Tag: Iran

Charles Krauthammer, Rocket Scientist

Last evening on FoxNews, host Bret Baier reported that the Iranians had launched a rocket carrying ”a mouse, two turtles, and a can of worms” into space. He asked the panelists to speculate on the implications.

Charles Krauthammer inveighed “if you can put a mouse into space, you can put a nuke in New York, in principle.” Given that they are clearly developing the technological capabilities that would allow them to nuke New York, Krauthammer concluded, “our only hope on the nuclear issue or any other is a revolution and to help that revolution ought to be our task.”

Well.

To her credit, Jennifer Loven of the AP wasn’t having any of it. “It’s an incredibly large leap,” she pointed out, ”between a mouse in space and a nuke in New York….[I]t’s a…ginormous gap.”

How “ginormous”? The analogies are imperfect, but I can throw a football a fair distance. In principle, I could start in the Super Bowl.

More seriously, there are modest parallels to the subject of my first book – the mythical missile gap of the late 1950s. The missile gap was precipitated by the launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. Millions of Americans became convinced that the beeping silver sphere orbiting the earth signified that the Soviets could, in principle, drop a nuclear weapon on any city in the United States. This misconception was helped along by some opportunistic fearmongering by, chiefly, Democrats who delighted in embarassing President Dwight Eisenhower. And the ploy worked. The Dems rolled up huge victories in the mid-term election of 1958, and John F. Kennedy capitalized on the missile gap to help get elected president in 1960.

The actual missile gap – in the U.S. favor – was irrelevant. It would have been equally irrelevant if the roles were reversed, with the Soviets in possession of hundreds of ICBMs, and the U.S. with only a handful of shorter range weapons. Even if the Soviets had perfected the ability to throw a nuclear warhead onto U.S. territory, what ultimately prevented them from doing so was not technological but psychological – they were deterred by our vast arsenal. And they continued to be so deterred for decades until the entire edifice of Soviet power came crashing down, from within, without any significant assistance from the United States.

Would Krauthammer contend that Eisenhower’s refusal to overthrow the Soviet regime in 1958 was “an embarassing failure?” The Soviets did, after all, actually have nuclear weapons, many of them. The Iranians have none, and have not even mastered the enrichment cycle, let alone the long process toward weaponization.  By implying that the only thing that stops the Iranians from immediately nuking New York is their technical capabilities, Krauthammer demonstrates a shocking ignorance of some of the most basic principles of international relations, beginning with deterrence. This makes him a horrible political scientist.

But as a rocket scientist, he’s even worse.

Monday Links

The Hopelessly Stupid Politics of the Iran NIE

The Washington policy establishment is now pulsing with excitement over news that the intelligence community (IC) is revising its 2007 statement that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons” and that this halt “lasted at least several years.”

Funny story: The day the NIE came out, Ted Carpenter and I were arriving in Los Angeles to give at talk at the LA World Affairs Council on Iran.  Immediately on our deplaning, the questions started coming: “What do you think about the NIE?  How does this change things?”  “What NIE?” I asked.

So amid our last minute preparations for the talk, I was scrambling to get hold of a copy, but being the Luddite I am, I couldn’t manage to get my computer to work, or to get the .pdf to open right on my Blackberry.  But I was ultimately able to pull up the first sentence, quoted above, and to look at the first footnote.

That was all anybody needed to do.  The footnote read:

For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.

Well, this is like saying Iraq had weapons of mass destruction because we found a few degraded mustard gas shells out in the middle of the desert.  That wasn’t what anybody was referring to when “Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” were a topic of conversation, so it proves only that if you redefine things you can change conclusions.  Much of the nuclear infrastructure that is in dispute in Iran is contained in “civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment,” so the new definition does not include much of what people speaking in the vernacular are including when they say “Iran’s nuclear program.”  So at the talk that night in LA, I said this:

the headline splashed all over the newspapers with respect to the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is that Iran in 2003 suspended, and kept in suspense, its nuclear weapons program; however, it continues to operate facilities like that at Natanz which could at some point in the future be used as part of a nuclear weapons program. So it really becomes a definitional problem in the context of what components of Iran’s industrial infrastructure are included in this nuclear weapons program and which of them are kept outside of it. From my reading of the news reporting I think that it has been at least mildly misleading.

Predictably, American neoconservatives began rending their garments and gnashing their teeth, whipping each other into a frenzy, decrying the “politicized intelligence” at the CIA (do they ever tire of that?).  But really, is it too much to ask of journalists who write about national security (and, to be fair, their headline writers) to read one footnote in a document that contains about three pages of text?  I’m not the smartest guy in the world, and I managed to figure out what the deal was while in a big time crunch, without access to the full document, and without a sizeable rolodex of insiders I could call to help me figure out what was going on.  Still, the American journalistic community splashed headlines like “NIE: Iran halted nuclear weapons program in 2003” and such.  So in a sense, the neocons were right: the inferences people drew from reading the reporting on the NIE were inaccurate.

But this is, more than anything, a critique of the American journalistic establishment than it is the IC.  Writing in the first sentence of a three-page document a provocative claim and then footnoting a definition that dramatically alters the implications of the claim is not really all that tricky.  The people who assemble news stories, who did not exactly cover themselves in glory in scrutinizing government claims before the war in Iraq, were either lazy or stupid in this case as well.  Given the benefits the neocons reaped from the media’s laziness or stupidity in the Iraq case, the spluttering outrage in this case was always a bit much to take.

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.