Friday, November 19, 2004
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Hey, the system works
Kevin Drum and David Adesnik are gnashing their teeth over Colin Powell's statements about a nuclear Iran -- and the fact that they were based on shaky empirical evidence. Kevin writes, "It's hard to believe our credibility can get any worse on stuff like this, but obviously we're trying."
I take the "glass-is-half-full" approach on this one. A lot of IR scholars were convinced that what happened in Iraq was evidence that contrary to a lot of democratic peace theory stretching back to Kant, the executive branch could gin up any excuse to go to war and it would fly with the other branches of government and the American people.
I always thought this was exaggerated. Iraq was a sui generis case in which, post-9/11, the administration went after low-hanging fruit in the form of a country in the same region that we'd fought a decade earlier, and was in noncompliance with a lot of UN Security Council resolutions. There aren't a lot of countries like that -- even Iran isn't like that. Furthermore, the post-invasion revelations about the mistakes that were made were not going to just fade away.
The Powell episode bears this out. If Iraq did anything, it made all the relevant actors -- including the Bush officials who leaked to the Washington Post -- recognize that the hurdle to justify coercive force is going to be higher from here on in. Maybe, just maybe, the failures of intelligence in Iraq have made everyone set the evidentiary bar just a bit higher for future military action.
One final random thought -- is it me, or did the Powell episode happen at almost blog speed for the U.S. government? Basically, Thursday's post corrected Wednesday's post.
Now one can question whether the U.S. government should really operate according to the norms of blog posting, and I share Kevin's concerns about U.S. credibility. Credibility is sustained by being right, but it's also sustained by admitting when you are wrong. This strikes me as a case where the government was forced to be more transparent with the quality of the information they had than at any time in the run-up to Iraq.
And that's a very, very good thing.posted by Dan on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM
Not an "either/or" scenario. They both went for the low-hanging fruit AND ginned up some semi-bogus excuses (leveraging 9/11 all the way).posted by: wishIwuz2 on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
"If Iraq did anything, it made all the relevant actors -- including the Bush officials who leaked to the Washington Post -- recognize that the hurdle to justify coercive force is going to be higher from here on in."
You mean because the voters soundly repudiated the Iraq decision by turning the people who proffered the misleading justification out? Or was there some other incentive mechanism that taught the Bush Administration the lesson you seem to see?posted by: SomeCallMeTim on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
Forced? Only because the CIA apparently had multiple people still willing to leak contrary information to the Post. But we all know Porter Goss is hard at work on that problem.
I actually agree that Iraq was a unique case in a lot of respects, and I also agree with the folks who say we're not going to invade Iran because there's no way we could do it even if we wanted to. But that just makes all this worse.
I mean, what was the point of Powell's disclosure? It was almost a parody, as if he were going out of his way to prove that no matter what, the U.S. is going to continue spewing unreliable intelligence to the world. It accomplished nothing except to confirm everyone's worst fears of us.
The whole thing is inexplicable.posted by: Kevin Drum on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
The Iranian exiles have generally been more reliable than the Iraqi exiles in the past (admittedly a very low standard). They were correct about the Natanz enrichment. So this cannot be dismissed out of hand.
As to why Iraq should have taught the neocons anything, it should have made clear to the meanest intellect among them that invading a country is "hard work". Invading Iran would probably require half a million troops, and would probably cost half a trillion dollars at least.The Bush administration policy of letting draftees handle it, and cutting taxes or adding these costs to our deficit would not work.
Admittedly, the Michael Ledeen's and Victor Davis Hanson's of the world seem to have learned little from Iraq -- they want to initiate a war with Iran (and in VDH's case, with Pakistan as well), but I did say 'the meanest intellect' :-).posted by: erg on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
What was the context of Powell's comment ? Was it an offhand comment, in response to a question (of course, for a veteran diplomant like Powell, there should be no offhand comment) ?
One possibility is that Powell is once again playing bad cop to put pressure on Iran to co-operate with the IAEA (although that makes little sense at this stage). Another possibility is that it was an internal swipe at others in the Bush administration. Maybe Powell had been saying that Iran was a greater threat than Iraq prior to the invasion.
I'm less impressed by how this episode turned out than Dan is.
What it shows to me is that American policy toward Iran is essentially reactive -- reactive not only to what the Iranian government does but to reports about what some elements within the Iranian government may be doing. This is not a good thing.
