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.
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.
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Please read Jeffrey Goldberg's new analysis of the split between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. Then please read a decade-old article about what a "preemptive" strike against Iran would really entail.
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has put up an excellent and authoritative analysis of the strategic problems that Benjamin Netanyahu has created for himself, his party, and his country. It's the most-trafficked item on our site at the moment, so it may seem superfluous to suggest you read it. But if you haven't done so yet, please give it a look.
Once you've read this new item, there's an older article that I hope you'll consider too. It came out in the December 2004 issue of our magazine, it was called "Will Iran Be Next?", and as it happens its author was me.
The premise of the article was to conduct a war game-style exercise to examine the feasibility and effects of an American preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. The upshot of the exercise was that such a strike could not possibly "work." Set aside questions of whether a bombing raid would be "necessary" or "just." From a strictly military point of view, according to the defense-world authorities who took part in our war game, the strike would almost certainly be a counterproductive failure. It could not put more than a temporary damper on Iran's capacities and ambitions; it would if anything redouble Iran's determination to develop nuclear weapons (so as to protect itself from such strikes in the future); and it could unleash a range a countermeasures that would make the United States rue the idea that this could have been a "clean" or "surgical" exercise. You can read the details for yourself.
That was more than a decade ago. Since then, only one aspect of Iran's leverage has weakened: there are no longer tens of thousands of U.S. troops next door in Iraq as potential Iranian targets. In all other ways, Iran is 10 years further along in protecting its facilities and considering its options. "After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers," our main war-game designer, retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner, said at the end of our 2004 exercise. "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work." That was true then, and truer now.
Here's why I bring the story up. I disagree with one clause in Jeff Goldberg's story—only one, but an important one. It's the part I've put in bold type below:
Whatever the case, the only other way for Netanyahu to stop Iran would be to convince the president of the United States, the leader of the nation that is Israel’s closest ally and most crucial benefactor, to confront Iran decisively. An Israeli strike could theoretically set back Iran’s nuclear program, but only the U.S. has the military capabilities to set back the program in anything approaching a semi-permanent way.
Israel doesn't have the military capacity to "stop" Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and neither does the United States, at least not in circumstances short of total war.
Why does this matter? As a question of negotiation, I think it's fine for U.S. officials from the president on down to act as if they might seriously be considering a military strike. George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike have consistently said that "all options are on the table" when it comes to Iran, and that's fine too. It can be shrewd to keep an opponent guessing about what you might do if provoked.
This negotiating stance could be useful, as long as it doesn't spill over from fooling the Iranians to fooling ourselves. (A la, "we'll be greeted as liberators!") Letting Iran's leaders think the U.S. is contemplating a strike might pay off. Actually contemplating it could be disastrous.
Following last night's China roundup, another batch of news items before we get back to Greenville, South Carolina:
1) The Iran deal: substance. As a reminder, the interim U.S.-U.K.-French-German-Russian-Chinese deal with Iran holds no guarantees. But if it should succeed in re-integrating Iran as a "normal" country, the benefits to the world in general and the U.S. in particular would be enormous, similar in concept (though not in scale) to the benefits of re-integrating China a generation ago. Thus it is worth giving the negotiations every chance to succeed—and resisting the cynical congressional effort to guarantee failure by adding impossible poison-pill conditions.
In the upcoming issue of The New York Review of Books, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former National Security Council staffer on proliferation issues, underscores the importance of the deal and the danger of the congressional effort. Her essay, headline shown above, begins:
In recent weeks, Iran and the United States, for the first time, have broken through more than a decade of impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Significant differences remain, but at long last, both governments appear ready to work their way toward a resolution. Yet the US Congress, acting reflexively against Iran, and under intense pressure from Israel, seems ready to shatter the agreement with a bill that takes no account of Iranian political developments, misunderstands proliferation realities, and ignores the dire national security consequences for the United States.
She goes on to make the case on all counts. As does Steven Walt, in Foreign Policy, with a catalogue of the sweeping benefits for the United States if relations with Iran should improve. And Fred Kaplan in Slate.
Why is Congress threatening to make a deal impossible, before one can be struck? The only real opposition comes from some hardliners inside Iran, who have no U.S. constituency; plus the current governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel, who have an easier time getting the attention of U.S. legislators. Mathews says:
Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the agreement with a barrage of criticism. Even before it was completed he called it a “Christmas present” for Iran; later, “a historic mistake.” His too attentive audience on Capitol Hill followed suit. Many of the criticisms suggest that the critics haven’t appreciated the terms of the agreement. Senator Charles Schumer dismissed it as “disproportionate.” The observation is correct, but upside down, for Iran gave far more than it got.
2) The Iran deal: politics. The poison-pill legislation is officially known as S. 1881, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 (full text here), and informally as the Kirk-Menendez bill, after Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Most Republicans say they're for it; the Obama administration is (obviously) dead-set against it. The only discernible reason why some Democrats are lining up with the GOP is AIPAC's strong push for the bill.
A report this week by Ron Kampeas in JTA is worth reading closely on the political dynamics. For instance:
AIPAC has been stymied by a critical core of Senate Democrats who have sided with the Obama administration in the fight. While AIPAC’s bid to build a veto-busting majority has reached 59 — eight short of the needed 67 — it has stalled there in part because Democrats have more or less stopped signing on....
AIPAC, however, says its bid to pass sanctions is on track.
“Our top priority is stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and consequently we are very engaged in building support for the Menendez-Kirk bill which now has the bi-partisan co-sponsorship of 59 senators,” AIPAC’s spokesman, Marshall Wittman, wrote in an email to JTA. “This measure would provide our negotiators with critical leverage in their efforts to achieve a peaceful end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
Kampeas has an update on the substance and politics here. And John Hudson, in Foreign Policy, describes the pressure AIPAC is putting on Debbie Wasserman Schultz, longtime representative from Florida and national chair of the Democratic National Committee, to switch away from her announced support for the administration's approach. And Mathews's article says:
The bill’s most egregious language explains why so many senators leapt onto this bandwagon: it has become a vehicle for expressing unquestioning support for Israel, rather than a deadly serious national security decision for the United States.... Senators report that AIPAC’s advocacy of the bill has been intensive, even by its usual standard.
In two previous big showdowns with the administration—over Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense, and over military intervention in Syria—AIPAC de-escalated and said it hadn't really been looking for a fight, once it became clear things weren't going its way.* As the Iran-sanctions issue gets more attention, my bet is that something similar will happen. For good reason, there is zero American-public appetite for a showdown with Iran. Since the interim deal was announced, polls have shown support for giving the talks the best possible chance. E.g.:
As the talks go on and everyone except the Saudis, the Netanyahu administration, and AIPAC extol their possibilities, it will be harder for leading Democrats to explain why it makes sense to defy their party's president, secretaries of state and defense, and congressional leadership, plus most of the rest of the world, on this issue. (Also see Greg Sargent in the WaPo, and another from Kampeas.)
[* The Syria situation was of course muddled. Initially AIPAC and the administration were both pro-intervention. After Obama's surprise decision to seek Congressional authorization, AIPAC pushed hard for a pro-intervention vote.]
3) Gates and Afghanistan: substance. It's worth reading this analysis, by Gareth Porter, of Obama's first-term approval of a "surge" in Afghanistan. Robert Gates's book appeared to put Obama's approach in a bad light. Porter makes the contrary case:
The Gates account omits two crucial historical facts necessary to understanding the issue. The first is that Obama agreed to the escalation only under strong pressure from his top national security officials and with very explicit reservations. The second is that Gen. David Petraeus reneged on his previous commitment to support Obama’s 2009 decision that troop withdrawal would begin by mid-2011.
Further details in his essay.
4) Gates and Afghanistan: politics. Mike Lofgren, author of The Party Is Over and veteran of Republican-side congressional politics, has an unromantic assessment of Gates's career and judgment. E.g., what Lofgren saw as a Senate staffer, when Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld at DOD:
Because the Senate Armed Services Committee was overjoyed at seeing the last of Rumsfeld, they asked Gates no awkward questions, either about current strategy or about past events in which Gates had either inside knowledge or active participation – the "tilt to Iraq" which strengthened Saddam Hussein and helped lead inexorably to the first Gulf war and then the invasion of Iraq; or the arming of the Afghan mujaheddin, which helped lay the groundwork both for 9/11 and the Afghan quagmire that bedevils us yet.
