Iran Drumbeat Watch: I Say It's Not Going to Happen

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.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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