April 12, 2006
How much more can tensions escalate before something gives way, or a true international crisis breaks out? On Sunday the Washington Post reported that the Bush administration is seriously considering various options for a preemptive attack against Iran, aimed at neutralizing its nuclear weapons program. It would either be a quick surgical strike at the nuclear facilities or an extended bombing campaign aimed at crippling Iran's entire strategic infrastructure. Since some of the targets are in hardened shelters underground, nuclear bombs might have to be used, though only as an extreme contingency. One constraint is the availability of land bases for attack planes, including the F-117 stealth fighter. Turkey is extremely reluctant to let us use the Incirlik air base, but I was surprised that there was no mention of air bases in Iraq being used for that purpose. The Post story was based on interviews with various present and past officials, and probably represents a deliberate leak by the White House.
On Monday President Bush dismissed all that as wild speculation, but of course he wants Iran to think that the threat is real. Why the bluster? Bush is simply following up on the declaration in his State of the Union speech (see Jan. 31) that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear arms. He is in essence putting the "international community" on notice that failure by the U.N. Security Council to take a decisive stand on this issue would leave the United States with no alternative but to proceed with unilateral action. While other world leaders prefer to look the other way and let someone else worry about Iran, Bush is well aware that something must be done soon. Whatever his other shortcomings, he cannot be faulted for having a strong sense of responsibility for international security.
On Tuesday Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran has succeeded in enriching uranium, and the timing suggests that it was calculated to up the ante with Washington in the escalating war of wills. They have only attained 3.5 percent purity of enriched uranium (fissionable U-235), however, and it takes at least 80 percent purity to make a bomb. Thus, Iran does not pose an imminent threat of weapons-producing capacity, but they have taken a big step forward. Ahmadinejad insisted that this program "is only for the purpose of peace and nothing else," but of course he wants the outside world to think that the threat of nuclear bombs is real. In one sense, it the flip side of the coin to President Bush's ambiguous rhetoric, but there is a profound difference: One side in this showdown wants to maintain the global status quo, and the other side wants to overturn the status quo. Is it not obvious to any thinking person which of those objectives is more consistent with world peace?
Iran's behavior is nothing more than classic "defiant" foreign policy, the small-state variant of imperialistic foreign policy that I analyzed in my dissertation. The underyling purpose of such behavior (in essence, "elbowing" other countries out of the way) is clear: to build national prestige so as to mobilize domestic support and forge national unity and progress. It is useful to recall that Adolf Hitler alternately professed peaceful intentions and blustered menacingly as he rearmed Germany during the 1930s. Indeed, this episode with Iran may be the equivalent of March 1936, when German troops occupied the Rhineland. At that time, France had overwhelming power to force the Germans to retreat, but its government in Paris simply lacked the political will. France at that time was deeply torn by partisan bickering between the left wing and right wing, plagued by strikes and parliamentary chaos. Then, as now, domestic politics proved decisive in determining the course of world events.
In today's Washington Post, David Ignatius calls for a careful approach much like the way John F. Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. He notes, "Disaster was avoided because Khrushchev believed Kennedy was willing to risk war -- but wanted to avoid it." Ignatius likewise urges the Bush administration to resist the stark alternatives posed to him by advisers, and instead engage in "creative thinking." Given the current (mostly rather stodgy) cast of characters in the national security command structure, that seems to be an unlikely prospect. Some critics charge that Bush lives in a "bubble" isolated from contrary opinions, moreover, and if true, it only compounds the problem. Nonetheless, Ignatius "take[s] heart from the fact that the counselor to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Philip Zelikow, is an expert on the Cuban missile crisis..." (Zelikow recently resigned as director of the U.Va. Miller Center, where I used to work.)
Saber rattling only makes sense when the side making threats has an edge in terms of credibility and range of options as the showdown unfolds. (In political science theory, this is called "escalation dominance.") If one side miscalculates, they will either end up in an unwanted war or else chickening out. It is clear that Bush thinks he has credibility, but many people in this country and in others have grave doubts about him. Given this socio-psychological context, Ignatius warns that we may be headed in an extremely dangerous direction, the kind of unstoppable juggernaut that led to World War I. He cited Zbigniew Brzezinski who urged Bush to proceed cautiously, based on the (questionable) premise that time is on our side. True, we are not yet in emergency mode, but it would be taking a huge gamble to blithely assume that Iran is several years away from nuclear wepons capability.
Many people rightly fear that taking on yet another military campaign against a rogue regime would be beyond our capabilities (see Jan. 20), but that is based upon the flawed premise that our adversaries in Iraq and the ones in Iran are separate entities. In fact, much of the resistance in Iraq depends upon support from Iran, and this will continue for as long as the Islamo-fascist mullahs rule in Tehran. One way or another, we need to push for eventual regime change in Iran. When you come right down to it, our choices are fairly simple: 1) launching a preemptive attack on Iran soon after an ultimatum is issued, 2) emphasizing diplomatic means (coercive or multilateral) to persuade Iran to cooperate, or 3) beginning a strategic withdrawal from the Middle East. In order to make the best choice (i.e., the least bad choice), we need to seriously examine all three of the alternatives, contemplating what the likely ramifications of each one would be. If we do attack, we should expect a wave of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests around the world, possibly with weapons of mass destruction. Fear of such attacks should not dissuade us from taking action, because, after all, the whole point of the struggle against terrorists, and the regimes that harbor them, is to free ourselves from the grip of fear. Either we suppress that menace and put the Islamo-fascists on the defensive, or Western civilization will decline at an even greater pace than it has been.
The stakes in this showdown are obviously huge, and it is tragic that so few Americans are seriously engaged in a discussion over how to proceed. In my view, Bush needs to be firm and accept some risk, but in the end he will probably need to make some tacit concessions. In this delicate situation, "tacit" means not acknowledged by any government officials. Ironically, the low expectations most people have of our president gives him greater leeway at this critical moment. It wouldn't take much for him to outfox the conventional wisdom by saying or doing something that no one expects, thereby regaining the initiative. The bottom line is that, prior to any push toward a military solution, President Bush must offer a major concession to the Iranian government, and he must do so sincerely. He must provide a clear path for the Iranian leaders to retreat gracefully, even if the chances that they would actually take him up on the offer are small. Only by paying due respect to the nationalistic sensibilities of Iran -- a task that Bush bungled in Iraq, quite frankly -- can the United States hope to neutralize the defiant foreign policy posture of Iran. By putting his own reputation on the line in such a magnanimous gesture, President Bush would stand a much better chance of gaining the consent of major countries around the world for an attack, should all else fail. With such consent, Iran might decide to back down as Zero Hour approached. Without such consent, even a 100-percent successful military strike against Iran would only yield temporary strategic advantages. Prepare for war, but give diplomacy a chance.