A few months ago, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol dismissed as “silly” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen’s view — a view shared by a pretty substantial majority of the U.S. military and foreign policy establishment — of the wide-ranging negative consequences that would likely ensue from any military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
As I noted at the time, this was reminiscent of the tendency among neocons during the run-up to the Iraq invasion to dismiss the views of key military leaders, analysts, and academics in regard to the likely consequences of such an invasion, and the forces required to deal with those consequences. (When those predictions turned out to be entirely correct, the neocons simply turned on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then carried on as if they’d never been wrong.)
In the current Weekly Standard, Reuel Marc Gerecht presents what is essentially a longer version of Kristol’s “silly” argument — entitled, in one of the most transparently pointless rhetorical gestures ever, “Should Israel Bomb Iran?” After a cursory examination of the various post-strike scenarios offered, Gerecht simply asserts that these concerns are ““mostly overblown“:
Some of the alarmist scenarios are the opposite of what would more likely unfold after an Israeli attack. Although dangerous for Israel, a preventive strike remains the most effective answer to the possibility of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards having nuclear weapons. Provided the Israeli air force is capable of executing it, and assuming no U.S. military action, an Israeli bombardment remains the only conceivable means of derailing or seriously delaying Iran’s nuclear program and — equally important — traumatizing Tehran. [...]
What the Israelis need to do is rock the system. Iran’s nuclear-weapons program has become the third pillar of Khamenei’s theocracy (the other two being anti-Americanism and the veil). If the Israelis, whom the regime constantly asperses as Zionists ripe for extinction, can badly damage Iran’s nuclear program, the regime will lose enormous face. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have said repeatedly that the Israelis wouldn’t dare strike the nation’s nuclear program; if the Israelis do dare, it will be a stunning blow. And military defeats can be deadly for dictatorships—historically, there’s nothing deadlier.
While there is no guarantee that an Israeli raid would cause sufficient shock to produce a fatal backlash against Khamenei and the senior leadership of the Guards, there is a chance it would, and nothing else on the horizon offers Israel better odds.
So there it is. Yes, this article was actually published: Predictions of disaster are silly — there’s a very good chance that disaster won’t happen! (Based on what? Shut up!) What the Israelis need to do is pound Iran into submission. Of course, this may not work. But it might! Anybody have any better ideas?
Back in the reality-based world, a new report from the UK Oxford Research Group says in some detail what I think most intelligent people already understand — that an Israeli attack on Iran “would lead to a sustained conflict and regional instability that would be unlikely to prevent the eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran and might even encourage it”:
While an Israeli military strike could not be initiated entirely without the knowledge of the United States, it could avoid over-flying US-controlled airspace. The operation would target a wide range of nuclear and missile facilities and would also be aimed at the technical support, including factories, research centers and university facilities that would underpin the rebuilding of the facilities after attack. There would be significant civilian casualties.
An Iranian administration under attack would experience considerable national unity and would work rapidly to redevelop its weapons programs, withdrawing from the NPT [Nonproliferation Treaty] and prioritizing nuclear weapons. This would lead to further Israeli military strikes, resulting in prolonged conflict — the start of a long war with potential regional and global consequences. Iran could, if it chose, take many other actions, including operations to affect world oil markets and to increase instability in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prospects for regional stability and wider global security would be very seriously damaged.
The report concludes that “military action against Iran should be ruled out as a means of responding to its possible nuclear weapons ambitions.” These findings are generally in keeping with what we’ve seen from other reports from the Council on Foreign Relations, and comments from retired Gen. Anthony Zinni. But Gerecht thinks they should all just relax and not be such negative Nellies.
Gerecht is equally cavalier about the consequences of a military strike on Iran’s democracy movement:
Since 1999, when the supreme leader quashed student demonstrations and put paid to any chance that the Islamic Republic would peacefully evolve under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, Iran has calcified into an ever-nastier autocracy. An Israeli strike now—after the rise of the Green Movement and the crackdown on it—is more likely to shake the regime than would have a massive American attack in 2002, when Tehran’s clandestine nuclear program was first revealed. And if anything can jolt the pro-democracy movement forward, contrary to the now passionately accepted conventional wisdom, an Israeli strike against the nuclear sites is it.
Gerecht’s presentation of Iran’s new authoritarian era as an unbroken line back to 1999 conveniently ignores the extent to which the Bush administration’s “axis of evil” rhetoric kneecapped moderates within the Iranian regime and bolstered the arguments of Iran’s hardliners, who claimed that negotiation with the U.S. was pointless, as the Americans only understand strength. (Sound familiar?)
You’ll also notice that in dismissing the conventional wisdom that a strike on Iran would Iran’s democracy movement, he doesn’t bother to include any quotes from actual Iranian democrats to this effect. That’s probably because he hasn’t been able to find any. At a recent conference on Iran in Europe, I had a chance to talk to a number of Iranian democracy activists, many of them who very recently exited Iran, and I thought it was notable that, even though there were a range of views on how best to deal with the current Iranian government, there was complete agreement among them that a strike by either the U.S. or Israel would be a death blow to their movement, and that those who support war with Iran not be allowed to pose as friends of Iranian democracy.
Via Twitter, Bart Motes reminds us that “Gerecht used almost exactly the same template” in a 2002 article arguing for the Iraq war:
Could a war with Iraq compromise America’s war on terrorism? It would appear that many in the foreign policy establishment believe so…
But these fears for the war on terrorism are unfounded. A war against Iraq will reinforce, not weaken, whatever collective spirit has developed among intelligence and security agencies working against Islamic radicals. Indeed, without the war to remove Saddam, it is likely that the counterterrorist efforts of “allied” intelligence and security services in the Muslim world will diminish, if not end entirely. And it shouldn’t be that hard to understand why. Self-interest and fear of American power, not feelings of fraternity and common purpose, are what will glue together any lasting international effort against terrorism. [...]
[I]t should be obvious that if the Bush administration now fails to go to war against Saddam Hussein, we will lose enormous face throughout the region. President Bush has defined himself and America by his axis-of-evil, regime-change policy toward Iraq. Without a successful war to remove Saddam, we will return to the pre-9/11 pattern of timidity that Osama bin Laden so effectively underscored in his writings and speeches. In the eyes of the young men who live with the purpose and promise conferred by the hope of martyrdom, we will have shown that Osama was right–that indeed we are no longer “the strongest horse.” And these young men will, sooner rather than later, brutally reveal to us that an attempt to prosecute a “global counterterrorist campaign” in the absence of awe at American power is bound to fail.