by Mr. Hans Moleman
(Mr. Moleman began this dialogue by critiquing Mr. Sturms’s original paper, in a post entitled “A Perfect Sturm of Appeasement”. Mr. Sturm responded, sparking a dialogue that is still going, and for which Mr. M is grateful. There are now 7 responses back and forth.)
The Truman National Security Project is a worthy effort by a group of “Truman Democrats” to craft a foreign policy that more consistent with the Truman postwar principles than with the pacifist policy of every Democratic candidate since George McGovern.
Unfortunately, their latest paper “Iran: Putting the Threat in Perspective” by Frankie Sturm suggests that the “Truman Democrats” are still stuck in the dead-end of a thoughtless (or cynical) anti-neo-conservatism.
Sturm’s premise is that any possible use of military power against Iran is doomed to failure, and even its consideration is anathema, the kind of thing only a blustering neo-con could even imagine. From this premise, Sturm derives a formula of hopeful appeasement very much in the mode of Neville Chamberlain.
“The real question is what Iran would do with a nuclear weapon. Would the Iranian regime ever actually use a nuclear weapon, given the threat of massive retaliation? After all, the US feared what Stalin and Mao would do with nuclear weapons, but they were effectively deterred. The same logic might apply to Iran.”
Sturm then acknowledges the difference between Iran and Stalin/Mao. “The problem is that suicide and martyrdom play an essential role in Iranian theology.” Yes, that does rather undermine the hope that the logic of deterrence “might apply to Iran”.
But “Fortunately, Iran’s leadership structure allows for steadier hands to hold the reins of government than Ahmadinejad.” He appears to rely on the Mullahs who control Iran to restrain the negative forces of …”Iranian theology”.
“However, if the regime was teetering or threatened, there is a real possibility that they may boost their domestic standing by using terrorist organizations to spark a conflict with Israel, then launching or seriously threatening to launch, a nuclear missile to protect their co-religionists in the region.”
Here, at last, is a real danger, and yet one towards which Sturm’s attitude is unclear. “If the regime was teetering…” would we need to help stabilize the Mullahs’ regime?
Sturm now asks “What Should We Do?”, and begins with the futility of military action. “In spite of saber-rattling during the Bush Administration, taking military action against Iran’s nuclear program is not a winning proposition.” The saber-rattling referred to is presumably the Bush declaration that Iranian nuclear weapons are not acceptable, and that no option for preventing them is off the table. Of course this is also the stated policy of the Obama Administration.
Sturm then identifies two separate approaches.
“1) We must reduce Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons.
2) We must show Iran that nuclear weapons will be of limited use, making them less worthy of pursuit in the first place.”
How will we “reduce Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons”? By “continuing and possibly deepening, the sanctions regime.” Despite the fact that the feeble sanctions regime has so far failed utterly to affect Iran’s behavior in any way, we must continue it, (and possibly deepen it). And never mind that much stronger sanctions failed to deter Mussolini’s aggression in Ethiopia, and only spurred Japan to war.
[Flashback: Bullwinkle: “Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!” Rocky: “That trick never works.” Bullwinkle: “This time for sure.” Bullwinkle (after trick fails): “I gotta get a new hat.”]
Of course, sanctions will require that we “do a better job of securing Russian and Chinese support”. Sturm does not say how.
But sanctions aren’t Sturm’s only proposal to reduce Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons. We must also “Use less oil.”
Sturm spends more effort on the task of persuading Iran that nuclear weapons just aren’t worth having. We must be friendlier to them. We must get all our troops out of the region. But the core of the proposals are the two final ones.
First, we must complete the strategic missile defense system “which got started under the Clinton Administration.” Some might question his reading of the history of the SDI program, but never mind.
An effective missile defense system might indeed someday (if Republican critics would get out of the way) neutralize an Iranian missile attack. But it could do nothing about terrorist-borne weapons, and Iran has even more terrorists than missiles in its arsenals.
At the end of the road, Sturm’s prescription is the original Cold War deterrent: Retaliation.
“A credible threat to retaliate will make Iran’s leaders think twice about using a nuclear weapon.”
In making such a statement, Sturm omits to recognize a key fact. Israel already presents a 100% credible threat of retaliation. Israel has a significant nuclear weapons arsenal presumably designed entirely around retaliation. No one can doubt Israel’s second-strike capacity or willingness to punish a nuclear aggressor.
