Argument

Iran's Highly Enriched Bargaining Chip

Why the United States can't budge on allowing Iran to build more centrifuges.

As talks over Iran's disputed nuclear program enter the home stretch, Tehran has placed a major obstacle in the way of a diplomatic solution: insistence on an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program. On July 15 in Vienna, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif acknowledged that significant gaps remained between the parties. It now seems almost certain that negotiations will have to be extended for several weeks or months beyond the original July 20 deadline to conclude a comprehensive agreement. But putting extra time on the clock won't make much difference unless Iran is willing to make real concessions on the enrichment issue.

On July 7, in a major speech in Tehran, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate "decider" on the nuclear issue, declared that Iran has an "absolute need" of 190,000 "separative work units" (SWUs) for its nuclear program. This highly technical term represents a measure of the productive capacity of Iranian centrifuges, the cylindrical machines used to enrich uranium to fuel nuclear reactors -- or, potentially, nuclear bombs. Iran currently operates around 10,000 first-generation "IR-1" centrifuges, has installed another 8,000 IR-1s, and has installed but is not yet operating 1,000 more advanced "IR-2m" models. When the efficiency of these machines is calculated, Khamenei's stated goal for Iran's program would represent a ten- to twentyfold increase in Iran's current enrichment capacity.

A program that large could theoretically provide an indigenous supply of fuel for nuclear power plants, Tehran's stated intention. But it could also allow Iran to rapidly "break out," racing to produce bomb-grade uranium so quickly that the international community couldn't stop it. 

For the United States and the five other world powers (Britain, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany) known collectively as the P5+1, Iran's apparent bottom line is a showstopper. Until Iran restores international confidence in its nuclear intentions, the P5+1 justifiably sees an industrial-sized enrichment capacity as incompatible with the goal of ongoing talks to ensure Iran's program remains solely for peaceful purposes. For that reason, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and its negotiating partners are demanding at least a two-thirds reduction in Iran's current enrichment capacity. Even Russia and China, the P5+1 members traditionally most sympathetic to Iran, have told Iranian negotiators that their position on enrichment capacity is untenable.

Given the Grand Canyon-sized chasm between these competing demands, it's no wonder that nuclear diplomacy is teetering on the brink of failure. Despite days of intense negotiations in Vienna, Kerry and Zarif were unable to bridge this divide. Unless a workable compromise on enrichment can be found soon, the talks will likely fall into the abyss and the prospect of reaching a peaceful solution to the decades-old nuclear crisis will fade. 

There are only three possible explanations for Iran's expansive enrichment demands. They range from unconvincing to deeply troubling.

The first possible explanation is that Iran truly believes that it needs such a large productive capacity for its civilian nuclear program. Under the interim nuclear accord struck between Iran and the P5+1 last November, the parties acknowledged that any final agreement would "involve a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with [Iran's] practical needs." Iran needs enriched uranium to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes, and potentially its Arak research reactor. But Iran already has sufficient enriched uranium for the TRR, and the P5+1's proposal to allow Iran to operate a few thousand IR-1 centrifuges, or their equivalent in more advanced machines, is pegged to meet the needs for the Arak reactor if it is modified to run on low-enriched fuel. 

But Iran does not define its practical needs solely in terms of research reactors. Echoing Khamenei's remarks, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, recently asserted that Iran needs 190,000 SWUs of uranium enrichment capacity "to produce the required annual fuel for the Bushehr plant," the country's lone nuclear power plant. And if Iran commissions additional nuclear power plants, as intended in the decades ahead, Salehi said, "we will need more SWU [capacity]."

These rationalizations for industrial-scale enrichment are difficult to sustain. In the case of the Russian-built Bushehr plant, Moscow is committed to providing fuel for the reactor through 2021 -- and is willing to renew the supply contract for life. Iran claims, however, that a history of repeated supply disruptions -- dating back to its experience with the multinational Eurodif enrichment consortium in the 1970s -- means it cannot rely on foreigners. But Russia has consistently delivered fuel for Bushehr, and outside experts have pointed out that keeping a rolling stock of several years' worth of foreign-supplied fuel inside Iran, under strict safeguards, could easily address concerns about future disruption. Moreover, even if Iran wanted to produce the necessary fuel assemblies for Bushehr, it lacks both the intellectual property and the technical expertise to do so.