No, at the time of the hearing, I got the sense that the Armed Services Committee members would have liked to carry him in triumph in a sedan chair to the floor of the Senate for confirmation, simply because he was not Rumsfeld.
Recently I argued that a dozen-plus Senate Democrats were doing something strange and reckless in signing on with most Republicans in an effort that would abort a potential deal to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions.
As a reminder: The U.S. government, along with those of France, Germany, the U.K., China, and Russia, all think this years-in-the-making deal is worth exploring. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel manifestly do not. Nearly all Senate Republicans and a significant number of Democratic allies are effectively saying: the Saudis and Israelis see things more clearly. We stand with their judgment—not that of our own government, the European mainstays, and even the Russians and Chinese.
Developments since then:
1) From Peter Beinart, in Haaretz, an item based on an important technical analysis of the pro-sanctions bill. Senators sponsoring the bill, Beinart says, claim that they are only trying to "support" the diplomatic process. That proves mainly that they haven't read, or don't understand, what they're signing onto, because in several crucial ways the bill's requirements are directly contrary to what the U.S./U.K./France/Germany/Russia/China have already agreed to with Iran.
Go to the technical analysis, by Edward Levine, for the point-by-point parsing. And you can see the full text of the bill itself here. But the two most obvious deal-breaker implications are:
(a) the requirement that, in order to lift sanctions, Obama must "certify" a number of extra things about Iran that are not germane to the agreement and are simply impossible to prove. For instance, Obama must demonstrate that "Iran has not directly, or through a proxy, supported, financed, planned, or otherwise carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or United States persons or property anywhere in the world," with no time limit on how far back (or forward) in time this certification is supposed to run. And:
(b) several clauses and references that apparently support the "zero enrichment" demand laid down by Benjamin Netanyahu but explicitly not endorsed by the U.S. government. These clauses, with repeated requirements that Iran "terminate" or "dismantle" its "illicit nuclear programs," are ambiguous but can (and presumably would) be read as applying to the entirety of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, peaceful or otherwise. This could mean a demand that Iran give up the right not just to weapons-grade uranium but also to low-level enrichment suitable for power plants and other non-military use.
For the background of the "zero enrichment" policy, see this 2009 paper by Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Belfer Center. He argues (as do many other people who have examined the issue) that the zero-option is theoretically appealing but in reality is completely unacceptable to Iran. Thus its inclusion in any set of "negotiating" points is a way to ensure that the negotiations fail. As Bunn puts it, "Insisting on zero will mean no agreement, leaving the world with the risks of acquiescence [to an Iranian nuclear-weapons program] or military strikes."
Now, you’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the Prime Minister [Netanyahu], that say we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation...
One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, we’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all gone. I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. (Laughter.) I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful. (Laughter.)
But precisely because we don’t trust the nature of the Iranian regime, I think that we have to be more realistic and ask ourselves, what puts us in a strong position to assure ourselves that Iran is not having a nuclear weapon and that we are protected? What is required to accomplish that, and how does that compare to other options that we might take?
And it is my strong belief that we can envision a end state that gives us an assurance that even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they, as a practical matter, do not have breakout capacity.
To wrap this point up: The U.S. and its partners have already declared that they are not asking for the "zero option." That's the premise for the entire deal, and it is one that the Senate bill appears designed to reverse. It would be as if, in the middle of the SALT or START negotiations with the old Soviet Union, the Congress passed a bill requiring that any final agreement include the elimination of the full Soviet arsenal.
2) A speech on Tuesday by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, on another important and underpublicized clause in the sanctions bill. It's 501(2) (b) (5), which says it is the "sense of the Congress" that if Israel decides to strike Iran, the U.S. presumptively should back the effort:
If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;
The "in accordance with the laws..." passage indicates that an Israeli decision would not technically constitute a U.S. declaration of war. It is the main distinction between this clause and a "key point" on AIPAC's current policy-agenda site, which reads:
3. America Must Stand with Israel.
The United States must back Israel if it feels compelled in its own legitimate self-defense to take military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
But Feinstein, who supported the Iraq war, argued that such before-the-fact commitments unwisely limit U.S. options and could make conflict more likely. Her whole speech is worth reading, and you can see the C-Span video above. Here is the conclusion it built to:
I deeply believe that a vote for this legislation will cause negotiations to collapse. The United States, not Iran, then becomes the party that risks fracturing the international coalition that has enabled our sanctions to succeed in the first place....
Let me acknowledge Israel's real, well-founded concerns that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its very existence. I don't disagree with that. I agree with it, but they are not there yet.
While I recognize and share Israel's concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war. By stating that the United States should provide military support to Israel in a formal resolution should it attack Iran, I fear that is how this bill is going to be interpreted.
3) From a reader:
Here's my problem with your argument: it's incomplete. How can a Democrat, or anyone, evaluate whether the agreement should be given a chance without seeing the agreement? Yesterday we had two separate reports that, if true, would mean the agreement has *already* failed: 1) the Iranian's report of the terms (dubious, but the Administration continues to be coy and not release the main agreement or the reported side agreement) and 2) an alleged Russia-Iran deal that would obliterate the 6-month Agreement's limitations on sanctions.
Personally I too am for Congress holding off, but I'm put off by the tone of the "pro-Deal" crowd that the legislature needs to blindly trust Obama here. Isn't that what we did with George W. Bush? (The distinction between Colin Powell's misleading portfolio on WMDs and Kerry's thusfar blank portfolio (or heavily redacted portfolio) is too subtle to have meaning here).
The point is not that Congress must embrace a deal without knowing its full details. That will come later, when—and if—final terms are agreed to. Rather the point is that Congress should not guarantee the failure of the negotiations before they've run their course, which is what the sanctions bill would do.
If I had a senator, I would ask him or her to read this bill carefully, reflect on its destructive implications, and reflect as well, as Dianne Feinstein did in her speech, on the damage done by blank-check security legislation (from AUMF to the Patriot Act) over the past dozen-plus years. Then I would ask my hypothetical senators to vote 'No.'
UPDATE: Anthony Cordesman has a valuable update on the CSIS site, in which he discusses the pluses and minuses of the administration playing good cop and Congress playing bad cop toward Iran. Really worth reading, but a few highlights. First, on U.S. aims:
The United States now has every incentive to leverage the success of existing sanctions, take full advantage of the current climate, and to try to make the current negotiations work. They are by far the safest way to remove an Iranian nuclear threat, and it is critical to remember what the threat really is: The real objective is to deny Iran military capability, not to try to deny it technology it has already acquired.
On the strength of the emerging potential deal:
The P5+1 and the United States have not yet made fully public all of the terms of the progress they made in defining and implementing the terms of the interim agreement ...
At least to date, however, the limits on Iran in terms of permitted activities, improved transparency, and increased inspection would make even the most covert production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons extraordinarily difficult. Iran might quietly get to the point of a crude test of a gun or implosion device, but this test could scarcely then remain covert...
It is extraordinarily difficult to believe Iran could actually deploy reliable nuclear missile warheads and bombs without being detected
On the Congress's role as hard-line bad cop:
The key to success, however, will be for the “bad cop” to avoid pushing to the point of failure. The best way to move forward is to do what the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid, evidently has already proposed to do: keep the option of new sanctions legislation constantly open, but not confront Iran and other nations by passing such legislation if and when the negotiations fail, or Iran is shown to violate an agreement.
Defer a vote on new sanctions until the ongoing efforts to fully define and create enforcement provisions for interim agreement effort fail or Iran violates them. And if Iran does move forward and complies with the interim agreement – defer a sanctions vote until it is clear whether Iran agrees to and complies with a permanent agreement.
Overall: This bill is a reckless and destructive gesture, and Democrats from Cory Booker to Mark Warner to Michael Bennet to Richard Blumenthal should give it a careful look and back off.