Israel in fact developed nuclear weapons for fear of having to rely on the US as a credible threat. Israel’s leaders knew that an aggressor might doubt that such a threat would actually be carried out. If Israel were destroyed in a first strike (a real possibility in such a small country), would any US government carry out a punishing nuclear attack, incinerating millions, when the US had not itself been attacked and the damage was already done? Would Obama do so?
And could Israel’s or our credible threat of retaliation actually deter a fanatical regime motivated by a theology of suicide and martyrdom? Would the “pragmatic Mullahs” actually restrain an officially anti-Semitic country offered the opportunity to fulfill God’s command by annihilating the Jews in a single stroke?
It is worth remembering that Hitler’s success in the Holocaust Round One was achieved at the cost of a “retaliation” that destroyed his country. Indeed, when it became obvious that Germany’s destruction could be prevented only by putting all resources into defense, Hitler put even more resources into the genocide, seeing the approaching defeat mainly as an end to the Jew-killing project that meant more to him than did Germany.
But, of course Hitler was a crazy aberration. Sturm presumes that Iran’s leaders are more pragmatic.
From where I sit, Iran is openly preparing for Round Two of the Holocaust. Sturm’s prescription of hope and appeasement, if adopted, would give them as close to a green light as any mass-murderers could ask for.
Mr. Sturm responds to Mr. Moleman:
Thank you for your comments about my piece on Iran. Nothing sharpens the mind like criticism.
First, how do you define appeasement?
Second, can you give me a good case that airstrikes can take our Iran’s nuclear program or that any other military action can effectively do so?
Mr. Moleman responds to Mr. Sturm:
Appeasement has its generic pre-WWII dictionary definition, of course. But I use it to mean the policy of Chamberlain and Daladier at Munich. Wikipedia, in a strained defense of Chamberlain, sums it up as “granting from fear or cowardice of unwarranted concessions in order to buy temporary peace at someone else’s expense.” I would eliminate the word “cowardice”, but I agree with the rest.
As for “a good case that airstrikes can take out Iran’s nuclear program or that any other military action can effectively do so”, I cannot make such a case. I am no armchair general, being unfamiliar with the details of our military’s capacity or planning in this area, and must leave such questions to the military in their classified briefings of the Commander-In-Chief.
But I do suspect that some in the world are at least considering the possibility. [See today’s Jerusalem Post, ‘Israel seriously considering Iran military action’ (http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid =1236103158937&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull)]
Of course, Israel’s airstrike capacity is less than ours, so we could probably do a better job of it than they could. In the past, the world (including the US) has been content to have Israel do the dirty work, taking out nuclear threats in Iraq and Syria, and then condemn them publicly while breathing a collective sigh of relief. (That behavior certainly deserved the term “cowardice”.)
One thought on military options: It seems to me that eradication is not necessarily the goal. Significant disruption, on a potentially continuing basis, might be sufficient. Even underground labs need to have secure above-ground support facilities.
Another military thought: I believe that talk about our lack of capacity to defeat and occupy Iran on the ground is a straw man argument. Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear threats were stopped with airstrikes alone. If anyone is advocating invasion, I haven’t noticed.
Now, some questions for yo u: Do you really think sanctions are working, or can work? Do you think Russia and China can be talked into supporting tougher sanctions? How?
And do you believe that Iran’s leadership are truly pragmatists masquerading as apocalyptic fanatics? If so, what is the evidence?
Mr. Sturm responds to Mr. Moleman:
There’s a lot out there on the futility of air strikes. Here is one article from the Atlantic and another link to a study by the Oxford Research Group. It was easy to take out Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1983 because the entire program was contained in that single, above ground installation. The suspected nuclear site in Syria that Israel took out recently is a similar story – it was just one above ground building. Iran learned from the Israeli airstrike against Iraq in 1983. That’s why they’re so thoroughly buried underground.
I don’t think the invade/occupy argument is a straw man. I think it’s the elephant in the room. Doesn’t matter if it’s John McCain or Barack Obama, everyone says that everything (ie military action) remains “on the table.” They say it because they have to. But if airstrikes are unlikely to work and might indeed make it more likely that Iran will not only develop but use nuclear weapons, this begs the question: what military action if not airstrikes? I haven’t heard an answer to that question.
