I wish I had gone ahead and posted this three days ago, when I was working on it and its argument would have seemed more daring. But I think the point is still worth making -- even as the chaos of the Republican race comes into the domestic news, and as the compounding disaster in Afghanistan dominates the foreign-policy agenda. (On Afghanistan Fred Kaplan offers what seems to me an irrebutable argument. When Afghan soldiers are murdering American troops, and an American soldier is murdering Afghan civilians, there's not much point in pushing-the-string of building "trust" between the sides. This is over.) So here goes.
While I am skeptical of the journalistic bias toward guessing what might happen rather than analyzing what has actually occurred, in the current climate I'll hazard this prediction: the United States is in fact not going to bomb Iran, and in anything like the current set of facts not even Netanyahu's Israeli administration is likely to do so. Indeed we will look back on the hyped-up bomb-Iran frenzy of the past two months with an air of wonder and dismay.
I'll elaborate in the days ahead, but here's the summary. For the United States, such an attack would represent recklessness beyond anything in recent history, either by Barack Obama's standards or anyone else's. And for Israel, it would represent grand-strategic folly of a scale I think even PM Netanyahu would finally shrink from.
I. "Too reckless" for Obama or other American presidents?
- Compare it with invading Iraq in 2003: the American intelligence community was wrong, or at least its findings it were cherry-picked. But for public consumption its representatives all said that Saddam Hussein posed a WMD threat. Meanwhile, representatives of the U.S. military were almost as consistent in saying that taking over Iraq was a doable task. To be clear: I disagreed on both points and opposed that war. But the government of the time said it was necessary and feasible. By comparison, today's intelligence community is more cautious in what it claims about Iran, and today's U.S. military is distinctly unenthusiastic about what an attack would mean.
- Compare it with invading Afghanistan in 2001: No comparison. There was an immediate
causus casus belli, in the form of the 9/11 attacks, plus bipartisan support from Congress, most of the public, and most other nations.
- Compare it with doubling down in Afghanistan in 2009: I was skeptical of this, too, but even its critics would call it "unwise" rather than "reckless." If anything, Obama was acting too cautiously, not wanting to rock the boat with the military and the electorate by declaring the Afghanistan effort failed.
- Compare it with ordering the killing of Bin Laden in 2011: I have argued that this was a "brave" choice for Obama to make, in the consequences for him if the raid had turned into a Desert One-style fiasco. But it was not "reckless" in national-interest terms. There was zero sane doubt about Osama bin Laden's culpability, and only second-level dispute about the kill-rather-than-capture nature of the raid.
- Compare it with intervention in Libya in 2011: Arab League. NATO. No exposure to retaliatory consequences. "Leading from behind."
- Compare it with drone strikes and targeted assassinations, 2009-onward: There is a lot I don't like about this policy. But it is an extension of executive overreach through the past decade, rather than a wholly new approach.
In contrast to all of these, a bombing raid on Iran would be a huge roll of the dice in military, diplomatic, economic, and terrorist-related terms, and without any immediate and obvious provocation. The current meltdown in Afghanistan indicates the predictable unpredictability of what happens when the "kinetic" stage begins. Exposing the country, the military, and himself to such open-ended and unforeseeable consequences would be out of character for Barack Obama -- and for presidents in modern times. If you can find an example of a president in the past half-century taking a similar unprovoked risk, I would like to hear about it. The most dangerous moment during that period, the Cuban Missile Crisis 50 years ago this fall, was in response to unambiguous Soviet expansion less than 100 miles from U.S. territory -- and even then, it was a naval quarantine, not a bombing run.