« Blurred vision about who blinked | Main | Easiest fast-forwarding decisions of the day »

Sunday, April 08, 2007

We can't expect candidates to come up with the "best of the bad" options for Iran, nor wait for them to do so

As it happened, when I read Dr. James Joyner's thoughtful post entitled "Railing Against the Pirates of Tehran," I had just added a link to Fred Thompson's blog-post yesterday on Redstate in a post of my own about Iran earlier this morning.

I agree with several of Dr. Joyner's observations. To begin with, the Redstate post likely was drafted by a staffer rather than Sen. Thompson himself — but that's true of most of what candidates "write" and "say," and Dr. Joyner offers that observation merely as an aside (as do I). More substantively, he's right both that Sen. Thompson's post has gotten a lot of quick and reverential buzz in the conservative blogosphere, and that "tough but vague words are apparently quite appealing." And finally, Dr. Joyner is certainly correct in noting (as he and I and many others have before, many times) that with respect to Iran and in particular with respect to its nuclear ambitions, "[t]he plain truth of the matter is that there are no good options here."

I suspect that Dr. Joyner's correct in his assumption that "Iran’s nuclear facilities are scattered and buried deep enough to make their destruction from the safety of a B-1 bomber virtually impossible." That doesn't mean, though, that we ought to rule out making such an attempt. And I disagree with Dr. Joyner's assertion that an American or coalition "military invasion would likely have more negative consequences for the region than a nuclear armed Iran."


In a comment to Dr. Joyner's post, I said that my "working assumption is that if the Iranians get a nuke, they'll use it," and that I am "not just worried about them using a nuke to ratchet up their regional leverage." Dr. Joyner graciously and promptly confirmed that he does indeed have a different working assumption:

Remember, Joe Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong Il, and the Pakistanis had/have nukes. Nobody has popped one off.

The mullahs may be crazy but they're not irrational. Using a nuke would assure their destruction, as Israel or somebody will turn them into a glass parking lot. Short of using it, conversely, having a nuke increases Iran's prestige and security.

With this, I agree in important part. Remember that Saddam Hussein could still be in power today if he'd given in to U.S. demands regarding WMD inspections in early 2002. He could have left his hand-picked Ba'athist successors in place and fled to asylum with billions in hand and his sons in tow even up to the brink of the U.S. invasion. Yet such was his tenuous grasp on reality that he chose to defy the U.S., and that when we finally pried him out of his spider hole, his response was: "I am the President of Iraq, and I am willing to negotiate."

The Iranian mullahs, by contrast, turned over the U.S. embassy hostages within hours after Ronald Reagan's inauguration (and the hand-over of the "football" with the launch codes). It's true that they later got the better of him in another session of carrot-only negotiations. But that again just goes to show that they know how the carrots and sticks game is played.

For that matter, they just bluffed Tony Blair out of his socks when they were holding nothing better than a pair of deuces. (I don't mean to trivialize the value of the 15 British personnel who were hostages, but in realpolitik terms, they didn't amount to more than that.) But the Iranians couldn't have run that bluff successfully except for the facts that (a) Blair was pathetically eager to fold and (b) the Iranians had the cunning and insight to correctly predict what he'd do.

That the mullahs are rational means that we ought to be able to compel substantial changes in their behavior, especially now, by force and even by credible threats of force well short of a full-scale invasion.

When you've got the biggest stack of chips at the table and you're sure you have the stronger poker hand, but when the other guy may improve his own hand substantially if you permit him to stay in the game, that's when you shove in a stack of chips that it's prohibitive for him, as a rational actor, to match. You must make it too expensive for him to stay in the game until the showdown, or you're squandering your own advantages. That poker strategy works substantially less well, however, and in fact it may become quite dangerous, when your opponent is down to his last few chips, or when the tournament is about to hit its time limit anyway.

