Gerecht Misses the Mark

Forgive the length, but below is my humble contribution to the debate that is now heating up over at Cato Unbound.

It is odd that Reuel Marc Gerecht criticizes my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter for looking at America’s successes in deterring totalitarian regimes with nuclear weapons for insights on the prospect of deterring the Iranian totalitarian regime, should it get nuclear weapons. Mr. Gerecht offers soliloquies on the (genuine) oddity of twelver Shi’ism (as does Mr. Luttwak, more briefly), but somehow misses the proper starting point for a discussion of US foreign policy: US interests and the costs and benefits of available US policy options. Indeed, Mr. Gerecht does not deign, at any point in this discussion, to evaluate even briefly the prospective costs and benefits of his preferred policy option: preventive war.

Mr. Gerecht points out that “in a pre-9/11 world, Shi’ite and Sunni radical Islamic terrorism should have been one of those things that scared us the most.” He then explains that “to President Clinton’s shame, he couldn’t compel himself into preemptive military action against the rising Sunni menace. Yet it would appear in 2006 such holy warriors scare Mr. Carpenter not much at all. They should.” (my emphasis)

It is a useful rhetorical device for Gerecht to switch back and forth between Sunni al Qaeda terrorists and the Shiite government in Tehran, but the historical record deserves to be corrected as to Carpenter’s concern about terrorism.

To that end, I would humbly point him to Carpenter’s 1995 Handbook for Congress article in which he warned that

Americans have become targets of international terrorism. Unfortunately, that danger is likely to grow rather than recede in the coming years…

Back to Mr. Gerecht’s case for war. Mr. Gerecht implies that there is something inherent in the regime in Tehran—whether theological or political—that is inevitably pushing us toward conflict with Iran. In so doing, he chooses to ignore the decades-long US policy of meddling in Iran’s internal politics and trying to overthrow the government there; one could start with the CIA-backed coup in 1953 and the 1964 SOFA agreement, to the efforts of Gerecht’s colleague Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, to allocate millions of dollars to attempt to overthrow the Tehran government, to the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, to…well, to last week’s meeting at the White House between Mr. Gerecht’s other colleague, Richard Perle, and the NSC’s Eliot Abrams, with a host of dissidents whose publicly stated goal is to overthrow Iran’s government. And to think that the Iranians believe that we are trying to overthrow their government!

As for a brief commentary on the prudence of various policy options, I would refer to a useful analogy offered by Mr. Gerecht’s other colleague, Michael Rubin, in referring to our options in dealing with the Islamic republic:

When faced with a hornet’s nest, the choice to destroy it or leave it alone is better than the compromise of lightly tapping it with a stick.

Agreed. For his part, Mr. Rubin did us the courtesy of openly advocating a full-blown regime-change type assault against Iran, but it is not clear whether Mr. Gerecht is advocating destroying the Islamic republic, or just tapping it with a stick. We would do quite well to learn whether Mr. Gerecht is only in favor of striking the nuclear facilities in Iran, or also attacking the locations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the missile sites, the presumed chemical and biological weapons sites, and the Iranian leadership. Of course, this would lead to a discussion of targeting, which would put hundreds, if not thousands of aim points on the table, and we would ultimately be talking (once again) of a preventive war to remove a foreign bogeyman who supposedly poses an intolerable threat to this, the most powerful country in the history of the planet.

Finally, one is hard pressed to imagine how Mr. Gerecht will explain away the reckless and shameful incompetence of the hawk faction in the Bush administration as described by the Washington Post. The Iranians approached the Bush administration directly in 2002 (after the ridiculous “axis of evil” speech!) and proposed cooperating against al Qaeda, informing the US of the identities of 290 members of al Qaeda that Iran had captured and sent back to their countries. The Iranians proposed further cooperation against al Qaeda. The Bush administration’s response?

Representatives of Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fought back. Any engagement, they argued, would legitimate Iran and other historic state sponsors of terrorism such as Syria… Participants said Bush’s divided national security team was unable to agree on an answer. Some believe important opportunities were lost.

Why would Iran make such overtures? Moreover, even after being rebuffed, Iran cooperated with the US on al Qaeda by transferring some of them to Afghan custody, and provided the US information on more of them. More to the point, why would the Bush administration turn them down, if they were serious about diplomacy?

The sad irony is that there is no good reason that even hawks like Mr. Gerecht should oppose offering a grand bargain to the Iranians. If the issue is indeed the nuclear program, not the regime, then we lose nothing by putting a deal on the table. We offer an irrevocable international inspections regime of Iran’s existing nuclear program, along with all attendant safeguards, in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of the regime in Tehran, lifting of the US sanctions, and a public pledge not to attack Iran unprovoked. If the Iranians turn such a deal down, there is nothing (except prudence) that would prevent us from then attacking Iran. But Mr. Gerecht seems uninterested in serious diplomacy as a matter of principle.

Mr. Gerecht’s original essay, in addition to the lengthy description of the weirdness of the Iranian government, offers little in the way of policy guidance. Gerecht’s preferred policy, for the Bush administration to “begin a crash course in covert and overt Iranian democracy-promotion, firing all those in the bureaucracies who seek to sabotage the mission” is one that he admits “isn’t going to happen.” And that tells us a good deal about its viability. Or does Mr. Gerecht believe that the Bush administration is somehow at peace with the Islamic republic going nuclear? If so, why all the public fuss about it?

So we end up back at what has become the default neoconservative option, preventive war. Gerecht should at the very least answer Carpenter’s worry about how this third US-initiated war against an Islamic country (this one truly unilateral) in the past five years would go over in the Muslim world. Would it have a negative effect, a positive effect, or no effect on the allure of anti-American terrorism for young Muslim males? Would it deflate, or substantiate the arguments of Osama bin Laden about America’s intentions? Would it help, or harm the US mission in Iraq? What would the Iranian response likely be: for America, for Israel, or for Iran’s neighbors? Would another war serve the national interests of the United States more than it harms them?

These are the obvious questions. Unfortunately, Mr. Gerecht provides no answers.