I have been on the road in the South, and staying in a place with no Internet, and doing interviews for another American Futures installment—this one about the way textile-dependent Southern cities have and have not recovered after those mills went away. That's what my wife and I will be talking about in the days ahead.
But this is a moment that counts, on an important, time-sensitive issue, so here goes:
The Obama Administration, along with some of the usual U.S. allies—the U.K., France, Germany—and such non-allied parties as Russia and China, has taken steps with the potential of peacefully ending Iran's 35-year estrangement from most of the rest of the world. That would be of enormous benefit and significance to Iran, the U.S., and nearly everyone else concerned.
Obviously potential is not a guarantee, and a year from now everyone could look back on this as a time of deluded hope. But today's potential is far greater than most "savvy" experts expected a year ago. As I argued last month, the U.S. may be in a position right now with Iran analogous to the one with China in the early stages of the Nixon-Mao rapprochement. Nothing is guaranteed, but the benefits of normalized relations would be so great that they must be given every chance to succeed.
Often there is cleavage within the executive branch—State, Defense, the White House—on the merits of a military commitment or a potential deal. Not this time. Very often there is similar disagreement among Western powers, and most of the time the Russians and Chinese find themselves on the opposite side of strategic calculations from the U.S. Again, not now. All involved view the benefits of re-engaging Iran to be so great, and the consequence of a drift toward war so dire, that they want to make sure that no artificial barriers to a deal get in the way.
(On the dire consequences of a drift toward war: Nearly 10 years ago, the Atlanticran a war game concluding that an air strike designed to take out Iran's nuclear potential would be the height of strategic folly for the attacking party, whether Israel or the United States. Nothing that has happened since then makes it a more plausible option.)
Two countries the U.S. cares about are known to oppose this deal: Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The Saudis, because a stronger, oil-exporting, Shiite Iran probably means a less influential Sunni Kingdom. The Israelis, because the Netanyahu government has cast Iran as the new Nazi Germany, with whom any deal or compromise is by definition doomed.
I believe that Netanyahu is wrong, but it's his country, and he is the elected leader. I don't like the idea of him (or the Saudis) trying to derail what our elected leaders so strongly considers to be in the interests of the United States.
That derailment is what seems to be underway in the Senate right now. Republicans led by Mitch McConnell are pushing for a sanctions bill that is universally recognized (except by its sponsors) as a poison-pill for the current negotiations. Fine; opposing the administration is the GOP's default position.
But a striking number of Democrats have joined them, for no evident reason other than AIPAC's whole-hearted, priority-one support for the sanctions bill. The screen clip below is from AIPAC's site, and here is some political reporting on AIPAC's role in the sanctions push: NYT, Politico, JTA, Jerusalem Post-JTA, and our own National Journal here and here. Also see Greg Sargent in the Washington Post.
In the long run, these Democrats are not in a tenable position. Or not a good one. They are opposing what their president, his secretaries of state and defense, our normal major allies, and even the Russians and Chinese view as a step toward peace. And their stated reason for doing so—that new sanction threats will "help" the negotiations, even though every American, French, British, German, etc., and Iranian figure involved in the talks says the reverse—doesn't pass the straight-face test.
Via the AP: "'I think that the Iran sanctions bill is meant to strengthen the president, not in any way impede the ongoing negotiation which should and hopefully will be successful,' Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the legislation, said Tuesday." Oh sure. You can imagine what a person as smart as Blumenthal—or Chuck Schumer, or Cory Booker, or Mark Warner, all supporting the sanctions—would do to similar assertions in normal circumstances.
I agree with Peter Beinart, who wrote last month that people tired of U.S. wars in the Middle East should be speaking up more clearly in support of this deal. As Fred Kaplan of Slate, no peacenik, did when the first agreement was announced:
See also Andrew Sullivan, and an arms-control expert on technical flaws in the sanctions bill. [Update: and my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, who also argues that this bill is torpedoing the best chance for avoiding an Iranian nuclear program.] Maybe this deal will fail. But if you'd rather that the failure not be engineered in the Capitol, let your representatives know.
Updates: 1) As many readers have pointed out, Senate Republicans are near-unanimous in supporting the sanctions bill, but Democrats including Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York have played a big role in promoting it;
2) Also as many readers have pointed out, one of the Democratic co-sponsors of the bill is Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, whose brother James is the Atlantic's editor-in-chief. Noted for the record.
3) And, yes, I would let my senators know -- if, as a resident of DC, I had any.
What follows has no seasonal relevance, unless you consider this the time of Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men. For your background processing during family gatherings and holiday observances, you could try this concept:
When considering the next steps with Iran, we should think less about Nazi Germany (the frequent P.M. Netanyahu parallel) or North Korea (a parallel often made by opponents of a deal), and more about the China of Chairman Mao.
Other people have made this point, but let me lay out the train of reasoning:
What happened in 1979. For nearly 35 years, Iran has been at odds with most of the developed world, and China has been interacting with the world. Within the space of a few months in the surprisingly fateful year of 1979, Iranian extremists under the Ayatollah Khomeini took over their country in rebellion against the Shah, his U.S. sponsors, and the West — and Chinese pragmatists under Deng Xiaoping began the series of modernizations whose effects we know so well. These followed the opening of Chinese-U.S. relations that Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong began in the early 1970s.
The damage of isolation. Iran’s estrangement from the rest of the world has been bad principally for its own people. But it has also been bad for the United States, for world stability in general, and for Israel. Arguably the only beneficiaries, apart from Iran’s governing group, have been Iran’s regional and religious rivals, starting with the Iraq of Saddam Hussein and the current Saudi Arabia.
The benefits of integration. The world is far better off because of China’s integration rather than exclusion, notwithstanding all the serious frictions that remain. Strictly for reasons of scale, Iran’s re-integration would not be as world-changing as China’s has been. But it would be very important — much more, say, than Burma’s recent switch, or Cuba's eventual one — and on balance would have a positive overall effect on the world: economically, strategically, culturally, and in other ways.
Because there is no evidence that Iran’s population has been brainwashed into extremism through its outsider era — much less so than with China’s, where the Cultural Revolution had barely wound down when the U.S. re-established relations — Iran’s re-integration with the world would likely be faster and easier than China’s.
Regional winners and losers. Although America’s rapprochement with China was clearly beneficial overall, it wasn’t good, or seen as good, for all parties. Even apart from its intended cornering effect on the Soviet Union, it was surprising and threatening to America’s main ally in the region, Japan. (The Nixon-to-China move was one of several “Nixon shocks” that gravely alarmed Japanese leaders.) It was also surprising in South Korea, where U.S. troops were (and are) still stationed along the frontier with China’s main client state, North Korea. And it was seen as nothing less than a life-and-death threat by the Republic of China in Taiwan, since establishing relations with the government in Beijing necessarily meant breaking them with the one in Taipei.
“Nixon goes to China.” Because the U.S.-China deal overturned everything that America’s long-dominant, Taiwan-favoring “China Lobby” had stood for, making the deal required sophistication in both domestic and international politics. The cliche about Nixon going to China underscores the importance of Nixon’s anti-Communist reputation. But before the deal he tried to soften up the China Lobby as much as possible — and then he and his successors, Presidents Ford and Carter, overcame it when necessary, especially using business allies to argue that what had been good for the old China Lobby was not necessarily the best course for the United States.
In the end, 35 years ago this month, Warren Christopher, as the Carter Administration’s deputy secretary of state, was sent to Taipei. There he was mobbed by enormous angry throngs as he prepared to deliver in person the news that the United States was taking a step that the Taiwan government considered betrayal and that its China Lobby allies in the U.S. had bitterly opposed.
Bringing this back to Iran. Thus the obvious parallels. With a potential re-engagement with Iran, the United States has a chance to correct a distortion that, if not as harmful as the one with China, has gone on longer. (The U.S. and Mao’s China had been at odds for just over 20 years when Nixon took office, vs. the impending 35th anniversary of the revolution in Iran.) But while an end to the U.S.-Iranian cold war would clearly be beneficial for both those countries and the world at large, it does not immediately help everyone.
