Iran Strikes Back

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.

In his latest column in The Washington Post, David Ignatius compares the current impasse with the Cuban Missile Crisis. He writes about the choices President Bush is presented with:

[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.

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7 Responses to Iran Strikes Back

  1. TedB says:

    President Kennedy had the advantage of multiple points of view in his administration. Our current office holder seems to have only the neocons.:-(

    The POTUS also truely believes he has been sent by God to do His bidding. This view includes, apparently, serious discussion of a nuclear holocost in the Middle East. If any additional war commences in that region, I can forsee oil costs escalating to the point of our ruin ($120+ per barrel).

    If we go nuclear, I can see a hegemony of fear and significant boycotts of us by much of the world. Who will risk selling nessesary comodities to us? Who will buy the our exports and T-Bills used to fund these wars? China? Japan? They get the majority of their oil from the Middle East so it is no stretch to believe that they will not be amused at a major disruption to their economies.

    In the bombing scenario, where would our oil come from? I predict – nowhere. Gas could easily reach $6-7 per gallon if you could find it. A complete economic shut down would follow. I really can’t see any way around this if we attack Iran.

    Diplomatically, I can’t see the neocons being successful as they appear unable to think in terms of compromise. They view all opposing ideas with contempt. This is not a receipe for success in diplomacy.

    If our military leaders don’t realize that they swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, not the office holders, we will be lost. They need to stand up to this President and resign enmass if nesessary to prevent the nightmare scenario. Dictator/unchecked President – show me the difference.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful commentary.

  2. Mash says:


    You are right about the circle around this President being all of one opinion. They have effectively labeled any opposing viewpoint as treasonous.

    Another important difference was that Kennedy was smart enough to weigh both options and transcend them and find a third and ultimately more fruitful option. President Bush, as far as I can see, is not capable of such independent thought.

    If times of crisis, it matters very much what the intellect of the President is like.

    Thanks again for reading my posts.

  3. suntzu says:

    Thoughtful article, perhaps a bit optimistic sounding to conclude, since Bush has already made such a mess in the Middle East. But if there is still a rational response left in this administration, then diplomacy is the only answer, even if there is an element of carrot-and-stick in it.

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  5. DH says:

    A well written post that strikes the proverbial nail on the head. This is something that is not really spoken about, everyone seems to be fixated on Pandora’s Box without looking at what solutions lie out there. I hope for our sake that reason does prevail in this situation, but then again we are talking about the chimp-in-chief who seems to be fascinated with big explosions.

  6. Bill says:

    Terror, terror, terror. Now everybody shake in their boots. The evil Iranians will soon have the bomb, any minute now. Iran must be invaded. Now! This is reminisant of Hitler taking time out from getting his ass kicked at the gates of Moscow to declare war on us. Moves don’t get any smarter than that.

    Don’t be fooled. It’s all about changing the subject from his leaky lies to anything. The illegal immigration bull was a failure so now it’s nuke Iran. If he get’s enough of this type nonsense into the news then they won’t have time for the real story, lying, cheating and stealing.

    I love Dr Strangelove. Slim Pickins going over his marooned in hostile territory kit, “hunnerd dollars in gold, …one issue a propalactics…fellar could have a purty good week end in Vegas with this.”

    Check this out if you have a minute. The Bush gang has jumped in bed with the wrong bunch.

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