Monday, March 12, 2007

One-Eyed Kings

Matt Yglesias ladles out an adequate portion of faint praise for Robert Kagan:

At any rate, you're not supposed to mention Robert Kagan in polite professional punditry circles without observing that he's much smarter and a much more honest writer than your average neocon. This pearl of wisdom even has the virtue of being true. Sadly, as Glenn Greenwald exhaustively demonstrates, this really isn't saying very much. For a neocon, he has a great analytic track record on Iraq, which means his track record is horrible rather than, say, horrifyingly horrible.

Since Matt, and New York City's suddenly spring-like weather, have me feeling charitable today, I'd like to offer my own praise for Kagan. With respect to urging military confrontation with Iran, Kagan has displayed a rare tendency to speak frankly of the likely size, scope and efficacy of the various military options. Rare, that is, in neoconservative circles.

Witness Kagan's relatively clear-eyed assessment in this Washington Post column from last year:

If an air and missile strike could destroy Iran's nuclear weapons program, it might seem the best of many bad options. But the likely costs outweigh the benefits. [...]

The Pentagon can hit facilities it can see with relative confidence. But much of Iran's program is underground, and some of it we don't know about. Even if a strike set back Iran's plans, we would not know by how much. For all the price we would pay, we wouldn't even know what we'd achieved. [...]

Then there is the prospect of Iranian retaliation: terrorist attacks, military activity in Iraq, attempts to close off the Persian Gulf shipping lanes and disrupt oil supplies. Unless we were prepared to escalate, ultimately to the point of taking down the regime, we could end up in worse shape than when we began. [...]

But we shouldn't delude ourselves. Efforts to foment political change won't necessarily bear fruit in time to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb. That may be the risk we have to take. But if this or the next administration decides it is too dangerous to wait for political change, then the answer will have to be an invasion, not merely an air and missile strike, to put an end to Iran's nuclear program as well as to its regime. If Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon is truly intolerable, that is the only military answer. [emphasis added]

While some neocons, like Michael Ledeen, have a difficult time keeping their stories straight on Iran (and Iraq!) - shamelessly weaving in and out of advocacy for military confrontation and indignant claims that he has urged no such thing - most now claim that their military aims vis-a-vis Iran are limited. These new-fangled incrementalists, forced to reckon with dwindling political will, as well as the logistical constraints imposed by commitments and vulnerabilities in Iraq (whither glorious World War IV?), are pushing the theory that air strikes targeting Iran can and would be a tidy, effective, short-lived and limited military affair.

No ground forces needed, no measurable geographic expansion of the conflict, no occupation, no nation building required - just a healthy dose of "shock and awe" bombardment which, according to William Kristol and his compatriots, will lead to an uprising of pro-American reformers that would topple the Mullahs and thank us for our ballistic largess.

This is either extreme naivete or duplicity on a grand scale. Neither option should inspire any confidence in the judgment of the pundits in question.

Kagan explains the reasons why such a view is misguided, which should be obvious to even amateurish analysts: the defenses to air strikes built up by Iran, and the limited intelligence on our part in support of these air strikes, will hamper their efficacy. More importantly, though, Iran has the means to respond forcefully and in many theaters.

This retaliation will be enormously costly to us economically, politically and in terms of our ability to maintain an effective military deterrent globally. If Iran's response goes unanswered, these costs will escalate across the board. In the process, we could very well lose Iraq, as just one example. To quote Kagan, "Unless we were prepared to escalate, ultimately to the point of taking down the regime, we could end up in worse shape than when we began." Easily.

Most observers recognize this though. Even the ones that spin their magical thinking into outlandish scenarios whereby we attack Iran with massive aerial bombardment, and Iran either begrudgingly accepts our aggression without rejoinder or - in an even more far-fetched rendition - initiates an internal revolt that results in a US-friendly regime.

Those that advocate for air strikes - like Kagan - know that the conflict will escalate into a large scale confrontation. It's just that such a high ticket product doesn't have the same consumer demand as it used to. So now they're selling Invasion Lite, at a discount, to the masses.

That, as they say, is a classic bait and switch.

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