War as a Last Resort, Not the First Option

First of all, I’m glad that Ed Luttwak has decided to join us for this round of the dialogue, for he provides some intriguing insights. I do, however, take issue with three of his arguments.

I have never suggested that we “accept any and all Iranian demands.” The whole point of negotiations is to work out an agreement that is acceptable to both parties. In this case, the United States has some important demands of its own—most notably, getting an inspection regime that will guarantee that Iran cannot build nuclear weapons. If Iranian leaders want all the “carrots” that would be offered as part of a grand bargain, they will have to make some significant concessions. Is the Iranian regime united enough to take that step? The outcome is uncertain, but we need to make the effort; the alternative is much worse.

I am troubled by Mr. Luttwak’s suggestion that we try to “weaken Iran in every way possible.” The United States already inadvertently destabilized one important state in the region with our blundering intervention in Iraq. To deliberately destabilize the Iranian state by encouraging Baluch, Kurdish, Azeri and other secessionist movements strikes me as even more reckless. Yes, we hate the current government in Tehran (for very good reasons), but we must be careful not to create another cauldron of chaos in the Persian Gulf region.

Finally, Mr. Luttwak places great emphasis on the point that Iran seeks to undermine American interests in the region and beyond, and would probably engage in more of such conduct if it had nuclear weapons. (Mr. Gerecht also stresses that argument.) No one would suggest that it is a benign outcome if Iran acquires a nuclear deterrent—and that is why we should make every reasonable effort to prevent it if we can. However, the one thing worse than a nuclear-armed Iran that might be tempted to try to blackmail other countries in the region is to launch a preventive war that would have open-ended (and extraordinarily bloody) consequences.

A related point is that Mr. Gerecht once again displays his lack of understanding of deterrence (and several generations of international relations scholarship). Deterrence does not guarantee (and did not guarantee during the Cold War) that an adversary will not nibble at the peripheries of America’s interests. Deterrence merely seeks to create certain lines that an adversary dare not cross because it knows that the U.S. response will be devastating. The Soviet Union was deterred from attacking the American homeland (and America’s key allies in Western Europe and Northeast Asia). Moscow was not deterred from probes in the Third World where America’s interests were less central. Yet Mr. Gerecht seems to demand that we must be able to prevent Iran from engaging in any geopolitical mischief whatsoever, or we must discard deterrence as an option.

Also, since he asserts flatly that the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction is dead, what does that signify for our current deterrence strategy with respect to, say, Russia? Or China? Or does Mr. Gerecht favor launching preventive wars against those countries as well? He cannot avoid that issue by putting up the strawman that we don’t take seriously a nuclear “threat” from France.

To address another of his points, I would, with great regret, be willing to support an attack on Iran if Tehran threatened vital American interests—even though that would result in the deaths of innocent Iranians. The difference between Mr. Gerecht and me, though, is that I would support such a policy only if deterrence failed or there was compelling evidence that a major failure was imminent. He would launch a war on the grounds that someday in the future Iran might, maybe, possibly, perhaps cross the line and threaten vital American interests. That is the difference between war as last resort and war as first option.

I am gratified that Mr. Gerecht does not oppose offering to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran. I am also somewhat surprised, since that argument has not exactly been a prominent feature of his public statements or published writings. It does suggest, however, that he has been dragged, however reluctantly, into endorsing the grand bargain approach. Indeed, what responsible person could object to at least trying that strategy, since if it failed, all other options would still be available?

Mr. Gerecht seems obsessed with getting me to take a position on the Osirak episode. Alas, I must disappoint him yet again. I am not the Israeli defense minister. Decisions about what is necessary to protect Israel’s security properly belong to the Israeli people and government, not American foreign policy analysts. For a similar reason, I do not take a position on what Japan should do in response to the problems posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. I deal with American interests and policy options. That is a difficult enough task without trying to craft policy prescriptions for foreign countries. Moreover, as I pointed out in my initial post, there are vast differences in circumstances that render the Osirak model largely irrelevant for dealing with the current Iranian nuclear issue.

Finally, Mr. Gerecht is annoyed that I brought up the Iraq episode, and he does his best to wash his hands (and those of other neoconservatives) of that debacle—implying that the Bush administration is solely responsible for the policy. He tacitly endorses the view of his Weekly Standard colleagues that the Iraq intervention was a brilliant strategy, badly executed. The reality is more stark. It was a foolish strategy, badly executed. Neoconservatives lobbied loudly for war, insisting that the Iraq intervention would be a “cakewalk” and that the transition to a democratic government would be quick and easy. They denounced and ridiculed those of us who warned that U.S. intervention would cause Iraq to become a bloody, chaotic mess.

That background is pertinent to the discussion about Iran. The same people who lobbied for the Iraq war are now beating the drums for war with Iran—and again suggesting that it will be quick and easy. Given their track record, however, Mr. Gerecht and his colleagues are the last people on the planet that U.S. leaders should listen to about how to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem.

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.