This morning, I posted my
first contribution to the Atlantic's online debate about Jeffrey
Goldberg's much-debated cover story on whether Israel
will attack Iran.
I take Goldberg's reporting seriously, particularly since I have heard many
similar comments from both U.S.
and Israeli officials. That's precisely why I believe that it's
important to engage the argument for an attack on Iran head on.... now, rather than
after a bad decision has already been made. What do I think? Well,
the title chosen by the editors doesn't leave much to the imagination: "Striking Iran is Unwarranted and It Would Mean Disaster."
I argue that "the argument for a military strike on Iran remains weak,
with massive potential negative effects, very limited prospects for significant
positive impact, and much less urgency than its proponents claim. It is Obama's
sound strategic judgement, not his lack of will, which makes an attack
unlikely." The entire debate has been instructive.
The debate about Goldberg's article over the last couple of weeks has been
quite robust --- both the give and take among the eight panelists assembled by
the Atlantic, and the broader discussion
across the blogosphere which has been regularly rounded up in editor
JJ Gould's daily summaries. Gould has done an impressive job of
orchestrating actual dialogue across analytical divides (Elliott Abrams is
scheduled to respond to my post soon, and I am supposed to respond to Reuel
Gerecht's post after he publishes it in a few days). And, while I'm at it, a special shout-out
to Goldberg for his strong stance on the New
York mosque craziness --- he has been a strong voice,
and a brave one.
a military strike is not
likely to put an end to Iran's
nuclear potential, or to provide any significant sense of certainty (I do
not find Goldberg's notion of Israeli commandos quickly darting in from
Iraqi Kurdistan to check things out especially reassuring).
the idea Israel has a fixed deadline is
not credible. Israeli officials and American Iran hawks have paraded a
never-ending series of such immutable deadlines over the last decade -- of
2006, of 2007, of 2008, and now of December 2010. None proved quite so
the costs could be
high: a strike by Americans or Israelis could trigger a wave of
regional chaos, badly weaken the already struggling Green Movement, and
seriously complicate the U.S.
drawdown from Iraq.
It would prove the death-knell for Obama's efforts to construct a new
relationship with the Muslim communities of the world, trigger a wave of
anti-American rage among Arab publics, deeply complicate the tentative
moves towards Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The "war bluff"
argument -- that we will be most effective at diplomacy if we can credibly
threaten force, with Israel playing the "bad cop" to force Iran
to deal with the American "good cop" -- only works if there is
adequate trust between the U.S. and Israel. This is why the Obama
administration has taken to consulting so regularly and at such high
levels with Israel,
in order to ensure that communication is clear and consistent. Goldberg's
suggestion that Israeli officials would nevertheless be prepared to spring
such a surprise undermines that trust.
truly felt such existential urgency, then wouldn't it be willing to make
concessions on Gaza
or the peace process in order to build international support and sympathy?
hopes to build an international consensus, this has been an odd way to go
Much of the alleged urgency
to attack Iran
is rooted in an oddly anachronistic view of rising Iranian power in the
region. But in fact, Iran's
image and influence have been in retreat in the region during much of Obama's
administration. Obama's initial outreach challenged the Iranian regime,
which had grown quite comfortable in dealing with the Bush
administration's aggressive rhetoric dividing the region into moderate and
radical camps -- which had the self-defeating effect of ceding the popular
mantle of "resistance" to Iran by default. But Iran today is isolated and beleaguered
within the region, and has proven unable to capitalize on Obama's
declining popularity or U.S.
That the leadership of most Gulf states remains deeply suspicious of Iran,
and that the Saudi-owned media is full of anti-Iranian commentary and
reporting, is nothing new. But compared to two years ago, Iran's
position with Arab publics and the "resistance" trend is also
far weaker. Turkey
now offers a far more attractive -- and effective -- brand of
"resistance", with its advanced economy, moderate Islamist and
fully democratic politics, and creative diplomacy. Meanwhile, the botched
aftermath of the Iranian elections and the repression of the Green
Movement -- heavily covered by al-Jazeera and other popular Arab media ---
badly harmed its image with Arab publics. An Israeli or American attack on
Iran would almost
certainly bring these publics intensely back to Iran's side, though, rescuing
them from their own decline.
The hostility to Iran in various Arab circles should not
lead anyone to believe that Arabs would support an attack on Iran by the U.S.
however (see MEC
editor Amjad Atallah's excellent post on this here). While Arab
leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally
strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation.
Arab leaders will likely continue to welcome any efforts to contain
Iranian power, particularly when it takes the form of major arms deals and
political support. And they will likely continue to mutter and complain
failure to magically solve their problems for them. But those who expect
these regimes to take a leading, public role in an attack on Iran are
likely to be disappointed -- especially if there is still no progress on
the peace process.
There's more, including a strong warning to not repeat the experience of
2002: as a general rule, beware of those claiming that there are no options other than war
and that time is running out, that the benefits of an attack will be high and
the costs low, and that it won't affect other important issues. Hopefully
we've learned something. More on the debate later this week, when it
officially wraps up.