Iran's case is somewhat stronger for future power plants. But this requirement remains purely hypothetical and, in any event, will not materialize for at least a decade -- that is, most likely after the expiration of a time-limited final nuclear deal. If, at that point, Iran cannot secure cheap, reliable fuel from abroad, it will be able to expand its domestic fuel-production capacity. But future contingencies are not a convincing justification for doing so now. 

A second possible explanation for Iran's enrichment stance is national pride. The country's nuclear program has cost at least $100 billion in lost oil revenue and foreign investment, and the regime has invested a tremendous amount of domestic legitimacy in defending it in the face of international pressure. The nuclear program has become a potent symbol of Iran's technological prowess -- an underappreciated motivation in a country that sees itself as one of the world's great scientific nations -- and the regime's revolutionary "resistance" to the West. 

Indeed, it was the pragmatic recognition that a diplomatic deal was impossible unless Iran was given a face-saving way out that rightly led the Obama administration to acquiesce to a limited Iranian enrichment program last year -- a significant and politically risky concession to a long-standing Iranian demand. Now the onus is on Iran to make the next move. In an interview with the New York Times on July 14, Zarif suggested that Iran may be willing to forgo further expansion of its program for a few years, perhaps suggesting some emerging flexibility. But simply freezing Iran's enrichment capacity in place is not sufficient to allay international concerns -- the program will have to be meaningfully rolled back.

Doing so may require the Iranian regime to swallow a bit of its pride. If Tehran is open to compromise, however, there remain creative ways to frame necessary concessions as consistent with Iran's stated interests and asserted nuclear rights. 

One is the use of time. Khamenei's declaration last week on the "absolute need" of 190,000 SWUs for Iran's program included an important caveat: "Perhaps this is not a need this year or in two years or five years." It is conceivable, therefore, that Iran could agree to scale back its program -- limiting both the number of IR-1 centrifuges and its stockpile of low-enriched uranium -- to meet its very modest near-term needs for research reactors. Then, it could grow the program again after a lengthy period of confidence-building (probably a decade or so), when fuel requirements for new nuclear plants actually materialize. A final nuclear agreement could specify these arrangements based on a fixed period of time or on a set of clear conditions related to the availability of foreign supplies of fuel -- or some combination of both. Either way, nothing in the agreement's terms would invalidate Iran's stated requirement to eventually be self-sufficient in the nuclear realm.

Another possible face-saving solution would showcase Iran's technological advances -- playing into the regime's narrative that its nuclear advances are proof of the country's scientific prowess. Iran could "voluntarily choose to retire" all of its "inefficient and obsolete" IR-1 machines, replacing them in the short term with a much smaller number of more efficient second-generation IR-2M centrifuges. A final nuclear deal could also allow Iran to continue pursuing research and development on more-advanced centrifuges, under strict safeguards and with the obligation not to install or operate them for the period of the agreement. Assuming that the number of installed and operating IR-2Ms was relatively small, and research and development was appropriately regulated, this could potentially lower Iran's current enrichment capacity for the period of the agreement -- addressing the P5+1's concerns -- while still allowing the regime to claim that it won international recognition of the nation's scientific achievements. Then, after the expiration of the agreement, Iran could deploy its new technology to meet emergent domestic needs. 

So if Iran's goals are indeed to pursue an exclusively peaceful civilian nuclear program, there are ways out of the current impasse. But, of course, there is a third explanation for Tehran's insistence on a large-scale enrichment program: It wants a civilian cover story for the pursuit of nuclear weapons, or at least the capability to rapidly produce them.

Iran's leaders assert they desire no such thing. In 2005, Khamenei issued a binding fatwa -- or religious edict -- against the development, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons. And just this past weekend on NBC's Meet the Press, Zarif said, "I will commit to everything and anything that would provide credible assurances for the international community that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons, because we are not. We don't see any benefit in Iran developing a nuclear weapon."

