The Limits of Debate on War With Iran
As prominent voices in the U.S. pontificate about a looming nuclear bomb in Iran, as fleets of U.S. navy warships demonstrate provocative militarism in the Persian Gulf, and as Israel uses its committed constituency in America to push for a preemptive military strike, war with Iran seems ever closer. But even someone as deeply concerned as I am about attacking Iran (on false pretenses no less), can recognize that there is significant aversion within official circles to doing such a thing. The problem is, these “antiwar-with-Iran” voices are still squarely in the threaten, provoke, sanction, and covertly attack Iran camp. The debate is limited to those who want to recklessly bomb Iran to smithereens and those who would rather stick to secret, small-scale war.
The calls for war are ubiquitous. Even if its an attempt to throw red meat to the Republican base, you have top GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney consistently pledging he would “prepare for war” with Iran, that he would “put together a plan to show Iran that we have the capacity to remove them militarily from their plans to have nuclear weaponry.” Gingrich has approximately the same position. Rick Santorum is worse, saying he wouldn’t stop at just “degrading [Iran's nuclear] facilities through airstrikes,” but that he would also “say to any foreign scientist that’s going into Iran to help on their [nuclear] program, you will be treated like an enemy combatant, like an al-Qaida member.”
Mark Helprin in the Wall Street Journal recently wrote that any President “fit for the office” should “order the armed forces of the United States to attack and destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons complex” (via lobelog). Former CIA director James Woolsey and Reagan administration National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane recently hinted war was necessary in the National Review that “Although much damage to that infrastructure is possible with air strikes, it is also true that if the regime is left intact it will exploit any attack limited to nuclear installations to rally the nation behind the regime.” Former Bush administration ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said on Fox News that “half-measures like assassinations or sanctions are only going to produce the crisis more quickly. The better way to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons is to attack its nuclear weapons program directly.” Matthew Kroenig, Georgetown professor and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs, the title of which said it all: “Time to Attack Iran.”
But this heedless chorus for war is not unified. There are many prominent figures in both the U.S. and Israeli military and intelligence communities that are pushing back, saying loudly that we should not attack Iran because it would be both premature and a bloody, expensive catastrophe. This fact may prevent or delay a military strike on Iran, despite all of the war hype going on for the past few weeks. The problem is that while these people are arguing against war, none of them are arguing for peace.
In response to Kroenig’s piece in Foreign Affairs, Colin Kahl, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense of the Middle East until December, wrote his own entitled “Not Time to Attack Iran.” But he also thinks that the “forty thousand U.S. troops” that are “stationed in the Gulf, accompanied by strike aircraft, two aircraft carrier strike groups, two Aegis ballistic missile defense ships, and multiple Patriot antimissile systems” should perhaps be “supplemented by a limited forward deployment of nuclear weapons and additional ballistic missile defenses.” Nice. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, too, has warned against attacking Iran on the grounds that it would have disastrous unintended consequences for the region. But he also has said that U.S. military presence surrounding Iran and particularly in the Gulf will not change. Former Israeli Mossad chief Mier Dagan has argued that going to war with Iran preemptively would be disastrous to life, treasure, and security, and Ehud Barak has said an attack on Iran is “far off” but neither has spoken out about the current militaristic postures. Former CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) chief Gen. Michael Hayden on Thursday argued against attacking Iran, saying it “would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent — an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret.” He followed up by explicitly endorsing the violent covert actions against Iran, including supporting proxies inside Iran to destabilize the regime.
These are the parameters within which it is acceptable to talk about U.S. foreign policy towards Iran, and in general. The prospect of war with Iran is so glaringly obvious that even the sociopathic jingoes in the American foreign policy and military establishment recognize it would be a calamity. But that can only go so far: there is an unabashed consensus supporting the actions that are currently paving the road to war. Everybody in officialdom believes we ought to be garrisoning Iran’s surroundings with troops and weaponry, undermining Iran’s civilian nuclear program through aggressive covert action, crippling the economy with sanctions, and supporting rebels inside Iran that aim at regime change. These policies have led us to our current precarious position on the cusp of war. The limits of debate are so narrow so as to only allow room for (1) advocates of war and (2) advocates of policies that will probably lead to war. What is the likely outcome?