You might remember Paul Pillar. He was the "first high-level CIA" official to state publicly that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to justify a war with Iraq. In an article for Foreign Affairs in 2006, he wrote:
... official intelligence analysis was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made...Now just six years later, Pillar is back with a warning — U.S. presidential election year politics could lead the United States into a war with Iran and such a war would be a disaster. The aim of the warhawks is to make starting a war with Iran this year the only option left open to the president.
The administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made. It went to war without requesting -- and evidently without being influenced by -- any strategic-level intelligence assessments on any aspect of Iraq...
The Bush administration deviated from the professional standard not only in using policy to drive intelligence, but also in aggressively using intelligence to win public support for its decision to go to war. This meant selectively adducing data -- "cherry-picking" -- rather than using the intelligence community's own analytic judgments.
Pillar writes we must stop now to ask what would change if Iran builds a nuclear bomb?
Writing in the March/April issue of Washington Monthly, Pillar argues that "We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran". He observes that escalating rhetoric against Iran is happening "against the unhelpful backdrop of American election-year politics".
The Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of the antiwar libertarian Ron Paul, have seized on Iran as a possible winning issue and have tried to outdo each other in sounding bellicose about it. Mitt Romney has repeatedly discussed the use of military force as one way of fulfilling his promise that, if he is elected, Iran “will not have a nuclear weapon.”Members of the Obama administration have also turned up the heat in their words concerning Iran. For example, in a recent interview with The Atlantic, President Obama said:
...what I've emphasized is that preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon isn't just in the interest of Israel, it is profoundly in the security interests of the United States, and that when I say we're not taking any option off the table, we mean it...Pillar notes Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on "Face the Nation" in response to Iran's threat to close the Strait of Hormuz if disruptions happen to Iranian oil sales that "We made very clear that the United States will not tolerate the blocking of the Strait of Hormuz... That's another red line for us and that we will respond to them."
I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.
In short, both Democrats and Republicans have so ratcheted up their alarm about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon that they are willing to commit to the extreme step of launching an offensive war—an act of aggression—to try to stop it...Pillar thinks we must stop and ask, "what difference would it make to Iran’s behavior and influence if the country had a bomb?"
Those in the United States who genuinely yearn for war are still a neoconservative minority. But the danger that war might break out—and that the hawks will get their way—has nonetheless become substantial. The U.S. has just withdrawn the last troops from one Middle Eastern country where it fought a highly costly war of choice with a rationale involving weapons of mass destruction. Now we find ourselves on the precipice of yet another such war—almost purely because the acceptable range of opinion on Iran has narrowed and ossified around the “sensible” idea that all options must be pursued to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Hardly anyone debating policy on Iran asks exactly why a nuclear-armed Iran would be so dangerous. What passes for an answer to that question takes two forms: one simple, and another that sounds more sophisticated.Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are the "most vocal" proponent of the simple answer "Iranian leaders are suicidal jihadists", Pillar writes. The simple answer Santorum, Gingrich, and their ilk give is that Iran's leaders "are religious fanatics who value martyrdom more than life, cannot be counted on to act rationally, and therefore cannot be deterred".
The problem with their view isn't just irony, but that they are flat out wrong. Pillar writes:
In fact, the Islamic Republic’s conduct beyond its borders has been characterized by caution. Even the most seemingly ruthless Iranian behavior has been motivated by specific, immediate concerns of regime survival... Iran’s rulers are constantly balancing a very worldly set of strategic interests...The "more-sophicated" answer is just as wrong according to Pillar.
If the stereotyped image of Iranian leaders had real basis in fact, we would see more aggressive and brash Iranian behavior in the Middle East than we have.
A dominant feature of this mode of argument is “worst-casing,” as exemplified by a pro-war article by Matthew Kroenig in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Kroenig’s case rests on speculation after speculation about what mischief Iran “could” commit in the Middle East, with almost no attention to whether Iran has any reason to do those things, and thus to whether it ever would be likely to do them.A dangerous combination occurs with the war proponents when they use "worst-casing" to predict what will happen if Iran develops a nuclear bomb and "best-casing" when they predict what the outcome will be with a war with Iran. "Worst-case speculations" are "not adequate justifications for going to war," Pillar writes. A war is not in the national interest of Iran, Israel, or the United States.
