Monday, September 28, 2009

Thank you, Eliot
Tom Smith

Eliot Cohen argues there are really only two options respecting Iran:  a military strike by us and/or Israel soon, or a nuclear-armed Iran later.  I think that is basically correct.  You could add a third option, which is sort of option 1a.  That is, a truly credible threat of a crippling military strike might convince the Iranians to dismantle their bomb building factories.  But probably not.  Iran is correctly skeptical that the West plus Russia and China will support sanctions with real bite.  A massive military strike is that much the less probable.

A commentator below asked me what I would do were I President, or words to that effect.  It's a little bit of an unfair question, since you would be putting me into a situation I would not have allowed to get to this point.  But even given that, I think it would be time to put the cumbersome, but still enormous military might of the US to use.  An approach like this might work.  I would give the Iranians a map, with very good production values, of the many targets that would be destroyed in a US strike, noting of course that some other targets, secret targets, would also be hit that were not on the map.  I would give the Iranians a time line to start taking the bomb plants apart in a verifiable way.  I would not get my hopes up about that happening.  I would let the Russians and Chinese know what was coming, and just to be on the safe side, let them know our nuclear forces would be going on full alert, just so they didn't get any ideas. I would probably let them know this just after they went on alert.  And then, assuming the Iranians did not take apart their plants, I would start reducing their military capability methodically, from the air, back to 1850 or so.  We would go through lots of munitions this way, which would have to be replaced.  Many billions would have to be spent, which would be good for the economy of places such as San Diego, where lots of bombs are manufactured.  But that's not the only reason for doing it this way.

It's a tough old world.  In spite of all the Obama-foolery, I don't think closing Gitmo and having a cute first lady and a Portugese Water Dog make the world like us any more.  And besides, scoring soft power points in the world does us no good if it means we have to sit on our thumbs while the Iranian nutcases, Islamo-fascists, religio-Nazis, whatever they are, refine plutonium whilst they mumble about killing the Jews.  What, are they not sinister enough for you?  Beards not unruly enough?  Not enough truly bizzaro and primitive religious fanatics running about on motorcycles beating teenagers' brains out?  Too few torture chambers?  All I can say is, they work for me.  It would just be our way of saying to the world, you know, if you are a fanatical dictatorship that murders your own people and pours billions into nightmare-science weapons you broadly hint or even proclaim will be used to pursue your mad, genocidal schemes against your neighbors, then all will not go well for you.  So be a good neighbor.  Don't pursue mad, genocidal schemes with nightmarish weapons of mass destruction.  Stick to your knitting.  I don't think that's such a bad message for the world to get.  If the world doesn't like it, well, maybe eventually they'll get over it.

I'm all for subtlety and nuance, but if it prevents you from using the power you have to do what is necessary, then you are outfoxing yourself.  I also think, paradoxically, reducing the Iranian military, the Revolutionary Guards, and so on, to smoking ruins would make our stock go up in the world, especiallly the Arab world.  Go figure.  Our enemies don't really care how nice we are.  How strong we are, they care about.  All of our technology should be used to spare civilians as much as humanly possible, it goes without saying.  

One thing that could persuade me otherwise is an argument that really, a nuclear-armed Iran would not be that bad.  The Soviets had nukes, so does China.  Those are both evil regimes and deterrence worked with them.  Pakistan has nukes and so does India.  So maybe we just train several hundred warheads at Qum et al., let them know we are watching, and hope for the best.  Deterrence seems to have worked well with the Soviets, and they were genocidal maniacs as well, at least if you define genus politically.  My worry on this is terrorism.  Would the Revolutionary Guard pass along a nuke or two to Hamas or al Qaeda?  Can we afford to trust them not to?  Would not the Israelis have a unique perspective on this issue since they are the ones whom the Iranian lunatics have proposed to wipe off the map?  The risks of all that have to be weighed against the risks associated with going to war against Iran.  I don't think the conclusion is automatic that the risks of terrorism (including an attack on Israel) are less or more than the risks of a war against Iran.  I tend to think the risk of nuclear terrorism is too great to abide a nuclear-armed Iran, but I could be persuaded otherwise by the facts, many of which are recondite to mere bloggers. 

