Today's New York Times runs what I believe is its first op-ed explicitly advocating a military campaign against Iran. Such agitation for war isn't new -- John Bolton and friends have been obsessively demanding such an attack for a long time, adapting the argument for war as the only solution to whatever the current situation may be. It's one thing when the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Fox News or other conservative outlets advocate such a war. You expect that, and discount accordingly; an op-ed in Fred Hiatt's Washington Post demanding war on Iran is like a DC-based blogger complaining about the Redskins... it happens constantly, nobody takes it very seriously and it doesn't accomplish anything. But the New York Times doing so is a serious step towards mainstreaming the idea, akin to how Ken Pollack and Tom Friedman's support for the invasion of Iraq persuaded a lot of centrists and liberals. It's as if we as a country have learned nothing from the Iraq war debate.
Alan Kuperman, the NYT op-ed's author, is best known for defending the U.S. non-response to the genocide in Rwanda (leading the late, lamented Alison Des Forges to accuse him of playing "word games to rationalize the West's ignominious failure to halt genocide in Rwanda"). While he has no evident expertise in Iran, he has determined that Iranian domestic politics and a few months of negotiations conclusively prove that negotiations can never work and that there's only one way to stop Iran -- war.
His argument is like a caricature of such war advocacy, hitting each predictable theme like a sledgehammer.
Why spend so much time on a mediocre, unoriginal op-ed? The better question is why the NYT published it. Advocates of such a military strike have been agitating tirelessly for years to mainstream and normalize an idea once seen as mad, using precisely these arguments so often that their deep weaknesses may not even register anymore. Opponents of such a military strike -- on the grounds that it would not likely stop the nuclear program, would kill lots of innocent Iranians and inflame Iranian public opinion, would destroy Obama's hopes to transform America's relations with the Islamic world and inflame anti-Americanism back to Bush-era levels, and so on -- may not take this seriously enough.
The Obama administration almost certainly doesn't want to make such a wrong-headed move --- but, then, there are a lot of things which the Obama administration doesn't want to do but has been forced into by political realities (Gitmo, the public option, escalation in Afghanistan) and intentions aren't enough. Many people may have assumed that the legacy of Iraq would have raised the bar on such arguments for war, that someone making such all too familiar claims would simply be laughed out of the public square. The NYT today shows that they aren't. I suspect that one of the great foreign policy challenges of 2010 is going to be to push back on this mad campaign for another pointless, counter-productive war for the sake of war.
UPDATE: see also Matt Duss, Heather Hurlburt, Joe Klein, Steve Saideman and Dan Drezner. This kind of sustained pushback is exactly what is needed to prevent this dangerous idea from being mainstreamed.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.