Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Magical Thinking's Mysterious Tour

Matt Yglesias wrote a post attempting to pour cold water on the theory that the saber rattling vis a vis Iran is really a means to intimidate Iran into making concessions regarding its nuclear aspirations. Said Yglesias:

One idea I've seen kicking around the past couple of days is that talk of military strikes against Iran may be part of some kind of clever gamesmanship designed to achieve a diplomatic resolution. I think people need to think harder about that.
Since I've been "kicking" this idea around for at least a year, I thought I might respond in part. Now I don't know if I personally would characterize any of this as "clever" gamesmanship, but it might just be the only game left to play - or at least the only game the Bush administration views as viable (more on that below). But first, I wanted to take a look at what I believe is a flaw in Matt's analysis. I think he is actually blurring the line separating a few separate arguments in order to refute them all.

By way of parsing the issues at play, the first question should be whether or not the Bush administration is, in fact, attempting to scare Iran in to making nuclear program-related concessions (or, on the contrary, is the recent uptick in bellicose rhetoric an indication of the Bush administration's intent to start the next war, or some other unknown purpose). The second question would be, can this scare-tactic gambit work? Third, and relatedly, if so, is the current use of scare-tactics and associated diplomatic entreaties the optimal package to be employing? Matt seems to focus most of his attention on the second and third questions, while framing the discussion as if his post answers the first as well. Perhaps I am misinterpreting his argument. Nevertheless, here is part of his thesis:

Airstrikes would, at best, delay Iranian acquisition of nukes. Giving in to the United States would, of course, entail abandoning the quest for them entirely. So the structure of Bush's offer, under this theory, would be "either give up your nukes or else I'll slightly delay the point at which you can get them." That, I think, isn't quite in "offer they can't refuse" territory. Indeed, they'd have no reason whatsoever to accept that offer. It's a pointless threat.
This is a very narrow reading of the threats currently being circulated as part of the Bush administration's fright junket, however. Matt's critique might work if the universe of threats were limited to airstrikes, and perhaps he means to limit the discussion thusly. But the publicly floated threats of aggressive action on our part have not been limited to airstrikes. Also included are references to the use of tactical nuclear weapons (airstrikes on steroids that would do more than delay the nuclear program"slightly"), facilitating regime change by proxy, implementing broader and more multilateral sanctions, fomenting ethnic and sectarian unrest and, for some ideological fellow travelers, all-out invasion/forcible regime change.

Consider, also, Kevin Drum's recent post on the establishment of some dubious Iranian policy shops and the wider ramifications potentially stemming therefrom:

Remember the White House Iraq Group? And the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans? Basically, they were organizations designed to sidestep the moldy old national security bureaucracy and market the war with Iraq directly to the American public. And while in retrospect some may have questioned their, um, dedication to precise and sober analysis, you can't deny they were effective.

Well, guess what? Lawrence Kaplan reports that we now have a similar organization for Iran:

Although a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) declines to comment on its existence, and the press has yet to carry a single mention of it, last month the administration formed something called the Iran-Syria Operations Group (ISOG) - a group headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Liz Cheney, the purpose of which is to encourage regime change in Iran. It's no secret that Cheney has over $80 million at her disposal to promote democracy in Iran. But ISOG isn't simply about promoting democracy. It's about helping to craft official policy, doing so not with one but two countries in its sights, and creating a policymaking apparatus that parallels - and skirts - Foggy Bottom's suspect Iran desk.
So, I think it should be acknowledged that the Bush administration's machinations on this matter foretell of potentially far more serious consequences for Iran than a mere "delay" of "Iranian acquisition of nukes." In addition, even if the threat were limited to non-nuclear airstrikes alone, there is the very real possibility that such airstrikes could set off a cycle of escalating conflict. Matt himself wrote this a couple of days ago: important point that I think too often gets neglected in this talk which is that if the United States starts a war (and, yes, bombing another country's nuclear plants is starting a war) we don't get to unilaterally decide on the scope of the ensuing conflict. If we bomb, presumably Iran will retaliate. Those retaliations will, in turn, tend to increase pressure for us to counter-retaliate. And so on and so forth....

