Mainstreaming the Mad Iran Bombers

Today's New York Times runs what I believe is its first op-ed explicitly advocating a military campaign against Iran.   Such agitation for war isn't new -- John Bolton and friends have been obsessively demanding such an attack for a long time, adapting the argument for war as the only solution to whatever the current situation may be.  It's one thing when the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Fox News or other conservative outlets advocate such a war.  You expect that, and discount accordingly; an op-ed in Fred Hiatt's Washington Post demanding war on Iran is like a DC-based blogger complaining about the Redskins... it happens constantly, nobody takes it very seriously and it doesn't accomplish anything.   But the New York Times doing so is a serious step towards mainstreaming the idea, akin to how Ken Pollack and Tom Friedman's support for the invasion of Iraq persuaded a lot of centrists and liberals. It's as if we as a country have learned nothing from the Iraq war debate.  

Alan Kuperman, the NYT op-ed's author, is best known for defending the U.S. non-response to the genocide in Rwanda (leading the late, lamented Alison Des Forges to accuse him of playing "word games to rationalize the West's ignominious failure to halt genocide in Rwanda").   While he has no evident expertise in Iran, he has determined that Iranian domestic politics and a few months of negotiations conclusively prove that negotiations can never work and that there's only one way to stop Iran -- war.  

His argument is like a caricature of such war advocacy, hitting each predictable theme like a sledgehammer.  

  • Does he rule out the alternative policy by default?  Yes he does!  "peaceful carrots and sticks cannot work."
  • Does he reduce the policy options to two extreme positions, one of which is guaranteed to be rejected?  Yes he does!   "the United States faces a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons." 
  • Does he warn that  Saddam, um, Ahmedenejad will give WMD to terrorists?   Yes, yes he does.  "if Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal, the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb." (the "neighborhood bully" is a nice touch.) Will, pray tell, the smoking gun be in the shape of a mushroom cloud? 
  • Does he exaggerate the prospects for success?  Yes, he does.  Well, first he says  "As for knocking out its nuclear plants, admittedly, aerial bombing might not work." But he quickly moves on from that, since that will not do.  Oddly, his main example of success comes from Iraq, where he claims that the first Gulf war led to the uncovering of the Iraqi nuclear program --- not the Osirak raid -- which is accurate, but rather completely contradicts his argument. 
  • Does he minimize the risks of military action?  Yes, he does.  "Yes, Iran could retaliate by aiding America’s opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does that anyway."  Try telling that to U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to leaders in the Gulf, who are slightly less cavalier with the lives of their people.
  • Does he suggest that if all else fails regime change would be easy and cheap? Yes, dear lord, he does. "If nothing else, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the United States military can oust regimes in weeks if it wants to." Truly, this was the lesson to be drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm still marveling over how easily we overthrew Saddam and the Taliban and got out of Iraq and Afghanistan more or less costlessly.   That was special. On the other hand, as Matt Duss helpfully points out, "if we don't have an Iran war, how are we supposed to have an awesome Iran surge?"
  • Does he accuse those who oppose military action of appeasement?  Yes, yes, of course he does.  "in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement."

Why spend so much time on a mediocre,  unoriginal op-ed?  The better question is why the NYT published it.  Advocates of such a military strike have been agitating tirelessly for years to mainstream and normalize an idea once seen as mad, using precisely these arguments so often that their deep weaknesses may not even register anymore.  Opponents of such a military strike -- on the grounds that it would not likely stop the nuclear program, would kill lots of innocent Iranians and inflame Iranian public opinion, would destroy Obama's hopes to transform America's relations with the Islamic world and inflame anti-Americanism back to Bush-era levels, and so on -- may not take this seriously enough. 

The Obama administration almost certainly doesn't want to make such a wrong-headed move --- but, then, there are a lot of things which the Obama administration doesn't want to do but has been forced into by political realities (Gitmo, the public option, escalation in Afghanistan) and intentions aren't enough.   Many people may have assumed that the legacy of Iraq would have raised the bar on such arguments for war, that someone making such all too familiar claims would simply be laughed out of the public square.  The NYT today shows that they aren't.  I suspect that one of the great foreign policy challenges of 2010 is going to be to push back on this mad campaign for another pointless, counter-productive war for the sake of war.  

UPDATE:  see also Matt Duss, Heather Hurlburt, Joe Klein, Steve Saideman and Dan Drezner.   This kind of sustained pushback is exactly what is needed to prevent this dangerous idea from being mainstreamed.  