A rise in Iranian influence could objectively be threatening to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, as Saudi representatives have not been shy in pointing out. And the current government of Israel has — utterly wrongly in my view, but they’re not asking — declared the prospect of a deal to be a huge “historic mistake.” Benjamin Netanyahu has every right to see things that way, but the United States has every right to disagree with him and move ahead.
The next steps: the varying interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. Of course it’s possible that negotiations with Iran will break down. It was never certain that the U.S. and China would be able to paper over their economic, political, and strategic differences well enough to re-establish relations. But it is overwhelmingly in American interests that negotiations succeed rather than fail — and, as Robert Hunter argued in a piece I’ve cited several times, the very fact of the negotiations represents an important step.
Because American interests lie with the continuation rather than interuption and failure of the negotiations, the poison-pill legislation now being introduced in the Senate should be considered reckless. It is comparable to lumbering the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations with a number of negotiating guidelines known to be unacceptable to the government in Beijing -- which did not occur. And its military provision is quite strikingly different from the guarantee made to Taiwan. Different how?
The crucial difference in military commitments. A main ongoing source of rancor between the U.S. and China is the Taiwan Relations Act. It is the principal law governing America’s shift from recognizing Taiwan to recognizing mainland China — and, significantly, it was not enacted while the early negotiations were underway.
The TRA guarantees that the U.S. will resist any military takeover of Taiwan (obviously by China), and toward that end promises that the U.S. will continue to provide arms to the government in Taipei. Each time this happens, the government in Beijing complains bitterly. But here is the crucial part of that law:
It is the policy of the United States …
(4) to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;
(5) to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and
(6) to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.
(5) if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;
To spell it out, the Taiwan act promised arms of "a defensive character" to protect the island, and said that the United States would resist any resort to force. The Nuclear-Weapon Free Iran act says that if Israel is the first to use force, it will bring the United States along with it. I know of no precedent in U.S. foreign policy for our delegating a war-or-peace choice to some other government. Our NATO and other mutual-defense pacts, and the treaty with Japan, commit the U.S. to defend a country under active attack. This is something different.
The use and misuse of history. Any historical analogy is imperfect. Usually people cite "lessons" of history to reinforce what they already believe. But because discussions of Iran, Israel, and the nuclear question so often lead to analogies and lessons from Neville Chamberlain and Nazi Germany, it is worth considering this more recent and much better-matched factual case.
Modern Iran will resemble Nazi-era Germany when it is invading its neighbors one after another, which it has not done; when it is developing the most fearsome attack-oriented military in the world, which it does not possess; and when it has set up a horrific system of internal mass extermination, which it is not doing. The one point of resemblance -- an important one, but one that should not paralyze further reasoning -- is the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric coming from some Iranian leaders, as it had come from the Nazis. That is one similarity; the differences -- in capability, world situation, regional balance of power, and possibility for negotiation -- are more striking and profound.
And Hassan Rouhani's Iran will resemble Mao's China in ... well, in the ways mentioned above. The situations are different, but the opportunities and stakes are closer to those Richard Nixon considered in the early 1970s than to those Chamberlain misread in the 1930s.
So over the holiday season, reflect on the opportunities and dangers of this moment -- and also the historic mistake that Congressional or other efforts to block the deal might entail. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas to those celebrating tomorrow, and upcoming Happy New Year all around.
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? "A: 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.
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.
In the six months -- yes, it's been that long -- since Barack Obama's re-election, the drum-beats from the United States and Israel about bombing Iran have partly died down. Not totally, of course; recall the Hagel hearings, and also this Congressional resolution appearing to pre-endorse an attack if it occurs. Still, so much else has been going on -- in Syria, in North Korea, with the European economy -- that the topic has moved off the front pages for a while.
Which is why I found it so interesting to see that the possibility of an attack had literally moved back onto at least one front page. Here are our household's three papers as they looked on the breakfast table yesterday.
The Journal's story is by reputable and careful reporters. Let us hope that when we look back on it a year from now (I'm marking my calendar for May 4, 2014) this story seems to have reflected an elaborate scheme of carrot-and-stick, bluster-and-cooptation, that the Obama administration was playing with the Iranians. Rather than an early indication, like those similar stories in late 2002 and early 2003 about a buildup around Iraq, that we were headed straight to war.
For the rest of this month, I think I'll roll out a homemade logo, at right, to mark a range of discussion on what we've learned, forgotten, misconstrued, and never understood about the combat commitments that began when American forces invaded Iraq 10 years ago. This proceeds from a post one week ago on the necessary reckoning from the Iraq years, plus reader followups.
Today's theme: threat inflation and its many ramifications. Several readers offer supplements, nuances, and in some cases rebuttals to my previous claims. First, from James Pringle of the University of New Hampshire, an argument that in some crucial ways threat deflation is a bigger problem:
As an academic in the Earth Sciences, I would argue that threat deflation is rampant (but not in national security issues). Looking at where threat-deflation is common, and where threat-inflation is common, helps us to understand where either occurs.
If you look at many threats to society, for example anthropogenic climate change or cigarette smoking, there are or were large campaigns to downplay either the impact or existence of these threats. They are funded by organizations with a clear interest in the matter -- coal companies and tobacco companies in these examples. It takes energy, time and money to inflate or deflate a threat.
Peculiar to national security issues is that there usually no clear organized group that benefit from deflating the threat -- some general will make his career being the first leader of the new Cyber Command. Is there anyone who can make a career saying it is not necessary? Will any politician be celebrated for stopping some effort to "make us safer" in anywhere near the same proportion that he or she would be vilified when something bad happens? Are there any consultants who will earn large fees telling us something is not worth worrying about? Why would we pay someone to deal with non-threats?
Threat inflation may be bad for everyone, but it is good for someone -- a tragedy of the commons, if you will, where the commons is our pool of resources to either deal with threats or to invest in society.
On what I said was a specific current instance of threat-inflation: the drumbeat of warnings about the menace from Iran, a reader who asks that he not be named writes:
I am a graduate student studying the proliferation of nuclear technology (especially centrifuges for uranium enrichment) in the Engineering School at [distinguished East Coast university.] [He goes on to name advisors with extensive experience in assessing weapons threats from the Middle East and elsewhere, and with reputations for skepticism about some claimed threats.] In this email, I speak only for myself.
Regrettably, I've found, this field of study is replete with slanderous rhetoric and name-calling on both sides of the spectrum, a good portion of which is propelled by the colossal egos of a few with especially influential voices. Mostly because I am loath to participate in such unpleasantries, I will keep my comments as brief and benign as possible.
For the record: I believe that military action in Iran is completely unwarranted at this point and will remain so for (at very least) the near future.
While I am thankful for the growing body of scientific experts willing to speak out and counterbalance our nation's penchant for "threat inflation," I worry that a number of anti-war scientist/activists are guilty of the same fundamental offense as their Bush-era nemeses: allowing their political agendas to shape their technical assessments. Technical experts who maintain an a priori commitment to nonintervention can frequently do more harm than good. By softening the facts, downplaying suspicious activity, and gratuitously applying the "alarmist" label to any and all who oppose them, these analysts weaken the public discourse and undermine the ability of the IAEA to insist on transparency from nations like Iran.
In a recent post, you link to two op-eds by Yousaf Butt. (I feel obliged to stress that both are op-eds and quite likely do not reflect the position of many or most Bulletin scientists.) Like many of my colleagues, I cringe when the Washington Post, for example, levels sweeping allegations at Iran based on a tiny amount of new (even if credible) information. So, I applaud Butt in one sense. Unfortunately, though, based on my own reading of the evidence, I cannot agree that he has "debunked" much of anything:
1. No loudspeaker magnet, barring a truly remarkable coincidence, would require the exact dimensions of the magnets in Iran's centrifuges, down to the nearest one-thousandth of a centimeter in two of the three specifications and to the nearest millimeter in the third.
2. While the diagram he attacks in his second piece is by no means a smoking gun, the reasoning that leads him to call it " either slipshot analysis or an amateurish hoax," was later shown to be a mixup in units -- he simply didn't have sufficient information.
