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Why We Must Go To War With Iran

Gideon's Blog makes the case against war with Iran, to which I respond.

So: why am I opposed to war with Iran?

Several reasons, which I articulate here.

Here we go.

1. Pakistan. Pakistan, like Iran, is an Islamic dictatorship. But there are important differences. Pakistan is, arguably, less democratic. Its people are, almost certainly, more anti-American. Pakistan has ties to al Qaeda, a terrorist group actively at war with America, while Iran is the patron of Hezbollah, a terrorist group actively at war with Israel but not with America, and which has only struck Americans as such when America was intervening in Lebanon (whereas they have incidentally struck American Jews in Israel and elsewhere in the world as part of attacks on Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish targets). And, of course, Pakistan already has nuclear weapons. America's "alliance" with Pakistan is already on its last legs. But the nuclear terrorist nightmare becomes vastly more likely if Pakistan collapses or is captured by al-Qaeda sympathetic forces. Indeed, the likelihood of nuclear terrorism originating in Pakistan must be rated more highly than the likelihood of nuclear terrorism originating in Iran. I'm convinced that an attack on Iran would mean the end of any prospect of controlling Pakistan and keeping it from going wholeheartedly over to the dark side.

Being convinced yourself of something happening does not an argument make. Is it not also possible that seeing an effective military effort to depose the mullahs in Iran would actually strengthen the Pakistani regime, or at least encourage them to work with us? 9/11 and the fear of what we could do through force of arms seems to have been sufficient to get Musharraf on board; Moammar Qadafi also came around. Also, part of the problem in western Pakistan is due to the malicious influence of Iranian-controlled terror groups. Would this not end, or at least be reduced dramatically, once Iranian money and training was no longer available? If the Pakistanis are governed by hatred, one wonders why their hatred for India is on the back burner, especially given our overtures to the latter recently. I doubt the Pakistanis hate Americans more than they do Indians at this point, yet they seem to be able to pursue their national interests in spite of such hatred in any case.

2. China. The United States has a massive interest in integrating China into an international system, in enabling China to emerge as a great power without feeling the need to become a "revisionist" power. We failed in this regard with Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, with consequences that are well-known. If we fail with China, the consequences could be considerably worse. The Chinese leadership has for some time been consciously stoking Han nationalism as a way of building support for a regime that no longer espouses socialism in any meaningful sense of the word, and that has been tainted by massive corruption. We have to maneuver carefully between the Scylla of making the regime feel threatened from without and the Charybdis of making the regime feel like there's a power vacuum for it to occupy. Right now, I fear our foreign policy is achieving the worst of both worlds: making China worried about our intentions and unimpressed with our abilities. War with Iran would substantially increase Chinese perceptions of America as a threat. If the war achieved success levels similar to our Iraqi adventure, it would also deepen their contempt for our abilities. Moreover, precipitate American action in Iran would lead to a reassessment in a variety of minor Asian capitals as to the relative dangers of American or Chinese patronage. Who would want to be the Turkey of East Asia when America decides to target North Korea, or Burma, or some other state? That's going to be a question asked in Bangkok and Seoul and Jakarta and Manila, and China is poised to reap the benefit any time the answer is, "not us!"

I think reviewing Sun Tzu would be a bit more helpful here. It is not in America's interest to help China "emerge as a great power"; they and we see China as seeking regional hegemony in Asia at our expense. Our failure with Japan, if such it may be deemed, was in ignoring the warning signs of Japanese aggression from 1905 forward. No nation aspires to being second-most-influential in their home waters; they want to be top dog. China has been very aggressive in the Americas (look at their Latin American policy, for example, especially in securing rights to operate the Panama Canal) because they see the U.S. as their primary rival. Rather than outright warfare, China uses the direct approach favored by Sun Tzu, who considered it the height of military art to win without fighting.

Let's not underestimate the extent to which China's perception of war with Iran would be colored by the availability of oil, which China's surging economy and military expansion require in abundance. If Iran successfully closed the Straits of Hormuz for an extended time, and world oil supply were affected, China would certainly seek to get those ports opened again. Iran also has proven to be a good customer of Chinese military wares. However, China wouldn't like to see the equipment they sell worldwide to be proven inferior to American arms on the battlefield.