Iran is not Mao's China or Stalin's Soviet Union. Its government contains elements that do things without the rest of the government knowing about them; among its people are millions who have ample reason to be discontented with Iranian leaders who are among our own most dangerous enemies. This makes for a confusing, uncertain situation, but it is not uncertain only for us, and it looks like a situation we should be able to exploit.
Within the last two years Iran lost ten times as many people as we did on 9/11, to an earthquake that struck a town full of substandard housing. Tens of thousands of people were made homeless, and millions more are at risk should a similar earthquake strike somewhere else, as everyone expects it will. Yet Iran's government is spending billions to develop a nuclear program, including nuclear weapons. Why is this not a regular feature of administration statements on Iran?
This goes to grave weaknesses in American public diplomacy, about which I have written before here, but also to an absence of strategy. What is it we want from Iran? Is it the current regime as long as it foregoes a nuclear arsenal? Is it a new government that will materialize if we just wait long enough? How about a regional Islamist superpower with nuclear weapons it is very likely to use someday, which is what we are headed toward at the moment?
Or do we want an Iranian government forced to divert resources and attention away from the pursuit of regional supremacy and the support of terrorism toward Iranian domestic politics because we have helped stir those up? Iran is not a problem we can make go away; it will be with us in one form or another for years no matter what we do. This does not mean we have no options. We're just not taking advantage of them right now.posted by: Zathras on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
I am afraid Dr. Drezner is still living the the 'reality based community'. It might take a little longer, but the power of the state will be able to crank up war fever against Iran eventually. It might break against the rock of Iranian resistance that would make the Iraq situation look like a 'cakewalk', but I have no doubt that if Bush wanted to generate a groundswell for war against Iran, he could.
A challenge for 'democratic peace' theorists? Can you name a three year period since the end of restraints on US power (i.e the Cold War) in which the US has not invaded, bombed or otherwise violently 'engaged' some country or the other.posted by: stari_momak on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
"Tens of thousands of people were made homeless, and millions more are at risk should a similar earthquake strike somewhere else, as everyone expects it will. Yet Iran's government is spending billions to develop a nuclear program, including nuclear weapons. Why is this not a regular feature of administration statements on Iran?"
Well, why should it be? To those that think Iran is going to be a problem if/when it acquires nuclear weapons, this is not necessary. To those who oppose any sort of muscular response to the weapons acquisition, citing the misallocation of money won't budge them. In short, we would be reprising the whole Saddam Hussein argument. There is a genuine psychopath who wood-chipped, etc. thousands per year. Did it really sway any of the administration's critics?posted by: Bruce Cleaver on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
It's not clear to me that Powell's statement represents an Administration view. If you were Bush-Don-Condi and wanted to get this message out, would you really have Powell say it? As a lame duck, what he says is bound to be read by some as a critique of the administration.posted by: Jarrett on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
So, the moral of the story is that the system works, even when the formerly respectable Secretary of State demonstrates he's really an credulous dingbat?
I'm all for optimism, but if you fell you must demonstrate the glass is half-full, please note that what's in the glass is likely bull excrement.posted by: Appalled Moderate on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
"If you were Bush-Don-Condi and wanted to get this message out, would you really have Powell say it?"
Powell has a 77% approval rating. Bush's rating is actually lower than the percentage who voted for him.posted by: roy on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
Bruce, I was talking about making political difficulties for those factions within the Iranian government hostile to the United States, as opposed to gazing stupidly at a choice between letting those factions hit us with impunity and invading the country.
What, pray, are you talking about?posted by: Zathras on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
This wasn't a correction by Powell. It was a correction by "one official with access to the material ..."
Goss and co. will smoke him out and fire him.posted by: praktike on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
I just can't understand how we could possibly invade Iran.
Iraq had a garden variety vicious dictator who stifled everyone and practiced casual brutality. Iraqis hated him nearly universally. Iran has a representative government, albeit with a strong repressive component overshadowing it. The Irani people are fed up with the repressive element, but they don't hate their government nor are they completely stifled. There is a lot of debate that happens across Iran (though ironically, the US stance in the past few years has strengthened the repressives).
Iraq has significant ethnic and religious differences (Shiites vs Sunnis). I believe Iran is much more homogenous with respect to ethnicity and religion (vast majority are Shiite).
Iraqis didn't seem to have any sort of strong national identity, but they are Arabs with strong tribal identities. Iranis are not Arabs, and they have a very strong sense of their Persian identity and history as a people.
