The United States has threatened a nuclear strike on the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Government of Iran has responded to this threat by publicly humiliating the United States. Iran has declared that it has officially joined the Nuclear Club. Though Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, its announcement that it is now capable of enriching uranium puts the United States, and the international community, on notice that Iran is rapidly becoming the newest nuclear power in the world.
[Professor Graham] Allison argues that Bush’s dilemma is similar to the one that confronted Kennedy in 1962. His advisers are telling him that he may face a stark choice — either to acquiesce in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a dangerous adversary, or risk war to stop that nuclear fait accompli . Hard-liners warned JFK that alternative courses of action would only delay the inevitable day of reckoning, and Bush is probably hearing similar advice now.
He argues that an attack on Iran will undermine America’s pre-eminent position in the world. He cites Zbigniew Brzezinski to drive home the point:
Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, makes a similar argument about Iran. "I think of war with Iran as the ending of America’s present role in the world," he told me this week. "Iraq may have been a preview of that, but it’s still redeemable if we get out fast. In a war with Iran, we’ll get dragged down for 20 or 30 years. The world will condemn us. We will lose our position in the world."
While I agree with Mr. Ignatius and Mr. Brzezinski that an attack on Iran will further undermine America’s relevance in the world, I disagree with the suggestion that we are not already there. I think it is a direct consequence of the war in Iraq that Iran and to a similar extent North Korea are able to throw dirt in America’s face with impunity. By threatening war we have rendered impotent our ability to wage war. Our adversaries know this and know that the vast diplomatic playing field between war and peace belongs to them.
While Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis realized that the goal of war is to achieve your will and not war itself, the Bush administration considers war as an end by itself. Kennedy deftly employed the tools of war, gunboat diplomacy, and the art of political communication in combination to achieve the primary goal – to avoid a nuclear Cuba. His genius, as Mr. Ignatius points out, was to realize that the other side does not necessarily want war. Kennedy cultivated this notion and pounced on it in one brilliant act in high stakes diplomacy: he received two contradictory messages from the Soviet Union, one belligerent one conciliatory, he chose to ignore the belligerent and act on the conciliatory. That single act shifted the dynamics of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The detente that followed can be traced back directly to this triumph of uncommon common sense alone.
The Bush Administration, by contrast, has played the diplomatic game with the subtlety of a jackhammer. It may work well in movies, where you draw a line in the sand and your opponent quickly crumbles and grovels at your feet, but in the real world a show of force is underpinned by multiple of acts of mutual compromise. The Administration however, due to its misadventure in Iraq, has lost the ability to make a credible show of force. When the United States says that we will strike you militarily if condition A is not met, the opposing party knows that this is not a starting point of diplomacy but an inflexible ultimatum. The choices for the adversary now are either capitulate or wage war. From anyone else’s perspective except perhaps that of the United States, the sounder choice is to prepare for war. It is better to fight a war under these circumstances with the final political outcome in doubt than to capitulate with its assured outcome of defeat. This is not to say that the United States cannot win militarily against Iran, it certainly can. But war is not about military victories. War is a political act and its final outcome must be measured with a political yardstick. By that yardstick, a prospect of an American victory in Iran is remote.
President Ahmadinejad of Iran has in recent days struck both a conciliatory and a belligerent tone in his public remarks. This is not a sign of an unstable personality, as many in the Administration appear to believe. It is, on the contrary, a sign that Iran is practiced in the art of diplomacy. The Bush Administration should now be at a moment of decision. Past experience suggests that the Administration perhaps does not realize this and may already have made the decision to go to war. That is a shame. This crisis offers the United States the opportunity to truly remake the Middle East – but perhaps not in the way they had originally envisioned. Iran is destined to be, with an assist from the United States in Iraq, a major power in the Middle East. The United States has an opportunity here to get ahead of this development and broker a new status quo in the Middle East that can usher in an era of regional and global stability. This development is in our National Interest, far more so than a full-scale war in the Middle East.
It is now time to move the conversation to the achievement of this new order in the Middle East.