Tag: Iran

Israel, the United States, and the Danger of War with Iran

Steve Hynd at Newshoggers looks at Heritage’s recent work on Iran and observes that it sure seems like they’re prepared for war.  James Phillips says the Israelis may attack Iran but we shouldn’t try to stop them.  Phillips notes uncritically Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s characterization of the Iranian state as a “a messianic apocalyptic cult” and points out that while the United States “has the advantage of being geographically further away from Iran than Israel and thus less vulnerable to an Iranian nuclear attack … it must be sensitive to its ally’s security perspective.”

Therefore we should accede to an Israeli preventive strike and prepare for the consequences.  What’s odd about Phillips’ piece is that he doesn’t seem to think that the United States should provide its own view as to when an attack would be smart and when it would not be.  Instead, we should just toss the keys to the Israelis and buckle up: “Wash­ington should not seek to block Israel from taking what it considers to be necessary action against an existential threat. The United States does not have the power to guarantee that Israel would not be attacked by a nuclear Iran in the future, so it should not betray the trust of a democratic ally by tying its hands now.”  This is a pretty high standard.  It’s very difficult to guarantee a third party won’t do something in the future.  If that’s the standard we’re using to determine when we allow ourselves to be sucked into wars, we’re in for a lot of wars.  Moreover, I’m clear on the logic of starting a war, but why wouldn’t we, as the larger power in the relationship, want to determine the timeline on which the attack occurs?  Why just defer to Tel Aviv?

Ariel Cohen

Hynd also points to an accompanying piece by Ariel Cohen that calls on the U.S. to extend nuclear deterrence over Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and to “deploy a visible deterrent, including overwhelming nuclear forces near Iran, on surface ships, aircraft, or permanent bases … designed to hold at risk the facilities that Iran would need to launch a strategic attack, thereby making any such attack by Iran likely to fail.”  Interestingly in a passage he attributes to personal meetings with Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov, he says the Russian leadership sees Iran as a “regional superpower” and doesn’t want to go to war with them.

Cohen also says bombing is better than non-bombing because of the “existential threat” a nuclear Iran would pose to Israel, as well as Cohen’s worry that by not bombing “the U.S. would send a message to other countries that nuclear weapons are the trump card that can force U.S. and Israeli acquiescence.”  But they sort of are that sort of trump card, right?  Presumably that’s why the Iranians and the North Koreans appear to have been so enthusiastic about getting some.  Ultimately, says Cohen, the U.S. should drop the pretense of UN sanctions against Iran and opt instead for a sanctions coalition of the willing.  We should also apply unilateral sanctions against Russia for refusing to join the Iran sanctions coalition, and we should station nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

This is getting a bit too long for a blog post already, so I’ll just point to the study I produced on the “should we bomb Iran?” question back in 2006 for those with interest.  The basic outline of the argument holds up reasonably well, I think, so my thoughts are mostly contained in it.  While the Heritage scholars point out that the Obama administration is unlikely to be terribly enthusiastic about bombing Iran, it’s an interesting counterfactual to think about what things might look like if John McCain had won the presidency.  Imagine the Sarah Palin speeches.

So Much for That Argument for War!

Remember when President George W. Bush was pushing war for democracy? Excited neoconservatives promised that a new wave of democratization was about to roll through the Middle East, sweeping out authoritarian and anti-American regimes.

Oops.

Reports the Washington Times:

The most significant finding of the latest report is the decline in freedom in the Middle East, [Arch Puddington] said.

Three countries — Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain — were reclassified from “partly free” to “not free,” and freedoms declined in Morocco and Iran.

“Freedom House saw the region as a whole as headed slightly in the right direction after 9/11,” he said. “But that has changed.”

Not only are countries moving backwards, but America’s friends and allies are leading the parade:  Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain.

So much for that justification for invading and bombing other lands.

Iran Tottering Towards the Brink?

More demonstrations and more deaths in Tehran over the weekend.  It’s a nasty situation and we should offer hopes and prayers for those fighting for a free Iran.

Rouzbeh and Trita Parsi, with the European Institute for Security Studies and National Iranian American Council, respectively, speculate on how close Iran might be to the brink:

With the government growing increasingly desperate—and violent—the new clashes on the streets in Iran may very well prove to be the breaking point of the regime. If so, it shows that the Iranian theocracy ultimately fell on its own sword. It didn’t come to an end due to the efforts of exiled opposition groups or the regime change schemes of Washington’s neo-conservatives. Rather, the Iranian people are the main characters in this drama, using the very same symbols that brought the Islamic Republic into being to close this chapter in a century-old struggle for democracy.

