT published it.  Advocates of such a military strike have been agitating tirelessly for years to mainstream and normalize an idea once seen as mad, using precisely these arguments so often that their deep weaknesses may not even register anymore.  Opponents of such a military strike — on the grounds that it would not likely stop the nuclear program, would kill lots of innocent Iranians and inflame Iranian public opinion, would destroy Obama’s hopes to transform America’s relations with the Islamic world and inflame anti-Americanism back to Bush-era levels, and so on — may not take this seriously enough. 

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.  

UPDATE:  see also Matt Duss, Heather Hurlburt, Joe Klein, Steve Saideman and Dan Drezner.   This kind of sustained pushback is exactly what is needed to prevent this dangerous idea from being mainstreamed.