The Burden of Proof for Declaring a Failure of Diplomacy

>This post is part of our forum on Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story detailing the prospects and implications of an Israeli strike against Iran. Follow the debate here.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, as is his way, offers an engaging, thought-provoking analysis of today's Middle East and its challenging terrain. Gerecht is right about liberal democracies' tendency to avoid tough decisions and push decisions to go to war down the road. He is also right that an Iranian response to an attack may be less robust than advertised, at least immediately -- as was the Iraqi response in 2003. I would add that Israel's strategic planners have likely concluded from the 2006 war with Hezbollah and the 2008 war on Gaza that they will pay less of a price for military action than pessimists like me fear. His frustration with other options is understandable. And he's right about the centrality of questions of credibility and capability to the kind of deterrence and containment scenarios that could develop absent a military strike -- as well as about the deep uncertainty and nerve-rattling brinksmanship that such containment may require.

But for all that, I'm not convinced. Gerecht's argument ultimately comes down to a premature dismissal of other options and to the hope that if the U.S. or Israel hits Iran hard, the situation might look a little better when the dust settles. If Iraq has taught us anything at all, though, it's that the situation could just as easily look a lot worse. The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq is the clearest case available of a liberal democracy violating Gerecht's axiom about the preference to defer going to war -- and the invasion led to disaster. Similarly, while the worst-case predictions about the impact of the invasion did not come to pass during the 2003 war itself, but the longer-term negative effects that developed over the following years -- on the U.S., for Iraqis, across the broader Middle East, and throughout the world -- have proven devastating. Those costs must weigh heavily on our thinking about Iran now.

In his argument for military action, Gerecht is far too willing to bet on a best-case outcome, where military planners and political analysts tend to see far more likely negatives. Gerecht goes too far, I believe, in downplaying the potential Iranian response. He offers little reason to believe that a limited military strike would provide any certainty about an end to -- or even substantial delay of -- Iran's nuclear program. And I have found few Iran experts or Iranian political activists to agree with his argument that a military strike would actually help the Green Movement or other strands of the Iranian opposition. Like many military planners, I'm left cold when I hear overly optimistic assessments of the impact of military action. And like many scarred by the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq, I want a serious discussion about the day after.

I also believe that Gerecht gives up too easily on non-military courses of action, and on the administration's current approach, in particular. As much as I'd enjoy a nice dinner with Gerecht and Nick Burns, I could only accept his bet on whether diplomacy and sanctions will succeed or fail if we could define what "success" and "failure" actually mean here. Few have really done so. But the costs and risks of military action are sufficiently high that the burden of proof for declaring diplomacy a failure must be accordingly demanding. Meeting the threat to Israel and to U.S. interests posed by Iran right now has to mean strengthening diplomacy and building international support. And here is where Goldberg's discussion of Israeli thinking -- supported in various ways by Clawson, Gerecht, and Abrams -- becomes so relevant. What emerges from Goldberg's portrait is not an Israel working with the United States to meet a common challenge. Effective diplomacy towards Iran will require maintaining some semblance of international cooperation --- including the Gulf states, the P5+1 and the UN Security Council, Turkey, and Israel, among many others. Talk of a unilateral Israeli strike undermines that cooperation and makes success less likely.

Gerecht may not convince, but his effort to do so is genuine. Here and elsewhere, he sketches a thought-provoking case (with which I nonetheless strongly disagree) that we may ultimately see military action, despite all the negative consequences. I wish I could say the same about Elliott Abrams's contribution, which sidesteps all the serious issues by complaining that I "blame Israel for everything. Everything." How disappointing. It seems an especially odd complaint in a forum set up around a story reporting that Israel is now more likely than not to launch a military strike against Iran, without prior consultation with the United States. One would think that a former senior U.S. official would be concerned that a close ally is openly talking to journalists about acting unilaterally on an issue about which the two governments have been conferring regularly and intensely for years. Elliott shows no concern whatsoever that such statements might complicate the United States' ongoing efforts to deal with the Iranian challenge. He seems more concerned with channeling Israeli frustration and egging-on Israeli hostility to Barack Obama than with dealing effectively with Iran. This is a pity, particularly in the context of The Atlantic's otherwise fine debate. Alas. Because serious arguments lie ahead, and I would hope that Elliott will be a constructive part of them.

The debate continues here.