Iran Drumbeat Watch: 'March of Folly' Redux?

MarchOfFolly.pngThe Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, in his Bloomberg View incarnation, reports just now from Israel that Prime Minister Netanyahu's administration is "growing confident" about the necessity, the desirability, and the feasibility of an aerial strike against Iran's potential nuclear installations. Please read the whole thing, but here are representative samples:

A widely held assumption about a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is that it would spur Iranian citizens -- many of whom appear to despise their rulers -- to rally around the regime. But Netanyahu, I'm told, believes a successful raid could unclothe the emperor, emboldening Iran's citizens to overthrow the regime.

And:

Another theory making the rounds was that Obama has so deeply internalized the argument that Israel has the sovereign right to defend itself against a threat to its existence that an Israeli attack, even one launched against U.S. wishes, wouldn't anger him. In this scenario, Obama would move immediately to help buttress Israel's defenses against an Iranian counterstrike.

And:

Finally, and even more disquieting, was the contention I heard repeatedly that an Israeli strike in the next six months - - conducted before Iran can further harden its nuclear sites, or make them redundant -- will set back the ayatollahs' atomic ambitions at least five years. American military planners tend to think that Israel could do only a year or two worth of damage.

I am not capable of sorting through the elaborate layers of bluff and counterbluff that may lie behind the Israeli assumptions, or assertions, that Jeff Goldberg reports. And neither I nor anyone else can prove what I strongly believe: that such "best-case" predictions, assuming that the Israeli officials really hold them, are wildly unrealistic. The first, in particular, smacks unmistakably of Dick Cheney's "we will be greeted as liberators" forecast about invading Iraq, or the earlier CIA fantasies that the downtrodden people of Cuba would rise to welcome the Bay of Pigs landing party in 1961.

What I can say is this: if Israeli officials really have adopted best-case-ism as their military "planning" doctrine and basis for decision-making, we are fully into "March of Folly" territory, and the "psychological inversion" that a reader described recently has in fact taken place.

When Barbara Tuchman coined the phrase March of Folly, she meant self-destructive behavior on a collective, organizational scale, as a group walked into a disaster it could easily have avoided.To qualify as epic-scale folly, by her standards, a ruinous decision had to:
  -arise from a sustained set of policies, not just one instantaneous wrong choice;
  -involve many people's agreement and collaboration, not just the excesses of one madman;
  -prove clearly destructive to the long-term interests of the group involved; and
  -have been warned against in real time, before the bad consequences happened, not just in retrospect.

If Netanyahu's team goes ahead, they will have met those tests.

IranNYT.pngThe same day's news cycle of course contains this  lead item in the New York Times, at right. Nearly eight years ago, the Atlantic commissioned a similar war game, which led to similar conclusions

Ido Oren, of the University of Florida, whom I quoted several days ago on the bureaucratic struggle between hawks and doves within both the U.S. and the Israeli governments (with the military establishment of both countries mainly dovish), says that this Times story can easily be interpreted in the same way:

I wonder if the significance of the story is not in its substance so much as in the very fact that this substance was leaked to the Times, apparently by sources in the Pentagon and/or the military. The leaking can plausibly be interpreted as a political act designed to put a brake on the pro-war momentum.
 
Here's what I take to be the story's key passages [emphasis added by Oren]:
"A classified war simulation exercise held this month to assess the American military's capabilities to respond to an Israeli attack on Iran forecast that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials.
. . .
"the game has raised fears among top American planners that it may be impossible to preclude American involvement in any escalating confrontation with Iran, the officials said. In the debate among policymakers over the consequences of any possible Israeli attack, that reaction may give stronger voice to those within the White House, Pentagon and intelligence community who have warned that a strike could prove perilous for the United States.
 
"The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, according to officials who either participated in the Central Command exercise or who were briefed on the results and spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature. When the exercise had concluded earlier this month, according to the officials, General Mattis told aides that an Israeli first-strike would likely have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there."

Making life-and-death decisions in full, grave awareness of the tragic potential is something that leaders, and commanders, must finally do. But to make such decision in a blithe "what could go wrong?" spirit -- that is what ruinous folly means.

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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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