The foreign policy question of our time: to use overt military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program. I have studied it for more than five years with great interest and emotional investment. I’ve attended debates, read countless articles, participated in simulations, and more. In the midst of this quest to understand I was frustrated by an inevitable wall of ambiguity. There’s just so much about this issue that is unknown and still more that is unknowable.
Formulating coherent policy is extremely difficult in such circumstances, and I can’t offer foolproof recommendations. But, at the very least, I think I have winnowed the debate on the military option down to three key questions:
- Is Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons sufficiently dangerous to the national interest so as to seriously consider air strikes?
- Are there realistic military options available to the attacker(s) that could effectively damage the nuclear infrastructure?
- Are the political, military, and human costs manageable enough to allow for military action?
I see these three questions as the test to which policymakers should subject themselves, only proceeding to the next question if there’s a “yes” to the previous one. Military action should only be taken, then, if the answer is “yes” to all three questions.
I will devote a post to each of these questions, starting naturally with number 1, the question of whether a nuclear Iran is that bad. I’m going to cheat a little bit on this one and re-post a large portion of a post I wrote back in October 2010:
[A] lot of Iranian “irrationality” is assumed and not demonstrated. There is also a tendency to resort to other unproven ideas like the “nuclear domino theory” where Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab powers would try to replicate the Iranian feat. I find this unlikely, though conventional arms purchases, enhancement of asymmetrical capabilities, and perhaps even biological and chemical weapons programs are likelier developments.
A real danger in defensive realism’s analysis of nuclear proliferation is not the assumption of “rational actors” — that states act in logical ways — but the assumption of unitary actors. State decision making, especially in Iran, is complicated and not always predictable. Worse, Iran experts say that the chain of command over the nuclear program is at best blurry. With the IRGC and the mullahs vying for internal power, this could get even more unstable.
But even setting aside all the other potential factors — the loss of American prestige, the gain in Iranian prestige, the blow to the non-proliferation treaty, the buildup of regional arms, the emboldening of Iranian leadership, the damage to the peace process — the worst reason of all to cite the relative safety of nuclear weapons is the non-incidence of Cold War nuclear detonations; the U.S. and Russia nearly used nuclear weapons on each other multiples times.
For instance, a scheduled U.S. ICBM test occurred during the Cuban missile crisis. If the Soviets had better early warning systems at that point, they probably would have assumed the test was an actual ICBM launch aimed at them. In 1983, false alarms of an American missile attack on Russia nearly set off a retaliatory strike. A NATO exercise later that year nearly convinced Russia to preempt what they thought was a coming nuclear strike; overzealous KGB agents interpreted the NATO move to DEFCON 1 as real and not a drill. Even as recently as 1995, mistaken identity of a rocket almost led to Russian use of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union understood and trusted each other very little throughout most of the Cold War. I think it is safe to say that Iranian hardliners trust and understand the U.S. even less. Anti-Americanism is a core part of their ideology; for them, the Islamic Revolution depends on anti-Americanism. To some degree, it’s irrelevant whether Iran’s leaders intend to commit suicide. What matters is whether they would be able to prevent misunderstanding and brinksmanship from making nuclear war a 1-in-100,000 event to a 1-in-6 event.
Iran is highly unlikely to use nuclear weapons unprovoked or pass them off to terrorists with the expectation that they will use them. There are also understandable defensive reasons for acquiring nuclear weapons. Regardless, the security picture in the Middle East becomes far murkier with a nuclear Iran. The substantial damage to American and Israeli interests merits further consideration of whether a military strike is wise. That analysis will follow.
As you might have gleaned from the headlines, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is in trouble. Early this month, President Obama ordered a raid deep inside Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, after years of Pakistani officials claiming the arch-terrorist was in Afghanistan. With rampant speculation that OBL was staying in Abbottabad courtesy of official (or semi-official) cover by the ISI, a defensive Pakistan is demanding the U.S. back out of its internal affairs.