Iran getting nukes does 3 positive things for China: it takes the focus off China's refusal to rein in Kim Jong-Il; it sets up Iran as regional hegemon of the Middle East; it provides a distraction for the U.S. which will drain focus and resources from the Pacific.

There are two very big downsides to Iran getting nukes, however---Japan and Taiwan will almost certainly be given nuclear capability shortly after the mullahs get it. The Chinese wouldn't like that much.

All in all, I think it's a wash re: China in any war with Iran. They won't take us on openly---yet.

3. We have no justification for war. Iran is not threatening to attack us. Yes, they have called for our destruction, but not in terms that constitute acts of war, and we have not implicated them in any actual attacks on our interests much less our country. Yes, they are pretty clearly cheating on their obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but there is no provision in that treaty giving the nuclear powers the right to enforce its terms by the use of arms. I'm unaware of any actual casus belli that we have against the Iranian regime, unless it is the seizure of our Embassy lo these 27 years ago. And while there is no actual statute of limitations operative in such matters, it would be outright farcical to attempt to justify an attack on Iran on *that* basis. War on Iran, then, would set a new precedent: that the United States feels it has the right to attack any country that seeks to acquire nuclear weapons. Now, one might be inclined to say: what's wrong with such a precedent? Wouldn't the world be a better place if would-be proliferators feared the wrath of the United States? Perhaps it would - if the United States were immune from any consequences of its behavior. But try to imagine what such a conclusion would feel like in Ankara, or Jakarta, or Moscow - or even in London or Ottawa or Canberra. Even if we want to be the world's policeman, the world has not elected us to the post as yet.

Here's where Noah needs to read Michael Ledeen. Iran has been at war with us since 1979, including the quite recent terrorist attacks against the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and in Iraq. Moqtada al-Sadr is run by the Iranians, as is much of the insurgency, which fights with Iranian arms, money, training, and support. Scroll down a few posts and you'll see that the mullahs have sent jihadists to fight Americans in Afghanistan. These are all acts of war---and we have gone to war for far less.

Besides, the lesson of 9/11 was that we must remove threats before they become imminent.

4. The war would be unconstitutional. A war of aggression conducted without international sanction would be a very bad endeavor indeed. (We need no international sanction to make war in self-defense, but as noted, Iran's threats to America have been almost entirely rhetorical, and mere possession of dangerous weapons cannot plausibly be construed to rise to the level of threat justifying launching a war in ostensible self-defene.) But it is also remotely unlikely that the President would undertake such a war under authorization of a proper declaration of war by Congress. And that should trouble us very much. In the last 60 years, the President has conducted numerous wars without declarations. But these have by and large fallen into recognizable categories. Korea and the first Iraq War were police actions conducted under U.N. auspices. They were arguably not "wars" between the United States and another country but situations where that other country was declared an outlaw, and America led a collective effort to bring the outlaw down under treaties which obliged us to do so. In such cases, perhaps an "authorization to use force" is more appropriate than a declaration of war, as the latter makes "personal" between America and the outlaw country a matter that we have reason to want to seem impersonal. Vietnam, meanwhile, was an effort to assist that poor country from being subverted by a revolutionary group financed by its neighbor. We escalated to full-scale war by small degrees, such that it is perhaps understandable Congress never roused itself to recognition of the crossing of that Rubicon. Finally, we engaged in a number of small wars - Grenada, Panama - that were without our traditional "sphere of influence" and were hardly large enough to dignify with the name of "war." Virtually all our military adventures undertaken since WWII - none of which have been declared wars - can be excused constitutionally under one or more of these three categorizations. The main exceptions are the last three wars our nation has fought: Kossovo, which was pretty plainly illegal as NATO had not been attacked by Serbia; Afghanistan, which was plainly legal under international law and, as well, about as justified a war as could be imagined, but which obviously should have been a declared war; and the second Iraq war, which could be justified legally as both a domestic and international matter by saying that America and the President specifically had residual authorization under the U.N. resolutions that preceded and followed the first Iraq war to resume its "police action" when those resolutions were flagrantly violated. An attack on Iran that was not conducted under an actual declaration of war would meet none of these conditions. It would quite plainly set a dangerous constitutional precedent in letting the President undertake aggressive war without the consent of the people and their representatives.