However, I do think the conclusion is all but automatic that a strategy of pursuing sanctions rather than an attack (or very serious threat thereof) is just a road to a nuclear armed Iran.  Whether we can live with that should be thought about deeply.  But I'm not confident that is being done, because if the answer is no, that would probably mean war, and that is something most of us, for understandable reasons, do not want to think about.  I think our young President has in fact ruled it out, the Iranians know this, and the rest of it follows, like the conclusion of a losing argument.

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Tom Smith


Although I agree with many of your points, it seems that air power alone will not be the answer. We need to accept, before we commit to military action, that significant ground troops and casualties will result from the military option. We need to be prepared for Iran to launch their own missiles (armed with god knows what) at Israel and the US bases in the region. We need to expect Shiite uprising in Iraq, a potential Iranian invasion of Afganistan, naval action in the Strait of Hormuz, and the resulting cutting off of oil from the region. Maybe its still the right decision, but lets not be delusional about what the real results will be from this military option that so many are convinced will be clean, easy, and only require air power.

Posted by: Johnny | Sep 28, 2009 12:16:40 PM

I think Colin Powell's "you break it, you own it" advice would apply to the Iran attack scenario as well. It's a lesson one hopes would have been learned by now. So, after Iran's military is bombed back to 1850, and the inevitable civil war ensues, is the Iran that emerges better or worse for us than the one we started with? Do we put our military men and women in harm's way to mediate the chaos, or just let the place burn and hope the spillover effects into Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. aren't too disastrous?

Thinking beyond the sock and awe phase is essential.

Posted by: M.A. | Sep 28, 2009 3:29:51 PM

That "You break it, you own it," principle did not originate with Colin Powell, but is a fundamental of the Law of War. An occuping power was as obligation to turn over the reins of government to a competent authority. We would not have simply shrugged out shoulders and walked away from post-war Germany, or Japan, or the Confederacy.

I would like to point out that a nuclear-armen Iran is still to be deterred with the credible threat of massive countervalue destruction. We seem to be losing sight of just how terrible thermonuclear ar actually is. We do not deter the Iranians by offering to swap one of our cities for one of theirs. They might consider such a trade acceptable, and we would be the ones to be deterred

Rather, the possible adversary must believe (that's what "credible" means) that the price of one of our cities, or an airbase, or an aircraft carrier, is all of their cities, that the price is the fate of the Amalekites without the sin of Saul.

We should go along with Johnny's counsel regarding how difficult this could be. Yes, we could expect total air, sea, space and cyber supremacy. Yes, we could roll them up like the Fuzzy-Wuzzies at Omdurman, or the Iaqis at Baghdad, but the end game would be very ugly. It is something we should not consider unless we were ready to see it through to the end.

Posted by: Lou Gots | Sep 28, 2009 6:55:08 PM

"Rather, the possible adversary must believe (that's what "credible" means) that the price of one of our cities, or an airbase, or an aircraft carrier, is all of their cities, that the price is the fate of the Amalekites without the sin of Saul."

They won't believe it because we don't mean it. We are looking for a nice, comfortable way to exit a terrible situation. Such a way probably does not exist. We have been unwilling to punish Iran for terrorist attacks against us over the years. We are unwilling to pursue Iranian agents into Iran from Iraq, where they have attacked and killed our people. We are unwilling to use force to hinder Iran's nuclear development. We shrink from supporting the Iranian political opposition. Why would anyone believe our threats of annihilation?

I suspect that there is a point after which, if Iran attacked us directly, the American people would demand an annihilatory counter-attack. However, I doubt that the mullahs understand this (the Japanese didn't, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden et al didn't). The best or perhaps least-bad way to avoid getting to that point is for us to use force now to monkeywrench Iran's nuke production. We probably won't do it. Maybe Israel will.

Posted by: Jonathan | Sep 28, 2009 9:11:21 PM

So while the U.S. was wasting time in Iraq, Iran was building nukes? Great job, conservatives!

Posted by: MikeC | Sep 29, 2009 12:32:37 AM

A successful surgical airstrike that takes out Iran's capability of moving toward nuclear arms seems to be a longshot, and the results of an unsuccessful attack might be worse than a nuclear-armed Iran. Moreover, if ground troops have to go into Iran, where will they come from?

All this talk about attacking Iran may make people feel tough-minded, but it is not realistic.

Posted by: Floridan | Sep 30, 2009 6:14:55 AM