Matters took a turn for the worse when Pakistani media released the name of the CIA station chief in Islamabad. The leak, almost certainly coming from the ISI, marks the second time in the last six months that this has happened. Add this incident to the Davis Affair and lingering concerns on both sides about the Kerry-Lugar aid package and we have ourselves a doozy of a strategic partnership.
Pakistan is an impossible ally. The very reason we are allied with them is because they foster the wellbeing of our enemies, and therefore they are the only ones with leverage to bear against those enemies. They use that leverage sometimes, and other times not — enough to receive American aid money, but not so much that the reason for the aid money will disappear.
The aid money, over $12 billion since 2001, has been horribly mismanaged in Pakistan. The country’s institutions are corrupted from top to bottom, making aid delivery extraordinarily complicated and slow — and reinforcing the unreliability to average Pakistanis of both their government and the U.S. What’s worse, much of our military aid in years past was actually used to build up the Eastern border, across from India, rather than the Western, Pashtun-dominated tribal areas. American attempts to manage the aid more carefully have led to cries of foreign manipulation.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Pakistan (by proxy of the Afghan Taliban) continue to fight in Afghanistan. An endgame is not yet in sight, but a number of developments could be pushing toward some sort of resolution in the not-too-distant future. First is the killing of bin Laden, which simultaneously makes militant leaders appear more vulnerable while making the U.S. army more formidable. Second is what the Pentagon insists is a real blunting of Taliban momentum in Southern Afghanistan. And third is the upcoming withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which will begin (slowly) in July 2011.
With the U.S. feeling a bit buoyant from the bin Laden operation, Pakistan looking for a way to re-establish some credibility, and the Taliban perhaps not eager to see if American momentum is indeed pushing them back, there’s an opening for a grand settlement in Afghanistan. One important condition created by the U.S. — that the Taliban renounce ties to al Qaeda — is made much easier now that the don of the family has been taken out.
Such a grand bargain would need to accompany a series of understandings between the U.S. and Pakistan regarding relations between the two states. Such understandings would include the role of Pakistan in Afghan politics, security guarantees of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and continued American interest in de-escalating tensions on the subcontinent. We would also be well-served to continue disbursing development aid to Pakistan, even as we decrease our military aid.
With our divorce process beginning in Pakistan, the U.S. is freer to develop a much-sought strategic partnership with India. The Indians distrust us because we have historically supported the Pakistanis, but an opening exists for ties to strengthen — and we ought to take it. (To give you an idea of how bizarre our alliance with Pakistan makes the region, our current calculations make good relations between India and Afghanistan a bad thing.)
India would provide a much more valuable long-term strategic ally than Pakistan would for a number of reasons. First, India’s democratic and stable system of governance allows American political goals to reflect things other than regime security. Second, the large upside of the Indian economy bodes well for future trade, unlike the hapless Pakistani economy. Third, the relatively transparent Indian bureaucracy and dedicated counterterror commitments of the government ensure that our aid money would not wind up in the hands of terror groups. Fourth, good ties with India will be important as its geopolitical stature in Asia rises.
The two potential dangers of the above approach are that Pakistan might treat the U.S. as hostile and more actively foster terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba as proxies, and that Pakistan would develop a more robust strategic partnership with China. In the case of the first one, we can avoid that eventuality by carefully managing the divorce and leaving in place our development aid to signal that we don’t want conflict. In the case of the second, it’s probably unavoidable yet limited in scope anyway. (China doesn’t want to develop a reputation for befriending only “problem” countries like Iran, North Korea, Burma, and Pakistan. Nor can it afford to empower its Muslim separatists in Xinjiang.)
I watched Obama’s Libya address on CNN yesterday, and I was met by a mix good and bad coverage immediately afterward. I thought Anderson Cooper hit the nail on the head by focusing on Obama’s framing of “the national interest,” a debate which as I’ve argued is usually framed in outdated terms. Cooper paid attention to Obama’s articulately argued realpolitik reasoning behind intervention:
It was interesting, the president not just trying to explain the mission in terms of sense of moral responsibility to act, to stop the potential slaughter of civilians in the seconds largest city in Libya, in Benghazi, but also along strategic interests, the grounds of national interest — strategic interest, by saying to not have acted would have sent a message to other repressive leaders in the region perhaps that they can respond to democratic uprisings in their countries through greater acts of violence, and also explaining the flood of refugees would have upset the fragile movements in Egypt, as well as in Tunisia.
