A Martian view of the Iran debate

Paul Pillar has a great piece up at The National Interest that illuminates just how nutty the present debate about war with Iran really is. And it got me thinking.

If a sensible Martian came down to Earth and looked at the sabre-rattling about Iran, I suspect he/she/it would be completely flummoxed. For our Martian visitor would observe two very capable states -- the United States and Israel -- threatening to attack a country that hardly seems worth the effort. The U.S. and Israel together spend more than $700 billion each year on their national security establishments; Iran spends about $10 billion. The U.S. and Israel have the most advanced military hardware in the world; Iran's weapons are mostly outdated and lack spare parts. The U.S. and Israeli militaries are well-educated and very well-trained; not true of Iran. The United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and Israel has several hundred, while Iran has a vast arsenal of … zero. Iran does have a nuclear enrichment program (which is the reason for all the war talk), but the most recent National Intelligence Estimates have concluded that Iran does not presently have an active nuclear weapons program. The United States has several dozen military bases in Iran's immediate vicinity; Iran has exactly none in the Western hemisphere. The United States has powerful allies in every corner of the world; Iran's friends include a handful of minor nonstate actors like Hezbollah or minor-league potentates like Bashar al Assad (who's not looking like an asset these days) or Hugo Chávez.

Moreover, the United States has fought four wars since 1990. It has bombed, invaded or occupied a half dozen countries in that period, leading to the deaths of thousands of people. Israel has been colonizing the West Bank since 1967, it invaded and occupied much of Lebanon from 1982 to 1999, and its armed forces pummeled Lebanon again in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09. Prominent U.S. politicians have repeatedly called for "regime change" in Iran, and U.S. government officials now report that Israel has been murdering civilian scientists in Iran, in cahoots with the MEK, a terrorist organization that is still on the State Department's terrorist "watchlist." Iran's past conduct is far from pure, but it has done nothing remotely similar in recent years.

In fact, given the various threats now facing Tehran, our Martian friend might have trouble explaining why Iran's leaders hadn't gone all-out to get themselves some sort of WMD, merely as a deterrent. And yet it is the United States and Israel that profess themselves to be terribly, terribly worried about the supposed "threat" from Iran, and who are contemplating a preventive war that most observers realize would strengthen Iran's nuclear ambitions and could only delay its program for a couple of years.

Let's be clear: There's nothing to like about the current Iranian regime -- to include its clerical rulers, its buffoonish president, and the various thugs that keep the regime in power -- and I for one am very glad I live here and not there. Nonetheless, our Martian observer might have a lot of trouble figuring out why politicians in Washington and Jerusalem were so scared. In fact, he might very reasonably conclude that both states were losing all sense of perspective, and allowing the worst sort of worst-case analysis to cloud their thinking and cut off useful avenues of diplomatic engagement. And given that the United States likes to think of itself as the "leader of the free world" and is normally expected to exercise sound judgment on a host of complex issues, that possibility is not reassuring.


Stephen M. Walt

Do I believe in international law?

In another corner of the vast FP media empire, David Bosco wants to know if "in some secret chamber of [my] heart, [I am] a believer in international law and institutions." He was writing in response to my post earlier this week, where I argued that NATO's decision to conduct "regime change" in Libya under the auspices of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, even though the resolution did not authorize this act, may have contributed to Russia and China's decision to veto a proposed resolution on Syria. He finds it surprising that a realist such as myself could take the niceties of international law -- and in this case, the text of a Security Council resolution -- so seriously.

In fact, Bosco's query betrays a common misconception about realism, as well as a misunderstanding of my original position. Of course realists "believe in" international law and institutions": they exist, and we'd have to be blind to deny that basic fact. Moreover, realists have long acknowledged that international law and international institutions can be useful tools of statecraft, which states can use to achieve their national interests. In particular, law and institutions can help states coordinate their behavior so as to reap greater gains or avoid various problems (think of the rules that regulate air traffic, some forms of pollution, or global communications), and they can also provide mechanisms to facilitate international trade and to resolve various disputes. Where realists part company with some (but not all) liberal idealists is in their emphasis on the limits of institutions: they cannot force powerful states to act against their own interests and they usually reflect the underlying balance of power in important ways.

Thus, a realist like me isn't surprised when a powerful country like the United States ignores the fine details of a U.N. resolution, and proceeds to undertake unauthorized regime change. Nor are we surprised when the U.S. and some of its allies invaded Iraq without any U.N. authorization at all. It was a surprising decision because it was so stupid, but it was apparent by late 2002 that U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of serial blunderers. Sadly, there was nothing international law or the U.N. could do about that fact.

The central point in my post, however, was not that Russia and China were necessarily upset by the fact that the U.S. and its allies had trod all over the text of Resolution 1973. Rather, they were upset because they didn't like the United States and its allies saying one thing and doing another, and they were upset by the precedent that the Libya case appeared to set. Put differently, they think they got snookered over Libya, and they weren't about to get snookered again. Realists understand that institutions are weak constraints on state behavior (which is why the U.S. could act as it did), but realists also understand that when you take advantage of others, they are going to take notice and make it harder for you to exploit them again. And that appears to be part of the tragic story that is unfolding in Syria.

In short, the puzzle isn't why a realist might point out that we are now paying a price for our earlier high-handedness. The real puzzle is why advocates of intervention are so fond of invoking multilateralism, institutions, and the importance of international law, and then so quick to ignore it when it gets in the way of today's pet project. Realists aren't always right, but at least we're not hypocrites.