The appearance of weakness is weakness. That was always the argument. Appear strong and others respect you, or if they can’t manage to respect you – because they hate your guts for what you’ve done in the past and are doing now, or just hate you for who you are – at least they will fear you. Either way they won’t mess with you, and, as the diplomats say, you can advance your own interests.
That was always the argument, as everyone knows that Bill Clinton caused the attacks of September 11, 2001 – Clinton didn’t respond appropriately to the Cole bombing and the embassy bombings in Africa. If he had only opened a can of whoop-ass on anyone in the Middle East who even looked at us funny, no one would have dared even think about doing what was done to us in 2001. There was the ABC docudrama on that back in 2006 – Bill Clinton caused 9/11 and George Bush had to clean up after him, so Bush was the real hero.
Yeah, they got most of their facts wrong, but that all blew over. It fit the whole narrative, that the appearance of weakness is weakness. And after all the reasons we just had to go to war in Iraq turned to dust, there was always that – so you got the New York Times’ Tom Freidman maintaining his “suck on this” argument that the war was the right thing to do. Freidman explained it all to Charlie Rose – sure, there were no WMD and in the end Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, and we botched the occupation and it cost a thousand times more than we thought, and the world reviles us for the whole thing. But we had to do it – we had to go into the Arab world and push someone around, to show that no one could push us around. And any nation in the region would do. We didn’t invade the wrong country. There was no wrong country. The idea was that the bombing of the Cole, and all the other bombings, then the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, were the result of appearing weak, and those guys needed to be taught a lesson, that we weren’t weak, and if they didn’t like us dismantling and terrorizing a somewhat randomly chosen country in their neighborhood, Freidman had a message for them – “Suck on this!” And he stands by that to this day.
That’s the most distilled form of the argument, but it always crops up – Russia invades Georgia during the last presidential campaign and John McCain suggests we should remind Russia that full scale nuclear war with them is sure to come if they don’t back off. Obama suggests we slow down and understand just what happened and why, and consult with our allies, and talk to the Russians about why they might want to back off. McCain screams that that could get us all killed – we’d appear weak, and everyone knows what would happen next. The world would walk all over us, and Russia would take over the world, which had always been the Soviets’ aim – so Obama isn’t fit to be president. Obama is a dangerous, naïve guy who doesn’t know how the world works. All Democrats are like that.
And then Obama won the election. That was odd. The neoconservatives, and particularly Dick Cheney, had been saying this sort of thing for years. But people were fed up with Iraq and a global thermonuclear war of honor, to cement the world’s respect for us, and to keep us safe, just wasn’t that appealing. A nation does get tired, and we were drained. And Obama’s approach – slow down and understand just what is happening and why, and consult with our allies, and talk to the bad guys and explain why it would be in their own interest to back off, and what might happen if they don’t, and what will happen if they do – didn’t seem all that stupid and childish.
And now the issue is Iran, enriching uranium and likely one day to develop nuclear weapons, and run by some very strange people, with a popular uprising underway to remove those very strange people. Their potential nuclear capability, whoever ends up in charge, presents a problem to regional stability, and world stability, and presents an existential problem to Israel, as those in charge in Iran, at the moment, keep saying that they don’t think Israel should exist.
But, during the presidential campaign, McCain had the answer – he sang Bomb, Bomb, Bomb – Bomb, Bomb Iran to the Beach Boy’s tune. And that idea is still floating around. In fact, Fareed Zakaria opens a Washington Post column reminding us that Sarah Palin had that suggestion for how Barack Obama can save his presidency. “Say he decided to declare war on Iran,” is what she said on Fox News. “I think people would perhaps shift their thinking a little bit and decide, well, maybe he’s tougher than we think he is today.”
Zakaria notes that Palin picked up the idea from Daniel Pipes – he’s the neoconservative Middle East expert who suggested Obama starting a war of choice with Iran would reverse Obama’s political fortunes, big time. And Zakaria tosses in a comment that Palin attributed the idea to Patrick Buchanan, as she said she’d read that in Buchanan’s column – where Buchanan argued that Pipes’ suggestion was nonsense. As Zakaria says – “It’s getting tiresome to keep pointing out her serial gaffes, but Palin does appear to be running for president.”