We want to hasten the day when Mr. Ahmadinejad and the hyper-political mullahs find themselves about to be overthrown by their own people — but not the day when they can instantly cement their own positions and preserve their power by nuking Tel Aviv. Stalin and Mao were indeed also crazed and sometimes irrational, but they didn't face serious and imminent risks of being deposed through internal revolution; they didn't have the "upside" for using nukes that the Iranians might perceive, and they operated in a era when America's willingness to turn their countries into the proverbial green-glass parking lots was unquestionable. And whether Kim Jong Il or a radical successor to Musharraf will continue to behave rationally worries the hell out of me too; I take no comfort whatsoever in those examples, nor find in their brief nuclear histories any persuasive reason to accept the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

In a sentence: However bad the military, economic, political, and diplomatic fall-out from an American-led full-scale invasion of Iran would be, it would be trivial compared to the entirely likely and quite literal (non-metaphorical) fall-out from an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel. (Or elsewhere — and yes, that could include the U.S., even if not as soon via missile). I don't suggest that Dr. Joyner is trivializing or over-discounting the dangers of a nuclear Iran; I know he's no starry-eyed idealist who thinks that another regional conference and, gee whiz, some humility from the White House will put all to right. But what he may grimly and reluctantly characterize as a tolerable disaster, I still consider an intolerable one.


That there are no good or easy options does not mean there are no probably-effective options whatsoever. Setting aside, for the moment, political and diplomatic concerns, there are lots of ways we could squeeze the hell out of the mullahs short of a full-scale invasion. Taking out their single gasoline refinery could be done with cruise missiles. Attriting their air force and navy in sharp, swift stages would also be very doable. Achieving air superiority over all of Iran and coastal superiority over all its shoreline is also doable. A genuine economic blockade — something that will pinch, not just mushy U.N. sanctions — is also within our power. And, again, that we may not be able to thoroughly eliminate the Iranian nuclear program via air strikes doesn't mean we ought not try. If we go hard for all the choke points we think we've found, we might still knock their plans for a serious loop, even without troops on the ground. And then there's sabotage and other covert ops — as to which I'm pretty sure that you, I, and Dr. Joyner are not supposed to be in a position to make very intelligent guesses about (although Dr. Joyner's are likely to be better than yours or mine, given his background). I nevertheless presume that Langley and the Pentagon (and perhaps the Mossad) have made some plans and preparations along those lines. 

Even a full-scale invasion, if things came to that — and there are excellent reasons to believe it need not — could be done at a cost in American blood and treasure that would be slight in comparison to any of our wars fought prior to 1990.

The political and diplomatic furor, however, would be hugely incommensurate with those costs. Successfully invading and deposing the current regime might permit us to root out and exterminate Iran's nuclear program, but even in a country without the internal risks of civil war that have always characterized Iraq, there are great costs and risks associated with occupation and the reestablishment of a new regime. And regardless of all of the above, a full-scale invasion would clearly require a Congressional declaration of war or its functional equivalent. Whether it should or not, that simply is not going to happen unless there's some intervening, shattering event that causes the same sort of paradigm-shifting which came on 9/11/01.


Whatever the best of the bad options may be, however, we shouldn't and mustn't expect Sen. Thompson, nor the other contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, nor for that matter the contenders for the Democratic nomination, either to articulate the precise plans for those options or build a consensus for executing them. By definition, candidates lack the current power to effectuate policies. Moreover, they have strong inherent disincentives for being specific on such things as military plans.

Indeed, the Iranian nuclear aspirations are a problem that can't wait until the 2008 election, much less the 2009 inauguration. And although it's a free-world problem, the recent British wobblies make it starkly clear that any solution must be an American one — meaning, since Dubya is unlikely to get any help from Congress, a Presidential one. Supposedly the flip-side to the lame duck conundrum is that a second-term President is freed from worry about his personal prospects during the next election. The 2006 election cycle demonstrated that Dubya's unwilling to let worries about Republican Party successes and failures affect GWOT/foreign policy strategies other than at the margins.