But, after years of repeated violations of its safeguards obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran's demand for industrial-scale enrichment makes it hard to take these pledges at face value. With tens of thousands of operating centrifuges, Iran could reduce its theoretical breakout time to produce weapons-grade uranium from a few months, where it currently stands, to a few weeks -- so fast that it might be impossible to detect or prevent. Iran largely dismisses breakout concerns, and a number of outside analysts have recently challenged the utility of the concept. But even critics of using breakout capacity as a measure of a "good deal" tend to concede that leaving Iran only a few weeks away from bomb-grade material is a risky proposition.

Equally troubling is that the same infrastructure that could enable a rapid dash to weapons-grade uranium at known enrichment sites could also facilitate a nuclear "sneak-out" at secret ones. A limited enrichment program can be effectively monitored. But the larger Iran's accepted enrichment infrastructure, the easier it would be for Iran to divert small amounts of enriched material or sensitive technology to covert sites. Transparency and rigorous international inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities -- which Iran appears more willing to accept -- can mitigate, but not eliminate, this risk if Iran is allowed to maintain tens of thousands of centrifuges.

In short, unless Iran agrees to rein in its enrichment program, it will be impossible for the country to reassure the international community of the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program. And that means it will be impossible to get a deal that resolves the nuclear crisis. Even if talks are extended beyond the looming July 20 deadline, the moment for thin rationalizations and excessive revolutionary pride has passed. If Iran's leaders mean what they say about their nuclear intentions, now is the time to prove it. 

JIM BOURG/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Six Lessons America Seems Thoroughly Incapable of Learning

Why the Obama administration keeps making the same mistakes over and over.

It's been a bad few months for those determined to believe humanity is marching inexorably towards a more peaceful future.

In Iraq, militant extremists so brutal they were disavowed by al Qaeda have captured numerous major cities, leaving behind a trail of mutilated corpses. In Syria, civil war deaths now exceed 150,000, and military momentum has swung back towards the ruthless Assad regime as rival groups of extremist insurgents marginalize moderate rebel forces. In Afghanistan, Taliban forces are resurgent; in Ukraine, a low-level civil war continues. Even the Promised Land has exploded again. So much for the Better Angels.

It's been an equally rough time for those who imagine that U.S. military force offers a simple solution to the world's messy problems. The hard-fought Iraq War has brought no enduring gains, either for Iraq's battered population or from the standpoint of U.S. security, and the 13 year-long war in Afghanistan seems destined to drift towards to a similarly whimpering end. Meanwhile, American efforts to assert political and economic influence have been just as unavailing lately: Russia and Syria continue to ignore U.S. ultimatums, while in the Middle East, Washington's efforts to restart the "peace process" have yielded little process and less peace.

Here in Washington, D.C., it is customary to offer some compensatory "lessons learned" after reciting such tales of woe, in which we posit that though lots of crappy things keep happening, they are making us wiser.

This sanguine theory of world affairs has been with us for some time. Consider these 2011 comments by Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan: "Americans are extraordinarily adaptive. We're creative.... [W]e frequently pull back from an enterprise, sum up lessons learned, be self critical, and continue to improve."

Have some crappy things happened in Afghanistan? Perhaps -- but, says Amb. Eikenberry -- they merely point to a key lesson learned, which is the "need to get a better understanding of what's realistic in terms of setting goals and objectives."

Lessons learned tend to be hortatory in nature. CNN's Fareed Zakaria informs us that the Iraq War offers five lessons, including "bring enough troops," while participants in a recent think tank "lessons learned" event on Ukraine conclude that "the West ... ought to be more proactive and united." Even the most appalling tragedies offer opportunities to grow in wisdom: After examining past U.S. failures in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan, a June 2014 Stimson Center report on "Lessons Learned for Stabilization in Syria" concludes that "understanding underlying conflict dynamics is essential."

It's hard to quarrel with such insights. Who would defend the value of willful ignorance, or champion the cause of not bringing enough troops to a war?

But no matter how ponderous the white paper or portentous the panel discussion, the term "lessons learned" remains, at best, a polite euphemism.

If we were more honest, we would just go with some phrase such as "Manifestly Stupid Shit We Should Never Do Again (But Probably Will)." Or, perhaps: "Crappy Things that Have Happened, Inviting Us to Draw Several Lessons that We Intend to Ignore as Thoroughly as We Have Ignored Mrs. Hooten's Algebra II Class on Conic Sections for the Last 30 Years."