As for the fanaticism question, Iran is definitely ruled by conservatives. But there are some real distinctions between hardliners and moderates. Ray Takeyh has written about this and the containment of Iran in Foreign Affairs. Rhetoric and terrorism notwithstanding, Iran’s leaders have shown no willingness to put their own hides on the line. Khomenei negotiated with Saddam Hussein and the Reagan administration in Iran-Contra. Iran cooperated with the US in hunting down al Qaeda and overthrowing the Taliban and even offered a wide-ranging “grand bargain” diplomatic settlement in 2003, which was barely covered in the media, but you can read about here. Pragmatists and realists wanted to take it up.
Hardliners and neocons in the Bush administration did not, so it was rebuffed without consideration.
Iranians have taken this as a sign that the US will not play ball under any circumstances, so they came to see diplomacy with the US as futile. Ahmadinejad was elected two years later. And being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran knows it can get away with a lot.
Regarding sanctions, I think they can work, although we start in the hole. The Bush administration pursued the worst possible course of action, by trying to get the Europeans to lead a diplomatic initiative, and simultaneously threatening regime change. And this while we were in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course Iran is not going to countenance any diplomatic concessions if the US is threatening to overthrow its regime. So negotiations were basically worthless. So was the military threat, because it wasn’t credible given our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that oil prices have fallen, sanctions have been strengthened, and the whole world is in economic disarray, sanctions are actually having a serious impact in Iran. So maybe’s there’s a chance they’ll work. The purported deal between Obama and Medvedev – where we back off missile defense in Europe for greater cooperation with Russia in halting Iran’s nuke program – might be a step in the right direction. One of the Truman Project’s fellows wrote about that in the New Republic last week.
The sad truth is that we might have to live with an Iranian bomb…and that is very sad because few regimes are as reprehensible as the Iranian one. But by rebuffing the 2003 offer and putting our military chips in the Iraq and Afghanistan baskets, we don’t hold too many cards. Appeasement is an easy charge to level, but it doesn’t change the strategic reality. The problem with the accusation of appeasement is that it us ually denotes more emotional content than logical content. If there is a military action with reasonable prospects for success at a reasonable cost, and a leader refuses to take that course once diplomatic options have been exhausted, that’s appeasement. But until someone can propose a military action against Iran that has a reasonable prospect of success at a reasonable cost, appeasement is a red herring.
Based on the info I’ve seen, the best we can do at this point is combine disincentives that turn up the heat on Iran with incentives that allow the regime to save face. And maybe they’ll conclude that the nuclear program isn’t worth the cost after all. AIPAC takes a similar stance in America Can Do More To Prevent A Nuclear Iran and Action Needed As Iran Passes Key Nuclear Threshold. But that’s already a lot, so I’m going to sign off now and we can pick this up again soon.
Mr. Moleman responds to Mr. Sturm:
I understand the sensitivity around the term “appeasement”. It was a popular term and policy when it was practiced in the late 1930’s. It only became an epithet or accusation after its cataclysmic failure after Munich. But the lessons learned from history ought not to be dismissed because of their ugliness.
The trajectory of appeasement – let’s call it CDE (for Constructive Diplomatic Engagement) in the interest of civility – is worth consideration. It begins with the process of taking military actions or threats off the table, with the intent to calm the potential aggressor by treating his demands respectfully. In other words, carrots without sticks. If the potential aggressor responds favorably by changing his actions, CDE succeeds. If not, it fails.
Diplomacy linked with military threat, the classic carrot/stick approach, is another matter. It relies on both serious diplomacy AND credible military threats. When it works, CDE-proponents tend to credit the result to the diplomacy.
Looking at the history of the West’s efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program, there appears to have been one moment of temporary success. Begun in the 1990’s, it continued through a steady series of Western demands, sanctions, and inspections. Then, in 2003, Iran apparently put the entire program on hold for a year or two. One could ascribe this temporary pause to a temporary sensitivity to Western disfavor or sanctions. Or one could ascribe it to the fact that in 2003, the United States injected a dramatic demonstration of military power into the region. The discovery that the US could and would, under sufficient perceived provocation, act so decisively appears to have created a sense of “shock and awe” in Iran’s leaders.
Indeed, 2003 caught the region’s attention in a big way. Libya lost its nerve and gave up its own WMD development. Syria withdrew from Lebanon. And Iran put a hold on its nuclear program. All coincidence?
Then, it passed. Iran apparently decided, somewhere around 2005, that it could go back to work. Why? Was it because it decided that western sanctions and disapproval were no longer intolerable? Or did they calculate that internal and external political opposition to Bush’s interventionism was likely to impede any expansion of military involvement, any “wider war”?
