Elizabeth Spiro Clark is a retired Foreign Service officer who writes extensively on issues of global democratization.
Where are the calls to stop the Bush administration from taking military action against Iran, despite a loud chorus of voices warning of its disastrous consequences? Critics list the consequences—escalation (with no troops to escalate with), oil shocks, increased terrorism, worsening insurgency in Iraq, weakening the nonproliferation regime, a stronger Ahmadinejad, and international isolation—but few come out and call bombing Iran the worst worse-case scenario. The inability of the Democrats to insert themselves into this debate is a factor, but, that aside, it is important to ask why the debate is shaping up as if the Bush administration’s threats are not to be believed.
Even when critics go so far as to call a military strike the worst of options, they are ducking the central issue by failing to condemn the military option. Many find it easy to argue that the administration hasn’t exhausted all the diplomatic options and therefore the debate should focus on diplomacy. But does the administration look like it wants to run the diplomacy course? Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Tuchman Matthews laid out in a March 21 New York Times editorial what the U.S. has to do to get negotiations going on the nuclear question; most importantly, dropping preconditions on negotiations and dropping regime change ambitions. The Bush administration has done neither. A drumfire of statements and signals points in the opposite direction. Only yesterday, a senior White House official said that when he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President George W. Bush would explicitly reject any appeal from Merkel asking him to accept direct negotiations with Iran.
Because there appears to be time for diplomacy—“just begun” according to Secretary of State Rice—critics put themselves in the position of accepting the president’s basic position that, as he put it April 28, “the Iranians should not have a nuclear weapon, the capacity to make a nuclear weapon, or the knowledge as to how to make a nuclear weapon.” Former special Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross’ op-ed in the May 1Washington Post is a recent example of how pundits who ought to know better avoid tackling the implications of Bush’s position head on. Ross urges the president to offer the Iranians carrots as well as sticks as a way, he throws out almost casually, to avoid resorting to a “difficult messy use of force once again.” Why not focus his article on the “difficult messy use of force,” and offer some judgment on whether the president would be likely to accept Ross’ recommendations?
Accepting that force, however “messy and difficult,” may be ultimately “necessary” lessens pressure on the administration to make the concessions necessary for negotiations to have any chance of success. Choosing not to condemn the use of military force against Iran gives the Bush administration a blank check in the event of “diplomatic failure,” however the administration chooses to define it. It ignores indicators that while diplomacy may have “just begun,” it may have a short life. Can it be coincidence that eight retired generals were calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation at the precise moment information on planning for military strikes on Iran were on the other side of front pages? Or rather, was it a measure of their alarm?
Critics pull their punches because they believe that, for all Bush’s threats, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons, the U.S. in reality cannot launch a war against Iran. A military strike, as Iran expert Gary Sick has pointed out, must lead to escalation, for which the U.S. does not have the troops. An attack on Iran would be “irrational.” The “irrationality” of an attack is believed to be insurance against attack. It is also therefore assumed to be part of a hardball diplomacy strategy—and a useful asset in that strategy. However, an attack that is against the attacker’s self interest cannot also be credible brinksmanship. We aren’t increasing the chances Bush’s hardball diplomacy will work if it can’t be taken seriously. Sy Hersh in the April 17 New Yorker reports a former IAEA official as saying “there’s nothing the Iranians could do that would result in a positive outcome … Even if they announce a stoppage of enrichment, nobody will believe them.”
Critics who are confident they can put off writing their “don’t do it” columns because of the irrationality of the strike should consider how a strike is rational—from Bush’s perspective. Bush faces a predicament. Whether or not he draws down, withdraws or stays in Iraq, the war will secure his place in history as a failure. A second and related predicament is that if the Democrats capture the House this fall he will spend his last two years fighting investigations, censures and even impeachment—unless he sets himself down in a different geopolitical landscape.
If Bush attacks Iran he can and will cast the action not only as preempting a nuclear threat but also as a necessary action in the “long war” against terrorism. In fact, an attack on Iran will give the administration a new story line on Iraq—Iranian machinations. In February, Sen. Byrd asked Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and General Pace whether the $75 million special appropriations requested to aid Iranian democrats could be used to attack Iran. The answer was basically yes, ambiguously couched in the context of targeting Iranian terrorists operating in Iraq. Victory in Iraq will be linked to action against Iran.
From the perspective of personal ideology, in attacking Iran, Bush reinforces his commander-in-chief role and the “good versus evil” rhetoric he is comfortable with—Iranian President Ahmadinejad playing his part to the hilt. By acting to protect Israel, Bush will appeal to his religious fundamentalist base and—in all likelihood—his own faith convictions. A military strike would also be an expression of Bush and his core constituency’s sense of their identity as Americans, namely, that the way the U.S. imposes its dominance globally is through force. In a military strike on Iran scenario, the cure for the failure of force in Iraq is to use more force, much as Vietnam diehards remain convinced that with more force the war could have been won. This is a Brer Rabbit moment, throwing Bush into a place he really wants to be, where force or the threat of force become the only tools of U.S. foreign policy left.
It is of course possible that reality—including domestic political realities—will knock desperate or delusional White House plans back on their heels and force moves toward real diplomacy. It is also possible that Bush will allow a hollow diplomacy game to run out and then do nothing about its failure. This would put Bush in a familiar position of being both intransigent and ineffective—but covered by his intelligence chief’s assessment that Iran is years away from having a bomb. Whether by miscalculation or intention, a military strike is, however, a real risk. As Americans we need to take charge of our own risk assessments and refuse to link our futures to Bush’s own badly played games of chance and posture. It is time to put up a roadblock ahead of any march to war.