Friday, September 29, 2006
Next: I am opposed to war with Iran. I surprise myself in this, for four reasons.
First, I find nuclear proliferation to be an extremely dangerous threat in general. I have, in the past, said that preemptive action to take out the North Korean nuclear program was justified. And Iran is a more determined enemy of the United States than North Korea is (albeit also a weaker enemy in any conventional military sense), so proliferation there should be more worrying. Moreover, an Iranian bomb would assuredly lead Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt down the path of nuclearization, if only to deter Iran.
Second, because I supported (at the time) the war in Iraq in part because of the WMD claims, and those claims with respect to Iran are vastly more credible than they ever were with respect to Iraq.
Third, because I am very much a friend of Israel, and I recognize that the Iranian bomb significantly alters the balance of power in the Middle East to Israel's detriment. Indeed, one cannot completely dismiss the notion that Iran would be willing to use nuclear weapons aggressively, though I myself do not think they would do this.
And fourth, because I think nuclear terrorism is the ultimate contemporary nightmare, and that al Qaeda would certainly use nuclear weapons if it had them, and that the example of Afghanistan proves that terrorist groups like al Qaeda, if they gain control of a state, may be willing to strike countries capable of massive retaliation even though that logically means that they will lose control of the state they have, which undermines any argument for deterrence against such regimes.
I should point out as well that, unlike my previous post, the topic of this one is not actually pressing, because we are nowhere near going to war with Iran. We have done nearly nothing to make such a war possible, either in terms of positioning equipment or getting the support of the American people or preparing the diplomatic ground. The tentative initial diplomatic gestures we have made have been rebuffed. The only reason *anyone* is talking about the possibility of war is that the President has said in various people's presence that he will not leave office without dealing with the Iranian nuclear problem. I don't see any signs yet that this vague promise - made basically to himself - is being translated into precipitate action.
So: why am I opposed to war with Iran?
Several reasons, which I articulate here.
1. Pakistan. Pakistan, like Iran, is an Islamic dictatorship. But there are important differences. Pakistan is, arguably, less democratic. Its people are, almost certainly, more anti-American. Pakistan has ties to al Qaeda, a terrorist group actively at war with America, while Iran is the patron of Hezbollah, a terrorist group actively at war with Israel but not with America, and which has only struck Americans as such when America was intervening in Lebanon (whereas they have incidentally struck American Jews in Israel and elsewhere in the world as part of attacks on Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish targets). And, of course, Pakistan already has nuclear weapons. America's "alliance" with Pakistan is already on its last legs. But the nuclear terrorist nightmare becomes vastly more likely if Pakistan collapses or is captured by al-Qaeda sympathetic forces. Indeed, the likelihood of nuclear terrorism originating in Pakistan must be rated more highly than the likelihood of nuclear terrorism originating in Iran. I'm convinced that an attack on Iran would mean the end of any prospect of controlling Pakistan and keeping it from going wholeheartedly over to the dark side.
2. China. The United States has a massive interest in integrating China into an international system, in enabling China to emerge as a great power without feeling the need to become a "revisionist" power. We failed in this regard with Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, with consequences that are well-known. If we fail with China, the consequences could be considerably worse. The Chinese leadership has for some time been consciously stoking Han nationalism as a way of building support for a regime that no longer espouses socialism in any meaningful sense of the word, and that has been tainted by massive corruption. We have to maneuver carefully between the Scylla of making the regime feel threatened from without and the Charybdis of making the regime feel like there's a power vacuum for it to occupy. Right now, I fear our foreign policy is achieving the worst of both worlds: making China worried about our intentions and unimpressed with our abilities. War with Iran would substantially increase Chinese perceptions of America as a threat. If the war achieved success levels similar to our Iraqi adventure, it would also deepen their contempt for our abilities. Moreover, precipitate American action in Iran would lead to a reassessment in a variety of minor Asian capitals as to the relative dangers of American or Chinese patronage. Who would want to be the Turkey of East Asia when America decides to target North Korea, or Burma, or some other state? That's going to be a question asked in Bangkok and Seoul and Jakarta and Manila, and China is poised to reap the benefit any time the answer is, "not us!"
3. We have no justification for war. Iran is not threatening to attack us. Yes, they have called for our destruction, but not in terms that constitute acts of war, and we have not implicated them in any actual attacks on our interests much less our country. Yes, they are pretty clearly cheating on their obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but there is no provision in that treaty giving the nuclear powers the right to enforce its terms by the use of arms. I'm unaware of any actual casus belli that we have against the Iranian regime, unless it is the seizure of our Embassy lo these 27 years ago. And while there is no actual statute of limitations operative in such matters, it would be outright farcical to attempt to justify an attack on Iran on *that* basis. War on Iran, then, would set a new precedent: that the United States feels it has the right to attack any country that seeks to acquire nuclear weapons. Now, one might be inclined to say: what's wrong with such a precedent? Wouldn't the world be a better place if would-be proliferators feared the wrath of the United States? Perhaps it would - if the United States were immune from any consequences of its behavior. But try to imagine what such a conclusion would feel like in Ankara, or Jakarta, or Moscow - or even in London or Ottawa or Canberra. Even if we want to be the world's policeman, the world has not elected us to the post as yet.