Bottom line: sanctions and diplomatic censure have been tried and have failed. To say that stronger sanctions might work, while acknowledging that they can’t be imposed, is at least disingenuous.
Military threat has been (inadvertently) tried in 2003, and it succeeded temporarily. Now, to adopt a policy devoid of US military options, is a highly questionable idea at best.
At one point you state that “The sad truth is that we might have to learn to live with an Iranian bomb.” If this is the policy prescription, then it ought to be admitted up front, without the window dressing of talk about sanctions and disincentives. If we can learn to live with an Iranian bomb, then Iran will develop the bomb.
Living with the Iranian bomb requires the following:
1. We must commit to a credible threat of massive US response to any aggressive use by Iran, even if we ourselves have not been attacked. Question: How do we make such a threat credible?
2. And we must ensure that Iran’s government is controlled by leaders who do not believe that destruction of Israel is a theologically desirable outcome worth whatever apocalyptic cost. How do we ensure that?
The one suggestion you make that I find undeniably logical and defensible, and which should help in any set of circumstances, is the development of a strategic missile defense system. This is a matter of reversing a strong Democratic-Party consensus, based on the concept’s identification as a Republican saber-rattling destabilizing pipe dream, and I fear it is a steep uphill battle. But I would hope it is one idea that could be backed by all who are concerned about the Iranian threat. This may be all the common ground we can find, but it could be very important ground, indeed.
Mr. Sturm responds to Mr. Moleman:
I have no problem with the general notion that diplomacy (negotiations, economic and political incentives, etc.) needs to be linked with coercive means (military action, sanctions, etc.). But what do you do when coercive means are not a viable option? Or what do you do when only some coercive means, such as sanctions, are viable options, whereas other coercive means, such as military action, are not? That’s what makes Iran a difficult case.
For the sake of argument, I’ll concede that the U.S. invasion of Iraq convinced Iran’s leaders to halt its nuclear program (although I’m not actually convinced that’s true). In the end it doesn’t matter because we couldn’t seal the deal. We didn’t have the military wherewithal to force them to halt their nuclear program for good, and we didn’t take the opportunity to strike a deal diplomatically. As for Libya, it doesn’t fit the profile. Libya had entered negotiations to normalize relations with Western countries long before we invaded Iraq in 2003, and part of the reason Libya came around in the first place was because we explicitly took regime change off the table. That’s simply not the case with Iran.
It’s accurate to say that sanctions haven’t worked to this point, but as I wrote in my last post, that’s because they were poorly designed. As long as “regime change” remained on the table, Iran had no incentive to negotiate away its best bargaining chip. The difference now is that it might be too late – we lost a lot of time during the last several years.
Nevertheless, sanctions are having an effect on the Iranian economy now. Plus, the Obama administration may be able to convince Russia to get tougher with Iran, and Obama’s diplomatic openings to Iran (the recent video message, acknowledging that Iran will participate in a major international meeting on Afghanistan) might gives Iranian leaders enough reason to change behavior, and might help discredit Ahmadinejad enough so that he loses the presidential election this summer.
What helps the chances of success here is the rarely discussed idea that Iran might not actually want nuclear weapons. It is the most populous nation in the region, it has the best conventional military in the region (Israel excepted), and its mountainous terrain virtually guarantees that its neighbors cannot threaten it with conventional military power. So if Iran halts at the conventional weapons front, it is almost certain to be the dominant power in the region. But if Iran goes nuclear, well, so can Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, making Iran much less powerful vis-à-vis its neighbors. It seems clear that Iran will not give up its nuclear enrichment program, but a weapons program is another story. Of course, if it expects that it might be the victim of a U.S. military campaign, then Iran has every reason to go the extra mile and develop a nuclear deterrent. In other words, there’s a strong case to be made that military threats will make it more likely that Iran will develop nukes.
A few other comments before getting to my final point. I don’t think anyone in the world doubts that if Iran used a nuclear weapon aggressively that the U.S. would obliterate Iran in the blink of an eye. So would Israel. As for missile defense, I’ve got nothing against it in principle. But, without going into a long technical discussion (which we can do as an aside at another time, if you like), the feasibility of the system is highly questionable. Besides, no one smuggles as well as Iran, so it wouldn’t need missiles to hit its target anyway. I’m also waiting to see evidence that Iran actually behaves apocalyptically. Talk is cheap.