While I worry often about nuclear matters and "threat inflation," and while I am critical of the current trend that sensationalizes every alleged example of Iranian deception, I do believe in this statement, taken from a recent rebuttal to Butt: "the public needs to know the facts about Iran's nuclear program, even when uncomfortable, in order to design a responsible reaction to Iran that avoids war."
I will ask the author of those Bulletin of Atomic Scientists posts, Yousaf Butt, if he has a reply. And on the taxonomy of inflated threats, Charles Stevenson, a long-time defense expert often quoted here, writes to say:
I think your threat inflation discussion is mixing too many things and failing to make important distinctions. You're bundling apples, oranges, and walnuts.
One kind of threat inflation is through analytic error -- as was the case among some but not all people regarding the missile gap until McNamara conceded the error in 1961. The same was true of Soviet military spending estimates -- too high in the 1960s and 1980s, too low in the in1970s. The Tonkin Gulf issue was a misreading of flash reports -- despite the general military rule of interpretation that "first reports are [almost] always wrong" -- by political officials who found that initial reading happily consistent with their other policy views. LBJ said what he thought was true and then refused to admit of error.
A second type of threat inflation comes from worst case analysis and the impossibility of proving a negative. We want our analysts to consider worst case situations because sometimes they have turned out to be true [Japanese Zeros over Pearl Harbor = black swans]. Political leaders then face the challenge of being honest in citing threats without exaggerating likelihood. That was part of the problem with Iraqi WMDs. The other reason for the intelligence failure there was that VP Cheney kept asking, Is there evidence to prove that Saddam doesn't have WMDs? And the truthful answer, to the question posed that way, was no.
The third type of threat inflation is self-serving cherry-picking of reasonable analysis.That's what the Pentagon does every budget season and what Presidents do when they've made that 51-49 decision and want to persuade Congress and the public of the wisdom of their action. Like Reagan in Grenada.
We shouldn't automatically dismiss all threat claims as inflated, but subject them to questions of confidence and likelihood, etc., as the intelligence community does. But, yes, when Presidents lie, they too should be held accountable.
Finally for right now, a reader's comments on the panic that ensued in America after 9/11 and that has not fully subsided:
Since this all arises from a discussion of Threat Inflation, let me say that I was instantly offended by the spectre of Pearl Harbour that was purposefully raised in the aftermath of 9/11. They are not remotely similar events except in the number of deaths caused by an attack on American soil. Pearl Harbor altered the military balance in half of the globe, which is why Yamamoto [Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had warned against attacking Pearl Harbor, since after the initial months of shock it would lock Japan into war with a far more powerful adversary] attacks was able to run wild for a while. The 9/11 attacks didn't actually change anything, and I thought at the time it might be worthwhile for the President to point that out. "We mourn our dead, and we will pursue you and bring you to justice for your crime. But we are as strong as we were before, and more united than ever..." The speech writes itself, and has the virtue of being true. Instead we got the kind of panic that is unbecoming in great nation: "another Pearl Harbor", "the world will never be the same"
And then we diligently did the terrorists' work for them. What they were powerless to accomplish, we did: we changed ourselves to our detriment, and diminished our liberties, our honor, and our place in the world's imagination.... all in aid of promoting a pre-arranged war against a shitty little dictator who had nothing to do with it.
I've highlighted "doing the terrorist's work for them" because I've so often argued that this is one of the most damaging aspects of U.S. policies and attitudes through the post-9/11 years (for instance in this cover story in 2006.) Thanks for everyone submitting ideas; more to come.
Following this post on the impending tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, and this argument from a "liberal hawk" on why he had been proud to support the war, a few reader reactions. I am behind on this for the usual reasons but also because of the cumbersomeness of Internet connections in Beijing. Here we go with a sampling of response.
Threats aren't always inflated. Many people wrote to make a point similar to this one:
The only example of threat deflation I can think of was George W. Bush pre-9/11.
Further on the G.W. Bush record, from a veteran of Republican politics now in the Midwest:
I have all sorts of thoughts about the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, for another time. I'm probably not the first reader of yours, though, to note that you set the bar for honorable conduct pretty low with your reference yesterday to former President Bush.
Bush was the one person most responsible for the disaster Iraq became; he has never either apologized or accepted responsibility for his mistakes, and has devoted the years since he left office to presiding over his ghostwritten insta-memoirs and giving lavishly compensated speeches to closed audiences. If you think Bush deserves credit for not criticizing how President Obama has tried to repair the damage Bush caused, you have a more charitable soul than I do.
My capsule view of Bush: I believe that the temperamental combination he brought to the presidency was lethal. I think of the big three elements of this mix as ignorance, incuriosity, and decisiveness.
Ignorance was his low level of pre-existing knowledge of the complexities of the world.
"Incuriosity" was his apparent lack of passion about learning what he didn't know.
Decisiveness was his desire, nonetheless, to make big, sweeping choices quickly -- for instance, ten years ago that it made sense to invade Iraq.
In these matters of temperament, completely apart from political beliefs, you can see Bush as the opposite of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and also of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. I argued nine years ago that even if George W. Bush served only one term as president, his legacy would be large and disastrous. Still, since leaving office he has been an honorable contrast to other members of his team, notably his vice president and first secretary of defense.
I said that Al Gore deserved credit for an early anti-war stand. A reader in Maryland writes:
Before: "If the United States leads the charge to war in the Persian Gulf, we may get lucky and achieve a rapid victory. But then we will face a second war: a war to win the peace in Iraq. This war will last many years and will surely cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In light of this enormous task, it would be a great mistake to expect that this will be a replay of the 1991 war. The stakes are much higher in this conflict."
During: Today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned. Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination. (March 19, 2003)
After: Of the more than 18,000 votes he cast as a senator, Byrd said he was proudest of his vote against the Iraq war resolution. (June 12, 2006)
Back to the Bush family. The message I quoted from a liberal supporter of the war said that one honorable reason to invade Iraq was that Saddam Hussein had tried to assassinate the first President Bush. A reader replies:
I was struck, though, by this quotation from your "liberal hawk" and "avowed leftist":
I think just the assassination attempt on Bush 41 is plenty all by itself--what kind of country are we if we let another country's leader pull something like that with impunity?
One trouble with this is that the assassination attempt on Bush 41 was always dubious and has been pretty thoroughly discredited by now. Another is that the US has attempted, sometimes successfully, to assassinate leaders of other countries -- notably Castro, whom the US tried to assassinate many times. Would [this hawk] agree, I wonder, that Cuba would be justified in invading the US in retaliation? If not, kind of country is Cuba if it lets another country's leader pull something like that with impunity? Obviously that is a rhetorical question, whose answer is "a small, weak, and thoroughly menaced country that knows it couldn't bring the invasion off." But morally, by this standard, a Cuban invasion of the US would be completely justified....
Which reminds me: Obama's opposition to the war, mentioned by your reader CJ, is highly disputable. I was always criticial, myself, of the whole 'quagmire' argument directed by many American liberals against the Iraq war: it'll cost (us) too much, it'll last too long, it'll cost too many (American) lives. Imagine a Soviet politician who'd argued against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on those grounds; or a Japanese who'd argued against the attack on Pearl Harbor, or against Japan's imperial conquests in Asia, on the grounds that it would last too long and cost too much, and Japan would become stuck in a quagmire. What American would hail such people for their great wisdom and insight into world affairs? Usually we condemn the USSR and Japan for their aggression against other countries, but only "hippies" would condemn the US for aggression.
In the run-up to both Iraq wars I knew some opponents and protesters who argued that, contrary to the promises of our leaders, these wars would not be cakewalks and would last longer and be bloodier and more expensive than we were being told. I told them that I hoped they were wrong, because they were effectively hoping for a long, bloody, costly war. I preferred that as few people died or were hurt as possible, and that there were other better reasons to oppose those wars. When they thought about it, they tended to agree with me.
