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Debating Iran in the marketplace of ideas

Debating Iran in the marketplace of ideas

Who is winning the public debate on Iran, the hawks or the doves? The polling is pretty ambiguous, as it usually is at this point in any foreign policy crisis/issue. The public is not committed to using military force, but the narrow majorities expressing support for military strikes actually represent a fairly permissive public option. Should President Obama choose, he probably could rally strong support among the public, at least initially.

To be sure, the public seems to want exactly what President Obama wants, which is to resolve this stand-off diplomatically. Yet it is striking how, in the absence of strong war-talk from the White House — indeed, given all the poor-mouthing of the military option from administration officials — there is still a reservoir of public support for the hawkish policy.

This is all the more remarkable, given that we live in a post-Iraq era. The echoes from Iraq are almost deafening in the Iran debate, and yet the public has not closed off its ears to the hawkish view.

My dovish friends think this is because the intellectual playing field is biased in favor of military action. They claim that it is easier to hype threats than to downplay them, and they speak about a dysfunctional marketplace of ideas that crowds out dovish approaches.

Such claims are not very persuasive. This might have been true in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But in the wake of the Iraq war, surely the opposite is the case. It is easier to persuade people that perhaps Iran is bluffing (or we have misunderstood their nuclear ambitions) because that is what seemed to happen in Iraq. It is easier to convince people that any war will drag on and be more costly than advertised because that is what happened in Iraq.

As a hawkish friend of mine pointed out to me recently, to argue the hawkish side feels like arguing in favor of the human costs of war. Emotionally and psychologically, it is easier simply to dismiss the threat and thus avoid the costs.

Public support for the hawkish position is not so strong or resolute as to force President Obama’s hand. But it might be strong enough to allow a president who has repeatedly said that letting Iran develop a nuclear arsenal is unacceptable to take decisive action to launch military strikes to prevent that, if he believes it necessary.