4. The war would be unconstitutional. A war of aggression conducted without international sanction would be a very bad endeavor indeed. (We need no international sanction to make war in self-defense, but as noted, Iran's threats to America have been almost entirely rhetorical, and mere possession of dangerous weapons cannot plausibly be construed to rise to the level of threat justifying launching a war in ostensible self-defene.) But it is also remotely unlikely that the President would undertake such a war under authorization of a proper declaration of war by Congress. And that should trouble us very much. In the last 60 years, the President has conducted numerous wars without declarations. But these have by and large fallen into recognizable categories. Korea and the first Iraq War were police actions conducted under U.N. auspices. They were arguably not "wars" between the United States and another country but situations where that other country was declared an outlaw, and America led a collective effort to bring the outlaw down under treaties which obliged us to do so. In such cases, perhaps an "authorization to use force" is more appropriate than a declaration of war, as the latter makes "personal" between America and the outlaw country a matter that we have reason to want to seem impersonal. Vietnam, meanwhile, was an effort to assist that poor country from being subverted by a revolutionary group financed by its neighbor. We escalated to full-scale war by small degrees, such that it is perhaps understandable Congress never roused itself to recognition of the crossing of that Rubicon. Finally, we engaged in a number of small wars - Grenada, Panama - that were without our traditional "sphere of influence" and were hardly large enough to dignify with the name of "war." Virtually all our military adventures undertaken since WWII - none of which have been declared wars - can be excused constitutionally under one or more of these three categorizations. The main exceptions are the last three wars our nation has fought: Kossovo, which was pretty plainly illegal as NATO had not been attacked by Serbia; Afghanistan, which was plainly legal under international law and, as well, about as justified a war as could be imagined, but which obviously should have been a declared war; and the second Iraq war, which could be justified legally as both a domestic and international matter by saying that America and the President specifically had residual authorization under the U.N. resolutions that preceded and followed the first Iraq war to resume its "police action" when those resolutions were flagrantly violated. An attack on Iran that was not conducted under an actual declaration of war would meet none of these conditions. It would quite plainly set a dangerous constitutional precedent in letting the President undertake aggressive war without the consent of the people and their representatives.
5. We would not win the war. We have not yet won in Iraq, and I see precious little chance of us doing so. Pinprick air strikes are not going to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program; at best they would set it back a few years. There is a reason that the Administration has - in a not-very-serious way - been asking questions about the utility of low-yield nuclear weapons as part of an Iran strike. The irony of conducting a nuclear first-strike as a way of preventing nuclear proliferation is apparently lost on those asking the questions. In any event, it seems clear to me that if we struck Iran from the air, we would not be sure of success, and we would quickly become embroiled in a wider war - either within Iran, because we invaded, or around the Gulf, because Iran closed the Straits of Hormuz, or attacked the Saudi oil regions, or began firing conventional missiles at our bases in Iraq, or a combination of all of these. And even though we could quickly destroy the Iranian airforce, and would win a pitched tank battle quite easily, we do not have the resources to *subdue* Iran, which has nearly three times the population and four times the land area of Iraq. We invaded Iraq on the assumption that if we had sufficient force to win a battle with the enemy in the open, we would win the war. The enemy declined to meet us, and we have been losing steadily ever since we took Baghdad. Iran will be very different, as the state is much less fragile and more capable, and the country has much more national consciousness. This might lead the Iranians to make the mistake of fighting us head-to-head, but it also might mean that the government of Iran would successfully coordinate a guerilla campaign against a U.S. invasion. Lest we think that overwhelming conventional superiority guarantees victory, we should recall the German experience in the Balkans in World War II as well as our current war in Iraq. The Atlantic conducted a wargame of a U.S.-Iranian conflict a couple of years ago, and the result was very unfavorable to the United States. If victory is defined as anything more than damaging Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons for a decade or so, then I think victory will be elusive. If victory is defined as nothing more than this, then it seems to me that victory would be quite Pyrrhic in character - for the United States, anyway. For Israel, with much less to lose, such a victory would probably be sufficient. But we have a lot more to lose in terms of the collateral costs of conducting such a war.