Having myself made a "quagmire"-style argument before the war, I naturally think that such a perspective was a useful reason to oppose the war. Let's spell it out. Much of the stated case for war was in two parts: (1) Saddam Hussein is evil and dangerous, and (2) there is a quick and feasible answer to that question. I was saying about part (2): No, there is not a quick and feasible answer. In cases of life-or-death imminent existential threat or emergencies like Pearl Harbor, questions of practicality don't matter. But they sure do in a "preventive" war of choice -- which I hoped we would not launch.
One more for now:
I was puzzled at the time, and remain puzzled, by the fact that people who accepted the basically humanitarian argument for war (Saddam is dreadful, and the Iraqis would be better off if we deposed him) did not think: if we depose Saddam for these reasons, a lot depends on how we handle the aftermath. Luckily, we do not have to speculate about this: we already have an aftermath carried out by the Bush administration ready to hand, in Afghanistan. How's that going?
It wasn't as clear then as it is now how badly Bush and Cheney blew that one, but it was clear enough for me to think, at the time: the people in the Bush administration are not interested in any sort of serious investment in making the countries they invade better, more governable, whatever. Rumsfeld will try to prove his theories about how you can do everything with next to no footprint, Bush and Cheney will go haring off after the next big thing, etc. So if someone thought that invading Iraq would be justified IF we were willing to undertake some sort of serious effort to make Iraq a better place, then she ought also to think: what are the odds of that? and then: given the available evidence, not that good.
I did not accept the humanitarian justification for invasion myself. (Not that I doubted Saddam's awfulness -- I was on the Turkish side of their border with Iraq during one of the last bits of the Anfal campaign -- but I didn't think that necessarily meant that invasion would be a good idea.) But I really never understood why the people who did accept it were so apparently uninterested in the evidence of our competence at nation-building provided by our conduct in Afghanistan after the Taliban were defeated.
And, why not, here is one more (from a large harvest). Soon I will be in Shanghai, where the Chinese government's foot-on-the-neck of the Internet is usually lighter than in Beijing, and I should be able to catch up on a range of arguments:
The [liberal hawk] reader comments that Iraqis are surely better off now than they were under Saddam's power....
First, he, and you and I are really in no place to say what makes Iraqis 'better off'. That is a question for actual Iraqis living in Iraq. But from what we can say as outsiders: Iraq under Saddam was no paradise, but the infrastructure of the country was completely obliterated during the war, leaving people who previously had electricity, running water, general physical safety and comfort with none of those. Second, a huge number of Iraqis died as a result of the war. Huge. Well over a hundred thousand. We should keep them in mind when making throwaway claims about life being 'better' for Iraqis, when the invasion coalition killed so many of them. I had an Iraqi roommate for a time who had lost so many friends in the war he had lost count.
Basically, I just want to acknowledge that there is no straightforward way to measure whether lives are 'better off' as a result of any traumatic event like a war, and that any discussion of such has to include mention of the unspeakable damage that this war has done to a generation of Iraqis. And any discussion of possible future military adventures for the US should too.
In response to a post yesterday, arguing that it's time for another look at the fateful decision ten years ago to invade Iraq, these reader messages.
1. Threat inflation. I said that nearly all the major official "threats" of the modern era proved in retrospect to have been hyped. Missile gap, Tonkin Gulf, WMD, etc. Reader JA immediately replied, "You left out terrorism." And reader AS wrote:
It's true that we came close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. But according to a well documented article in the Atlantic [plus others], the missiles themselves were an inflated threat, i.e., according to US generals at the time did not materially hurt US security and could easily be traded, as they eventually secretly were, for US missiles in Turkey.
Again, reflect on this. Virtually all of the danger-to-the-nation warnings we've received in modern history prove to have been false, or overblown and hyped. Also, from MM in Massachusetts:
We're in heated agreement about the danger of threat inflation and the Cuban Missile crisis in particular. Building on that notion, Able Archer 83 was another incident not in the public discussion (as much) but was a terrifying moment in history: a moment where two nuclear giants almost had it out over little more than a lack of communication.
2. The 'bomb Iran' resolution. I mentioned the efforts of Senators Lindsey Graham, Robert Menendez, et al to promote a Congressional resolution backing the government of Israel on whatever it decides to do about Iran. YR and others pointed me to the text of the resolution, which includes this sentence:
Nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war.
Noted. On the other hand, and for the record, here is what the parts of the resolution just before that say:
Congress ... (7) declares that the United States has a vital national interest in, and unshakeable unbreakable commitment to, ensuring the existence, survival, and security of the State of Israel, and reaffirms United States support for Israel's right to self-defense; and (8) urges that, if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.
3. Liberal hawks. On accountability for people's views ten years ago, I said that unlike the architects of Vietnam, those who urged the U.S. toward war in Iraq had largely escaped reckonings about their views. A reader in Nebraska writes:
I might argue that Tony Blair has been held more accountable than most U.S. politicians - at least in his home country.
From reader DG in Texas:
At the time, the propaganda machine made anyone opposed to the war "unpatriotic" - unfortunate way to limit free speech. It is now too hard to even discuss because of the damage to our young generation - remembering how we treated Viet Nam Vets. The whole thing is just too sad to think about.
And from CJ :
One suggestion (not exactly original to me -- I believe Timothy Noah of Slate made this point previously [JF note: for instance here] re: accountability: not only are the people who got Iraq wrong treated as wise men, but those who got Iraq right (with the highly notable exception of President Obama) remain marginalized as too radical or (as Paul Krugman said today) as "hippies". Why aren't people like former Senator Graham [Robert Graham of Florida] called upon more in the places where public opinion is shaped?
Good question. Finally, from Alan Thomas, who says he is proud to be known as a liberal hawk:
Ten years ago I was profiled in a WaPo piece, by Linton Weeks, on ordinary Americans who supported the war; I filled the role of token leftist:
An avowed leftist, Alan Thomas, 33, doesn't like Bush, but he believes in the war. "I don't support the president. I'm skeptical about his sincerity in wanting democracy in Iraq. But I feel he's committed to it," Thomas says.
Thomas works the night shift in a group home for mainstreamed developmentally disabled adults in Kirksville, Mo. He's the son of college professors. He and his wife, Kate, 27, live in an apartment and drive a 1989 Chevrolet van. They have two mutts rescued from the humane society. They also run a small shop that sells things they think are cool, such as bumper stickers that read "Bush/Cheney: America's Second Choice."
"I'm sympathetic with the plight of the Kurds and the Iraqi people," Thomas says. "And I'm disappointed in, and embarrassed by, the left."
Asked if he voted for Bush, he laughs. "No, no way. Never."
Though Thomas enthusiastically supports the war, he says he'll reevaluate his position after the regime change. "If Bush tries to install a puppet dictator or if there are human rights violations, I'll be decrying it as loudly as anyone else on the left," he says...
The United States, Thomas says, "should clean up the world. We have the power. I'm kind of a weirdo. It's wrong for us to sit on our hands and not do anything."
I for one still stand by everything I said. But then, I never advocated for the war based on the WMD argument anyway, and acknowledged at the time (though Weeks didn't use those quotes) that it was a thin pretext used to sell it to the public and the U.N. Honestly, although my personal motive had to do with human rights (and notice that Weeks did print my caveat that anticipated the possibility of something like Abu Ghraib), I think just the assassination attempt on Bush 41 is plenty all by itself--what kind of country are we if we let another country's leader pull something like that with impunity?
I have trouble understanding why you think it's so obvious now that the liberal hawks were wrong. Maybe circa 2006 it looked that way, but aren't Iraqis better off today than they would be if Saddam (or his sons) still had a grip on power?
To answer the questions in the final paragraph: let's assume that many Iraqis may indeed be better off. For Americans that's not the relevant fact. After all, many people in Cuba, North Korea, etc might be better off if the U.S. invaded there too.
The question I am asking is whether this was a sane investment of American lives, money, national focus and attention, and international reputation. I argued before the war and soon after that it wasn't, and I think time has strengthened rather than weakened that case. Still, I respect an "idealistic hawk" willing to speak up for his views -- rather than, like many who were making similar points ten years ago, pretending this never really occurred.
