- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
You know a case for war is weak when its advocates have to marshal blatant untruths in order to convince people that their advice should be followed. Exhibit A is today’s alarmist op-ed in the New York Times, in which former IDF general Amos Yadlin argues for a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
He recites the by-now familiar arguments for an attack, and makes it clear that he thinks Obama should make an "ironclad" pledge to do it if Iran doesn’t cease its nuclear activities. But the big historical howler comes in the middle of the piece, where he attempts to deal with the counter-argument that an attack would only delay an Iranian program, and probably not for all that long. He writes:
"After the Osirak attack and the destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007, the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs were never fully resumed."
This claim is at best deeply misleading and at worst simply false. It’s technically true that there hasn’t been a resumption of either the Iraqi or Syrian programs since 2007, but what about there the twenty-six year gap between the Osirak raid in 1981 and the raid on Syria? What happened during those intervening years? As Malfrid Hegghammer, Daniel Reiter, and Richard Betts have all shown, the destruction of Osirak led to an elite consensus that Iraq needed its own deterrent, and led Saddam Hussein to order a redoubling of Iraq’s nuclear program in a more clandestine fashion. This effort was so successful that the UN inspectors who entered Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War were surprised by how extensive the program was and how close it had come to producing a bomb. Indeed, if Saddam had been smart enough to wait a few more years, he might have crossed the nuclear finish line.
Thus, the true history teaches the opposite lesson from the one Yadlin is proposing. In the Iraqi case, a preventive strike reinforced Iraq’s interest in acquiring a deterrent, and led Iraq to pursue it in ways that were more difficult to detect or prevent. That is what Iran is likely to do as well if Israel or the United States were foolish enough to strike them. U.S. intelligence still believes Iran has not made a final decision to weaponize; ironically, an Israeli or U.S. attack is the step that is most likely to push them over the edge.
It’s hardly surprising that some Israelis would like the United States to shoulder the burden of bombing Iran. It’s also not surprising that they would make up specious arguments or distort history to do this; the Bush administration got us into the Iraq war in the same way. But the Times’ editors ought to insist that op-eds, whatever their positions, meet at least minimum standards for historical accuracy. And they don’t even need to scour the academic literature; all they had to do was keep track of what they had already published.
In any case, if Americans fall for this sort of contorted historical analysis, we’ll have only ourselves to blame. Instead of giving "ironclad" guarantees that we will launch preventive war, we’d be better served if Obama merely reminded Netanyahu that Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak doesn’t think Iran is an existential threat, and that the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, has called an attack on Iran the "the stupidest thing I ever heard."