Kroenig includes among his “coulds” a scary possibility that also served as a selling point of the Iraq War: the thought of a regime giving nuclear weapons or materials to a terrorist group. Nothing is said about why Iran or any other regime ever would have an incentive to do this. In fact, Tehran would have strong reasons not to do it. Why would it want to lose control over a commodity that is scarce as well as dangerous?
When the debate turns from discussing the consequences that would flow from Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon to discussing the consequences of a U.S. military attack on Iran, the mode of argument used by proponents of an attack changes entirely. Instead of the worst case, the emphasis is now on the best case. This “best-casing” often rests on the assumption that military action would take the form of a confined, surgical use of air power to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities.But, air strikes alone are not going to thwart Iran's nuclear program. "Only a ground invasion and occupation could hope to accomplish" a nuclear-weapons-free Iran, Pillar writes. Additionally, air strikes requires a "major assault" to destroy, at least, Iran's air defense systems.
Iran will strike back at American interests if attacked. Pillar writes:
No one knows what the full ramifications of such a war with Iran would be, and that is the main problem with any proposal to use military force against the Iranian nuclear program. But the negative consequences for U.S. interests are likely to be severe...Additionally, Pillar predicts an attack on Iran "would be an immediate political gift to Iranian hard-liners" and lessen the "emotional gap between Persians and Arabs". This would make the entire Middle Eastern region more dangerous to American interests. Pillar writes:
Surely, Iran would strike back, in ways and places of its own choosing. That should not be surprising; it is what Americans would do if their own homeland were attacked.
“There’s only one thing worse than military action against Iran,” Senator John McCain has said, “and that is a nuclear-armed Iran.” But any careful look at the balance sheet on this issue yields the opposite conclusion. Military action against Iran would have consequences far worse than a nuclear-armed Iran."It is impossible to ignore how much, in American politics, the Iran issue is an Israel issue," Pillar writes. The Israeli government's recent "talking up the danger of an Iranian bomb" only increases the pressure on Americans to act. He suggests that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, senses a fleeting opportunity with this year's presidential election "to precipitate a conflict in which a preelection U.S. president would feel obliged to join in on Israel’s side."
That may be Netanyahu's aim, but I think it underestimates the president. President Obama is trying to maintain a diplomatic balancing act. Obama said on Sunday at the AIPAC Policy Conference:
Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster. Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built.I think Obama is correct here. The war rhetoric needs to cool and I think preferably to be quashed.
Military experts in Israel think an attack on Iran would be a bad idea, Pillar explains and "self-declared American friends of Israel are doing it no favor by talking up such a war."
The most recent U.S. intelligence consensus report from 16 agencies concludes Iran is not trying to build a nuclear bomb at this time.
Although Iran continues to enrich uranium at low levels, U.S. officials say they have not seen evidence that has caused them to significantly revise that judgment. Senior U.S. officials say Israel does not dispute the basic intelligence or analysis.But despite our best intelligence, warhawks have already determined that a military strike is the only option. Romney, for example, is flat out ignoring U.S. intelligence and falsely claiming Iran has a 'nuclear-bomb' program and signally his intent to militarily strike at Iran.
"The same Islamic fanatics who took our diplomats hostage are racing to build a nuclear bomb," Romney wrote today in the Washington Post.
Until Iran ceases its nuclear-bomb program, I will press for ever-tightening sanctions, acting with other countries if we can but alone if we must...Romney is imitating the words of then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who said in 2002 as part of the Bush administration's effort to sell an Iraq war:
Most important, I will buttress my diplomacy with a military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions.
The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quicklyEvidence? Romney doesn't need it. He and his fellow warhawks have already concluded a "military option" is necessary. 'It's déjà vu all over again.' Americans had this rah-rah to war in the 2000 presidential election when the foe was Iraq. Have Americans forgotten about such wars of choice after just 12 years?
hethey can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.
Pillar is right. We can choose to live with a nuclear Iran. A war to prevent a nuclear Iran would be a far worse choice.