I was just reading Paul Pillar’s incisive essay in the Washington Monthly which puts the argument against war with Iran about as strongly as anyone can. Pillar is a 28 year veteran of the CIA specializing in the Near East and South Asia, and currently is director of graduate studies at Georgetown. The essay is so strong that even summarizing it would be a waste of time. Just read it.
Reading it got me to thinking about Israel’s choices at this juncture relating to Iran. As the lyrics of Mrs. Robinson go: “Anyway you look at it you lose.” If Israel attacks Iran it will lose because it will not do so with enough force to deal its nuclear program a knock-out blow. Iran may be set back a year or two or even three, but not permanently. Iran will in turn redouble its efforts to get a weapon and do so overtly, rather than covertly. Iran will also counterattack and cause extensive damage both to Israel, possibly American interests, and even the world economy. Here’s how Pillar puts it:
When the Brookings Institution ran a war-games simulation a couple of years ago, an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities escalated into a region-wide crisis in which Iranian missiles were raining down on Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, and Tehran launched a worldwide terrorist campaign against U.S. interests.
If that happens, after the slight euphoria of Israel’s Shock and Awe against Iran wears off, and people start linking up for gas whose price has doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, then the bellyaching will begin. Israel won’t look so good at that point, when the world is looking for someone to blame.
Let’s say in the best possible scenario for Israeli war hawks that the U.S. joins in the fight. It brings far more extensive firepower to bear against Iran and does extensive damage to the nuclear program. Even then, the U.S. is unlikely to entirely wipe out this program and it certainly will not have wiped out Iran’s will to have such a program. That means that no matter how much damage ensues, Iran’s leaders and scientific community will be emboldened to resume the program as soon as practicable. Further, if the U.S. doubles down on Iran and joins in the fray, then Israel will no longer be the party the world blames if anything goes wrong afterward. Then they’ll put a nice big bull’s-eye on our backs and blame it all on Uncle Sam.
Pillar also speculates about how such an attack would reflect on American interests in the Arab world:
Regional political consequences would include deepened anger at the United States for what would be seen as unprovoked killing of Muslims—with everything such anger entails in terms of stimulating more extremist violence against Americans. The emotional gap between Persians and Arabs would lessen, as would the isolation of Iran from other states in the region. Contrary to a common misconception, the Persian Gulf Arabs do not want a U.S. war with Iran, notwithstanding their own concerns about their neighbor to the north. Saudi and other Gulf Arab officials have repeatedly indicated that while they look to U.S. leadership in containing Iranian influence, they do not favor an armed attack. The former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al Faisal, recently stated, “It is very clear that a military strike against Iran will be catastrophic in its consequences, not just on us but the world in general.”
So short of embracing regime change and boots on the ground, I don’t see any way that either Israel or the U.S. can win with a war strategy. But that may not be the worst of it.
Let’s say Israel doesn’t attack (and to me it’s becoming increasingly clear that it will). Israel (and the U.S.) will still come out losers. They will have bet the house on a bellicose strategy of threatening war and invoking savage sanctions designed to destroy Iran’s economy–and all for the purpose of stopping an Iranian bomb. But none of this will stop Iran from getting a bomb if it wants one. Just as North Korea is a savagely mismanaged country facing mass famine, Iran will be a country brought to its knees through a starvation regime caused by western nations intent of humbling Iran. The world will look at Iran’s starving children and again blame it on the leaders who devised the strategy in the first place: Obama and Netanyahu.
At that point you will have two world leaders who did and said everything in their power to get Iran to bend to their will, and failed. They in turn will look weak and ineffectual. In truth, those of us following Obama’s approach to Israel over the past three years have known he was ineffectual. His failure in this matter (Iran) will only confirm that judgment. It will begin Obama’s lame duck status just as his second term begins, not traditionally the point at which presidents are accustomed to seeing themselves become politically irrelevant.
There may be a way for Obama to save face and redeem a reasonable amount of the political capital he frittered away on his policy belligerence and confrontation. He could embrace the very approach he just denied in today’s Aipac speech: containment. Despite the fact that he renounced containment, it is, in fact, the only reasonable approach. As such it will win out in the end. The only question is how much of Obama’s power and influence will ebb before he reverts to the policy he could’ve followed all along.
It won’t matter as much for Netanyahu, as Israeli leaders have a habit of making disastrous decisions and not being held to account for them. Chances are that Israelis will not make Bibi pay a price for his failures regarding Iran. They’ll allow him to continue muddling through, going from failure to failure until he gives way to the next leader who will stumble through yet another series of policy gaffes and misjudgments probably involving another war or two in Gaza, Lebanon or God knows where else.
Yeah, I know…what a bummer. Sorry to bring you down like this. But to think that all of this didn’t have to happen. If someone with leadership could’ve just looked Bibi in the eyes and told him to go to hell without worrying about Aipac or the Jewish vote and pro-Israel donors. Alas, we don’t have a leader like that now and may never have. Which is why we and our leader, Pres. Obama, will have to suffer whether we go to war against Iran or not.
On a related matter, Obama’s speech was typical fence-straddling. He threw a bone to Israel with all the “got your back” nonsense and he also admonished Israeli and U.S. war hawks who’ve been nattering away about the glories in store if we go after the mullahs hammer and tong. But there was one statement which offered Bibi a green light to attack Iran:
Israeli leaders…recognize their obligation to defend their country.
…Iran’s leaders should…not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.
I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power…
He couched this statement just vaguely enough, that if Israel does attack he can point to the fact that he was clearly stating a preference for diplomacy and using war as a last resort, and that Israel misinterpreted his remarks. Israel, suitably, will read the passage precisely the way it wishes and read this as a presumptive seal of approval for its war policy. The result will be an Israeli war against Iran that will do little more than “mow the lawn,” in that obscene phrasing that Israeli generals and politicians like to use. The attack will set back Iran marginally, but cause immense hardship and suffering for Iranians, Israelis and the rest of the world as well. To quote another great American songwriter: “That’s the way that the world goes round.”
This article was published at Tikun Olam