For the Record, I Completely Disagree With Our Latest 'Bomb Iran' Post

An analysis that answers the easiest questions and avoids the hard ones.

I've just seen a post on our Global channel by two retired generals, one American and one Israeli, that purports to ask and answer important questions about a preemptive strike by either the U.S. or Israel on Iranian nuclear facilities. Here's how it looks on our site:


No offense to the authors, but this strikes me as the least useful sort of "analysis" to present about a military decision. 
  • Most of the questions it raises boil down to whether the U.S. or Israel would do a more effective job of attacking the Iranian facilities. Even non-generals know the answer to this one: obviously the most powerful military in the world, that of the U.S. Here is a sample of the post's revelations on that point:

    "Q: Which option [Israeli or US attack] would avoid violating the sovereign airspace of third countries?
    Any Israeli operation would have to cross the airspace of at least one other country (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Syria). Yet a U.S. attack could be launched directly toward Iran from bases or aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere." Thank you! Next up in this analytic series: whether it would be easier for Canada's army or America's to invade Mexico "if it must be done." 

  • Most of the questions it brushes past are the ones that matter: whether such an option makes any long-term strategic sense. That judgment is is assumed away in the "if it must be done" part of the subtitle. My at-home version of similar analysis: "would plastic explosives, or a ball peen hammer, be more effective in destroying the neighborhood leafblowers, if it must be done?" Here is a representative sample of their strategic analysis, which I will refrain from annotating:

    "Q: If post-strike escalation leads to war, which country has more efficient mechanisms in place to end the conflict?
    "A: Assessments of the day after an Israeli or U.S. strike range from limited Iranian retaliation that could be checked within days to full-scale regional war. If the United States attacked, however, it would have less moral authority than if Israel attacked -- Israel could legitimately claim that it was acting in self-defense. Moreover, Washington's ability to serve as an honest broker in negotiating a ceasefire would be diminished if it ordered the strike. For their part, China and Russia would be less incensed by an Israeli strike than a U.S. attack, and perhaps more willing to play a role in post-strike de-escalation."
For the record, we tried to deal with similar what-if? scenarios in an Atlantic-sponsored "war game" about bombing Iran, back in 2004.

So, if what you really want to know is how U.S. and Israeli bombing abilities compare, I recommend this post to you. If you're interested in the larger strategic choices America (and Israel) have to make, I would direct you elsewhere, for instance starting with this analysis by Anthony Cordesman or this from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists or, from a very different perspective, this from the Times of Israel.

UPDATE: Just now I got a message about a new analysis from Cordesman and Bryan Gold. You can see the whole voluminous thing here, but I offer this sample:
It is far from clear that negotiations and sanctions can succeed in limiting Iran's ability to acquire nuclear weapons and deploy nuclear-armed missiles.... [But] a preventive war might trigger a direct military confrontation or conflict in the Gulf with little warning. It might also lead to at least symbolic Iranian missile strikes on US basing facilities, GCC targets, or Israel. At the same time, it could lead to much more serious covert and proxy operations in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, the rest of the Gulf, and other areas. 
Furthermore, unless preventive strikes were reinforced by a lasting regime of follow-on strikes, they could trigger a much stronger Iranian effort to actually acquire and deploy nuclear weapons and/or Iranian rejection of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and negotiations. The US, in contrast, might see it had no choice other than to maintain a military overwatch and restrike capability to ensure Iran could not carry out such a program and rebuild its nuclear capabilities or any other capabilities that were attacked. 
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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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