Okay, here I'm afraid Noah betrays a lack of knowledge of history and constitutional law. The constitutional requirement for war is that Congress declare it, not that there be some sort of criterion met for cassus belli. Attacking our embassy in 1979 was an act of war. Bombing our airmen in Saudi Arabia was an act of war. Training terrorists to attack us is an act of war. Funneling arms, money, personnel, and orders to "insurgents" attacking American troops in Iraq is an act of war. This isn't rhetoric by any means; Iran is at war with us. Moreover, rhetoric is SUFFICIENT cause to go to war. We went to war with Nazi Germany in 1941 when they had not attacked us. They declared war in the wake of Pearl Harbor and we honored their rhetoric.

Moreover, as Noah notes, we've gone to war without the provocation the Iranians have provided. The Spanish-American War is a good example, as is Korea, Vietnam, the Mexican War, Grenada, etc. Moreover, Congress has not officially declared war since 1941, and yet the president has been authorized by Congress to deploy combat troops nonetheless. Whenever Congress does so, the war is constitutional. Congress represents the will of the American people, as one would expect in a republican form of government.

The American people will most assuredly support war with Iran if a) they're building nukes and b) they're aiming them at us. Congress likewise will support it, as they supported the Iraq War.

5. We would not win the war. We have not yet won in Iraq, and I see precious little chance of us doing so. Pinprick air strikes are not going to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program; at best they would set it back a few years. There is a reason that the Administration has - in a not-very-serious way - been asking questions about the utility of low-yield nuclear weapons as part of an Iran strike. The irony of conducting a nuclear first-strike as a way of preventing nuclear proliferation is apparently lost on those asking the questions. In any event, it seems clear to me that if we struck Iran from the air, we would not be sure of success, and we would quickly become embroiled in a wider war - either within Iran, because we invaded, or around the Gulf, because Iran closed the Straits of Hormuz, or attacked the Saudi oil regions, or began firing conventional missiles at our bases in Iraq, or a combination of all of these. And even though we could quickly destroy the Iranian airforce, and would win a pitched tank battle quite easily, we do not have the resources to *subdue* Iran, which has nearly three times the population and four times the land area of Iraq. We invaded Iraq on the assumption that if we had sufficient force to win a battle with the enemy in the open, we would win the war. The enemy declined to meet us, and we have been losing steadily ever since we took Baghdad. Iran will be very different, as the state is much less fragile and more capable, and the country has much more national consciousness. This might lead the Iranians to make the mistake of fighting us head-to-head, but it also might mean that the government of Iran would successfully coordinate a guerilla campaign against a U.S. invasion. Lest we think that overwhelming conventional superiority guarantees victory, we should recall the German experience in the Balkans in World War II as well as our current war in Iraq. The Atlantic conducted a wargame of a U.S.-Iranian conflict a couple of years ago, and the result was very unfavorable to the United States. If victory is defined as anything more than damaging Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons for a decade or so, then I think victory will be elusive. If victory is defined as nothing more than this, then it seems to me that victory would be quite Pyrrhic in character - for the United States, anyway. For Israel, with much less to lose, such a victory would probably be sufficient. But we have a lot more to lose in terms of the collateral costs of conducting such a war.

Here Noah erects farfetched strawman for the purpose of dismissing them; hardly an argument at all.

He's entitled to his opinions on Iraq, but I'm a bit skeptical of taking them at face value given a) I'm not aware of spectacular success he's had as battlefield general or military theorist and b) odds are against his possessing precognition.

I would ask him to look at a map.

Iraq is right next to Iran, much closer to it than, say, Diego Garcia, or Missouri. This is important because the amount of airpower we can throw against another country is proportional to how far we need to fly and how much midair refueling is necessary to run a mission. Since Iraq is right next to Iran, we have another advantage in this case---it's called the U.S. Army, and it's parked on Iran's doorstep right now. You don't need to run an air campaign alone to wage war against Iran, you can drive over there.

Here's another thought for you---where will an Iranian insurgency get its money, its arms, and its marching orders? We're struggling in Iraq because Iran and Syria are providing all of this to the "insurgents" in Iraq. With them out of the picture, does Noah really think Iran could sustain op tempo against American forces in control of their cities? The primary lesson of the War on Terror has been that terrorists require state sponsorship to be successful. No state sponsor, no successful terrorist groups.

Guess who one of the world's foremost sponsor of terrorist groups is? That's right---Iran.