But I return to a major them of my previous post: Is there any military action the United States can take that will have a reasonable likelihood of success for a reasonable cost? That is not a rhetorical question. To my knowledge, no one has made that case successfully. It’s not enough to say that “military action must remain on the table.” That’s meaningless. In the words of philosopher Immanuel Kant: “ought implies is.” To say that we “ought” to have military options implies that there “are” plausible options in existence. So to make the military case, one needs to get down to brass tacks and lay out some specifics.
Mr. Moleman responds to Mr. Sturm:
The reading material you have recommended (especially the Atlantic Monthly war games) is certainly informative in addressing the risks of military action.
Calculating risk is a tricky business, of course, and always subject to unconscious bias. If one is predisposed to argue against action, then the perceived risks of action grow and grow. Meanwhile, the risks of inaction tend to be overlooked minimized, or wished away.
In response to your recommended reading material, I am tempted to counter-offer only Churchill’s speech in Commons after the Munich Agreement. “You have suffered a great defeat without a battle,” if my memory serves.
I know it’s a sore spot to keep bringing up the “A” word, but sometimes history can be instructive. Appeasement in the 1930’s was driven by a legitimate appreciation of the risks of military action (or even serious sanctions) against Hitler and Mussolini, accompanied by a hopeful dismissal of the risks of inaction – or of “reasonable concessions,” in that case. (Of course no one recommended “doing nothing”; they recommended vigorous diplomacy.
Facing Iran today, the risk that resides with inaction (or reasonable concessions or vigorous diplomacy unaccompanied by a credible military threat) are very grave risks indeed.
First, the risk of the total annihilation (not defeat – eradication) of democratic Israel. Holocaust Round Two.
Second, the risk of domination of a crucial region by an apocalyptic regime armed with weapons of genocidally mass destruction and the will to use them.
And third, the risk of an ultimate demonstration that the United States is not an ally worth having.
With risks like these attending our failure to act decisively, it seems to me that the risks attending military action must be addressed with less certainty.
The element that I find most disturbing in your overall approach is its extreme reliance on wishful thinking when addressing diplomacy, and its equally extreme assumption that military action just won’t work. You begin by asking “what do you do when coercive means are not a viable option?”
Then you postulate that “the Obama administration MAY be able to convince Russia to get tougher on Iran, and Obama’s diplomatic openings to Iran …MIGHT give Iranian leaders enough reason to change behavior, and MIGHT help discredit Ahmadinejad…” “…Iran MIGHT not actually want nuclear weapons…” (My emphasis added)
Whatever you call a policy requiring so many hopeful conditional verbs, you can’t call it “realism”. When such hopeful diplomacy is tied to such presumed hopeless military assessment, the result is of course predictable.
And I cannot overstress my respect for your willingness to put the likeliest outcome on the table, when you admitted a while back that “we might have to learn to live with an Iranian bomb.”
But then you reassure us that everyone in the world knows “that if Iran used a nuclear weapon aggressively that the US would obliterate Iran in the blink of an eye.” Well, I for one have my doubts. And Iran may also have some doubts.
One thread that I find disturbing in much thinking about Iran is the sophisticated, “realist” unwillingness to believe that Iran’s leaders could possibly mean what they say. Presuming that raving threats are just bluff can be a dangerous mistake. (See Mein Kampf, by A. Hitler, for reference.)
Now to the question you have twice asked: “Is there any military action the US can take that will have a reasonable likelihood of success for a reasonable cost?”
I have said before that I am no military strategist, not even of the armchair variety. I strongly prefer to leave military matters to military men. If the Commander-In-Chief wants a military action to be planned, I presume he asks the Joint Chiefs to figure out a way to do it (like destroy or severely impede Iran’s nuclear weapons program facilities). He then waits for them to tell him the best way to do so. That’s their job. The president is unlikely to ask me, or you, or even the Atlantic Monthly.
But writing as a total civilian with no real right to opine on the matter, here goes. I would start with a plan for conventional bombing (or cruise missiling) of the above-ground support infrastructure of every underground weapons-development facility known to exist. Then I’d look at the photos, and re-target anything we missed. And I’d keep doing it as long as needed.
If the JCS took that option to the president and he asked them for a guarantee of success, I presume they would tell him no such guarantee is possible in military action. And they’d remind him that the goal is not necessarily to eliminate all nuclear weapons facilities and capability, but rather to disrupt them and their program, and to convince their leaders that the cost of the program was now simply too high.
And speaking of cost, if the president posed his question in terms of “a reasonable cost”, I hope someone would remind the president of the costs of failure to deal with the threat. If needed, they could borrow my formulation above.