Marc Lynch

Conservative gains in Muslim Brotherhood elections

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has just announced the results of its internal elections to the 16 member Guide's Office (which acts a sort of executive branch for the movement).  Held in the midst of intense pressure from the Egyptian regime and a hot internal crisis, the election has produced a dramatic turn towards the conservative end of the spectrum.  The most dramatic result was the failure of leading reformist Abdel Mounim Abou el-Fattouh and the Deputy Supreme Guide Mohammad Habib to win a place in the Guide's office.   Essam el-Erian, whose defeat in a special election several months ago prompted the latest round of internal crisis, did win a seat -- reportedly by joining a slate with conservative leader Mahmoud Ezzat. Otherwise, conservatives focused on religious outreach rather than politics won a thumping majority.

The very fact of the elections is noteworthy, of course.  Virtually no other Arab political movement, party, or government holds such free or fair internal elections to positions of real power.   Such internally democratic practices in the Muslim Brotherhood may come as a surprise to those who don't follow the Islamist movement closely, but they are a long-standing feature of the movement's internal organization.   These elections took on added significance when Mohammed Mehdi Akef, Supreme Guide since 2004, vowed to step down voluntarily at the end of his term in January 2010 -- another decision rarely made by leaders of Arab movements, parties, or governments.  

The results of the elections look like a repudiation from within of the choice by the MB to engage in democratic politics despite regime pressures, and likely signals both a withdrawal from political engagement and possibly some serious internal splits.  Such an internal retreat from democratic engagement has seemed increasingly likely, as I warned in late October, as regime repression and political manipulation slammed the door in the face of MB efforts to be democrats. Hopes that free and fair elections would resolve intense internal divides and produce a legitimate leadership appear to be fast fading in the Muslim Brotherhood... just as in so many other recent cases (see: Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and soon Iraq). 

The results seem to have been the opposite of what was intended.  Losers -- including Habib -- have publicly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the elections themselves, which were called by Akef himself rather than by normal channels and for which the Shura Council could not meet in one place due to fears of arrest by Egyptian security forces.  A statement of protest has been filed to the MB's legal committee, and it is not clear whether the results will stand.  But MB reformers have reacted with fury.   MB blogger Abdel Monem Mahmoud has been writing up a storm about the elections, while fellow MB blogger Abdel Rahman Ayyesh posted on his Facebook page a fiery denunciation of the elections, rejecting their legitimacy and their results, and calls it a catastrophe

Akef insists that the elections were 100% fair and the results should stand, and efforts are being taken to smooth over the crisis.    While the dissenters have real grounds for complaint, there is no real reason to think that the elections were not truly representative of the mood in the movement.  Attitudes have evidently always been more conservative outside of Cairo and the politicized youth activists.   The reformists have taken a beating due to the limited fruits of their efforts to participate in the democratic process.  With the rewards of electoral participation being increased arrests and harassment at all levels of the organization, no influence over legislation, a constitutional amendment explicitly aimed at preventing their further participation, and little international support for their struggles, it isn't hard to see why they would fail to rally internal support for their cause.  

The voting and the results were announced amidst intense media scrutiny.  That level of scrutiny is one of the  biggest differences from past such elections.  In the old days, the MB would carry out its business in secret, with few people even knowing the identities of the members of the Guide's office.  Now, blogs and forums and newspapers and satellite television stations cover the MB's internal doings in great detail -- often with a sensationalist twist which has transformed the MB's modus operandi.  The legion of media outlets hostile to the MB are gleefully egging the crisis on.  Habib himself took to al-Jazeera to air his complaints.  This is a case where the new media environment is clearly making a significant difference. 

It is too soon to know how this will fully play out.  The new Supreme Guide has not yet been announced.  The pragmatic and politically oriented Mohammed Habib, the presumptive favorite, is very likely out of the running after his failure to win a seat in this election. The best known leader of the conservative trend, Mahmoud Ezzat, has said repeatedly that he does not want the position.   Whoever becomes the new Guide will be working with a much more conservative top leadership and a deeply disgruntled and alienated reformist branch.    It seems likely that the next Guide will steer the MB to a less politically engaged stance, concentrating on social work and religious outreach rather than public politics --- which will please the Egyptian regime, which wants no turbulence as it manages the transition from Hosni Mubarak to his successor (whether Gamal or someone else).  It seems highly unlikely that the MB will turn to violence or more radical views, and there are few if any signs of that developing.  The real question is whether the frustrated reformists will split from the MB and form a new political movement (as in the stillborn Wasat Party schism of the 1990s) --- something the MB has largely avoided in the past, but which now looms large on the horizon.


Source: Ikhwan Online