Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why attacking Iran is still a bad idea

Kroenig's piece in Foreign Affairs is entitled "Time to Attack Iran." However, he says in his response to me that he doesn't think "Washington should immediately launch a bolt-from-the-blue attack." Indeed, he now appears to concede that Iran might not be developing nuclear weapons and that we should wait to see if it takes certain measures (expels inspectors, enriches uranium to weapons grade levels, installs advanced centrifuges, etc.) before unleashing the dogs of war. But these arguments contradict both his title and his original argument, which is that preventive war is the least bad option and now is the time to do it. We are thus left wondering: is Iran developing nuclear weapons or not ? And if Kroenig isn't sure, is it really "Time to Attack?"

Kroenig tells us that "in the coming months, it is possible, even likely, that a U.S. President will be forced to make a gut-wrenching choice" between containment or military action (my emphasis), and he recommends we "begin building global support for (military action) in advance." As I've noted before, the danger here is that if you keep repeating that preventive war against Iran is necessary, people gradually become comfortable with the idea and assume that it is going to occur eventually. In fact, if we beat the war drums for months but don't attack, you can be confident that people like Kroenig will then arguethat U.S. credibility is on the line and we have to strike, lest those dangerous Iranians conclude we are paper tigers.

As in his original article, Kroenig's image of Iran is simplistic and contradictory. He portrays it as a highly capable and dangerously ambitious power, whose support for terrorism and proxy groups is supposedly restrained only by "fear of U.S. or Israeli retaliation." But he never describes Iran's actual capabilities (which are quite modest) or explains why the threat it poses to vital U.S. interests is grave enough to warrant rolling the iron dice of war. Nor does he discuss Iranian threat perceptions, internal politics, or foreign policy strategy (including how its policies have evolved over time), or consider the possibility that some of its activities (including its support for some extremist groups) are an asymmetric response to past U.S. efforts to isolate and marginalize it. Instead, his portrait of Iran is conveniently contradictory: as Paul Pillar puts it, for Kroenig "the same regime that if not attacked can be expected to do all sorts of highly aggressive things . . . turns into a calm paragon of caution, respectful of U.S. ‘redlines' once the United States starts waging war against it." If "knowing one's enemy" is a prerequisite for going to war, Kroenig has a lot of work to do.

Finally, it is striking that Kroenig's response does not engage the legal or moral implications that I raised in my original critique. It appears that he remains untroubled by the fact that many innocent people will die and many more will be wounded if the United States follows his advice to launch a major bombing campaign against Iran. He seems equally at ease with the idea that the United States would be launching an unprovoked war of aggression, which would be in clear violation of international law. And still people wonder: "why do they hate us?"