But one may also reasonably presume that Dubya would prefer to see his party at least retain the White House and its blocking position, and to avoid giving the Democrats a veto-proof margin in the House and Senate. Self-restraint based on those domestic political concerns — plus the Constitutional limitations on independent action by the President at the boundaries between war and peace, and (more remotely) the credible threat of impeachment — will pose the greatest difficulties to President Bush in his quest to scuttle the Iranians' nuclear ambitions during the last one and three-quarter years of his presidency.

Nevertheless, if there's a single paragraph from everything he's ever said as President that ought to define Dubya's role in history, it's this one, from the 2002 State of the Union address:

We'll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.

On that, I hope that Dr. Joyner and I — and you, esteemed friends and neighbors — will all agree.

Posted by Beldar at 11:27 AM in 2008 Election, Global War on Terror, Politics (2007) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to We can't expect candidates to come up with the "best of the bad" options for Iran, nor wait for them to do so and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) JS made the following comment | Apr 8, 2007 1:24:48 PM | Permalink

I would not agree with notion that the Iran's underground nuke facilities are impervious to weapons the US may have. First of all, with respect to their reprocessing operations, I would not think that they have multiple (3 or more) locations. Without any particular knowledge, I would assume we have the capability to at least make tombs out of them, and then repeat as necessary.

Additionally, if war with Iran comes, from a military standpoint I would not see the need to put a single boot in country. My assumption is that after some period (1 wk to 1yr ?) of military dismantling and complete economic shut down, we would be invited to meet and smoke the old peace pipe. In addition to an agenda of non-proliferation, Hezzbola, RGuards in Iraq, I think there could be another interesting item on the table.

(2) ajacksonian made the following comment | Apr 9, 2007 12:49:41 PM | Permalink

There is a substantial difference between a 'rational' actor and one basing their motives on a fantasy ideology, as Lee Harris points out for ( www.policyreview.org/aug02/harris.html ) al Qaeda but is similarly applicable to any organization basing actions on fantastical beliefs. To differentiate one must look at the activities and see if they have any basis in rationality or are coming from a non-rational foundation that has an orderly mind-set on its application. When trying to slog through the ( ajacksonian.blogspot.com/2006/09/first-cut-overview-on-management-of.html ) al Qaeda outlook document for how they view the world and how to take it over, I was very impressed with the rigorousness of thought, although the basis for it is fantastical. There are sharp dividing lines where normal 'rational' thought are left behind, especially in the area of economics. Similarly the mullahs in Iran are demonstrating fantastical beliefs and that is effecting their economic outlook and now showing stark relief between ( ajacksonian.blogspot.com/2006/12/irans-oil-problem.html ) fantastical outlook and real-world outcomes. To get to the point where the petro-industry is so degraded that the refineries are not working well and that gasoline needs to be rationed if not *imported* ( ajacksonian.blogspot.com/2007/01/oil-outlook-cross-post-at-classical.html ) points to a fantastical belief system on how to run a Nation that is at work and endemically so. When Jerry Pournelle asked why containment wouldn't work for Iran, I responded with the idea that ( ajacksonian.blogspot.com/2006/04/why-not-containment-for-iran.html ) they are not rational actors as demonstrated by their outlook. Their handing back of the prisoners taken in 1979 was *not* giving into Ronald Reagan but their recognition that they had thoroughly humiliated the US, that they had given the US a prime casus belli, that our military response was a joke and that the US was so thoroughly humiliated that it would not attempt to do *anything* of importance against Iran. That proved to be the case as the Reagan response to Iran was to send them a cake in hopes to talk to 'moderates' there. That is what ( ajacksonian.blogspot.com/2006/11/end-of-unreal-realists.html ) 'Realism' in Foreign Policy gets you.