But no matter – there are more important issues than that woman’s reading comprehension issues, as the Pipes’ idea is still nonsense:
The International Atomic Energy Agency warned last week of its “concerns” that the Iranian regime was moving to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability, not just nuclear energy. But this does not change the powerful calculus against a military strike, which would most likely delay the Iranian program by only a few years. And then there are the political consequences. The regime would gain support as ordinary Iranians rally around the flag. The opposition would be forced to support a government under attack from abroad. The regime would foment and fund violence from Afghanistan to Iraq and across the Persian Gulf. The price of oil would skyrocket – which, ironically, would help Tehran pay for all these operations.
Zakaria argues that it is important to recognize the magnitude of what people like Palin are advocating:
The United States is being asked to launch a military invasion of a state that poses no imminent threat to America, without sanction from any international body and with few governments willing to publicly endorse such an action. Al-Qaeda and its ilk would present it as the third American invasion of a Muslim nation in a decade, proof positive that the United States is engaged in a war of civilizations. Moderate Arab states and Muslim governments everywhere would be on the defensive. And as Washington has surely come to realize, wars unleash forces that cannot be predicted or controlled.
And of course every other nation in the region would want their own bomb, and seek to build one, or buy one, and we could very well have a worldwide nuclear winter to take care of that pesky global warming problem, with a good part of the world’s population glowing green or dead, or both. But other than that it’s a cool idea.
Zakaria considers the alternative:
An Iran with nuclear weapons would be dangerous and destabilizing, though I am not as convinced as some that it would automatically force Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to go nuclear as well. If Israel’s large nuclear arsenal has not made Egypt seek its own nukes – even though that country has fought and lost three wars with Israel – it is unclear to me why an Iranian bomb would.
He thinks the United States should use the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report to encourage “a robust containment strategy” against Iran – get the moderate Arab states and Israel together in a tacit alliance, ask the European states to get serious, and push Russia and China to endorse sanctions. And he adds this – “Former secretary of state James Baker suggested to me on CNN that the United States could extend its nuclear umbrella to Israel, Egypt and the Gulf states – something that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hinted at as well.” Attack them and you’d be in deep trouble.
But Zakaria argues the worst-case scenario is not the worst thing in the world:
Can we live with a nuclear Iran? Well, we’re living with a nuclear North Korea (boxed in and contained by its neighbors). And we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union and Communist China.
Iran, we’re told, is different. The country cannot be deterred by America’s vast arsenal of nukes because it is run by a bunch of mystic mullahs who aren’t rational, embrace death and have millenarian fantasies. But this isn’t and never was an accurate description of Iran’s canny (and ruthlessly pragmatic) clerical elite.
The most significant recent development in Iran has been the displacement of the clerical elite by the Revolutionary Guards, a military organization that is now the center of power. Clinton confirmed this when she warned of an emerging “military dictatorship” there. I’m not sure which is worse for the Iranian people: rule by nasty mullahs or by thuggish soldiers. But we know this: Military regimes are calculating. They act in ways that keep themselves in power. That instinct for self-preservation is what will make a containment strategy work.
That’s hopeful. But at Slate see Anne Applebaum with Preparing for the Worst:
Let’s be serious for a moment. President Barack Obama will not bomb Iran. This is not because he is a liberal, or because he is a peacenik, or because he doesn’t have the guts to try and “save” his presidency in this time-honored manner, as Sarah Palin said she would like him to do.
The president will not bomb Iran’s nuclear installations for precisely the same reasons that George W. Bush did not bomb Iran’s nuclear installations: because we don’t know exactly where they all are, because we don’t know whether such a raid could stop the Iranian nuclear program for more than a few months, and because Iran’s threatened response – against Israelis and U.S. troops, via Iran’s allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Lebanon – isn’t one we want to cope with at this precise moment. Nor do we want the higher oil prices that would instantly follow. No U.S. president doing a sober calculation would want to start a new war of choice while U.S. troops are still actively engaged on two other fronts, and no U.S. president could expect public support for more than a nanosecond.