6. War is not a general solution. Nuclear technology is now generally available. A host of European and Asian countries have the technical capacity to nuclearize already; several other countries could get there quickly if they felt the need. And then there is the long list of countries nominally further away from nuclearization who would love to get there quickly. The odds are that an Iranian bomb would accelerate the process of proliferation in the Middle East specifically. But the process is going to continue regardless. Between Russia, China, North Korea and Pakistan, the world has enough providers of nuclear know-how who will not kowtow to American wishes. And it is very hard to see how making war on Iran is any kind of precedent for a workable strategy of nonproliferation. We have not gone to war with Pakistan, and it is a nuclear power; we are not likely to go to war with Turkey if it decides to go nuclear. War with Iran would be a very expensive delaying action, and I'm not even clear how much delay would be achieved if what we're trying to delay is a world in which terrorists potentially have access to nuclear weapons. This is a depressing conclusion. But it does not follow from the fact that it is depressing that the conclusion is false, or that simply voting for war makes you less culpable for a bad outcome because at least you did *something* - any more than voting *against* war makes you less culpable because at least you voted for "peace." More broadly, I feel like the case for war rests in part on a kind of nostalgia for the good old days when the West could deal with threats from the South summarily. But the reason the West could do this was not just a matter of a lack of "politically correct" scruples back in said good-old-days. Nor was it merely a matter of technological superiority; we still have that in spades. It's also a matter of demographics. In 1900, Iraq had a population of about 2 million, Britain a population of about 35 million - a ratio of 17 to 1. And Britain found occupying Iraq after World War I to be an enormous pain. Today, Iraq has a population of 27 million, the U.K. a population of 60 million, a ratio of a bit over 2 to 1. And that understates the change in the ratio, as the U.K.'s population is much older than Iraq's; a ratio of males of military age would show an even more dramatic change, and a much less favorable ratio. In the heyday of Western imperialism, the West had an overwhelming demographic advantage over a South that was pre-modern, traditional, quietistic, and most of all sparsely populated. Today's South is still under-developed, but it is increasingly modern, politically mobilized and densely populated - and there are just a lot more of them. Strategies that might have worked 100 years ago are simply inapplicable today. I wish more war advocates understood this.
7. There is no rush, or it's too late. Iran is already past the point of having the capabilities to develop a weapon. They have all the technologies they need. It's too late to stop them by halting technology transfer. But they are still a few years away from a workable weapon. That means we have time to figure out an effective strategy to handle them, even if that strategy may involve a military component. This was a key point of Edward Luttwak's article in Commentary, and I take it to heart.
8. Nuclear weapons are useless as offensive weapons. Iran could not conceivably win a war by using nuclear weapons. The only rational use of nuclear weapons would be in self-defense against a conventional threat (this was America's war plan during the Cold War in the event of a Soviet invasion of Germany, and it is likely Pakistan's war plan today against a hypothetical Indian invasion), or as a second-strike capability against a decapitating nuclear first-strike. It is overwhelmingly likely that the reason Iran wants nuclear weapons is to deter other countries - preeminently us - from attacking them, and to give it greater freedom for aggressive behavior in its near abroad. America is perfectly capable of countering the latter; if Iran tries to "Finlandize" Azerbaijan or Qatar or what-have-you, that will only push many countries in the region *closer* to the United States. Until Iran has the kind of soft power that China has developed (which, on a much smaller scale, they could eventually develop - Iran has an educated population, after all, and is a better bet than any other Middle Eastern state to actually become a developed country), it is unlikely to win allies of genuine interest. If Iran tries to bully its way into regional hegemony, the strategy will backfire, even if they have nuclear weapons in their pocket. So the great risk is that Iran will do something profoundly irrational, like conducting nuclear terrorism against the United States or, more likely, Israel. This risk cannot be entirely discounted. But neither can it be a kind of conversation-ending catch-all justification for aggressive war. Those minds so dedicated to coming up with justifications for war should spend a bit more of their time figuring out how to deter Iran from doing what we are most afraid of them doing: handing nukes to terrorists. On the one hand, Iran has said some inflammatory things, and the current President is a complete nut-job. On the other hand, Iran's *actions* have been carefully calibrated, and Iran has not initiated hostilities against any country in a very long time. I certainly think we can make a strong case for a variety of coercive diplomatic measures to quarantine Iran as punishment for violating their NPT obligations. But I just can't see how we justify aggressive war on the basis that we "worry" Iran will do something crazy like nuking Los Angeles in the hopes we won't figure out who did it and turn their civilization into a shiny glass plain. In the end, the question of Iran's rationality rests on the question of whether the leadership of the regime is more like the Soviets - a bunch of dangerous radicals but aware of reality and eager to grow in power, not to commit suicide - or more like al Qaeda - maniacs whose sole principle is destruction for the sake of destruction. On the evidence of Iran's behavior for the past 25 years, I'm very much inclined toward the former rather than the latter understanding.
That's it in a nutshell. I could probably say more. I know there are answers I have not anticipated here to all of the points above. But I've been over this ground in my head a number of times over a long period. I guess my conclusion here means that I've finally left the "fold" in a definitive way. Where I've wound up, I don't know yet. I'll keep you posted, though.