What we are seeing in Iran *today* is the slow accumulation of all military and most economic power *not* to the mullahs ( ajacksonian.blogspot.com/2007/04/rising-power-inside-iran.html ) but into the IRGC. These are the true believers in the original revolution of 1979 and appear to be doing the same basic concept that took place in the 1930's in Germany. That said the IRGC may be more *competent* that does not mean that they are any more realistically based, as they do support that the world is oppressed and that everyone wants to believe in Islam as their basis for existing. Even if that is belief because a gun is pointed at you. And we cannot forget that Iran has aligned itself with one of the best 3 Card Monte players in the Middle East ( ajacksonian.blogspot.com/2006/12/syrian-wmd-sites-basic-list.html ) in regards to long term WMD development and production.

Kind of a strange playing field where we play poker, the Iranians play Calvin Ball and Syria is doing 3 Card Monte. And considering that American 'Realism' was first applied to the ( thejacksonianparty.blogspot.com/2007/04/10-years-that-changed-path-of-america.html ) Middle East back in World War I and put trade over liberty and human freedom, I really do have to ask those folks purporting that trade gets you freedom exactly how well it has worked out there as it is their prime test case. And maybe it is time to do a bit of ( ajacksonian.blogspot.com/2006/11/it-is-dumb-looks-time-on-post-warism.html ) historical analysis, examine outlooks of those actors in the region and *stick* to human liberty and freedom as a good thing to press before we even begin to look at economics as a basis for human liberty.

Wasn't a ( ajacksonian.blogspot.com/2007/01/20-victory-is-something-called-defeat.html ) Nation formed on that as a concept? I think they had a motto: 'No taxation without Representation'. Seems they put economics after liberty and representative government... wonder if those folks can stick to it?

Please excuse any messiness above, my thoughts tend to be interlinked... which require interlinking. And spambots hate that...

(3) Carol Herman made the following comment | Apr 9, 2007 7:19:18 PM | Permalink

Nah. Ya can't fool me. "Noo-clear" Iran is a product slogan. When you hear it, you can say, "I wonder where the yellow went."

And, look for your Pepsodent.

The ahma-nut ain't got the real deal. He's a charlatan. Like lots of religious folk.

One of the things Lincoln learned to do, while young. Was memorize Robert Burns poetry. It spoke of the tendency of the very religious to have more zeal for hypocracy than, just about anything else.

The other thing, now that we're into Bush's sixth year is to realize he's motivated "funny." Like he was when he nominated Harriet Miers for the Supreme vacancy. Sometimes? He shows you exactly what he means.

In Iraq? The deal to get rid of Saddam was to make Iraq a "pick up state" for the House of Saud.

He didn't get there.

And, after the first 3 weeks; where Chalabi landed with goons, while General Franks cleared his path to LOOT, we discovered what came "after" our military success, has been an insider's search for a set of keys. They can't quite open the store they wanted to have. Sunni ownership of Iraqi merchandise.

You're surprised that figthing over this stuff has gotten viscious? Gee. There's nothing surprising about the Wild West. Because? To make things function you need to produce law and order.

Not arabs, looking to fleece Uncle Sugar.

Sure. We're getting more cooperation, now, from Maliki. Fear will do that to people riding fences. Maliki is terrified of Mertha. He even looked up Okinawa on the map!

ANd, the way Americans vote also scares the pants off of him. He knows about margins, where you're elected. And, you don't quite own 50% of the total kiesters in Congress. Or your Parliament.

And, they play rough for arabs, those Iraqis do.

While Bush just sits on his hands. Unable to give the House of Saud the keys they wanted.

And, the democraps roll him whenever they can.

They made believe of "deadlines" in a bill full of pork. Now, the sweetly removed the "deadlines" and left the pork.

At least Bush doesn't make a rousting commotion. He'll either sign the bill. Or he won't. From the tone of my voice you can tell I've lost faith in what he does. Never seems to be the right thing for the right reason.

