Thursday, February 23, 2006

Choosing Between Bad Options

TNI's spring issue is going to have a focus on Iran--with contributions from Brent Scowcroft, Pat Lang, Ray Takeyh, Richard Betts, Larry Johnson and Bruno Tertrais. One of the common themes running through the various contributions--and something we still seem to have difficulty getting our arms wrapped around--is that no matter what policy option you endorse for Iran--war, surgical strikes, sanctions, "do nothing", etc.--there are going to be negative consequences. Yet in the popular discourse we seem to only be able to contemplate a choice between a "good" and a "bad" option.

I'd like to excerpt the following comments from Dick Betts' piece:

As pressure mounts to reckon with Iran’s nascent nuclear program, some strategists are arguing that the United States has run out of alternatives to military action. Many of them are pointing to Israel’s 1981 air attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor as a model for action—a bold stroke flying in the face of all international opinion that nipped Iraq’s nuclear capability in the bud or at least postponed a day of reckoning. This reflects widespread misunderstanding of what that strike accomplished. Contrary to prevalent mythology, there is no evidence that Israel’s destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. The attack may actually have accelerated it.

Osirak is not applicable to Iran anyway, since an air strike on a single reactor is not a model for the comprehensive campaign that would be required to deal, even unsatisfactorily, with the extensive, concealed and protected program that Iran is probably developing. As the United States crafts non-proliferation policy, it should soberly consider the actual effect of the Osirak attack and the limitations of even stronger air action. ...

Reliance on containment, deterrence and pressure short of force remains unsettling to Americans who seek closure in conflict and suspect that restraint betrays fecklessness. Force has the allure of apparent decisiveness. But the greatest military philosopher, Carl von Clausewitz, warned, “In war the result is never final.” Unless victor and vanquished come to agreement on a peacetime order, peace will not endure. Military action might at best suppress Iran’s nuclear ambitions temporarily; at worst, and no less probably, an attack could make them more intense and more dangerous.

I'm looking forward to this issue. Just two small comments and one larger one:

First, it is strategically true that the Osirak attack did not stop the Iraqi program, but the attack also had a more limited purpose, namely to stop the reactor from going hot and becoming an environmental threat in the event that Israel (or somebody else) destroyed it later.

Second, Iran has two potential nuclear weapons programs, not just one. Its uranium program has gotten all of the attention and may be unstoppable but its plutonium program can only continue if there are functioning reactors. Once these go hot, the environmental costs of attacking them go up, in effect giving the plutonium program a degree of shielding.

Stepping back, though, the real problem here is whether there are some questions that lie outside the reference frame of foreign policy and whether Iran is one of them. When none of the alternatives are good, one has to wonder if the reference frame is the problem. Of course, a nuclear Iran may follow the pattern of other nuclear powers and be deterrable (and thus stay within the reference frame). But we may be in a situation where basic assumptions need to be examined.

We tend to think of other people's nuclear weapons as a kind of permanent change in their strategic status, which in one sense it is. But there is also a temporary window of opportunity that such weapons may gave to a power, if none of its neighbors have such weapons and if outside powers can be deterred. Iran's real dilemma is that nuclear weapons can work to its regional advantage, if at all, only temporarily. As soon as the rest of its neighbors go nuclear, the risks to Iran will go up sharply. We ought to be trying to persuade them that their own regional interests are the best reason why they should not go down this road.
Betts approvingly cites containment, but didn't "containment" in the Cold War mean using military force to check the expansion of Communism in Korea and Vietnam?

Or am I missing something?
I agree with Greg--containnment requires an effective threat of the use of force and use of force if certain red lines are crossed. Containment differs to some extent from what the administration seemed to be saying in terms of its preventive war doctrine that we would be prepared to strike without exhausting other options first--but some of these proponents of containment seem to think there is no military side to it.
The problem with containment isn't our willingness to use military force. It is the willingness of the other side to be contained. If the excerpt is representative of his article, what Professor Betts is trying to say is that Iran is willing to be contained and that we should contain the regime rather than launch a war against it.
Halting a Nuclear Iran: If Diplomacy Fails

This is the most difficult as well as dangerous issue to be confronted since 9/11. That the true goal of the Iranian nuclear effort is weaponry rather than peaceful energy seems apparent to the world. The Iranian refusal of Russian offers to perform enrichment processing for them if they agree to halt internal enrichment makes it crystal clear, if all the other evidence were not enough. Even France seems to get this one.

The American hope had for some time been that Iran would basically “solve itself” by the emergence of a more pro-western younger generation that would bring about change internally. That hope has all but disappeared since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The road of diplomatic measures, sanctions, and other measures short of military intervention will of course be pursued. It does not, unfortunately, appear likely to succeed with an Iran under the Jihadist leadership currently in power. At that point, the options will be few and grim.

From a purely military and logistical point of view, air strikes alone are unlikely to get the job done according to most analysts. Adding the element of a ground invasion is a scenario that would be extraordinarily costly both in the loss of life and the difficulties for American forces, given our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. If it comes to military action, substantive international assistance would evaporate if recent history serves as any predictor.

Stalwart allies are hard to come by. Beyond Britain, Israel, and few other countries with limited military capability, who would you count on? Israel is in a terrible situation at the moment. The illness of Ariel Sharon came at a critical point, just as he was attempting to change the political landscape within that country in March elections. The Palestinian election victory of Hamas just turned the heat up further. These events will not change the Israeli position on Iran, but it certainly is a distraction.

Even if the military hurdles could be overcome, that leaves us with the political and economic aftermath. Direct military action would further galvanize Islamic hatred throughout the world. The governments of Islamic countries that have so far managed to at least partially resist internal fundamentalist pressures would likely come to a boiling point. Jihadist propagandists everywhere would fan the flames. The riots we have seen over a few Danish cartoons would be nothing in comparison to the violence that would follow.

The world oil markets would go into apoplexy. Prices would soar far beyond the worst current projections. Just the news that Iran admitted to renewing it's uranium enrichment program has sent prices upward this week.

Despite the dangers of military intervention, the alternative of allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons is an even worse option. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday reflected the tough choices we face. It showed that “69 percent said they were concerned that the Bush administration would be too quick to use military force, yet 67 percent were also concerned the United States wouldn't do enough to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons”. Over three quarters expressed a belief that Iran would use nuclear weapons against Israel or the United States either directly or by supplying the arms to terrorists.

Let us hope for a peaceful solution. The prospect of a nuclear armed Islamic Jihad leaves no choice should it fail.
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