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

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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.

Moreover, bombing Iran is crude, in a way Obama's strategies have not been. Israel's surprise attack on the Osirak reactors more than 30 years ago sufficed to deal with Saddam Hussein's nuclear plans. To imagine that the whole emergence of modern Iran can be shaped -- at least in a positive way -- by a bombing run, or runs, is reductionist and simple-minded in a way I do not believe this administration to be.

So, yes, I am saying there should not be a raid. I am also saying that there will not be -- absent a huge shift in facts -- because it would require a spasm of simplistic thinking that is out of keeping for Obama and that no modern American president has actually given in to. (The Iraq war, in my view, was a grave strategic error, like Vietnam before it -- but both were "rational" errors, rather than sudden, "What the hell!" actions.)

II. Folly for Israel? I will turn back to that soon, rather than waiting another three days or longer to get the whole thought fleshed out. The short version is: in my view a bombing run would be a gross strategic error for Israel, even compared with the "existential" threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Could P.M. Netanyahu still do it? Yes. But it would be the culminating act of an administration that has been strategically ruinous for his country's long-term goals.

Extra reading: Peter Beinart thinks Obama has been played by Netanyahu; Gary Kamiya argues the reverse; the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who directed attention a year and a half ago to a potential Israeli action now considers the possibility that it might all have been a bluff; and Uri Avnery is blunter than I am in saying that the war talk is frightening but, absent truly mad people at the helm in the U.S. and Israel, not a prelude to actual war. He concludes:

Iran has not attacked any other country in a thousand years. Ahmadinejad talks like a wild demagogue, but the Iranian leadership actually treads very carefully. Israel does not threaten any Iranian interest. Joint national suicide is not an option.

[Israel's] Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar boasted, and rightly, that Netanyahu had managed to distract the whole world's attention, away from the Palestinians and to the Iranian problem. A fantastic success, indeed. Obama in effect tells him: OK, go and play with settlements as much as you want, but please leave Iran for the adults.

And for the adults: in the aftermath of the Afghanistan meltdown, will an American president propose, and the American public willingly buy into, a "best-case" scenario for war with yet another Middle Eastern country? (Reminder: Iran is 50 300% larger in area than Iraq, with 250% as many people.) No, and no. That's my bet.

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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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