The truth? We seem thoroughly incapable, as a nation, of learning even the most crushingly obvious lessons from our interactions with the rest of the world. So -- though I know I'm supposed to follow my earlier recitation of recent bad news with sage advice for future foreign policy adventures -- I find that today that I just can't do it.

Instead, I'll offer a few "Lessons We Seem Thoroughly Incapable of Learning." Read ‘em and weep.

1. Other people's nationalism (or tribal, ethnic, religious, or familial loyalty) is as real as ours.

My fellow Americans, you know how we love our country -- our families and religious traditions, our favorite sports teams and pet doggies? You know how we'd fight to defend them if we had to, and how we'd get kind of offended if a bunch of heavily armed foreigners showed up and started telling us, in broken English, how trivial and irrelevant they are?

Well, other people feel the same way.

Weird but true! For instance, we Americans look at Sunni and Shiite Islam and can't tell the difference, but most Sunnis and Shiites are acutely aware of the difference, and some are willing to kill and die over it. Over and over, we explain to the Iraqis that they would be so much happier in a nonsectarian, multitribal, multiethnic state. Over and over, quite a lot of them react to this with irritation, which they sometimes express by pointedly joining a religious militia, or trying to kill us.

We Americans look at Afghanistan, and it doesn't seem like much of a country: There's not a Starbucks or Chick-fil-A in sight, half the people in rural areas don't even seem to wear shoes, and the roads suck, so obviously the Afghans should be glad that we are in their country in order to help them. And yet, somehow, many of them are not glad. Most of them don't want the Taliban, but most also don't want a Starbucks or Chick-fil-A; some don't even want shoes. Almost all of them find it unpleasant to be told what to do by heavily armed Americans in wrap-around sunglasses. Some of them find this so unpleasant that they're willing to form alliances of convenience with the Taliban, just to get rid of us.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won't: No one likes being told that the things they consider important are stupid, and the things they consider stupid are important -- especially when the message comes from outsiders.

This doesn't necessarily mean we should not boss people around from time to time, or even occasionally use force if non-lethal forms of bossiness don't work. There are some baseline human rights and humanitarian norms I'm quite comfortable demanding that others adhere to: don't rape; don't torture, don't slaughter civilians, and so on. But even if we decide that some bossing is both appropriate and likely to be effective, we should stop being so astonished when those we boss around react with hostility rather than gratitude.

2. It's not a "war of ideas."

I'm not saying ideas and ideologies don't matter -- they can and sometimes they do. But history, social psychology, and numerous other disciplines tell us that most humans are not rational actors. We don't decide whether we should continue to patronize Starbucks or Chick-fil-A -- much less how to vote or whether we're willing to kill or die for a cause -- because we've been persuaded by a reasoned argument or some interesting new data, or even by a rhetorically skilled demagogue. We go to Starbucks because our friends and colleagues go there; it won't matter how many times strangers who patronize Dunkin' Donuts explain that we're making a mistake. Most of us vote the way our parents vote; if we break away from our parents, it's usually only because the lure of a new peer group is potent enough to break the spell of family.

Study after study reinforces the conclusion that "information" and "ideas" are relatively trivial factors in how we form our opinions: Give a die-hard advocate of any given position new information that undermines his views, and his position is likely to harden, not weaken. The only exception? If the new information comes from an "insider" -- someone perceived as sharing the same views and values. Conservatives reading a defense of a liberal policy proposal will disagree with it if told they're evaluating a liberal proposal, but will support the same proposal if they're told it comes from a prominent conservative -- and vice versa.

Even those rare individuals who somehow manage to break away from the herd and evaluate new ideas and information for themselves often find that at the end of the day, loyalty trumps their own reasoned opinions. During the American Civil War, there were Southerners who were morally and politically opposed to slavery, but who nonetheless fought on the Confederate side. Why? Because despite their personal views about slavery and the ideology that supported it, they couldn't imagine not fighting alongside their brothers and friends.

In Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan today, the same holds true. Few young men join the Taliban, al Qaeda, or the Islamic State because they happened to hear a persuasive sermon or read a rhetorically powerful fatwa. They join because their uncles, cousins, and brothers have joined; because they don't like the heavily armed outsiders who stroll around like they own the place; because they need the money; because they're frightened of the consequences to themselves or their families if they don't join; or all of the above. Yes, many swallow whole the ideology of whichever extremist group holds sway in their region -- but they swallow it not because al Qaeda has a "persuasive narrative," but because humans are social and imitative animals; we adopt the habits, ideas, and narratives of those we value and trust.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won't: Let's stop wasting time trying to "win the war of ideas" or "counter the narrative." It hasn't worked, it doesn't work, and it's not likely to work in the future -- at least in the clumsy and culturally clueless way we usually go at it. People don't exist in a vacuum; they exist in groups of other people, and when they change their minds, it's usually because those they regard as "insiders" offer them both an alternative way to understand the world -- and, just as important, a viable way to act on that alternative understanding that doesn't require them to starve or die, or abandon or betray those they love.

3. There is no "them."

It drives me batty when I hear pundits say things like, "the Iraqi people want peace and freedom!" I always wonder: which Iraqi people are you talking about, precisely? Because there are more than 30 million of them -- and not all of them want the same things.

Do "the Iraqi people" want peace and freedom? I am quite certain that many of them do. Some of them would give their lives to advance the cause of peace and freedom. But it is painfully apparent that not all Iraqis want peace and freedom: some profit from conflict, some can simply imagine no alternatives. And, unfortunately, even if the vast majority of Iraqis want peace and freedom, it doesn't take many who want the opposite to upset the whole apple cart.

The same goes for statements like "Why should the United States help defend the Iraqis, when they won't fight to defend themselves?" Here too, I wonder: exactly which Iraqis are supposed to defend themselves? The 37 percent of the population aged 14 and under? The elderly women? The Iraqi soldiers whose commanders embezzled the money that was supposed to buy arms and equipment, and who now face a well-armed enemy with neither weapons nor any means of transportation? How about the Sunni tribesmen who have joined up with the Islamic State in an alliance of convenience, because they view it as the only way to regain what they view as their fair share of political power? Presumably they think they are fighting for freedom -- whether for families, neighbors, tribes, or country. They're just doing it in a way we don't like.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won't: If we want to understand what's going on in another country, we need to get granular. We Americans are often far more pluribus than unum -- indeed, many commentators and pollsters tell us that U.S. partisan and cultural divides are growing ever deeper. We know it's meaningless to speak of "what Americans want," because we want different things, and we want those things with different degrees of passion. Why expect other populations be homogeneous, particularly when their borders were drawn far more arbitrarily than ours?

4. The fog of war is even foggier than you think -- and it extends well beyond warzones.

We always think we know more than we turn out to know, and we always underestimate the vast distance between the making of policy and its implementation. We thought we knew Putin wouldn't make a grab for Ukraine; we thought we knew the U.S.-trained Iraqi military could fend off a relatively small band of extremist insurgents. We thought we knew a lot of things. And we keep right on thinking we know what's going on: Right now, for instance, we still think we know which Syrian rebels are the good guys, and we think we know how to keep any weapons and money we give them out of the hands of the bad guys.

Don't bet on it. The information we have is often partial and misleading, and good guys have a dismaying tendency to later become bad guys. (See: anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedeen; see also: pretty much every Iraqi faction.)

And then there's logistics. And bureaucracy. And friction, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. And Murphy's Law. Those arms for the "moderate" Syrian rebels will eventually reach some Syrian rebels, but odds are they'll be the wrong arms, or not enough, or they'll be militarily irrelevant by the time they arrive -- or the rebels who get them may have stopped being so moderate by then. Oops.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won't: Be humble: we know less than we think, we're clutzier than we think, and our plans are more likely to backfire than we think. Geographical and cultural distance compound these problems. And here's a corollary: However much money, domestic and international political will, information and time we assume we will have, we will end up having less. There will be budget cuts and red tape; we won't be able to get the intelligence we need at the time we need it, and voters and politicians will lose patience with anything that's difficult and lasts more than five minutes. Plan accordingly.

5. When we get self-righteous and condescending, we annoy people; when we issue meaningless ultimatums, we look dumb.

There is nothing inherently wrong with telling other states what we'd like them to do, and there's nothing inherently wrong with expressing our dismay when they do things we consider dangerous or immoral. But when addressing foreign leaders, we often sound like kindergarten teachers telling five-year-olds they won't allowed at the grown-up table if they keep that up. Thus, we're fond of insisting that China, Russia, Iran, and every other recalcitrant state must follow "rules" and behave "in a responsible way."