Like when Truman was the first voice blessing Israel's birth. May 1948. He didn't tell ya he knew all the arabs would attack! He never said he didn't think the Jews would make it. Only that he wouldn't be cursed for not giving them a state for a few minutes.

It's the attacks, when they occur among the arabs, that always produce the results you just never expect.

Perhaps the Man Upstairs blows opportunities that way? Lincoln was a great believer in Providence. I think I share those views, too.

(4) Joe Chase made the following comment | Apr 10, 2007 11:15:40 AM | Permalink

I think it interesting that the debate is "the best solution" for Iran. What about the "right" solution? Too many are caught up in finding a political solution which ends up being a global compromise. The problem with a compromise is no one gets what they want and no solution is reached. Too bad doing the "right thing" is not politically correct and again America will suffer. I think if all of the world played WOW then all problems could be solved on the plains of Azeroth.

(5) Carol Herman made the following comment | Apr 10, 2007 1:00:24 PM | Permalink

Sorry, Joe,but Abner Dinnerjacket is not looking for solutions. He's like any actor. Looking for a big part on TV.

He's also pointed out the British problem. Where they turned their ships at sea, into the WAVY.

In other words? How come the 15 sailors and marines weren't trained, first? Yeah. They gave the gal the biggest gun, I suppose. And, put her "in charge." Probably, because during practice she was smart enough not to aim at any of her compatriots.

But where's the training?

How did the WAVY bypass training?

Abner Dinnerjacket could not have gotten his show on the road, unless Tony Baloney Blair is an even bigger dud than Bush.

Just our luck. To watch the UN turned into a laughingstock. And, we're not in this audience! Someday, though? We can parade the facts around Turtle Bay.

Did you know Iran cannot fight her way out of a paper bag? Should have OUR SHIPS decided the comedy needed to be stopped.

Nope. The only thing that got "stopped," though (Like STopping Imus). Is that the crew who returned from iran cannot profit by telling their stories.

No small loss. Because it spotlights how little sympathy you have for them.

Better taining IS the answer.

Higher expectations, too.

(6) Cecil Turner made the following comment | Apr 11, 2007 10:12:17 AM | Permalink

I suspect that Dr. Joyner's correct in his assumption that "Iran’s nuclear facilities are scattered and buried deep enough to make their destruction from the safety of a B-1 bomber virtually impossible."
Sorry, but this is just nonsense. In the first place, there's nothing safe about a B-1 over Iran . . . they've got a fairly adept air defense system (especially their SAMs, which include some recent upgrades from Russia). And contrary to some comments, the Iranians are not militarily inept (their Services have long since recovered from post-Shah disruption), and the country has about 10% more population than the UK. The idea that we can operate in their airspace with impunity (or the Brits are going to field an amphibious force to challenge them) is risible.

However, from the US position, a quick look at the map shows that really isn't necessary. We have air bases in Iraq that can handle any practical number of tactical aircraft (as many we care to send). And they can reach the area with ease. We can roll back and defeat their IADS, and bomb those facilities repeatedly, if necessary. We could also shut down their oil exports (not sure why we'd want to), or reopen the straits of Hormuz if they decided to shut the Gulf down (not sure why they'd want to). In short, we have several military options, though most of 'em are a bit ugly. The question is whether they're uglier than a nuclear armed Iran (and, eventually, a nuclear Hizbullah).

(7) Milhouse made the following comment | Apr 26, 2007 9:57:53 AM | Permalink

there are lots of ways we could squeeze the hell out of the mullahs short of a full-scale invasion.

That is, unless they already have the Bomb. It seems to me that a lot that seems strange about the behaviour of both Bush and Clinton, as well as a string of Israeli prime ministers, can be explained if, in their first briefing on taking office, they learn that Iran has the Bomb, and has had it for some time. Certainly not of their own manufacture, which is why they're building their way up to where they can make their own, but in the meantime the one(s) they have are a deterrent against us doing anything drastic about it.

The comments to this entry are closed.