Why I hope Obama is bluffing

One of the sillier things that U.S. leaders have done over the past year or so is to formally reject a policy of "containment" or deterrence with respect to Iran. AIPAC pushed this position last year (in the form of a non-binding resolution sponsored by Senator Lindsay Graham), but even President Obama eventually had to go along. And then he sent Vice President Joe Biden to tell AIPAC that the U.S. wasn't bluffing.

Apart from pandering to the bomb Iran crowd, the apparent purpose behind such statements is to convince Iran that the United States simply couldn't live with an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and that they had better make damn sure they don't try to get one. Such rhetoric might make sense as a negotiating tactic -- though it's hardly guaranteed to work -- but it tells you exactly nothing about what the United States would or should do in the event that Iran one day crosses the nuclear weapons threshold. To see this, consider the following hypothetical.

Suppose there were a massive intelligence failure on the part of the IAEA and all of America's intelligence agencies and that Iran had a totally secret nuclear weapons development program. (This is precisely the scenario that hawks routinely warn about, by the way, especially whenever National Intelligence Estimates reach more optimistic conclusions). Suppose further that we got up one morning next week and discovered that Iran had successfully tested a nuclear bomb. And then suppose Iran provided us with additional information demonstrating that they had already manufactured a dozen more and that we had no idea where they were hidden. In short, imagine that the hawks' worst fears had all come true and that the Islamic Republic had become a nuclear weapons state overnight.

What do you suppose we would do? Would President Obama (or anyone else) immediately order a preventive war? Not on your life, because he could not be sure that Iran wouldn't find some way to get a bomb on American soil or use it against some close U.S. ally. Would Obama immediately announce a blockade or threaten an invasion, in order to persuade Iran to voluntarily give up its weapons? Hardly, because we couldn't put enough pressure on them to force compliance. Would the U.S. decide to abandon its regional allies and let Iran dominate the Persian Gulf? Of course not -- for the same reasons that it didn't abandon NATO when the Soviets tested a bomb in 1949 and it didn't abandon Japan and South Korea when China and North Korea tested nuclear weapons.

No, if Iran ever did cross the nuclear weapons threshold, the United States would do what it has always done when an adversary went nuclear: It would fall back on containment and deterrence. We would extend our far more potent nuclear umbrella over key regional allies, and we would send clear and unmistakable messages to Tehran about the dire consequences that would befall them if their new arsenal were ever used by anyone. Getting a bomb wouldn't transform Iran into a global superpower, and it certainly wouldn't allow them to blackmail their neighbors or launch a war of conquest. The only thing this situation would prevent the United States from doing is forcible regime change, which is something we shouldn't be contemplating in any case.

This situation would not be ideal, which is why I favor intelligent diplomacy that reduces Iran's incentive to acquire a deterrent. There are a number of good reasons why Tehran would prefer to stay on the safe side of the nuclear threshold, and there are a number of obvious ways that the United States could make that choice even more attractive, such as taking the threat of regime change "off-the-table." But declaring that Washington will never use containment or deterrence isn't credible, because these options are always there if we need them, and they make a lot more sense than the alternatives. In this regard the United States is bluffing, and the main risk is that they will feel compelled to follow through if the bluff gets called.  

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Stephen M. Walt

The REAL reason the U.S. failed in Afghanistan

Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong. 

Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.

First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.  

Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.

Third, we couldn't get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves -- a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy -- we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.

In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.

By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn't have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it. 

Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.  

Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.