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Another reason the U.S. shouldn't go to war with Iran

My colleague Nicholas Burns has a smart column in today's Boston Globe, where he makes the obvious but important point that "the United States should do all it can to avoid war" with Iran. His central theme is that war is not in the U.S. national interest, and that Washington should seize the diplomatic initiative and not allow itself to get buffaloed into a war by Israel. In his words: "The United States needs to take the reins of this crisis from Israel to give use more independence and to protect Israel's core interests at the same time." To do this, he calls for the United States to open a direct bilateral negotiating channel with Iran and to offer "imaginative proposals that would permit Iran civil nuclear power but deny it a nuclear weapon."  

This position makes so much sense that you can be sure it will be rejected by AIPAC and the other hardliners who believe that Iran cannot be permitted even the theoretical capacity to produce a weapon at some unspecified time down the road. Together with the Netyanyahu government, these groups want to keep ramping up the war talk in order to slowly paint the United States into a corner. The reason is simple: Israel does not have a strategically meaningful military option of its own, because the IAF cannot do enough damage to Iran's nuclear facilities to end its program once and for all. To prevent any sort of Iranian nuclear capacity, therefore, requires the United States to take the lead in enforcing sanctions and if necessary, to fight another war.

And as Jodi Rudoren reveals in an important New York Times piece today, Israel's leaders understand that fact perfectly well. Based on interviews with a former national security advisor Uzi Dayan, she reports that PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak "had not yet decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities and could be dissuaded from a strike if President Obama approved stricter sanctions and publicly confirmed his willingness to use military force" (my emphasis). She continues: "Mr. Dayan's assessment seems to buttress the theory that the collective saber rattling is part of a campaign to pressure the Obama administration and the international community, rather than an indication of the imminence of an Israeli strike."

In short, as I noted last week, the recurring talk of "closing windows," "red lines," "zones of immunity," and the like is a political ploy, designed to stifle diplomacy, strengthen sanctions, and gradually inch the United States closer and closer to a commitment to use force. The Israelis know that they cannot do the job themselves, and their larger aim is to keep attention riveted on Tehran (and not on settlement expansion) and to make sure that if war does come, the United States does the heavy lifting.  

In short, all this war talk is a bluff, but one can scarcely blame Israel for employing a tactic that keeps working so well. It's our fault we keep falling for it.  

EBRAHIM NOROOZI/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Why isn't anyone talking about Afghanistan?

Remember the war in Afghanistan? You know: It was the "good war," fought in response to Al Qaeda's attack on 9/11 and the Taliban's refusal to turn them in, and subsequently justified by 1) the need to prevent future terrorist "safe havens," 2) the desire to liberate Afghan women, 3) the imperative to bring democracy and modern governance to an underdeveloped tribal society, and 4) as always, the need to preserve American "credibility."

Writing on the New Yorker's website, reporter Dexter Filkins warns that our long and costly effort there is likely to be a failure. We're getting out, he says, but there is little sign that we will leave behind a properly functioning Afghan state. He notes that neither Obama nor Romney are saying much about the war in this campaign (in part because there is about an angstrom's worth of difference in their respective positions). But he says "You can bet that, whoever the president is, he'll be talking about it [after we're gone]."

Three points. First, it is not really news to hear that our Afghan project is failing, because the effort to impose a centralized state from the outside was probably doomed from the start. It's possible that a focused international effort from 2002 onward would have succeeded (and especially if the geniuses in the Bush administration hadn't taken their eye off the ball in order to invade Iraq), but the odds are against it. Plenty of people have been warning for years now that this war was going to end up a failure, which is why some of us opposed Obama's decision to escalate the war in 2009 and called for disengagement instead.

Second, even if Filkins' pessimism is right, it is not clear why the next president will want or will have to spend a lot of time worrying about Afghanistan. If Afghanistan were truly a vital strategic interest, it wouldn't be all that hard to convince Americans to pony up the resources to stay. But the fact is that Afghanistan isn't a vital interest: it's a land-locked and impoverished country thousands of miles from our shores. The only reason that we went there in the first place is because a handful of misguided crackpots decided to hide out there, and subsequently got very lucky in staging a dramatic attack on U.S. soil. Once they were scattered and/or killed, Afghanistan reverted to being the strategic backwater it has always been. The American people understand this, yet Obama had to concoct a face-saving strategy of escalating first in order to withdraw later. If the next president-whoever it is-is smart, he'll spend as much time worrying about Afghanistan as Carter and Reagan spent worrying about Vietnam. Which is to say: hardly any.

Third, this whole sad episode should really be seen as a colossal failure of the American national security establishment. The futility of the Afghan campaign was apparent years ago, and we've heard plenty of testimony from returning soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers that the ISAF effort wasn't likely to work. Even those who continued to defend the effort usually had to admit that success was going to require a decade or more of additional commitment and hundreds of billions of dollars in additional aid. Yet our national security apparatus couldn't reach the conclusion to withdraw without first escalating the war, and without wasting more soldiers' lives and a few hundred billion more dollars.

I've offered my own thoughts on why it's hard to end costly wars here; today I'll simply say it's even harder when the culture of the national security establishment rewards hawkish postures, and tends to view anyone who counsels moderation or prudence as some sort of weak-willed idealist. Nothing does more than hard-headed and realistic assessments of the costs and benefits of alternative course of action, even when the writing was on the wall a long time ago.

ADEK BERRY/AFP/GettyImages