Revolutions are never easy to forecast and the forces of repression in Iran retain many tools.  But let us hope that the Iranian people are able to free themselves, and to do so without the brutality and violence reflected in so many other revolutions.

The Art of Foreign Policy Punditry

Foreign Policy magazine performs an important public service, publishing a compendium of the “top 10 worst predictions for 2009.” My favorite?

If we do nothing, I can guarantee you that within a decade, a communist Chinese regime that hates democracy and sees America as its primary enemy will dominate the tiny country of Panama, and thus dominate the Panama Canal, one of the worlds most important strategic points.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Dec. 7, 1999

Rohrabacher made this alarming prediction during a debate on the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal. His fellow hawk, retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, even warned that China could sneak missiles into Panama and use the country as a staging ground for an attack on the United States. Well, Rohrabacher’s decade ran out this December, and all remains quiet on the Panamanian front. As for China, the United States is now its largest trading partner.

Flowers and Chocolates?Flowers and Chocolates?

The point here isn’t to poke fun at Rohrabacher, or any of the other predictors featured on the FP list.  Rather, it’s to point out that predicting the future is really hard.  And as Ben Friedman and I have harped on, you just can’t aspire to any predictive competence without sound theory to guide you.  In order to judge that if we do (or don’t do) X, Y will happen, you need a theory connecting X to Y.  So looking back at our predictions, and comparing them to the results of our policies, is a useful way to test the theories on which we based our policies in the first place.

Putting falsifiable predictions out there is a collective action problem, though: If I start offering nothing but precise point-predictions about what will or won’t happen if we start a war with Iran, or how big the defense budget will get, or anything else, I’m going to get a lot of things wrong.  And if everyone else keeps offering vapid, non-falsifiable rhetoric, I stand to look like a real jackass while everyone can hide behind the fog of common-use language.  As I wrote in the National Interest a while back:

Foreign-policy analysts have an incredibly difficult task: to make predictions about the future based on particular policy choices in Washington. These difficulties extend into the world of intelligence, as well. The CIA issues reports with impossibly ambitious titles like “Mapping the Global Future”, as if anyone could actually do that. The father of American strategic analysis, Sherman Kent, grappled with these difficulties in his days at OSS and CIA. When Kent finally grew tired of the vapid language used for making predictions, such as “good chance of”, “real likelihood that” and the like, he ordered his analysts to start putting odds on their assessments. When a colleague complained that Kent was “turning us into the biggest bookie shop in town”, Kent replied that he’d “rather be a bookie than a [expletive] poet.”

Actually, though, it’s worse than this.  As I wrote in the American Conservative, there’s basically no endogenous mechanism to hold irresponsible predictors accountable:

In 1992, the Los Angeles Times ran an article outlining the dynamics of the “predictions” segment of the popular “McLaughlin Group” TV program.  Michael Kinsley, who had been a panelist on the program, admitted

“When I was doing the show, I was much more interested in coming up with an interesting prediction than in coming up with one that was true.  There’s no penalty for being wrong, but there is a penalty for being boring.  …Prognosticators have known for centuries that people only remember what you got right.  They don’t remember what you got wrong.”

Foreign-policy analysis works in much the same way.  Errant predictions are quickly forgotten.  It is the interesting predictions that the media want, and unfortunately interesting predictions in the context of foreign policy often mean predictions of unprovoked foreign attacks, geopolitical chaos, and a long queue of bogeymen waiting to threaten us.  (By contrast, after a given policy is enacted, its proponents have to spin it in a positive light, as in Iraq.)  Meanwhile, it is the person with the quickest wit and the pithiest one-liner–not the deepest understanding–who winds up with the responsibility of informing the American electorate about foreign-policy decisions.

So it’s very good to see that Foreign Policy has interest in holding everyone’s feet to the fire.  John Mueller does a similar service in The Atomic Obsession, pointing out the many predictions of doom, apocalypse and general disaster that have characterized both the hawkish establishment and the leftish arms-control clique.