I was especially impressed with Obama’s phrasing in one section:
Gaddafi declared that he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.
It was not in our national interest to let that happen.
To me, this was the most important refutation of the arguments critical of Obama from the non-interventionist side. Call it hypocrisy or cognitive dissonance or whatever, but those who criticize American overreach internationally also often expect the U.S. to uphold human rights when no one else can.
I was less impressed by the normally astute Wolf Blitzer’s analysis. Blitzer — and subsequently many others — started talking about the speech containing an “Obama doctrine.” I’m not convinced of this, nor am I convinced Obama wants a foreign policy doctrine, consciously or subconsciously.
One journalist covering Obama’s rise to stardom noted,
As Obama famously declared in 2002, he did not oppose all wars, but he did oppose a “dumb war.” Isolationism must not be the reaction to a dumb president and a dumb war.
There is no Obama Doctrine because Obama is not a doctrinaire kind of leader who operates according to fixed policies. Instead, Obama believes in a set of principle (democracy, security, liberty) for the world and tries to come up with practical measures for incrementally increasing US security and global freedom. He rejects isolationism and he tries to steer clear of unilateralism.
To the extent that Obama’s approach to foreign policy can be developed into an explainable set of policies, it’s this: He rules out the worst policy options and considers the remainders, rather than trying to predetermine the best outcome and stick to it (like George W. Bush). He is guided by a set of principles (e.g., homeland security, “soft power,” economic prosperity, international security) that — depending on the issue at hand — can work in tandem or against each other. When enough of these competing principles align toward one policy action, the president has a clear choice of action. When they are in conflict, he must make a careful decision, knowing there will be opportunity costs.
What this leaves us is not a foreign policy doctrine, but a method of approaching problems. This deliberate and analytical strategy speaks to Obama’s legal and academic background. It has its ups and its downs — slow-moving problems are better suited to this type of approach — but it’s not a doctrine in any real sense. As if he needed one.
The “fault line” being portrayed in the media between those in the Obama administration who supported the creation of a no-fly zone and those who did not seems to me, well, faulty. There’s little debate which officials are most skeptical of American intervention, and they are SecDef Bob Gates, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, and Chief of Staff Bill Daley. The major proponents are Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and NSC director for multilateral affairs Samantha Power.
What irritates me is the way that this debate over intervention is being cast in realist vs. idealist terms. Check out this New York Times “news analysis" that subjects Obama to the way a 19th century British prime minister might be judged:
“Striking a very balanced, and in many ways, neutral approach is recognized by many people in the region as not being with them, or on their side,” said J. Scott Mastic, the head of Middle East and North Africa for the International Republican Institute. “It’s very important that we be seen as supporting the demands of the people in the region.”
How Mr. Obama manages to do that while also balancing American interests is a question that officials acknowledge will plague this historic president for months to come.
Are we to believe that appearing to side with the protestors is not in the national interest? Hasn’t this whole process of Arab awakening taught us that 19th century conceptions of realpolitik and influence no longer apply like they used to?
The realist-idealist framing of foreign policy is an unsophisticated tool of analysis and a relic of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Joe Nye, who’s done more than almost any other scholar to help redefine the idea of “interests” in foreign policy, writes compellingly in his latest book, The Future of Power:
As Machiavelli, the ultimate realist, described five centuries ago, it may be better for a prince to be feared than loved, but the prince is in the greatest danger when he is hated. There is no contradiction between realism and soft power. Soft power is not a form of idealism or liberalism. It is simply a form of power, one way of getting desired outcomes. Legitimacy is a power reality. Competitive struggles over legitimacy are part of enhancing or depriving actors of soft power, and this is particularly true in the information age of the twenty-first century.
