Monday, February 12, 2007

This Is How You Get Got

Kevin Drum surveys the evidence on Iranian involvement in Iraq unveiled by the White House on Sunday and comes away a bit underwhelmed:

Still, everyone is skeptical, and who can blame them? The current gang in the White House would have to provide videotape of the Ayatollah Khamenei himself attaching tailfins to one of these things and putting it in a box labeled "Baghdad -- ASAP" before I'd be willing to take any action based on this latest dog and pony show. With any luck, in a couple of years we'll have a president I don't have to feel that way about.

Actually, I think Kevin is falling into a trap here by suggesting that with sufficient evidence pointing to high level Iranian involvement in funneling arms to allies in Iraq (most of whom are actually key members of the Iraqi government that Coalition forces are dying at a steady clip in order to protect), he would be willing to endorse "action" against Iran (presumably of the military variety).

Thoreau, over at Chez Henley, makes a very compelling argument (recently supported rather thoughtfully by Andrew Olmsted as well) that even if we learn of Iran's clear involvement in Iraq along the lines of what Drum sets out as his litmus test, it would be foolish to let such evidence dictate our actions in mindless fashion. This should be the case even if it were proven that some of these armaments were used against American forces. From Thoreau:

Now, those who want to could take a “principled” stand and say that if Iran is sponsoring proxies then they are just as much an enemy as the proxies, and hence they are a legitimate target. On one level that analysis would be entirely correct. However, there’s a big difference between what would be “justified” (to the extent that anything in war is really “justified”) and what would be smart. Strategy should be set by the brain, not the emotions, presuming that your goal is to bring the conflict to some satisfactory conclusion. We fought various proxy wars during the Cold War. Now, whatever one might think about those wars (I, for one, think they were at best a waste of time and at worst a crime), surely we can all agree that a direct war against the Soviets would have been a catastrophe.

Granted, Iran is not the Soviet Union. They can’t inflict as much damage as the Soviets could. So a war against Iran would be a smaller catastrophe, but a small catastrophe is still a catastrophe. A lot of US troops would die, a lot of innocent civilians would die in Iran and neighboring countries, chaos would be unleashed, millions would be displaced, infrastructure would be ruined, millions would be impoverished, people around the world would be radicalized, terrorists would undoubtedly retaliate inside the US (immediately and for years to come as a result of the radicalization), and any hope for peace, stability, and liberal reform in the Middle East and neighboring regions would be lost.

All for what? Showing that we’re not afraid to fight? The satisfaction of hitting those who sponsored a proxy?

Another facet of the story that those who become preoccupied with evidentiary standards for proving Iranian involvement can unintentionally elide is the fact that the Bush administration's desire to confront Iran militarily was in existence prior to the invasion of Iraq itself, and exists entirely separate from any such meddling by Iran. In fact, Iran's involvement itself is fueled in part by a desire to hamstring the Bush administration's capacity to follow through on its desire to topple the regime in Tehran.

As Paul Pillar notes, arguing from the reverse angle (via Laura Rozen and Swopa):

Even if Iranian assistance to an Iraqi group is proven to everyone's satisfaction, the [Bush administration's] policy never rested on that. The policy [is being driven by a] much larger sense of Iran as the prime bete noire in the region, and that is why the administration is trying to put together these coalitions with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Sunni states, that we've been reading about. None of this hinges [on the Iran dossier]. We are not going to call this off if we can't prove that Iran is furnishing munitions to Iraqi groups.

Spencer Ackerman makes a similar argument:

The reasons why tensions are mounting against Iran have exactly nothing with Explosively Formed Penetrators and everything to do with much, much larger strategic concerns. But the Bush administration isn't making the case it believes, which, according to Condoleezza Rice, is that Iran is the source of instability in the region and must be confronted and made to stop. Instead, it's presenting the proposition that Iran has already attacked us -- precisely in order to put its opponents in the trap of arguing against what one official at today's briefing termed This isn't a rationale the administration isn't presenting; it is a casus belli. It's the new WMD argument -- the proximate cause that, in Paul Wolfowitz's words, the bureaucracy can agree upon for public consumption, rather than the substantive rationale for war.

This doesn't mean that we should not subject the putative evidence of Iranian trouble making presented by the Bush administraiton to the rigorous tests suggested by Jim Henley. We absolutely should. And we should continue to point to the holes in the overall narrative that can exaggerate Iran's actions and motives. But as Thoreau cautions, we should be prepared to argue that military confrontation with Iran would be a disaster, one that would greatly radicalize Iranian citizens and marginalize moderates throughout the region, regardless of the perceived adequacy of provocation as embodied by the chosen public selling point.

The calamitous outcome of military confrontation is both a known known, and unknown unknown to put it in the parlance of the Finest Secretary of Defense in the history of the United States. But rest assured, it would be undertaken for reasons entirely separate from IEDs, EFPs and Iran's ties to SCIRI and Sadr - even if those talking points are used to stoke the requisite war frenzy in the public mind. It would be about pre-existing, and long held desires to remake the Middle East according to some solipsistic fantasy gone awry. But as Big Media Swopa aptly observed (See Swopa mugging for the camera!):

You'd think [the Bush administration and its regional allies] would be aware that relying on deft applications of American military force to reshape the Middle East to their liking is how they got into this mess.

True. But to quote the author of this post title: "Now, this would seem to be clear common sense, but cats be livin' off sheer confidence...But acting invincible, just ain't sensible."

And that's how you get got.

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