Lastly, and most importantly, Iraq has a population of 25 million which we are struggling massively to keep under any semblance of control. Iran has a population of 60 million, i.e., more than twice as many people, who I believe love their country far more than they hate the repressive component of their government.
Am I the only one who is completely flabbergasted that we are even discussing the possibility of invading Iran? What am I missing?posted by: YS on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
FWIW, YS, even Doug Feith recognizes that military action is "not a sensible option" for Iran.posted by: praktike on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
Thanks for the clarification. I thought the earthquake statements were for domestic consumption. It wouldn't hurt to point out the discrepancy. At least it doesn't cost the US anything to include the comparison, but I believe any effect would be miniscule. The Iranians want the bomb like many other military powers, and will simply shrug off criticism on priorities.posted by: Bruce Cleaver on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
I dont understand why the choice is North Korea part II or Iraq part II.
There is a high degree of disingenousnes in this argument. We have a wide range of 'stick' options at our disposal short of invasion. We could just blockade the Persian Gulf and make the Mullahs lives miserable. We could go back to the old school tomahawk missile approach. Temporary solution? Not if you repeat every 6 months.
For that matter there is a strong resistance movement in Iran not presnt in Iraq or NK we might make use of (btw the intelligence we get out of Iran is worlds better than NK or Iraq [again, thats not saying that much]).
Here's my reading of the ground, which I admit could be completely wrong:
Chester has a realistic range of options on his site:
After Mr Powell's brilliant performance at the U.N when he made the U.S's case for war against Iraq, it is hard to take seriously his, or in general this administration's allegations against Iran. Foreign governments are especially unlikely to take american intelligence or "evidence" in these matters seriously after the sheer lies that they were told about Iraq. This is part of the true cost of the way that war was conducted against Iraq. Of course, presumably, this government could not care less about its credibility
The real threat from nuclear weapons is their proliferation to non-state actors by countries like Pakistan and probably Saudi Arabia. Yet, ironically, they are "allies" in the War Against Terror.posted by: Anonymous on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
FWIW, I don't think this argument will go anywhere. The guns vs butter argument takes place in every country, and in Iran I believe there is public support the nuke program.
Also third countries, tend to be a little more blase about civilian casualties from natural disaster than Western countries. Especially for unpredictable disasters like Earthquakes.posted by: erg on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
I suspect that if we bomb, invade, or significantly attack Iran, Pakistan will go fundamentalist - that is, there will be a popular regime change - shortly thereafter.
You can't unscrew a pooch.posted by: SomeCallMeTim on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
C'mon guys, let's think Machiavellian. Powell publicized the bad intelligence so that he could get it out and have it discredited, so that Cheney and Feith and the "stove pipers" at DoD couldn't use it to gin up an Iran war. On his way out the door, Powell kicked the neocons in the teeth.posted by: Sam on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
Sam's reading might be right on.
As another possibility, this may just be setting the table for an Israeli airstrike.
I'd like to think that our strategic thinkers would understand why such an event wouldn't help our current project in Iraq, but with the "cakewalk" crowd in charge, nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
Also Mark throws out the alternative of lobbing cruise missiles in ourselves. To be fair I can't say for certain what the repercussions of such a tactic would be, but this strikes me as potentitally really working against keeping the lid on Iraq.posted by: C+ Augustus on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
YS - Iran also has an intact and fairly sizable army. Iraq's army was a joke. It was a hollow shell that would crack at the first opportunity. Iran could put up a fight. And of course there would be insurgents running around everywhere too. And Iraq would probably explode. (Assuming we ever get a lid on that - which you think would be a necessary precursor to invading Iran).
So yes, invading Iran would be insane. Which means it's perfectly plausible that the Bush Administration would do it.posted by: Brian on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
I accept that Iraq was low hanging fruit. Further, the powers-that-be in the Bush administration realized this, and pursued the war against Iraq accordingly, because they had to hit someone bigger than Afghanistan, and Iraq was the best candidate.
But the war-powers problem persists. If a President of the United States goes to the Congress and says the following:
"I need your authority to use military force against (Iraq, Iran, North Korea, whomever) as a last resort, because evidence shows this nation poses a clear and present danger to the United States,"
then what do you, as a member of the House or Senate, say? How can you say "no," when a "no" vote means the other country is freed from the threat of American force?