In other words, preventing the massacre of Libyans is not altruism. It may be morally imperative, but it is not a pure act of charity at American taxpayer expense.
So, even setting aside the moral case for intervention, our national interests are at stake in Libya. And no, I don’t just mean oil. I mean our credibility as an interlocutor with the Arab world, which will be immensely important if we want to have any hand in shaping the new regimes of North Africa. (And if you think our credibility — how we are viewed by Arabs on the street — doesn’t matter, I have some two-month-old Al Jazeera footage to show you.)
As I mentioned last week, the next American policy toward Israel and the Palestinians should be much more comprehensive in its consideration of possible behavior and outcomes. What I suggested was to link a set of policy ideas together — ideas which would form a script for the Obama administration depending on the actions of the players in the region.
The new script must spell out for each side what the benefit of cooperation and the price of intransigence are. Things get a little involved, so I have a diagram to illustrate what I mean. I will explain it below.
So what’s this unwieldy chart mean?
First, it begins with the formulation of the new policy. This refers to the preparation of the policy and its supporting bureaucratic structure. In other words, this needs to be a script that’s understood and followed by the president on down. It also includes, as I mentioned before, the replacement of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy.
The second step is the articulation of this blueprint to the parties. It would be unwise to simply hand over the playbook to the Israelis and Palestinians. However, the U.S. can make clear that it will not be afraid to incur costs against those who don’t cooperate.
The general message to the Israelis is that if they can’t see it within themselves to freeze settlement construction once again — despite the large package of inducements the U.S. offered — or provide the Palestinians with a concession of equal value, then they should not take for granted American public support. In practice, that might mean not working as hard to protect Israel in international fora, such as in circumstances when the U.S. is at odds with the rest of its Western allies (as opposed to when the West is united in supporting Israel).
The Palestinians should be treated similarly. Notice that a number of arrows point to “Palestinian compliance” on the chart. That’s because one of the main challenges Obama faces right now is simply getting the Palestinian Authority to the table. They feel that their ability to not enter negotiations is one of their biggest points of leverage, and as it stands right now, that’s correct. But if Netanyahu makes a good-faith effort to reach out, Mahmoud Abbas should reciprocate. If he doesn’t, the U.S. should explain that there’s not much they can do to help the Palestinian cause if the Palestinians won’t.
If both Israel and the PA refuse to get with the program, there’s really only one lurking threat the U.S. can offer that might scare them enough to make a bold move: to walk away. Not completely, of course, but enough so that the leaders carefully consider the cost of having the U.S. disengage. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians want the Quartet to take on the main tasks of bringing peace. (Palestinians might publicly cry of U.S. bias in negotiations, but they would prefer no other interlocutor. American institutional memory, expertise, money, and sincerity is not matched by any possible replacement, and the PA knows this.)
This exercise hasn’t covered every possible contingency that might arise in the months ahead, but it demonstrates the structured thinking that must go into the Obama administration’s next move. And it takes into account the past mistakes from which it is now suffering, ones which have led the parties to forget that the U.S. has leverage. I still believe that imposing a settlement is the wrong thing to do at this stage; this is the best alternative.
Marc Lynch is one of those who sees the recent events in Lebanon, Jordan, and North Africa as being a related set of events, a rejection of the old order. Even if these events were independent, it would be hard to avoid the whispers of ever lower American influence in the region.
Worry though I do that American influence is on the wane in more than just the Middle East, I am not really sure how much of a setback to U.S. interests this course of events is. Though, as Michael Oren documented in his masterpiece Power Faith and Fantasy, American involvement in the Middle east is long and expansive, the U.S. did not become intimately involved until after World War II. The UK and France were battered by the war and reluctantly surrendered in quick succession a series of governed areas that became Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Libya, Algeria, and the Persian Gulf/Arabian peninsula states followed in the 1950s and 1960s.
