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Iranian containment: Refocusing the argument

Iranian containment: Refocusing the argument

A couple of my recent posts have provoked my FP colleague, Tom Ricks. Provoked him to the edge of reason. As a public service, I think I ought to at least try to reel him back off the ledge.

Besides, he is an old friend who has a gazillion more readers than I do. So let’s take his arguments one at a time.

First, he objects to my observation that Republicans need not fear crediting Obama when it is due because his foreign policy successes have mostly come from following Republican (specifically his predecessor’s) policies. Tom’s rebuttal appears to be that Bush invaded Iraq and Obama did not. I’m sure Tom knows that the issue is more complex than that, but if we are going to keep it at that level of first-cut analysis, what about this table?

I am sure there are items that could go into the emptier cells, just as I am sure we could easily find more examples to reinforce the pattern displayed above. My point, which others besides Tom missed, is that it is possible to acknowledge instances where Obama has succeeded without simultaneously undermining the case for a Republican alternative.

Next, he objects to my observation that containing Iran would be a daunting challenge and that sometimes opponents of the military option are cavalier about the difficulties. His rebuttal appears to be that containing Iran would not be harder than containing Stalin’s Russia. 

The pedant in me — and every professor has a little pedant inside yearning to seize the microphone — is tempted to point out that this is a textbook example of sloppy analogizing. 

But setting pedantry aside, let me make three quick points. 

  • First, I never said containing Iran was harder than containing the Soviet Union. Rather, I said it was hard, and linked to a serious report by Tom Donnelly and other AEI experts that reviewed the costs of containment systematically. I think it is better to engage the report in serious debate — which is precisely what my post was calling for — than blithely assuming the problem away.
  • Second, if Tom is willing to stipulate a comparable military effort — hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops indefinitely deployed on the border, a nuclear arms race resulting in tens of thousands of warheads, defense budgets at 10 percent of GDP — then I am willing to consider whether Iran might be similarly contained. Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why the Iranian containment problem differs from the Soviet containment problem, but the analogizing was Tom’s, not mine. If you want to rise above the analogy, I recommend engaging the containment problem seriously, as the AEI report did.
  • Third, my post was not an endorsement of a military attack on Iran. I specifically said that I could see reasonable arguments that came down on the side of containment. What motivated the post was my sense that good arguments were getting crowded out by bad arguments, ones grounded more in the psychological phenomenon of bolstering than in careful net assessment.