If this sort of exercise becomes common, though, watch for foreign-policy commentators not to develop a growing sense of modesty about their predictive power, but rather to take greater care in avoiding falsifiable statements altogether.

Iranian Thugs Take Crackdown Worldwide

Political repression is old news.   Thuggish regimes have been holding their citizens prisoner for centuries.  But Iran’s government now is borrowing an innovative Soviet and Nazi tactic:  targeting family members of dissenters, even those living in the U.S.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

His first impulse was to dismiss the ominous email as a prank, says a young Iranian-American named Koosha. It warned the 29-year-old engineering student that his relatives in Tehran would be harmed if he didn’t stop criticizing Iran on Facebook.

Two days later, his mom called. Security agents had arrested his father in his home in Tehran and threatened him by saying his son could no longer safely return to Iran.

“When they arrested my father, I realized the email was no joke,” said Koosha, who asked that his full name not be used.

Tehran’s leadership faces its biggest crisis since it first came to power in 1979, as Iranians at home and abroad attack its legitimacy in the wake of June’s allegedly rigged presidential vote. An opposition effort, the “Green Movement,” is gaining a global following of regular Iranians who say they never previously considered themselves activists.

The regime has been cracking down hard at home. And now, a Wall Street Journal investigation shows, it is extending that crackdown to Iranians abroad as well.

In recent months, Iran has been conducting a campaign of harassing and intimidating members of its diaspora world-wide – not just prominent dissidents – who criticize the regime, according to former Iranian lawmakers and former members of Iran’s elite security force, the Revolutionary Guard, with knowledge of the program.

Unfortunately, there is little the West can do.  Despite the seemingly common belief in hawkish circles that Washington merely need speak the word and other nations will obey,  there is no magic wand that President Obama can wave to democratize Iran.  And refusing to engage Iran over its nuclear program would do nothing to aid human rights activists while losing the admittedly faint hope of resolving the issue diplomatically.

However, there is reason for hope.  The crackdown bespeaks desperation.  The militarized regime continues to lose credibility, including religious backing.  Reports the New York Times:

Iran’s most senior cleric denounced the role of the volunteer militia force known as the Basij in the crackdown against protesters, saying the force’s actions were against religion and “in the path of Satan.”

The cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, condemned the force in a statement posted on an opposition Web site, mowjcamp.com, decreeing that “the assailants have acted against religion and must pay blood money” to those who were wounded or to their families.

Ultimately, the Iranian people can count only on themselves to achieve freedom.  But people of good will around the world should offer their support in the continuing battle against tyranny.

Weekend Links

  • “Government should not subsidize health insurance — for the uninsured, the poor, the elderly or anyone else — or regulate health insurance markets.” Here’s why.
  • An update on the EU Lisbon Treaty.
  • Skepticism over nuclear diplomacy with Iran. (PDF) Subscribe to the Nuclear Proliferation Update here.

Bush v. Obama on Diplomacy

The Hill’s Congress blog has a regular series that provides policy experts a forum to discuss current topics of the day. This week, the editors posed this question:

President Obama has taken a very different approach to diplomacy than President Bush. Does the new approach serve or undermine long-term U.S. interests?

My response:

What “very different approach?” Sure, President Bush implicitly scorned diplomacy in favor of toughness, particularly in his first term. But he sought UN Security Council authorization for tougher measures against Iraq; a truly unilateral approach would have bombed first and asked questions later. By the same token, President Obama has staffed his administration with people, including chief diplomat Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who favored military action against Iraq and Serbia in 1998 and 1999, respectively, and were undeterred by the UNSC’s refusal to endorse either intervention.

There are other similarities. George Bush advocated multilateral diplomacy with North Korea, despite his stated antipathy for Kim Jong Il. President Obama supports continued negotiations with the same odious regime that starves its own people. Bush administration officials met with the Iranians to discuss post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq. In the second term, President Bush even agreed in principle to high-level talks on Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama likewise believes that the United States and Iran have a number of common interests, and he favors diplomacy over confrontation.

This continuity shouldn’t surprise us. Both men operate within a political environment that equates diplomacy with appeasement, without most people really understanding what either word means. Defined properly, diplomacy is synonymous with relations between states. As successive generations have learned the high costs and dubious benefits of that other form of international relations – war – most responsible leaders are rightly eager to engage in diplomacy. Perhaps the greater concern is that they feel the need to call it something else.