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Hawks After Hawkery

Via Laura Rozen who's got some thoughts on this, a good Fox News piece on the Iranian threat. I suspect that the hawks' efforts to push the panic button here are considerably more justified than their similar efforts vis-à-vis Iraq. The trouble is that they've already burned all the resources -- troops, prepositioned munitions, international and domestic political credibility, sheer will -- that they need in the Iraq venture.

It's especially noteworthy that a large number of people who always (and, I would say in retrospect, correctly) believed that Iran was the greater strategic threat in the region managed to go along with the Iraq War either just for the hell of it, in order to maintain their general credibility as "hawks," or else out of a misguided sense that invading Iraq would wind up weaken Iran. In fact, the reverse seems to have happened, as the war strengthened the hand of hardliners at home, weakened the US military threat, and created a new playpen for possible Iranian influence.

The upshot may be that there's not really a great deal to be done. We've seen this tragicomedy play out in North Korea already, and if Iran is next, we'll be spending the next several decades paying the price for our little misadventure in the Gulf.

June 29, 2004 | Permalink

Comments

It was definitely stupid to prioritize Iraq over Iran, but would we have been able to do anything about it even if we hadn't done Iraq? Either way, any sort of preemptive military action in Iran would have been a total bloodbath. My impression is that Iran has a stronger military, its regime enjoys more popular support than Saddam did, and it doesn't have the kind of ethnic divisions that Iraq has (which limited Saddam's support to a third of the country).

Also, Iran just doesn't seem to me to be as repressive as Iraq. I mean, I suppose the mullahs are bad guys and all, but I don't think they've ever committed genocide or dug mass graves or anything. Nor has Iran ever shown any inclination to act aggressively toward its neighbors - the only war they've ever fought happened when we (through a proxy) invaded them. So the only justification for war with Iran would have been pure maintain-American-military-superiority-for-its-own-sake-ism. It's not like it's against international law per se for a country to acquire nuclear weapons.

Posted by: JP | Jun 29, 2004 9:52:57 AM

"...or else out of a misguided sense that invading Iraq would wind up weaken Iran."

No offense, Matt, but I believe that this was the prevailing opinion at your own blog not too long ago. That an injection of "democracy" into a Middle Eastern nation would somehow cause a cascade political failure among its neighboring Islamic theocracies and dictatorships was perhaps the most idiotic of the neocon pie in the sky ideas, and yet for some reason a shockingly large segment of the Left embraced its logic, helping out the Right tremendously in making this war a reality.

I'm still at a loss to explain why we on the Left were so eager to find the Iraq War's silver lining, rather than commit ourselves to opposing an unnecessary and dangerous war of choice.

Posted by: oodja | Jun 29, 2004 9:59:09 AM

JP makes the case on why military conflict with Iran would be hopeless.

Personally, I'm glad we don't have the military resources anymore to undertake anything significant, and won't for years to come. Its not that we don't need a military option to give strength to diplomacy and multilateral action, but that the BushCo cabal can't be trusted with an effective military force.

I worry however whether we may covertly back an Israeli air attack on Iran to destroy Iran's atomic program, with the potential to ignite an even broader Islamic war against Israel and the US. The signs of Israeli involvement with the Kurds in Iraq seem to indicate they are preparing to view Kurdish Iraq as a land-based aircraft carrier to attack Iran. Scary stuff.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 29, 2004 10:50:59 AM

To clarify my own (further) views, I used to think (and still do) that an injection of democracy into a Middle Eastern nation would somehow cause a cascade of political failure among its neighboring Islamic theocracies and dictatorships. What I did not ever think is that invading Iraq would inject democracy into postwar Iraq, especially not a Bush-led invasion. I thought that Iraq had WMD stockpiles and was close to developing a nuclear weapon. Back in the real world, of course....

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Jun 29, 2004 10:51:17 AM

"I worry however whether we may covertly back an Israeli air attack on Iran to destroy Iran's atomic program, with the potential to ignite an even broader Islamic war against Israel and the US."