To those recalcitrant states, this kind of language is annoying and hypocritical. (See: U.S. invasion of Iraq). It tends to backfire.

Even worse is the meaningless ultimatum. We love to announce that we will "not tolerate" the "unacceptable" behavior of foreign regimes and organizations -- which we then continue to tolerate, since we lack either the will or the ability to bring the intolerable behavior to an end. (See: intolerable Syrian behavior; red lines; intolerable Russian behavior, etc.) This makes Washington look both self-righteous and foolish.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won't: Teddy Roosevelt got at least one thing right: "speak softly and carry a big stick" is a good maxim (though not one he consistently lived by). It's worth quoting the entire passage from Roosevelt's 1901 speech:

Right here let me make as vigorous a plea as I know how in favor of saying nothing that we do not mean, and of acting without hesitation up to whatever we say. A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick -- you will go far." If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power. In private life there are few beings more obnoxious than the man who is always loudly boasting, and if the boaster is not prepared to back up his words, his position becomes absolutely contemptible.

So it is with the nation. It is both foolish and undignified to indulge in undue self-glorification, and, above all, in loose-tongued denunciation of other peoples. Whenever on any point we come in contact with a foreign power, I hope that we shall always strive to speak courteously and respectfully of that foreign power.

6. "Don't do stupid shit" is a sound maxim, but it's not a strategy. Neither is "leadership."

It's a messy, scary, mixed-up world, and we all want some guiding principle to help us cope with the challenges we're facing. The Obama administration seems to have settled on "Don't do stupid shit." Unsurprisingly, given everything I have written above, I consider this a perfectly decent maxim (though, like Teddy Roosevelt, President Obama doesn't always abide by it). Critics of the president tend to decry such defensive minimalism, however, and insist that what the United States needs is less reactiveness and more "leadership." This too is fine, as far as it goes; in theory, thoughtful leadership is quite consistent with the avoidance of stupid shit.

But neither constitutes a strategy. Sure, we should avoid being stupid -- but with what end in mind are we avoiding stupidity? Sure, we should "lead" -- but where to?

Take the current crisis in Iraq. The United States could do, or not do, any number of things, ranging from the provision of humanitarian assistance to diplomatic efforts to all-out military re-engagement in Iraq. But it's difficult to evaluate any of these options, in part because of the general fogginess of the situation -- see No. 4, above -- but also because it remains unclear just what we're actually trying to achieve in Iraq, and to what ultimate end. Regional stability? Control of oil? Free markets? Spread of democracy and human rights? Prevention of attacks on the home soil? Prevention of attacks on U.S. interests, however defined? Ideological victory over extremism? Containment of the Islamic State? Alleviation of humanitarian crisis? Preservation of America's reputation as "helpful" nation? Creation of an American reputation as a nation that minds its own business?

We still say we want a unified, inclusive non-sectarian Iraq. Is that truly what we want? Is it what we need? Is it a feasible outcome? If it's not, what's the "least worst" of the more plausible outcomes? Does a collapsing, violent Iraq in fact threaten U.S. interests? Which interests, and by how much? What ability do we have to change or contain the situation? (Sure, we have planes, drones, and troops -- but whom should we target? Can we hit those targets? Will hitting those targets weaken ISIS, or just increase the chaos and trigger a backlash? Whose interests are we defending?) What risks and trade-offs in money, lives, and backlash can we tolerate? Are we willing to make Iran an ally of convenience? What about Bashar al-Assad? And how will other regional and international actors respond to various U.S. actions (or the lack thereof) in Iraq -- and how would these responses affect our interests? That's an awfully long list of questions -- but despite numerous administration statements of concern and resolve, I haven't heard a lot of answers.

Lesson we should learn, but probably won't: Without a clear and consistent understanding of our interests, our priorities, and the end-state we want to reach, it can be hard to determine what constitutes stupid shit, and harder still to decide which way to lead. At the end of the day, even truly learning all the other lessons we ought to learn won't get us very far, if we don't know which way we're going.

Yes -- we still need a grand strategy. In fact, we need one more than ever.

Coming soon: A grand strategy for an empire in decline.