Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Tonkin in a Teapot

This story, reported by the New York Times yesterday, is generating some heat in that segment of our punditocracy that is overly enthusiastic about the use of the military to address our problems. The opening paragraph has the putative bombshell:

The American military is holding at least four Iranians in Iraq, including men the Bush administration called senior military officials, who were seized in a pair of raids late last week aimed at people suspected of conducting attacks on Iraqi security forces, according to senior Iraqi and American officials in Baghdad and Washington.

Predictably, certain Bush supporters are pointing to this as smoking gun evidence that Iran is interfering in Iraq in order to destabilize the nascent government - and, thus, that these captures should act as a pretense for an attack on Iran. There are some serious problems with drawing such a conclusion from this evidence, though.

For one, two of the Iranians detained were in Iraq on invitation from Kurdish political leader Jalal Talabani - the current Iraqi president. In addition, at least one of the raids occurred at the Baghdad compound of SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz-Hakim - who we were recently floating as a suitable alternative to his rival, Moqtada al-Sadr, in connection with a plan that would have marginalized Sadr and boosted SCIRI's power (a plan that was torpedoed by Ayatollah Sistani's insistence on Shiite unity, regardless).

Perhaps most damning of all, however, is the fact that when two of the detainees were turned over to the Iraqi government, they were promptly released back to Iran. The Iraqi government is continuing to petition for the release of the other Iranian prisoners. This reaction on the part of the Iraqi government is telling.

If these Iranians were really in Iraq to coordinate attacks against Iraqi security forces, why would the Iraqi government (in charge of those same security forces) be so eager to release the detainees? And why would they have invited them in the first place (in the case of Talabani), and sheltered them while in Iraq (in the case of Hakim).

Nevertheless, Glenn Reynolds and others are trying to conjure a tempest out of this tepid affair, wondering whether this, at last, constitues the long sought after "casus belli." Such advocacy is so misguided it's hard to know where to begin. First of all, leaving aside the dubious nature of the story cited above, lets concede for the sake of argument that Iran is indeed meddling in Iraq in order to complicate our occupation. I don't really have that hard a time entertaining such a premise.

With this premise acknowledged, let's allow for the possibility that at some point in the future, new evidence of Iran's malfeasance may be uncovered that holds up better under scrutiny than the Times' story. Would that, then, consistute a casus belli? Not under all but the most egregious circumstances. Think about it.

We have made it abundantly clear that we would like regime change in Iran - a regime Bush labeled part of the nefarious "axis of evil." In furtherance of these goals, we, ourselves, have been meddling in Iran in order to stoke unrest there among certain restive minority groups and outside dissidents. Not to mention the fact that we have amassed a very large army right next door and persisted in refusing just about any diplomatic entreaty or proposal for normalized relations.

Iran responds rationally by trying to pin us to the mat in Iraq through its own ability to create chaos, and also to augment its power and influence through the building of cooperative relationships with potential allies and proxies. At what point in that equally adversarial narrative do we get to cry "foul" as the aggrieved party? What act would stick out against the backdrop of decades of tumultuous US/Iranian relations as over the line?

I'll go even further. Let's say, again ex arguendo, that Iran's actions have been intolerabely malicious and destructive, and that our own acts and intentions have been peaceful and pure. Would it, even then, behoove us to treat Iran's meddling in Iraq as a reason to launch a war against Iran now?

The answer is a pretty clear no.

At the moment, President Bush has the military leadership scrambling to come up with a way to tinker with deployments, rotations and the like in order to create the illusion of a surge of troops in Iraq. Big dreamers at the AEI like Frederick Kagan are spinning fantastical plans for "winning" in Iraq based on the utilization of an army of considerably larger force size than the one that currently exists.

With severe troop shortages and ever-worsening conditions plaguing our efforts in Iraq, we're supposed to invade Iran as well? Even after factoring in the increased risk to our troops in Iraq (see, ie, long, vulnerable supply lines stretching through the Shiite south) that would flow from an Iran in full war footing? Really Glenn? I'd ask "you and whose army" but I know it wouldn't include you.

So, let me redact it: with whose army Glenn?

How easy it is to advocate for war when one is freed from the constraints imposed by reality. All bluster and chest thumping bravado, with no need to even consider the price of the bill, let alone paying it.

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