But she argues that even if Obama does not bomb Iran, that doesn’t mean no one else will:
The defining moment of his presidency may well come at 2 a.m. some day, when he picks up the phone and is told that the Israeli prime minister is on the line: Israel has just carried out a raid on Iranian nuclear sites. What then?
That seems inevitable, but Applebaum suggests that it’s not inevitable at all:
If the Israelis were as enthusiastic about bombing raids as some believe, they would have carried them out already. They had no qualms about sending eight jets to take out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 or about bombing a purported Syrian facility in 2007. Both are now considered model operations. They were brief and successful, they provoked no serious retaliation, and they even won de facto acceptance from the outside world as legitimate defensive measures.
But she quotes the squadron leader of the 1981 raid – “There is no single target that you could bomb with eight aircraft.” It’s just not that simple, and Israel knows it:
The Israelis have the same doubts as everyone else about the efficacy of raids, which is why they have focused on covert sabotage and even off-the-record diplomacy, despite having no diplomatic relations with Iran, in the hopes of slowing down the nuclear development process. They have also quietly studied the ways in which Iran could be deterred, knowing that they will have the advantage in nuclear technology for the next couple of decades. Though they keep all options on the table, they have so far concluded that bombing raids aren’t worth the consequences.
But that too could change:
Since Americans often assume that everyone else perceives the world the same way we do, it is worth repeating the obvious here: Many Israelis regard the Iranian nuclear program as a matter of life and death. The prospect of a nuclear Iran isn’t an irritant or a distant threat. It is understood directly in the context of the Iranian president’s provocative attacks on Israel’s right to exist and of his public support for historians who deny the Holocaust. If you want to make Israelis paranoid, hint that they might be the target of an attempted mass murder. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does exactly that.
So Israel bombing the Iranian nuclear sites may come, and we should be prepared if it does come:
Contrary to Palin, I do not think Obama would restore the fortunes of his presidency by bombing Iran, like a character out of the movie Wag the Dog. But I do hope that this administration is ready, militarily and psychologically, not for a war of choice but for an unwanted war of necessity. This is real life, after all, not Hollywood.
No, actually this is Hollywood, right here. People always make fun of us out here. But you see what she’s getting at. From Cheney passed on to McCain and then passed on to Palin, we have the notion that the appearance of weakness is weakness, which is deadly for the country, and assures that you lose the next election (except when it doesn’t).
But Fred Kaplan most clearly lays out the only four alternatives here:
It’s time to attack Iran now, before it’s too late.
It’s time to rally the world to impose sanctions on Iran now, before it’s too late.
It’s time to engage Iran in diplomacy now, before it’s too late.
Relax: An Iranian A-bomb is not a big danger, and, in fact, it might help stabilize the Middle East.
And he examines the problems with all four arguments, starting with the last, and the New York Times column by Adam Lowther. This guy is a defense analyst at the Air Force Research Institute and argues that an Iranian bomb might be beneficial to us, as Kaplan summarizes:
The Saudis and Egyptians would want us to protect them by pledging to retaliate against Iran if Iran attacks Saudi Arabia or Egypt; in exchange for this guarantee, we could insist that they institute massive economic and democratic reforms and make peace with Israel. Furthermore, Lowther claims, the Palestinians would also rush to make peace, because the radioactive fallout from an Iranian attack on Jerusalem would kill them, too.
Kaplan calls this “one of the nuttiest op-ed pieces ever published in a major American newspaper.”
No American president is going to treat an attack on Cairo or Riyadh as an attack on the United States. Even if a president said he would, no Egyptian or Saudi leader would believe him. Even if they did believe him, they’d assume that the United States was doing this for its own interests; they’d see no need to adopt democracy and capitalism or to snuggle with Israel; certainly, they wouldn’t agree to any such deal. The argument is delusional from start to finish.