The answer is, you can't say "no." Yes, any President (presumably) would consider public opinion before authorizing the use of force. But should we casually dismiss more formal limits to the war power, simply because we believe public opinion won't allow abuses of it? There's a reason the founders made Congress the authority regarding declarations of war.
The fact of the matter is that an adminstration cannot "gin up any excuse to go to war," but it can create a reason to do so in many, many cases. And any Congress would be hard-pressed to pull the option of force off the table completely.
So if the most significant impact of the Iraq exercise is to "set the evidentiary bar just a bit higher for future military action," is it worth it?
Of course not.posted by: Andrew Steele on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
Seems to me that Iran poses a rather serious threat (of proliferation straight into terrorist hands) to Israel and by extension to the US. Once they get their hand on nukes, there's every danger of these WMDs finding their way into Hezbollah hands (or any of the more nutty Palestinian groups) and ultimately into Israel. maybe not intended for use but only for threats/ blackmail/ propaganda purposes but given the dynamics of this region, it'll soon snowball into something truly horrible. the likelihood of its spinning outta control is uncomfortably high. The startegy makes perfect sense to the warped thinking among powerful sections of the Iranian mullahcracy - it has elements of plausible deniability, proxy warfare and asymmetric warfare all neatly woven in. As for the warped thinking bit about Iran's mullahcrats, these are the same schmucks who were yelling "Death to America/Great Satan" at the opening session of theie newly elected parliament a month ago.
BTW, its no co-incidence that hezbollah was found testing drones over northern israel a coupla weeks earlier.
If Iraq wasn't a serious enough threat, apparently Iran now certainly is.posted by: voletti on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
"Seems to me that Iran poses a rather serious threat (of proliferation straight into terrorist hands) to Israel and by extension to the US."
How does it follow that a threat to Israel is a threat to the US? I seriously want to see this rationally and clearly explained.posted by: star_momak on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
I second Star Momak's request. I understand Israel is an ally but how far must we go with protecting our allies if their leadership insists on implementing outrageous policies.
Bring back Barak, appoint Clinton a special envoy and the 2 of them can work with the new Palestinian leadership and get the deal that Arafat shunned. Then I would feel more comfortable defending our ally Israel.posted by: roryt on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
That can't pass. It is certainly fair to question what American interest is served by, for example, Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank. I've never been able to see any.
But American and Israeli interests with respect to nuclear proliferation are virtually identical. The main problem with the people now running the Iranian government getting their hands on a nuclear weapon is that they are likely to use it. This is the issue at the heart of nuclear proliferation anywhere, but a regime with Tehran's demonstrated enthusiasm for terrorism and low regard for human life poses a special problem.
The complication in dealing with that problem is that a military operation to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program would have miniscule chances of being successful even if it were ours. If it were Israel's the chances would be close to nonexistent. This means we need to think of something else -- specifically a course of action that recognizes who our enemies in Tehran are and seeks to complicate their lives by exploiting the regime's unpopularity in Iran. An Iran in which the clerics have had their grip on the country weakened is less likely to be a threat to its neighbors than an Iran whose radical clerics feel secure in their position.posted by: Zathras on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
On the list of regimes who worry me the most on nuclear arms, a nuclear Iran would still rate below both North Korea and Pakistan. I would even rate them below Russia.
The most likely and therefore most dangerous scenario is someone in one these countries turning material or an actual weapon over to a terrorist group. This is why the lack of oversight and amount of loose material in Russia should still be our biggest worry.
North Korea is on life support and desperate.
Pakistan is one man away from a fundamenalist, taliban friendly regime.
Despite its enmity with Israel and its ties with Hezbollah, Iran has more reasons to keep things under control than these other nations, save Russia. They stand to benefit pretty well from our invasion of Iraq, and they are gaining even more attention from Europe now that the oil contracts are up in the air in Iraq.
Of course its hard to really gauge how suicidal or reckless any regime truly is, especially when religion is involved, but my read is that Iran still gets special attention from us because of our mutual history in the 70s/80s and our ties to Israel.
If we are content to live by thin margins in regards to the Russian sieve, and the Pakistani tightrope, initiating a regional war in the case of Iran strikes me as a very lopsided case of priorities.posted by: Walter Mitty on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
Mark Buehner wrote:
"I dont understand why the choice is North Korea part II or Iraq part II.