As for investigating the use of low-yield nukes, what's the issue? DARPA eggheads and military planners exist to investigate this stuff. Thankfully, they're one helluva lot more imaginative than Noah seems to be.

6. War is not a general solution. Nuclear technology is now generally available. A host of European and Asian countries have the technical capacity to nuclearize already; several other countries could get there quickly if they felt the need. And then there is the long list of countries nominally further away from nuclearization who would love to get there quickly. The odds are that an Iranian bomb would accelerate the process of proliferation in the Middle East specifically. But the process is going to continue regardless. Between Russia, China, North Korea and Pakistan, the world has enough providers of nuclear know-how who will not kowtow to American wishes. And it is very hard to see how making war on Iran is any kind of precedent for a workable strategy of nonproliferation. We have not gone to war with Pakistan, and it is a nuclear power; we are not likely to go to war with Turkey if it decides to go nuclear. War with Iran would be a very expensive delaying action, and I'm not even clear how much delay would be achieved if what we're trying to delay is a world in which terrorists potentially have access to nuclear weapons. This is a depressing conclusion. But it does not follow from the fact that it is depressing that the conclusion is false, or that simply voting for war makes you less culpable for a bad outcome because at least you did *something* - any more than voting *against* war makes you less culpable because at least you voted for "peace." More broadly, I feel like the case for war rests in part on a kind of nostalgia for the good old days when the West could deal with threats from the South summarily. But the reason the West could do this was not just a matter of a lack of "politically correct" scruples back in said good-old-days. Nor was it merely a matter of technological superiority; we still have that in spades. It's also a matter of demographics. In 1900, Iraq had a population of about 2 million, Britain a population of about 35 million - a ratio of 17 to 1. And Britain found occupying Iraq after World War I to be an enormous pain. Today, Iraq has a population of 27 million, the U.K. a population of 60 million, a ratio of a bit over 2 to 1. And that understates the change in the ratio, as the U.K.'s population is much older than Iraq's; a ratio of males of military age would show an even more dramatic change, and a much less favorable ratio. In the heyday of Western imperialism, the West had an overwhelming demographic advantage over a South that was pre-modern, traditional, quietistic, and most of all sparsely populated. Today's South is still under-developed, but it is increasingly modern, politically mobilized and densely populated - and there are just a lot more of them. Strategies that might have worked 100 years ago are simply inapplicable today. I wish more war advocates understood this.

Nuclear technology is not "generally available". It takes a lot of knowledge in a wide variety of fields to produce nuclear weapons. That's why the notion that Iran was pursuing their program for energy purposes was such a howler. You don't need North Korean nuclear-capable missiles for kilowatt generation.

As for not going to war with nuclear powers, let me just point this fact out:

There are 194 states. There are 7 nuclear states. For a bunch of warmongers, we haven't been to war with very many of either group.

The reason?

Well, war opens up a whole chain of unforseeable events.

Had Americans in 1939 known that World War II would have made us the preeminent military, economic, and cultural power on Earth, we might have been more inclined to go to war. Instead, we resisted being drawn into what we saw as a largely European concern.

We enter into war only when we believe we must, either to acquire territory (Mexican War), to preserve our national honor (WWI), to advance our national interests (Vietnam), to prevent genocide (Kosovo), or in self-defense (the War on Terror).

In Iran, all but the first would reasonably apply. Unless you relish an Iranian nuke blowing up in Long Beach, that is.

7. There is no rush, or it's too late. Iran is already past the point of having the capabilities to develop a weapon. They have all the technologies they need. It's too late to stop them by halting technology transfer. But they are still a few years away from a workable weapon. That means we have time to figure out an effective strategy to handle them, even if that strategy may involve a military component. This was a key point of Edward Luttwak's article in Commentary, and I take it to heart.

I wish I had Noah's faith in our intelligence capabilities when it comes to WMD. Keep in mind that the Iranian intelligence service may well be the best in the world. We may not know what we think we know at this point.
Either way, doing nothing is a recipe for disaster. Iran has demonstrated the willingness and ability to attack us directly and through proxies with whatever weapons are available.

Here's a question:

What if Iranian intelligence agents within a hitherto-unknown terrorist organization demanded the U.S. stop supporting Israel and punctuated its demand by detonating a nuke carried aboard a fishing vessel just outside Long Beach (the major West Coast shipping port)?

Deterrence doesn't work as well without bulletproof evidence tying the attack to Iran, would it?