But then there is the more limited argument:
If Iran built A-bombs, it could be deterred from using them by a credible threat of retaliation from the United States, Israel, or Arab countries that might build their own atomic arsenals in response. Some argue that a Middle East arms race, in this sense, might stabilize tensions, as each power would deter the others from a nuclear attack. Some also argue that revolutionary regimes have tended to moderate their behavior once A-bombs enter the equation. Knowing that wars can escalate, they have an interest in tamping down conflicts before they start.
This argument has some validity. If they hadn’t possessed the bomb, China and the Soviet Union probably would have gone to war with each other in the late 1960s; border clashes between East and West Germany might have erupted at some point during the Cold War; India and Pakistan might have fought more intensely in the past decade. The bomb has reduced the likelihood of major war between large powers.
But reducing the likelihood isn’t eliminating it. Does the 1962 Cuban missile crisis ring a bell? And Kaplan goes on to explain that no one in the Middle East is likely to work out what took us decades, all those fail-safe mechanisms like permissive action links, go codes, and redundant command-control links. Accidental or unauthorized launches would be likely. And there’s this:
On another level, the danger of an Iranian bomb isn’t that Tehran’s mullahs will wake up one day and nuke Jerusalem. They must know that they’d face annihilating retaliation. Deterrence does work on that basic level, at least against a regime with an instinct for self-preservation (and the Iranian leaders do have that). The danger, or one danger, is that nuclear weapons embolden their possessors to take risks, especially at committing lower levels of aggression. For instance, if Saddam Hussein had built some nukes before invading Kuwait in 1990, it would have been much harder for President George H. W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, to rally such a vast coalition – or, perhaps, any coalition at all – to push him back. During that war, Baker also declared that the United States would view a chemical or biological attack against Israel as identical to a nuclear attack against the United States and would respond accordingly. That declaration might have been less credible if Saddam had had his own nukes to bargain with.
There’s much more, but basically it is worth going to some trouble to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands. But then, how much trouble is the question. That’s worth a read, but here are the basics:
Launching an attack on Iran’s facilities is a bad idea, especially if it’s done with no concrete evidence that the Iranians can build a bomb, much less that they’re about to do so. An airstrike or commando raid would only consolidate the regime’s power. (There’s nothing like a foreign attack to rally domestic support for a beleaguered regime.)
At the same time, diplomatic engagement seems futile, mainly because there’s nobody over there to engage. Or, if some officials do want to engage, they’re swiftly overruled by other officials who don’t. …
As for sanctions, they’re tricky, especially at a time when mass movements are protesting a government we’re trying to pressure. Sanctions are crude; they punish the population as brutally as the government, when what we ought to be doing is seeking ways to aggravate the split between the Iranian people and their rulers. …
Regime change would be nice, though a few things are worth noting. First, since we can’t really engage with the Iranian government right now, it might be a good idea to declare our sympathies with the rebels and demand an end to their torture and imprisonment more openly.
However, material assistance to these rebels (whether overt or badly disguised covert) will only make things worse, especially in Iran, where memories of 1953 – the year the CIA helped overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh and install the Shah – remain strong and politically exploitable. …
Finally, even if democratic, pro-Western reformers took over the Iranian government, they would almost certainly continue to enrich uranium – though not necessarily to make A-bombs. It’s become – due in part to all the outside pressure – an issue of national pride.
Other than that, all this is a piece of cake. And if McCain or Palin were president, then – you don’t want to think about that. And Kaplan explains why that is:
The real frustration about this whole issue, the reason why even reasonable people are flirting with actions that are dangerous or futile, is that, ultimately, we have little control over what happens next.
But that’s always the way it is. And that’s where the fallacy in the idea that the appearance of weakness is weakness, that appearing weak will assure that others will walk all over you, and hurt you, and take your lunch money, and generally or specifically terrorize you.
But here’s the deal. It doesn’t matter – appear weak, appear strong, be diplomatic and careful and listen, or be irrationally and unpredictably and murderously brutal, for God, if that makes you happy, and others will do what they do for their own reasons. So, in spite of the geopolitical Tinkers to Evans to Chance – here Cheney to McCain to Palin – the whole notion that others are impressed with us one way or the other is adolescent egotistical delusion. Everyone is only impressed with themselves, Americans included. And maybe that’s all we have to work with. But it is something.