Thursday Round-Up: Getting at the Alternatives to Military Action

Who's saying what in the debate on the The Atlantic's September cover story

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.
Today, Nicholas Burns, the former undersecretary of state for political affairs in the administration of George W. Bush, argues that Obama, with his strategy of negotiations and sanctions, understands Iran better than those advocating for war:
Can igniting such a conflict possibly be in the U.S. or Israeli interest? The answer is a clear no. The price is just too high.

The smarter alternative is for President Obama to trust his own instincts and to make clear to Netanyahu that the U.S., rather than Israel, will lead in the international response to the Iranian challenge. .... In my view, Obama's patient, careful, and sophisticated policy makes much more sense for our country, as well as for Israelis, than an early resort to war by Israel that risks causing more problems than it resolves.
Robin Wright responds, exploring what a successful containment policy should look like. It will be tough to put together, she admits, because "after three decades, Iran's regime is sanctions-savvy. Every time one bank or one company tied to the Revolutionary Guards is sanctioned, the regime simply shifts business to another bank or sets up a new front company." For containment to work, she says, it needs two things:
... international consensus and an effective enforcement mechanism, possibly including military resources -- such as ships to cordon off Iran and prevent the transport of sanctioned or illicit goods.

So what provisions does a viable containment policy need to have? As one of the early steps, for example, should containment include trying to cut off Iranian access to foreign refineries, which Iran needs, given that it doesn't have enough refineries of its own to process oil for its domestic market? Sounds easy, but to work it needs full international cooperation -- in principle at the United Nations, and in practice from countries or companies servicing Iran -- as well as an enforcement mechanism to prevent smuggling. That's only one option of many, and we should imaginatively be thinking through others before racing into military action.
At The Jerusalem Post, Larry Derfner reacts to Goldberg's reporting, vehemently opposing an Israeli strike, and asking where the logic of preemptive military action would end? "If we did manage to put Iran's nuclear potential on hold for a while, how many new "existential threats" would rear up against us?" He concludes with a chilling take on what might happen if Israel were to strike:
Goldberg's sources say Israelis will flee the country if Iran gets nuclear weapons; if that's so, imagine how many will run from a bloodied, shell-shocked, leper state. The powers-that-be say Israel cannot risk another Holocaust; sounds to me like their Holocaust mania is creating what could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Is this really what we've come to? Is this all Israel can offer -- to its citizens, to the Jewish people, to the Middle East, to the democratic world? After all the doomsday weapons we've amassed, must we be so afraid, must we hold onto the Holocaust for dear life? As weapons technology moves ahead, is this the only future we have -- one of fear rising to aggression, which sets off enemy aggression, a future of one war after another, with only dread in between?

With all its intimidating power, if that's the best Israel can do, then to hell with it. Let's all start packing. Save Israeli Jewry -- help us emigrate.

One other downside to an Israeli strike on Iran - it'll cause a full-blown schism among Jews, both in Israel and the diaspora.

It will turn Jews against Israel in droves.

Nobody asked us to build a Jewish state in the Middle East; we decided to come here. If we can't handle the stress, we should seek a calmer life elsewhere. A healthy-spirited Jewish state is good for the Jews, but a paranoid, incredibly reckless Jewish state, a rogue Jewish state, would be bad for everyone.
Judith Miller at, also commenting on Goldberg's story, rejects the idea that Israel will strike anytime soon: Attacking Iranian nuclear facilities -- which reports indicate are widely dispersed, buried, or otherwise hidden -- is nowhere near as easy as attacking single reactors, as they've done previously in Iraq and Syria; the threat of Iran hitting back hard via Hezbollah and Gaza is real; and many Israeli leaders maintain the hope that the U.S. will strike Iran so that Israel doesn't have to. "For all these reasons, history may not repeat itself in the Middle East," she writes.
But other indicators suggest an increasingly perilous Middle East, with or without such Israeli military action. The Arab-Israeli peace process appears deadlocked. America's withdrawal from Iraq and its losses so far in Afghanistan create the perception throughout the region, rightly or wrongly, of American weakness and exhaustion.

Israel is being subjected to a fierce campaign to delegitimize its right to exist.

And Iran, after the failure of its Green Revolution, is in ever more dangerous hands. As Gary Sick, whose website hosts a fierce debate about Gulf policy, wrote recently, Iran increasingly resembles "the corporatist states of southern and eastern Europe in the 1920's and 1930's that we call fascist."

Yes, things do change in the Middle East, but as Atlantic editor James Bennet warned in the introduction to his dueling articles on what to do about Iran, "in fits and starts," and since the collapse of the Oslo peace talks over a decade ago, not for the better.
At Scripps News, Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis pick up the debate on two questions: "Is Iran's nuclear program so advanced that military action is now required?" And "would such an attack be worth the costs and consequences?"
"A nuclear-armed Iran isn't merely undesirable. It's unacceptable. A nuclear Iran, backed by Russia (and perhaps China), would alter the balance of power in the Middle East, destabilize saner Arab countries in the region, undermine U.S. interests and pose a mortal threat to Israel ....

An inept strike against Iran would indeed invite retaliation. But remember: The West and Iran have been at war for decades. A nuclear-armed Iran could easily turn the struggle for the worse -- for Israel and for the United States. No more half-measures.
A nuclear-armed Iran is undesirable. It may also be inevitable. The suffering unleashed by an attack on the country, though, would be guaranteed -- while the consequences of a nuclear Iran remain, at this point, hypothetical. If the debacle in Iraq has taught us anything, it is that we should wait for a true threat to reveal itself, instead of squandering blood and treasure trying to ward off a chimera.
Michael A. Innes of Current Intelligence again mentions the The Atlantic's debate series in the morning edition of Readbook. Innes also responds to a passage in Milhollin's argument yesterday, focused on the prospects and implications of Iran playing the victim internationally following an Israeli air strike:
There's a certain logic to the argument, as Reuel Marc Gerecht points out, but Milhollin's meaning of victimhood reads strangely, like some sort of limp Westphalian ragdoll - the victim as inert, placid, passive, empty of will and capacity. There's a contradiction, I think, in that a strategy that cultivates such perceptions would seem to imply, by its very deliberateness, more agency than Milhollin's description allows.
In The Atlantic's comments field, meanwhile, readers asgold25 and doctorscience follow up on Milhollin's post, discussing reasons to question whether the Israeli leadership really believes that an air strike could work.
David Gura at NPR writes about a conversation today, on "All Things Considered," among Goldberg, Jon Lee Anderson (who extensively interviewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a gripping story in the current New Yorker), and host Robert Siegel.
Listen to the interview here.
An overview of previous reactions to our September cover story here.
The debate continues here.