There is a high degree of disingenousnes in this argument. We have a wide range of 'stick' options at our disposal short of invasion. We could just blockade the Persian Gulf and make the Mullahs lives miserable.
And of course the Mullahs wouldn´t do anything at all!
We could go back to the old school tomahawk missile approach. Temporary solution? Not if you repeat every 6 months.
Now you´re amazing the world!
Here's my reading of the ground, which I admit could be completely wrong:
Unfortunately that seems to be a good estimate.
2)We have very good intelligence on how far along they are, or believe we do
Well, everyone hopes your intelligence now is somewhat better than in the case of Iraq.
3)Bush intends to give the UN enough rope to hang themselves with
Obviously it wasn´t the UN that was wrong about Iraq and Iraqi WMDs!
As in, earn the trust of the world again in the findings of your intelligence reports.
4)Bush will initiate a bombing campaign as late as possible to destroy Iranian weapons sites. It will be limited, but if it precipitates an Iranian military response so be it.
Maybe that´s why you sold bunker-busting bombs to Israel.
But don´t you see?
In that case it´s probably over.
5)The Mullahs are completely dedicated to developing nuclear weapons. For this reason no amount of carrot or stick can possibly overcome their desire for them.
That´s probably unfortunately true.
You attacked the one country (of the axis of evil) without displaying any WMDs. What are the Mullahs supposed to think?
6)Iran is using the North Korean model for cheating to a T.
But of course it´s much more easier to stay close to "I´ve looked into his eyes" Putin and the "Chinese are paying for the American deficits" reaction today....
posted by: Detlef on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
"The main problem with the people now running the Iranian government getting their hands on a nuclear weapon is that they are likely to use it."
What? Because they actively seek the total destruction of their country? On what possible grounds could you argue this point? (And, when pointing to terrorism, lets remember that nukes are different - costly to get, and powerful enough that you probably wouldn't just turn them over to a terrorist friend like the keys to a new car).
The reason to prevent proliferation is roughly the same as it has always been - the more people with access to these weapons, the more likely something somewhere will go wrong, and terrible destruction will ensue.posted by: SomeCallMeTim on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
The belief in the Pentagon is that the Iraq occupation faltered because it initially failed to use sufficient force. This is the same belief that is in the heartland. Therefore the theory in the Pentagon and the WH is that they know that they have no partial option on Iran without getting screwed on Iraq. They expect the Iranians to screw them on Iraq anyway - remember "foreign fighters"? Finally they think that a sufficient demonstration of force in Iran will pacify Iraq.
And that my friends is the case for a suicidal war in Iran, because the analysis in the military and the WH and Pentagon matches up with the uniquely American preudice stemming all the way from the Vietnam war - that if only we had escalated and bombed North Vietnam into the stone age we would have won. Because the lesson drawn from Japan is that they knuckled under when we dropped the bomb.
Don't you get it? They're thinking from a completely different mindset. This is a mindset is not that there was something wrong with the intelligence or the strategic planning, but that we don't use a big enough stick to beat on them with.
This thinking is everywhere and following it to its logical conclusion well we are all in one big hell lot of trouble.posted by: oldman on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
What is it with this idea about inept POST Iraq
I would love to see SecState Condi Rice go to the UN and make a presentation on how Iran is a grave, gathering, growing, imminent threat.
I would call in sick to work and watch TV all day to see SecState Condi Rice go to the UN and say we have to go to war now or see "evidence of WMD" in the form of a mushroom cloud somewhere.
I would pay serious money to see SecState Condi Rice go to the UN and wave around a bunch of papers which prove Iran is such a huge threat that we have to go to war right this minute.
In case I'm not being clear enough: I want BushCo to declare war on Iran, with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my might.posted by: Palladin on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
Minor point, but I believe that most branches of "democratic peace" theory actually argue that democracies are only peaceful vis-a-vis other democracies, but that this does not apply to non-democracies. Since Iraq had an autocratic government, the Iraq war is not a case that contradicts the theory (in fact, there are other examples of democracies starting wars with non-democracies).posted by: Gremlin on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
If Iran follows through on the offers of fuel and reactor supplies from Europe, and gives up it's own program, then we will see that Bush is just whipping up the wingnut loons again. Until Iran does that, there will always be a doubt as to Iran's credibility in this area, given their long term support of terrorism and their twisted religious ideologues running the government.posted by: flaime on 11.19.04 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
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