The U.S. was interested in several things in the region during the Cold War. First, of course, was easy access to oil. America’s partnership with Saudi Arabia, beginning in earnest in the mid-1960s, has ensured that outcome. Second was the repulsion of regional communist forces, failure of which could have lead to the expansion Soviet influence. And third was the protection of the State of Israel. By the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the U.S. was carefully and skillfully managing the balance of power in the Middle East. With the exception of the Iranian Revolution, nobody stood up to the U.S. and won. America was indispensable. (In the years immediately after the Berlin wall fell, Arab leaders flocked for U.S. attention.)
The end of the Cold War and the development of technology have served to undermine (the unusually strong) American dominance of the region. Conflicts are not interstate, but intrastate. Power has become diffuse, such that strong central leaders no longer seem quite so strong. The pull of American anticommunism helped construct an order that for us looks like the natural way of things, but it looks like some fairly inevitable things are happening. Fatalism isn’t my m.o., but who is really surprised that unpopular dictators are facing revolts?
So, to return to the question of interests now. In 2011, the principal American interests in the Middle East are continued oil access, denial of safe haven and assistance to terrorist groups, and a peaceful conclusion to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The first one is not threatened by a new Egyptian regime; there’s no chance American ships won’t be granted access to the Suez Canal.
The second might suffer on the margins, but probably not. Al Qaeda presents a threat to all Egyptians, and any government will work hard to prevent Egypt’s sense of security — as well as its tourism industry — from jihadism. (Even the Muslim Brotherhood agrees.)
Israel is where things could get iffy. No one in Egypt wants war with Israel, but the next regime will probably not be quite as compliant with Israel’s policies. It doesn’t help that the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy leader says they won’t abide by the peace treaty. Still, odds are that not much changes for the worse. The U.S. will have to work diligently to allay Israeli fears in any circumstance.
Overall, perception of American influence is slightly diminished. That’s OK, though, since we can still probably meet all of our national security aims about as well as we would have before. And now, the disconnect between the government and the people is almost sure to shrink, making cooperation more legitimate, and therefore, more sustainable.
The decline in American influence doesn’t follow the pattern of great power politics like in the 19th century. America isn’t being replaced by China in Egypt. American power is being supplemented with people power. It may seem unsettling, but it’s not an overt expression of anti-Americanism. Besides, what’s our alternative?
The Obama administration’s catastrophically poor handling of the Israeli-Palestinian issue has set off a terrible chain of events. As it stands, American influence has never been lower. The Israeli government is composed of peace process ditherers. The Palestinian Authority’s public face is maximalist, for fear of losing whatever legitimacy it has. Meanwhile, a beleaguered administration seems not to have a policy — but that can’t last. Obama is hemmed in all sides, so what can he do?
The first thing Obama needs to do is re-establish a sense of American strength. Both the Israelis and Palestinians see the president as increasingly weak and untrustworthy — in other words, ignorable. He sticks to one policy at a time, without fallback options to respond to uncooperative behavior. To be successful in pushing peace, Obama must escape that view. At the same time, he cannot limit his options too early by dictating what each party should do. Since he is ignorable, this last-ditch effort would surely fall flat, too.
To make himself relevant, but also flexible, Obama needs to create competing and linked concrete solutions. By this, I mean that the U.S. needs to formulate a list of outcomes and processes it could accept in the medium term. He should present these outcomes as being alternatives, such that the participants will know that American policy will follow one of those paths. The alternatives should illustrate how good behavior will pay off and bad behavior will have consequences. I will elaborate more on competing and linked concrete solutions in another post.
For starters, the U.S. should set a code of conduct on each parties. The tone and content of what the Israeli government and PA say is important for priming the public. When the PA publishes reports denying Jewish claims to the Temple Mount, or when Avigdor Lieberman says peace is impossible, the U.S. needs to say publicly what it thinks about those comments, rather than the standard response of something being “unhelpful.” American language needs to be phrased in terms of commitments and whether each side is meeting them. This might be the only way that the Israelis and Palestinians will ever start to talk publicly of their own commitments as being more than suggestions.
