Gerecht’s Antiseptic War Fantasy

Let’s stipulate that Mr. Gerecht and I both believe the current Iranian regime is repulsive and difficult to deal with–a point that is apparent without Mr. Gerecht repeatedly touting his knowledge of domestic Iranian politics. But the nature of the regime is only one factor among many in determining what kind of foreign policy the United States should adopt toward Tehran. Mr. Gerecht acts as though that is the only relevant consideration.

The most troubling feature of his latest post, though, is his assertion that the United States can attack Iran while inflicting or incurring few casualties. That is the pervasive fantasy of hawks who are reluctant to acknowledge the human costs of the military crusades they embrace. Amazingly, he cites the Iraq experience as evidence that the United States can wage such an antiseptic war. Yet even President Bush admitted in December 2005 that approximately 30,000 Iraqis had died in the ongoing conflict. The UN has documented that at least another 14,000 civilians have perished in the first six months of 2006. That would seem to fit my description of “tens of thousands” of prospective casualties for an Iranian war. Or does Mr. Gerecht believe the United States can attack Iran and Iran will do NOTHING in response? That notion strains credulity to the breaking point. And if, as is almost certain, Iran does strike back, is he arguing that the United States would not escalate the conflict? It’s hard to imagine Washington just standing by as Iran unleashed Hezbollah on American targets, attacked Israel, or fired on shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. Before asking the American people to incur such risks, Mr. Gerecht needs to do a lot more than make the unsubstantiated allegation that a nuclear-armed Iran could not be deterred, and would therefore be so dangerous that even the cataclysm of preventive war is preferable.

Aside from the issue of Iranian casualties, how many American casualties would Mr. Gerecht find acceptable in a U.S. war against Iran? The Iraq crusade that he sought so eagerly has already consumed more than 2,550 American lives. As that episode demonstrates clearly, Mr. Gerecht and his neoconservative colleagues are adept at starting wars, but they’re not very good at finishing them.

I will ignore his silly allegation that I am naive about the mullahs. I am most curious, though, about his reflexive hostility toward even putting a “grand bargain” on the table. What, exactly, is the harm in proposing such an agreement? If Tehran turned it down, all of the other options would still be available—even Mr. Gerecht’s favorite strategy of unleashing the dogs of war. Proposing a grand bargain would, at the very least, smoke out the Iranians. If they turned it down, we would know for certain that Iran is determined—regardless of any carrots that might be offered—to become a nuclear-weapons state. And if they accepted the deal, we would have a reliable way of preventing them from building a nuclear arsenal. Mr. Gerecht’s opposition to even trying the grand-bargain approach makes sense only if his real goal is forcible regime change (at whatever cost), not stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht argues that American and European diplomacy aimed at derailing the Iranian clerical regime’s quest for nuclear weapons is, for various reasons, bound to fail. Gerecht maintains that we are then left to with two unattractive alternatives. “Is it better to preventively bomb the clerics’ nuclear facilities, or allow the mullahs to have nuclear weapons?” he asks. Arguing that the latter option “would empower its worst enemies in Tehran and spiritually invigorate all Muslim radicals who live on American weakness,” Gerecht advises the former: a policy of preemptively bombing Iran’s nuclear sites.

Response Essays

  • Cato vice president for defense and foreign policy studies Ted Galen Carpenter argues Gerecht’s strategy of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities may be harder than advertised and that “thousands of innocent Iranians would perish in U.S. air strikes.” Such an attack might trigger a “massive regional crisis.” “America’s troubles with the Islamic world do not yet constitute a war of civilizations,” Carpenter writes, “but Gerecht’s strategy could well produce that result.” Carpenter argues the U.S. should try to persuade Iran to give up its nuke program by offering a “grand bargain,” and if that doesn’t work, should pursue a policy of containment and deterrence, which, while “nerve-wracking,” has proved effective against deadlier and more fanatical regimes.

  • In his reply to Reuel Marc Gerecht’s lead essay, Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues the U.S. must exhaust all its diplomatic options before taking military action against Iran, especially given the shaky situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In any case, Cordesman argues, airstrikes are unlikely to be succeed in stopping the Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Further, Iran already has lethal chemical and biological capacities, and the ability to strike back seriously in a variety of ways. If a strike becomes necessary after the exhaustion of non-military options, it would be better to wait until the targets are clearer. Containment and deterrence, Cordesman maintains, may be a more effective approach.

  • Center for Strategic and International Studies senior advisor Edward N. Luttwak argues that if diplomatic efforts fail, “the United States must be ready to bomb the buildings that are likely to house critical processes and equipment.” This can be a single quick strike, and need not destroy all the many Iranian facilities, Luttwak argues, because “the purpose is not to solve the problem presented by Iran or even its nuclear program, but only to delay the acquisition of nuclear weapons as long as possible, in the hopes that a better regime comes along.” The Iranians can get nukes no sooner than three years, though, so within that time the U.S. should concentrate on weakening the Iranian regime through non-military punitive measures. Furthemore, Luttwak maintains that Iran could fragment along national lines. “There are at least 20 million Azeris in Western Iran who are increasingly determined to assert their nationality,” Luttwak say, and U.S. policy aimed at weakening Iran should support them.