I worry that air attacks, whether Israeli or American or otherwise, are no longer up to the task of destroying "atomic programs". Would that this were not the case. The North Koreas and Irans of the world harden such targets and employ underground bunkers. If a state has domestic uranium supplies and is sufficiently determined to go nuclear, there's nothing that can be done to stop it short of invading.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Jun 29, 2004 11:09:37 AM

"The North Koreas and Irans of the world harden such targets and employ underground bunkers. If a state has domestic uranium supplies and is sufficiently determined to go nuclear, there's nothing that can be done to stop it short of invading."

Well, there's always the new bunker-buster tactical nukes that the military and the Bush Administration seem to want. Of course, I'm not sure how good a race to the more usable nuke really is in terms of our credibility on proliferation, just as I don't think Iraq did a hell of a lot of good on that front.

Seems to me like the lesson that can be drawn by near-nuclear powers from US policy on our own nukes, Iraq and North Korea is "Get Nukes, Fast."

Posted by: paperwight | Jun 29, 2004 11:16:50 AM

The 'boys go to Baghdad, men take Tehran' line has been blown away by 'events, dear boy, events'. Which is good, because anything touched by the hand of Michael Ledeen is a Bad Thing.

I'm confident that internal forces will do the work of reform in Iran: the demographics work in favour of the large number of young, highly educated Iranians who are exposed not only to elements of foreign culture, but to vigorous (if furtive) debate.

Posted by: nick | Jun 29, 2004 11:35:39 AM

PBA,

How about raids, even if they last for a few days?

Does anyone remember where Christy ( McCormick ) went? How about Luis Alegria? I sure wish I could hear how great Iraq is going right now and how much we only need more of what has been tried.

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Jun 29, 2004 11:46:47 AM

Well, it's a funny thing, but Churchill and Roosevelt thought, based on their experience of pre-war chaos that let Hitler lead the world into war, that an international organization should be created to foster democracy and international law.

Since then there's been a lot of talk about 'the white man's burden' and how the non-white peoples of the world need 'tutelage' to assume the 'responsibility' of democracy.

Someday they'll be smart enough to elect leaders like Nixon, Reagan, and Bush.

Or maybe not. Like children with lollipops, Americans aren't worried about tomorrow. We have 15,000 nuclear weapons, so we can take what we want.

Actually, I am worried about an extremist theocracy in the mid-east, a regime that routinely blasts civilians with missiles, and has at least a dozen, possibly many more nuclear warheads.

Can you guess which regime that is?

Posted by: serial catowner | Jun 29, 2004 12:03:32 PM

Serial,

That country won't be a theocracy ( in the Iranian/Saudi strong sense o the word ) until some time in the future when the Haredim and the Datim comprise a bigger % of the population.

Oh, and I'd also like Alegria and Christy to tell us how Iraq going badly is the liberals' fault.

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Jun 29, 2004 12:21:20 PM

"I suspect that the hawks' efforts to push the panic button here are considerably more justified than their similar efforts vis-à-vis Iraq"...

Huh? Justfied? What has Iran done to you? That's just crazy...

Posted by: abb1 | Jun 29, 2004 12:37:18 PM

It's okay, Matt - I'd still vote for you as dictator in a heartbeat!

Posted by: oodja | Jun 29, 2004 2:34:25 PM

"How about raids, even if they last for a few days?"

Iran's a big country with a big army. Sure, "raids" might work, if by "raids" you mean sending thousands of troops in. Another word for that is "invasion".

I hope my pessimism is unwarranted, but I fear that it's not.

