Another Round

I’m not sure we are making progress here, but fortified by a good part of a bottle of Rosé (it’s late, very hot, and il n’y a pas de climatisation en France), I’ll make another try. (I admit that I’m somewhat envious of Edward Luttwak who is sitting all of these exchanges out.)

If we’re talking about the bomb, the nature of the regime in question is paramount in deciding American foreign policy—it ought to trump any libertarian hope of keeping America’s military small, inexpensive, and at home. (All perhaps worthwhile goals in 1800.) France, a country that I adore, is in many ways an organically anti-American country—especially among the elite. It’s also a nuclear power. But it poses no threat to the United States whatsoever with its atomic arsenal because France and the United States are not enemies in any transcendent way, even though the two countries differ enormously and the French state does things regularly that most Americans would find repellant. (When senior French officials say that their nuclear missiles can go “tout azimuts“—in all directions—the only American response, like all Frenchmen in private, is to giggle; and France, like Communist China or North Korea (outside of domestic or peninsular considerations), is not and never has been a terrorism-supporting state. Nuclear weapons in the hands of a terrorism-loving, God-ordained anti-American state like clerical Iran are just frightful.

As I’ve written before, one does not have to conjure up scenarios of atomic terrorism—though such scenarios should never be too far from one’s mind—to see how nuclear blackmail could work against the United States and the West. We, not the mullahs, are likely to be intimidated by a game of atomic chicken. We—America and Europe—have done an awful job of confronting the clerical regime for its terrorism when the Islamic Republic wasn’t a nuclear power. (The Khobar Towers bombing was an act of war and should have been treated as such.) The better bet would certainly be that the Europeans (certainly) and the Americans (probably) would be likely to blink and give way to Iranian intimidation backed by a nuclear threat, especially one that has a terrorist edge to it.

And it is touching that Mr. Carpenter’s heart is so open to the possible Iranian dead from American preventive military strikes while it seems closed to those innocent civilians that would die if his “deterrence theory” were tested. For Khobar Towers II in post 9/11 world, what type of reprisal would Mr. Carpenter suggest?

Let me repeat what I said in the original submission: The United States isn’t going to kill tens of thousands of innocent Iranians because of the (nuclear) terrorist actions of the clerical regime. We won’t do it. And I don’t think we should do it. MAD is dead. It was I think dead before the Cold War ended but the vast arsenal of the Soviet Union kept it alive even though the American heart and soul I suspect were no longer in it. The dimension of what the clerical regime might most likely do to us—thousands dead through (just) conventional terrorism—will not likely compel us to incinerate Iranian women and children. It might compel us to invade and occupy Iran, as 9/11 did Afghanistan, but we are not going to unleash hell against the Persian citizenry for the mullahs’ sins. I don’t think Mr. Carpenter would really want to, which is why his “deterrence theory” is a hollow bluff.

It’s a popular dodge, however, since it’s become a common theme among those who want to show their hawkishness—for example, the New Republic’s Peter Beinart—but don’t really have their hearts in it. I suspect Anthony Cordesman might go in this direction, too—though that cannot be drawn from his essay—since it is an understandable reflex given the difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Mr. Cordesman mentions. The theory might be called, “If the Iranians really make us bleed, then we’ll just whack’em”—again, I don’t think it’s particularly credible, and if one understands the dynamic correctly in Afghanistan and Iraq, one would realize that punting on the nuclear issue will in all probability cause more harm to America’s health inside these countries than would preventive military strikes, but the difficulties we face in both places will likely make this “deterrence” theory the path of least resistance (on which we can put a very manly varnish). Needless to say, Mr. Cordesman would be much more likely to actually whack the Iranians in the case of nefarious behavior than Mr. Carpenter. Bets are off on Mr. Beinart until after a thorough personal and historical soul-searching (“What would Truman Democrats have done against Khameneh’i, Rafsanjani, and Ahmadinejad?” in the New York Times Magazine.)

Re Mr. Carpenter’s quip about “finishing wars,” I’ll let that pass. I think enough has been written in the Weekly Standard by Bob Kagan, Bill Kristol, Fred Kagan, Gary Schmitt and myself to answer that question. Mr. Carpenter’s knowledge of “neoconservatism” rivals his knowledge of the Islamic Republic. On all of these issues, Mr. Carpenter should address himself to the Secretary of Defense and Generals Pace and Abizaid, who have, I suspect, the most illuminating commentary on Iraqi operations.

And for the record, I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I’m in favor of restored diplomatic relations between the US and Iran. If the clerical regime is stupid enough to agree to this, then by all means go for it. (This will be perceived as a huge American defeat in the Arab world, but we should live with this signaling of profound weakness. It would be a killer for the revolutionary ethos in Iran, which is what we all—the Americans, the French, the Brits, and the Germans—want.) The mullahs are not that stupid, however. I’d probably be in favor of many other “incentives” so long as the embassy was opened. (If Mr. Carpenter wants to just give the clerical regime 12 billion dollars—a figure often sited by the regime as the amount the U.S. owes it—up front on faith as part of an Iranian promise to forsake nukes, then he should say so. If he wants to dribble out taxpayer money, then he should say that, too.)

Concerning “security guarantees,” I find the whole discussion surreal. I’ve gone through these scenarios with Ken Pollack, a fellow I admire a good deal, many times and I can’t keep from laughing whenever I render these discussions into Persian. The video of Nick Burns or Steve Hadley sitting down in front of the mullahs offering “security guarantees” to the clerics, which I don’t think is going to happen, would be a belly-buster, on a par with Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lilly?” But go ahead, offer whatever you want—I suspect I may be able to go along with it (if you want the United States to stop saying the Iranian people should have a democracy, then say it please straightforwardly). Please do try your best to make this all verifiable with the most intrusive inspections imaginable (the Iranian clerics will try to cheat, rapaciously, but you know that). But you must promise that if the Iranians refuse or cheat in any way, we attack. No wavering. No waffling. No appeals for the Iranian common man. We attack. So let’s hear your terms. In detail.

One little other thing: Please answer the question about Osirak. The entire Iranian discussion seems silly until that question is answered.

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.