Voice

Bombing Iran for votes, the strange path of a dumb idea

David Broder has raised some eyebrows with his bizarre Washington Post column arguing "with strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, [Obama] can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve." It should only be surprising to those who haven't been paying attention, though. Leaving aside the truly odd ideas about the economy, Broder is actually offering a warmed over, mainstream version of the argument coined in August by former Bush Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams that "the Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one." Since then, each time the argument pops up I've tagged it on Twitter with "this idea was stupid enough when Elliott Abrams wrote it in August."

Broder's column is an interesting study in how really dumb ideas bounce around Washington D.C. Fortunately, it's not an idea that seems to have any support at all in the Obama White House. Unlike Abrams (who it's fair to assume does not wish Obama well in November 2012) and Broder (who... well, it's anyone's guess), the Obama team can see perfectly clearly that the American people have no appetite for a third major war in the Middle East and that launching a war with massive strategic consequences for short-term political gain would be epically irresponsible. They find this argument ridiculous. Even if they were primarily interested in their electoral fortunes in designing Iran policy, they would quickly see that such an Abrams-approved stratagem would wipe out their support on the left and gain absolutely zero votes on the right.

Now, I'm very worried that Obama's Iran strategy will lock the U.S. into ever more hawkish rhetoric which ties their hands and paves the way to future military confrontations. I think that serious people disagree about the likely effectiveness of sanctions or of diplomacy, and that all are struggling to find meaningful off-ramps in the glide towards ever more stringent and militarized regional containment. I worry about a lot on Iran policy. But this isn't one of the things that I worry about. I don't think that anyone in the Obama White House takes remotely seriously the epically bad Abrams-Broder advice to pursue military showdown with Iran for political advantage. This may offer an intriguing window into how Abrams thought about foreign policy in the Bush White House, and a depressing case study in the circulation of ideas in Washington, but it tells us nothing at all about how the Obama administration is thinking about Iran.

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Marc Lynch

Keep the Iran war talk quiet

There's some hope that Iran will return to nuclear talks with the P5+1 in Geneva on Nov. 15, even if they probably will have more questions about the agenda as the deadline approaches before they formally RSVP. Those talks will hopefully become the basis for an ongoing diplomatic process, where a range of issues can be explored, alternative arrangements proposed, and confidence built. But it's a very bad sign that, according to the New York Times, the lack of progress in talks thus far has "prompted a discussion inside the White House about whether it would be helpful, or counterproductive, to have him [President Barack Obama] talk more openly about military options." That fits with Dennis Ross's remarks to AIPAC a few days ago: "But should Iran continue its defiance, despite its growing isolation and the damage to its economy, its leaders should listen carefully to President Obama who has said many times, "we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons." Here's an easy answer: they would be highly counterproductive, and downright dangerous. So let's move on from that discussion, shall we?

The idea of putting war talk on the table is presumably to increase the pressure on Iran to come to the table and make a deal. It won't likely accomplish that. Iran will quite reasonably refuse to bargain under the threat of military force, and will view U.S. offers under such conditions as manifestly insincere. It probably will not view the military threat as credible, given the realities of U.S. challenges and limitations. The war talk would swamp all other issues, make confidence building virtually impossible, and even further harden the divisions. What's more, war talk might very well undermine the international consensus on sanctions, the one accomplishment of which the administration boasts, since few of the countries which came on board for sanctions in defense of nonproliferation would have any stomach for another U.S. preventive war in the Middle East.

That's not the worst of it, though. The greatest danger of introducing open war talk by the administration is that it would represent the next step in the "ratcheting" -- which I've been warning of for months -- and pave the way either to a 1990's Iraq scenario or to an actual war. Once the military option is on the table, it never goes away. The only way to signal "toughness" in future encounters will be to somehow escalate beyond military threats -- i.e. to commit action, such as airstrikes or cruise missiles. And those would, by the consensus of virtually every serious analyst, be a catastrophe. If the United States isn't prepared to follow through on the threat --- and it really, really shouldn't be --- then it shouldn't make the threat. That would just either undermine credibility, or else give a hook for hawks to demand that actions live up to rhetoric. Dangerous either way.

If the administration is really having an internal debate about whether to put the military option openly on the table, I hope that they quickly and firmly resolve it in the negative. It would not increase U.S. bargaining leverage over Iran. It would undermine the international consensus on sanctions for which they have worked so hard. It would almost certainly kill any prospect for the meaningful diplomatic process which is so badly needed. And it would represent the next step in the seemingly inexorable ratcheting process towards an unnecessary and counterproductive war. This would be yet another of those painfully predictable victories of narrowly-conceived tactics over realistic strategy. It may offer momentary satisfaction to U.S. domestic hawks and earn a few fleeting moments of praise, but at the expense of real U.S. strategic interests. Let's not go there. 

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