I think one strategy that *might* work is to carry out the economic/diplomatic equivalent of a nuclear first strike on a country like Iran: a total quarantine. Not just sanctions. No oil sales at all. No Iranian planes allowed to land outside Iran. Complete freezing of financial assets and a naval and land blockade stopping trade. Complete severing of diplomatic ties by all nations. But such action is hardly feasible, as it would require complete unanimity among the community of nations. Even the states of the West are far from united, much less the states of the planet.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Jun 29, 2004 3:28:20 PM

The Bushies prioritized Iraq not only over Iran, but also over Afganistan, N. Korea and Saudi Arabia, all of which represent much more obvious threats to our interests. My assumption is that the choice of Iraq was dictated by the likelihood of an easy military victory there, giving Rumsfeld his chance to show off his military strategies (and thus embarrass his military critics) and Bush his chance to look tough. The others all require a much messier, less macho-appearing combination of UN involvement, sanctions, intelligence, diplomacy etc.--just not nearly as satisfying, but where the actual work of foreign policy gets done.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Jun 29, 2004 3:54:51 PM

"It's especially noteworthy that a large number of people who always (and, I would say in retrospect, correctly) believed that Iran was the greater strategic threat in the region managed to go along with the Iraq War either just for the hell of it, in order to maintain their general credibility as "hawks," or else out of a misguided sense that invading Iraq would wind up weaken Iran."

Just because Iran was the greater strategic threat doesn't mean that it was a better candidate for the first post-Afghanistan invasion. It has a live democracy movement, unlike pre-invasion Iraq. It isn't as tightly controlled as Iraq was under Saddam. It hadn't been involved with as many dust-ups with the international community, so it would have been a harder diplomatic case. It is larger and more prosperous. And those are the things just off the top of my head.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Jun 29, 2004 4:17:57 PM

Mr. Healthier, Gentlemen,
Like MacArthur, I have returned.
Or perhaps invoking my name, like that of the devil, can have some undesirable results.
I am still confident that a positive outcome - a stable, representative, democratic (more or less) secular (more or less) state will be forthcoming in Iraq. Be patient. The Middle East does not work on US election timelines.
On invading Iran - this was never in the cards. Iran has three times the population of Iraq, is mountainous, is full of potential guerrillas, many of whom have training and experience from Lebanon.
No doubt a US invasion could sieze and hold Tehran and the oilfields, but thats about all, without a full-scale US mobilization.
Ms. Allen,
The actual work of foreign policy also gets forgotten, drifts, gets caught up in bureaucracy, gets lost in the shuffle, gets traded off for something else that seems more urgent that isn't, etc. It would take an inhuman degree of focus on the part of the US over several administrations, congresses, and political careers to make your plan, if any, work. Lip service for years, I think, followed by war of one sort or another anyway, would be the fate of the policies you want.
That is one reason why a state of war is useful. It is urgent, it demands attention and commitment.
Iran can continue as it is for decades, because there is no economic consequence - that would affect the leadership- available to anyone. The US holds no hammer over them. We cannot stop their oil because that would cause unacceptable economic damage. The only route out of this impasse is to create and support a revolutionary movement. Such cannot be done without a sanctuary. There was no available sanctuary, until Iraq was invaded.
Mr. Paperwight,
The lesson we should all learn from the lesson of Iran and Korea with respect to near-nuclear rogues is to crush these people as soon as possible. We can all begin by demanding this sort of policy, and it begins with you and me, personally, coming to this decision.

Posted by: luisalegria | Jun 29, 2004 4:48:52 PM

Iran is a real worry. On the one hand, things are looking so promising -- it is surely just a matter of time before there is a true liberal people's revolution against the current theocratic regime. On the other hand it seems undeniable that they are persuing the capability to produce nuclear weapons, if not the weapons themselves. This is dangerous for everyone, obviously, but what can and should be done about it?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has a good summary of the situation, of course: http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/2003/so03/so03albright.html. It is quite old (from their Sep/Oct 2003 issue), but unfortunately not much has changed since then. The optimistic talk at the end about restarting regional arms control discussions seems a bit naive, but then it did at the time too.

Posted by: Svlad Cjelli | Jun 29, 2004 5:54:30 PM

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