PS If you are in Beijing on Sunday evening, March 3, see you at the Capital M Literary Festival, with Jorge Guajardo. Details here.
Here is something other than The Sequester to think about at the beginning of March:
This month marks ten years since the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq. In my view this was the biggest strategic error by the United States since at least the end of World War II and perhaps over a much longer period. Vietnam was costlier and more damaging, but also more understandable. As many people have chronicled, the decision to fight in Vietnam was a years-long accretion of step-by-step choices, each of which could be rationalized at the time. Invading Iraq was an unforced, unnecessary decision to risk everything on a "war of choice" whose costs we are still paying.
My reasons for bringing this up:
1) Reckoning. Anyone now age 30 or above should probably reflect on what he or she got right and wrong ten years ago.
I feel I was right in arguing, six months before the war in "The Fifty-First State," that invading Iraq would bring on a slew of complications and ramifications that would take at least a decade to unwind.
I feel not "wrong" but regretful for having resigned myself even by that point to the certainty that war was coming. We know, now, that within a few days of the 9/11 attacks many members of the Bush Administration had resolved to "go to the source," in Iraq. Here at the magazine, it was because of our resigned certainty about the war that Cullen Murphy, then serving as editor, encouraged me in early 2002 to begin an examination of what invading and occupying Iraq would mean. The resulting article was in our November, 2002 issue; we put it on line in late August in hopes of influencing the debate.
My article didn't come out and say as bluntly as it could have: we are about to make a terrible mistake we will regret and should avoid. Instead I couched the argument as cautionary advice. We know this is coming, and when it does, the results are going to be costly, damaging, and self-defeating. So we should prepare and try to diminish the worst effects (for Iraq and for us). This form of argument reflected my conclusion that the wheels were turning and that there was no way to stop them. Analytically, that was correct: Tony Blair or Colin Powell might conceivably have slowed the momentum, if either of them had turned anti-war in time, but few other people could have. Still, I'd feel better now if I had pushed the argument even harder at the time.
For the record, Michael Kelly, who had been editor of the magazine and was a passionate advocate of the need for war, allowed us to undertake this project and put it on the cover even though he disagreed. Soon thereafter he was in Iraq, as an embedded reporter with the 3rd Infantry Division; in an incredible tragedy he was killed during the invasion's early phase.
2) Accountability. For a decade or more after the Vietnam war, the people who had guided the U.S. to disaster decently shrank from the public stage. Robert McNamara did worthy penance at the World Bank. Rusk, Rostow, Westmoreland were not declaiming on what the U.S. should and should not do.
After Iraq, there has been a weird amnesty and amnesia about people's misjudgment on the most consequential decision of our times. Hillary Clinton lost the 2008 primary race largely because she had been "wrong" on Iraq and Barack Obama had been "right." But Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bremer, Rice, McCain, Abrams, and others including the pro-war press claque are still offering their judgments unfazed. In his post-presidential reticence George W. Bush has been an honorable exception.
I don't say these people should never again weigh in. But there should be an asterisk on their views, like the fine print about side effects in pharmaceutical ads.
3) Honor. Say this for Al Gore: He was forthright, he was early, and he was right about Iraq.
4) Liberal hawks. Say this about the "liberal hawk" faction of 2002-2003: unlike, say, Peter Beinart, not enough of them have reckoned with what they got wrong then, and how hard many of them were pushing the "justice" and "duty" to invade, not to mention its feasibility. It would be good to hear from more of them, ten years on.
5) Threat inflation. As I think about this war and others the U.S. has contemplated or entered during my conscious life, I realize how strong is the recurrent pattern of threat inflation. Exactly once in the post-WW II era has the real threat been more ominous than officially portrayed. That was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the world really came within moments of nuclear destruction.
Otherwise: the "missile gap." The Gulf of Tonkin. The overall scale of the Soviet menace. Iraq. In each case, the public soberly received official warnings about the imminent threat. In cold retrospect, those warnings were wrong -- or contrived, or overblown, or misperceived. Official claims about the evils of these systems were many times justified. Claims about imminent threats were most of the times hyped.
Which brings me to:
6) Iran. Most of the people now warning stridently about the threat from Iran warned stridently about Iraq ten years ago. That doesn't prove they are wrong this time too. But it's a factor to be weighed. Most of the technical warnings we are getting about Iran's capabilities are like those we got about Saddam's. That doesn't prove they are wrong again. But it's a factor.
Purportedly authoritative inside reports, replete with technical details about "yellowcake" or aluminum tubes, had an outsized role in convincing people of the threat from Iraq. We wish now that more people had looked harder at those claims. If you'd like to see someone looking hard at similar technical claims about Iran, please check out the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where Youssaf Butt argues that the latest warnings mean less than they seem. Also from the Bulletin, a previous debunking, and a proposal for a negotiated endgame with Iran.
Again: like most of humanity, I can't judge these nuclear-technology arguments myself. But the long history of crying-wolf hyped warnings, in some cases by the same people now most alarmist about Iran, puts a major burden of proof on those claiming imminent peril.
7) Clarity. I said earlier that I regretted not being more direct and blatant in saying: Don't go into Iraq. For more than eight years, I've tried to argue very directly that a preemptive military strike on Iran would be an enormous mistake on all levels for either Israel or the United States. Strategically it could only cement-in Iranian hostility for the long run. Tactically every professional soldier -- Israeli, American, or otherwise -- who has examined the practicalities of such a mission has warned that it would be folly.
Lest the soldiers seem too gloomy, several U.S. Senators are working on a resolution committing the U.S. to lend its military and diplomatic support if PM Netanyahu decides, against the advice of most of his own military establishment, to attack. It would be bad enough if Netanyahu got his own country into this bind; there is no precedent for the U.S. delegating to any ally the decision to commit our troops to an attack. It would be different from NATO-style treaty obligations for mutual defense.
There is more ahead about Israeli, Iranian, and American negotiating strategies, but this is enough for now. It's also as much as I can manage before recovering from the flight from DC to Beijing.
With nothing to do with the debates. That's for tomorrow.
1) Hacking. Many people who have done business in China have seen warnings like the one below, which I first encountered a few months ago and which started showing up in my Gmail inbox again today:
Google explains that the warning is based on parsing the links in phishing-style messages sent to your account, and matching them with what it knows about state-sponsored attacks, which in practice mostly come from China or the Middle East. The accompanying advice says (obviously) not to click on links from unknown sources, and to be sure to turn on Gmail's two-step sign-in system. Yes, two-step is slightly a pain. But if you don't do use it, and then get hacked, you get no sympathy from me. My point for the moment is that I give Google credit for taking this step, which it didn't have to do.*
2) Airlines. What I have learned from response to last night's brief item is that 100 times as many people will write in to complain about United Airlines as will write to defend it. Actually, that's not quite accurate. I've received well over 100 messages with "you don't know the half of it" complaints about United, and so far zero saying "Hey, they're not so bad." But many people wrote to protest my statement that "People mainly hate the airline they spend most time traveling on." Nearly all in this group mentioned Southwest as the counter-example. Most of the rest mentioned Virgin. More on this and other pending topics soon.
3) Pandering. Bad move by Obama, good move by Romney dept. I hope eventually to say more about why I think it was stupid and self-defeating for the Obama administration to block the acquisition, by a Chinese company, of a wind-farm operation in Oregon, on fairly bogus national-security grounds. For now, see Edward Alden's analysis for the CFR. Meanwhile, good for Mitt Romney for making the point that a military strike on Iran is "probably" unnecessary. I have decided to take this as a sign of his determination that if he is going down, it might as well be with dignity. OK, I may be over-reading things, but that is what I hope is the reasoning.
If you want a reminder of why the preemptive-strike option for Iran, apart from "probably" being unnecessary, would "almost certainly" be ruinous and self-defeating, please be sure to read this report from the Wilson Center on "Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action on Against Iran." Here's is an extra gloss by veteran diplomat and one-time Atlantic author William Polk. I add further discussion of Iran policy to my "more, soon" aspirational list.