A change in attitude to this degree requires new leadership. Part of that new leadership must include a new envoy to the region. Most of the problems in American diplomacy have not been George Mitchell’s fault, but he stopped being relevant long ago. An energetic, relentless enforcer is needed to wear the public face of the administration. Dick Holbrooke would have been great for the job; It’s worth seeing if someone like Aaron David Miller would be willing to take that role, especially since “tough love” is his m.o.
As I said before, there will be more on the set of concrete ideas to come.
I feel rather sorry for Daniel Brumberg and Barry Blechman, co-authors of a USIP report called “Engagement, Coercion, and Iran’s Nuclear Challenge.” They interviewed over 40 Iran experts for a document they hoped would blaze a trail and instead came away with the most incredibly banal recommendations. The banality of these conclusions contrasts with their declarative rhetoric in a Foreign Policy piece describing their report. They say that after the probable failure of the diplomatic track once again, “some Iran analysts would have U.S. policy plunge once again into the murky territory of regime change. Some hope that a military attack might bring about this goal.” I highly doubt anyone jumped from a diplomacy-focused strategy to a military-regime change strategy just because of the latest Geneva talks. Nobody’s opinions require validation after Geneva except those who would sue for rapprochement. But what’s odd (given the alarmism of the FP article) is that not even the authors endorse a very radical strategy.
As I say, what’s strange is that the report’s findings are incredibly establishmentarian. This owes to a fundamental contradiction in their report: They say the U.S. needs a “strategic engagement” policy, but then they basically end up conceding it won’t work anyway since Supreme Leader Khamenei wouldn’t allow it. Here’s how that contradiction plays out in their recommendations:
US and European leaders should communicate a comprehensive picture of what Tehran has to gain from a mutually acceptable agreement on the nuclear issue. Such an effort cannot be piecemeal. Instead, it must spell out a wide range of incentives that Washington and its allies would be prepared to support in return for clear and sustained evidence of Tehran’s cooperation.
Already done. Next.
Washington should signal its clear—if also clearly conditional—acceptance of Iran’s enrichment rights, providing that Tehran negotiates verifiable limits on the degree of enrichment and on the volume of enriched fuel stored in Iran. Given the secretive history of Iran’s nuclear program, the US and its allies also are entitled to demand clarification of the questions raised by the IAEA, a complete declaration by Iran of its nuclear activities, including any weapons-related activities, an audit of that declaration by the IAEA, and Iran’s implementation of the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.
Again, already done. Anything else?
While pursuing diplomatic engagement, Washington should continue to sustain the sanctions and other punitive measures that clearly and effectively signal to Tehran a real geo-strategic, diplomatic, and economic cost for failing to cooperate on the nuclear issue. These measures should be pursued through prudent actions rather than through a language of confrontation, threats, or insults. Threats and coercion will be far more effective if they are implicit rather than explicit: a key element of over-all US policy, but not the sole basis of that policy. … All of the above measures should be accompanied by words and actions that clearly signal continued US geo-strategic support for its regional allies, including intelligence sharing, joint military planning and training, and advanced weapon sales. Israel and the Arab states must be reassured that a policy of strategic engagement that secures a negotiated end to Iran’s weapons program will enhance their security.
OK. So basically, if diplomacy fails, they advocate the very “containment” approach they say would be the best fallback to a failed engagement approach. Indeed, the report says that “[i]nternational sanctions have intensified” the power struggles between pragmatic conservatives and hardliners, as well as delaying Iranian nuclear progress and complicating their freedom of action.
The report does suggest talking to Iran on broader issues of concern, like regional energy and counternarcotics policies. But, if the power brokers in Iran’s foreign policy oppose engagement with the U.S. on principle — as the authors acknowledge is the case, and most mainstream experts think is so — then whatever lipstick is put on the pig will not make any difference to Iran.
So despite the grandiose language of “strategic engagement,” the report basically endorses the status quo. I suppose that’s not a crazy idea given that most of the experts consulted represent the centrist consensus on our Iran policy, but the report shouldn’t parade around pretending to advocate a new approach.