It's not a ridiculous scenario---Iran has attacked the United States a number of times conventionally in this manner without harm.

Are we willing to run that risk?

8. Nuclear weapons are useless as offensive weapons. Iran could not conceivably win a war by using nuclear weapons. The only rational use of nuclear weapons would be in self-defense against a conventional threat (this was America's war plan during the Cold War in the event of a Soviet invasion of Germany, and it is likely Pakistan's war plan today against a hypothetical Indian invasion), or as a second-strike capability against a decapitating nuclear first-strike. It is overwhelmingly likely that the reason Iran wants nuclear weapons is to deter other countries - preeminently us - from attacking them, and to give it greater freedom for aggressive behavior in its near abroad. America is perfectly capable of countering the latter; if Iran tries to "Finlandize" Azerbaijan or Qatar or what-have-you, that will only push many countries in the region *closer* to the United States. Until Iran has the kind of soft power that China has developed (which, on a much smaller scale, they could eventually develop - Iran has an educated population, after all, and is a better bet than any other Middle Eastern state to actually become a developed country), it is unlikely to win allies of genuine interest. If Iran tries to bully its way into regional hegemony, the strategy will backfire, even if they have nuclear weapons in their pocket. So the great risk is that Iran will do something profoundly irrational, like conducting nuclear terrorism against the United States or, more likely, Israel. This risk cannot be entirely discounted. But neither can it be a kind of conversation-ending catch-all justification for aggressive war. Those minds so dedicated to coming up with justifications for war should spend a bit more of their time figuring out how to deter Iran from doing what we are most afraid of them doing: handing nukes to terrorists. On the one hand, Iran has said some inflammatory things, and the current President is a complete nut-job. On the other hand, Iran's *actions* have been carefully calibrated, and Iran has not initiated hostilities against any country in a very long time. I certainly think we can make a strong case for a variety of coercive diplomatic measures to quarantine Iran as punishment for violating their NPT obligations. But I just can't see how we justify aggressive war on the basis that we "worry" Iran will do something crazy like nuking Los Angeles in the hopes we won't figure out who did it and turn their civilization into a shiny glass plain. In the end, the question of Iran's rationality rests on the question of whether the leadership of the regime is more like the Soviets - a bunch of dangerous radicals but aware of reality and eager to grow in power, not to commit suicide - or more like al Qaeda - maniacs whose sole principle is destruction for the sake of destruction. On the evidence of Iran's behavior for the past 25 years, I'm very much inclined toward the former rather than the latter understanding.

I would argue a couple of points here:

1. Iran is not rational. Their president is a man who seeks the return of the 12th imam and the apocalypse which is prophesied to precede it.

2. The only two nuclear weapons dropped on an enemy were quite successful as offensive weapons. They work particularly well against foes who do not possess them.

3. They also serve as an effective deterrent, as Noah notes. It is a much dicier proposition to take on nuclear-capable mullahs than conventional mullahs.

4. It is flatly false that Iran has "not initiated hostilities against any country in a very long time." Remember that they fought Iraq throughout the 80s. Afterward, they resorted to proxy war tactics, but blowing up Americans surely must be considered "initiating hostilities".

5. The surest way to prevent Iran from handing nukes to terrorists is to prevent Iran from getting nukes.

6. The notion that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons to prevent us from attacking them is nonsense. Nuclear programs take years to develop and the Iranians have tested us enough to know we won't attack them even when they engage in clear acts of war against us. That's the lesson bin Laden learned, right? Iran wants to be the dominant player in the Middle East. Being the only nuclear power in the region will achieve that goal.

What we must understand is that military power we are unwilling to use is no deterrent. As the world's sole superpower, we've got a target on our collective backs. It is in the national interests of every other major power to see our influence reduced, our military superiority eliminated, our nation weakened. This is why so many of them cooperate to our detriment.

We are not the world's policeman---never have been, never will be.

We must, however, take decisive action to eliminate clear threats to our national interest.

Iran represents a clear threat to American national interests, and its high time we eliminated this threat.

After all, the mullahs aren't planning a surprise birthday party for us.


Blogger linearthinker said...

You have the patience of Job. Well articulated.
Time is not on our side, and I fear neither is the Department of State.
The tea leaves may be easier to read by the end of January. Too much noise right now.


3:52 AM  

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