And, OK, bonus point #4: I agree entirely with Peter Osnos that the PBS News Hour deserves more respect and street-cred than it usually gets. For example:
The show provides news for serious viewers, and if you happen to be one, no other daily program will give you a more extensive offering, refusing -- at some risk -- to heighten the glitz quotient that has been so corrosive elsewhere in today's media. The greatest danger for this time-honored newscast is its being taken for granted while the spotlight shines elsewhere on less worthy but more popular programs.
Tomorrow, catching up on other topics, plus the debates. ___
* Routine disclosure: many of my friends, plus one immediate family member, work at Google. Extra disclosure: Boy, has the Chinese government tightened up yet again on visa rules. Am planning another visit this month. But ...
1) Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez. Over the months Atlantic writers have considered how much less attractive military-drone technology will seem, from the American perspective, when it is no longer a U.S. monopoly. See installments by Steve Clemons, Robert Wright, and me, including allusions to David Ignatius's novel Bloodmoney.
In Ignatius's book, drones were an incidental motivating factor. In Daniel Suarez's Kill Decision, they are the center of the action. Timely, cautionary -- and of course very interesting.
Lofgren is a long-time Congressional staff member, recently retired, whom I have quoted frequently in this space. His new book, which came out just last week, is an expansion of the jeremiad from him that I discussed last year. For a gloss on his topic and appropriately sympathetic book review, see this essay by my friend (and also Lofgren's) Chuck Spinney in Counterpunch. Also this essay by Kelley Vlahos in The American Conservative.
3) "7 Reasons Why Israel Should Not Attack Iran's Nuclear Facilities," by the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, over the weekend on our site. I have one percent as many contacts in Israel as Jeff Goldberg does, but even I have started getting messages from friends there saying that the bomb-Iran drumbeat is reaching new intensity.
From the start, the main problem I have had believing that the Netanyahu team could be serious about these threats is that a bombing attack on Iran would be so recklessly self-defeating, above all for Israel. Goldberg's item lays out the self-defeating aspects systematically and convincingly. Let's hope they are convincing to the audience that matters within the Israeli government.
Stay tuned for Part II, with a China theme, this evening (or when I get to it).
While traveling I am reminded of that modern truth: we are omni-connected in a bad way (crowds staring at devices in their hands when walking, driving, talking -- people will start making fun of this pretty soon) without being reliably connected in a good way (being able to count on usable connections on a laptop when moving from place to place*). Thus today's catch-up grab-bag:
1) Iran The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg reminds us in this authoritative and news-filled interview/post about the fundamental problem with all "let's bomb Iran" scenarios: they would make the situation much worse rather than in any way "better." This is an evergreen theme for our magazine. In his latest report, Jeff Goldberg reports on a lengthy discussion in Israel last month with Meir Dagan, former head of Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad. A sample, with my emphasis added:
What angers [Dagan] most is what he sees as a total lack of understanding on the part of the men who lead the Israeli government about what may come the day after an Israeli strike. Some senior Israeli officials have argued to me that a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities might actually trigger the eventual downfall of the regime. Dagan predicts the opposite: "Judging by the war Iran fought against Iraq, even people who supported the Shah, even the Communists, joined hands with (Ayatollah) Khomeini to fight Saddam," he said, adding, "In case of an attack, political pressure on the regime will disappear. If Israel will attack, there is no doubt in my mind that this will also provide them with the justification to go ahead and move quickly to nuclear weapons." He also predicted that the sanctions program engineered principally by President Obama may collapse as a result of an Israeli strike, which would make it easier for Iran to obtain the material necessary for it to cross the nuclear threshold.
This report, and a similar cautionary interview by Jeff Goldberg last week, for me are the conclusive response to yet another recent item from The Goldberg Oeuvre. That was his asking whether Barack Obama, with his track record of taking big, dramatic risks despite his super-deliberate reputation, might be expected to make a similar, "What the hell, let's try it" choice about Iran.
My answer is: No. He is not going to do this. Nothing in Obama's record reveals a willingness to make a choice with as much unbounded negative potential as this one. Running for President as a freshman senator? At worst he'd suffer a bad early loss -- as many ultimately successful candidates have done. Ordering the strike on bin Laden? Riskier, for his reputation and for relations with Pakistan -- but not in the sense of opening up a whole new military front. The commitment in Libya: hedged and contained from the start. Similarly with Iraq and Afghanistan. I won't go down the entire list but will say, Nothing in Obama's career illustrates a recklessness like what would be involved in bombing Iran. (Readers from the Netanyahu government, please ignore this paragraph. I'm bluffing.)
2) China Two days ago, the Atlantic's editor James Bennet and I had a discussion at Atlantic HQ, hosted by David Bradley and organized by Steve Clemons, about China, China Airborne, and when my next article for the Atlantic was going to be turned in. The video is here. This morning I talked Charlie Rose and Erica Hill, on CBS, about the same topics -- at least the first two. That video is here.
3) Recession In addition to Derek Thompson's very good piece on our site about what makes job loss in this recession so unusual, please see the "America's Hidden Austerity Program" by Ben Polak and Peter Schott of Yale. It has been widely cited but is too important not to mention again. Short answer: in all other recessions, public employment has helped pull us back up. This time it is pulling us down.
4) Australia Sam Roggeveen, of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, has been doing an online Q-and-A with me about China, America, technology, and related topics. I think U.S. readers in particular would find this enlightening, for the difference in assumptions about and perspectives on China, as seen from the Antipodes. It's on Lowy's The Interpreter site: part 1 is here, part 2 is here, and part 3 is in process.
5) TSA I have news, but it will wait. That is it for now.
__ * On this point: I love Amtrak and take it whenever I can. But, really, Amtrak needs to stop advertising its east coast trains as having WiFi -- because they don't in any kind of reliable way.
Suppose Amtrak under-promised and said: You get to travel from downtown to downtown, with no TSA screening lines and in relative calm, plus with power outlets at each seat ... and from time to time along the route free WiFi service might be available! Then people would be happily surprised when it did work. Instead its promising sometime that its current technology just can't deliver, therefore creating needless Louis CK-style irritation when it doesn't work rather than appropriate gratitude when it does.
[Please see update below.] After a 5 am airport checkin, my thoughts naturally turn to: Armageddon, despair, the bleak inevitabilities of life. Though on the brighter side, the TSA operation at San Diego turns out to have an metal-detector-only line, which for once I managed to sidle towards and make my way through without being intercepted for "random" extra screening.*
Back to the dark side: the Spring 2012 issue of Rand Review, from the Rand corporation, has published an article on the threats posed by Iran and the ways to deal with them. Please read the whole thing, which elaborates on this opening premise:
An Israeli or American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would make it more, not less, likely that the Iranian regime would decide to produce and deploy nuclear weapons. Such an attack would also make it more, not less, difficult to contain Iranian influence.
As a reminder of the main point: a nuclear-armed Iran would be a very bad thing. A military strike on Iran in the name of averting that possibility would similarly be a very bad thing in itself, and in all likelihood would make the original problem even harder to solve. The reason the Iran situation is genuinely so difficult is that both these unpleasant realities apply. Serious proposals for dealing with Iran's ambitions, as opposed to the threats and bluster we have heard from many Israeli and American politicians (and very few military officials in either country), proceed from awareness of both truths.
Update Thomas P.M. Barnett has a recent item on the relative effectiveness of "hard-kill" and "soft-kill" approaches toward Iran:
While I have written that I think Israel will be hard-pressed not to attack in the end, I still maintain - as I have since 2005 - that the soft-kill on Iran will work. To me, the soft-kill is the detente here, just like it was with the Sovs. Open up ties, admit the regime is valid, blow off the nuke pursuit (which grants Iran nothing in terms of leverage with anybody - including already nuked-up Israel), and let the connectivity that results do the rest in terms of regime delegitimizing from within leading to eventual democratization.
Ultimately, this strategy - and not Star Wars - brought down the Sovs, and it can do the same on Iran - in far faster order.
___ *Yes, I know it is actually random -- even though, for whatever reason, in the past 18 months it has never not
happened to me at Dulles. More on screening status of different airports