Surely, these possibilities - considered by Matt - must also enter the minds of Iranian leaders while assessing the worth of the "bargain(s)" being offered by Bush. Yglesias goes on to suggest that positive incentives might add something more compelling to the deal, but even then, the airstrikes threat is superfluous:

The only way to make this work would be to put carrots on the table. "Give up your nukes and we'll lift our sanctions and grant you diplomatic recognition, or else I'll use force to slightly delay the point at which you can go nuclear." This will work, of course, only if Iran would prefer diplomatic and trade relations with the US to having a nuclear bomb. But if that is their preference, then the threat of airstrikes adds nothing to the equation -- you could just put the straight-up nukes for sanctions trade on the table and you'd get the same result one way or another. Airstrikes would be pointless in any case, and precisely because they're pointless there's no point in threatening to use them.
Again, I'm not sure why the discussion should be limited to the threat of airstrikes, or that airstrikes should be considered a one-time endeavor without the likelihood for severe escalation in the aftermath. Nevertheless, I think Matt is 100% correct that "carrots" are an integral part of what would be the optimal approach. The point is that the bargain must be made as attractive as possible - both from a positive and negative consequences vantage point.

The other point to consider is that some of the Bush administration's bluster might actually be aimed at European and/or Asian audiences. As Fred Kaplan noted (via prak), as did the NY Times (via Laura Rozen), there is a good deal of speculation that the Bush administration is trying to instill fear in the hearts and minds of the Chinese, Russians and other European nations in order to compel them to act along more attractive diplomatic lines in order to stave off another war. From the Times:

Others suggest that the vague drumbeat of talk about military action may be less aimed at Tehran than at China and Russia - two countries that have said they oppose even the threat of economic sanctions against Iran, much less threats to set back the Iranian program by obliterating its facilities.
From Kaplan:

If Iran is immune to such pressures, our European allies might not be. Many of them already regard Bush as a religious zealot and Cheney as a warmonger. If they believe that the White House might really resolve the dispute with Iran by dropping nuclear bombs, they might suddenly start pushing for sanctions - a move they've stopped short of, mainly to protect their own trade relations with Tehran - as a comparatively moderate way of pressuring Iran to stop enriching uranium. Whether or not this is Bush's intent, there's evidence in Hersh's piece that the escalation might have the same effect. The Europeans, Hersh writes, are "rattled" by "their growing perception that Bush and Cheney believe a bombing campaign will be needed." He quotes one European diplomat as saying, "We need to find ways to impose sufficient costs to bring the [Iranian] regime to its senses....I think if there is unity in opposition and the price imposed" - in sanctions - "is sufficient, [the Iranians] may back down."
This could increase the Bush administration's leverage by solidifying a unified front against Iran, even if Iran itself is not swayed by the "frightening" rhetoric. Yet as prak also noted recently, sometimes public bluster can increase resistance to making a deal and could force the hands of the actors involved:

Put it another way, if you make this a test of manhood via the international press, you decrease the likelihood of Iran backing down because they will lose face. Populations tend to become more nationalistic and rally around the flag when threatened, and leaders don't like losing face in front of such sentiments.
But, again, that argument has more to do with the efficacy of the approach than a judgment as to whether or not this is indeed the approach being pursued. I can't say that I have a lot of faith in the Bush administration's ability to pull this off, regardless of their intentions. Especially if they do not incorporate some of the "carrots" that Yglesias alluded to. Then again, given the exigencies of our commitments in Iraq, I don't know that any administration could succeed under these circumstances - let alone one with as weak a central leader and as many internal divisions and competing power nodes as this one.

I might also be misreading this situation completely, though, and perilously underestimating the Bush administration's willingness to use force against Iran. It's not exactly like I have recent history on my side. Nor should the potential for this brinkmanship to backfire be ignored. Still, I get the impression that the Bush team is doing what it can to puff up its chest because it knows that it has very few other means to compel Iran to make concessions - or to convince our allies and tenuous partners to cooperate in bringing more meaningful diplomatic pressure to bear on Iran. That is especially the case given its short-sighted refusal to get into the "carrot" dispensing business for fear of looking soft or upsetting certain constituencies.

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