Foreign Policy

Let’s Not Re-Fight the Last War in Iran

July 10, 2008

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The Iraq Campaign has more or less discredited the idea of preemptive war to stop the acquisition of nuclear weapons by unfriendly nations.  But does our unlucky situation in Iraq mean we should never use force to prevent nations such as Iran from getting nuclear weapons? Let me explore some paleoconservative heresies. Nuclear arms would make Iran an order of magnitude more powerful than it is and, more important, would increase the risk of nonstate actors such as al Qaeda obtaining such weapons as they proliferate among corruption-ridden and terrorist-supporting Third World nations.

I certainly don’t think fairness or reciprocity should be a major consideration in the moves we make.  International affairs are a bit like a prison yard; it’s survival of the fittest, and what we have and enjoy should sometimes be denied to others who are unfriendly, unstable, or simply “not us.” 

I do think prudence matters a great deal, though, and while I don’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons for a great many reasons, short of war I can’t see too many ways for us to stop them.  Judging by our experience in North Korea, bribes are easily ignored or exploited to our detriment. That said, there are costs of war too.  Contrasting Iraq with the peaceful denoument to the Cold War, it is clear that wars to prevent such acquisitions may be more costly than the alternatives.  There simply is no fail-safe playbook that an honest patriot can repair to.  This is undeniably a dangerous and difficult game.

Conservatives must keep their wits.  We should not be re”-fighting the last war” with Iran.  It would simply be one more overcorrection in a series of such errors to take military action, including a land invasion, off the table because of difficulties in Iraq (just as the Iraq invasion was an overcorrection to passivity in the face of Afghanistan’s support for al Qaeda).

If we look at the Iraq War, it’s clear that the initial invasion, the exploitation of WMD sites, and simple regime change were skillfully accomplished by American forces in 2003.  It was hardly a campaign of staggering casualties, commitment, or overall cost. The chief reason the Iraq War drones on is that the post-war strategic goals have been remarkably ambitious, the outgrowth of the neoconservative philosophy of democratic revolution and universal human rights imposed by American arms. In evaluating the Iraq policy, the disappointing and inconclusive counterinsurgency operations of 2004-2008 should be disaggregated from the earlier conventional operations’ accomplishments, which include regime change, exploitation of WMD sites, and the capture of Saddam Hussein. On a purely operational level, these were low cost successes.

If America left Iraq in 2003 in a beaten and disorderly state, decapitating the regime of Saddam Hussein would have prevented Iraq from imposing any significant threat to the US going forward.  Its scientists and leaders would be in jail, and the nation’s various factions would likely remain, as they have been, self-absorbed with parochial and tribal goals.

Conventional attacks aimed at weakening and disarming the Iranian regime should not be ruled out if they prove necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability.  It simply is better to attack than to be attacked. The existence of not of Iraqi WMDs does not change this principle.  Just because force can be misused and intelligence can be mistaken does not mean that intelligence is always mistaken or that force is always misused.  It is an ignorant and womanly form of unreason to contrast the undeniably bad train of events that have resulted from our actual policy with a halcyon alternative conjured up in a counter-factual fantasy world.  If we did not attack Iraq, we would be facing an entirely different set of problems.  Life would still be hard, and risk would be the perrenial companion of international relations.

So long as Iran’s leadership is not merely self-interested, but concerned with an aggressive ideological program–empowering the Islamic World through isolation, cultivating a terrorist apparatus, and developing a nuclear capability–then the need for the US to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons will remain. The threat of Iranian nuclear weapons may not be existential.  But the threat of their constant bullying, interference in sea lanes, harassment, and overall insanity will be very real.  There is no doubt, for example, that Iran has armed insurgents who have killed our soldiers in Iraq.  Do the newfangled “pacifist conservatives” have no sense of honor or revenge in the face of these provocations? 

My friends on the paleoconservative right are fond of the Confederate cause.  Perhaps they would consider John C. Calhoun’s first congressional speech defending America’s robust preparations for and aggressive strategy in the War of 1812:

The gentleman’s imagination, so fruitful on this subject, conceives that our constitution is not calculated for war, and that it cannot stand its rude shock. This is rather extraordinary. If true, we must then depend upon the commiseration or contempt of other nations for our existence. The constitution, then, it seems, has failed in an essential object, “to provide for the common defence.” No, says the gentleman from Virginia, it is competent for a defensive, but not for an offensive war. It is not necessary for me to expose the error of this opinion. Why make the distinction in this instance? Will he pretend to say that this is an offensive war; a war of conquest? Yes, the gentleman has dared to make this assertion; and for reasons no less extraordinary than the assertion itself. He says our rights are violated on the ocean, and that these violations affect our shipping, and commercial rights, to which the Canadas have no relation. The doctrine of retaliation has been much abused of late by an unreasonable extension; we have now to witness a new abuse. The gentleman from Virginia has limited it down to a point. By his rule if you receive a blow on the breast, you dare not return it on the head; you are obliged to measure and return it on the precise point on which it was received. If you do not proceed with this mathematical accuracy, it ceases to be just self-defence; it becomes an unprovoked attack.

It would be unwise in the extreme to allow intelligence failures and the setbacks of the neoconservative segment of the Iraq War to dissuade conservatives from their abiding view that the world is a dangerous place that sometimes requires the use of force against dangerous and extremist regimes.  It is a red herring to pin this all on Israeli agitation.  For reasons of self-interest, conservatives should care that the US and its people be able to obtain oil, trade with whom we will, and not see our forces bombed and terrorized by Iranian-funded extremists.

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