Wednesday, September 5, 2007

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The tough test of Iran

Last month I blogged repeatedly that the political climate surrounding the Iraq invasion was historically unique. You had a popular president, a cowed opposition scarred from opposition to the last Gulf War, a track record of military success, and the memory of the 9/11 attacks fresh in America's mind. Since one of those conditions hold now, I concluded, "contra the netroots, I don't think what happened in the fall of 2002 will happen again with, say, Iran."

Well, now I see that we're going to have a tough test of my hypothesis. From Afghan expert Barnett Rubin:

Today I received a message from a friend who has excellent connections in Washington and whose information has often been prescient. According to this report, as in 2002, the rollout will start after Labor Day, with a big kickoff on September 11. My friend had spoken to someone in one of the leading neo-conservative institutions. He summarized what he was told this way:
They [the source's institution] have "instructions" (yes, that was the word used) from the Office of the Vice-President to roll out a campaign for war with Iran in the week after Labor Day; it will be coordinated with the American Enterprise Institute, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, Fox, and the usual suspects. It will be heavy sustained assault on the airwaves, designed to knock public sentiment into a position from which a war can be maintained. Evidently they don't think they'll ever get majority support for this--they want something like 35-40 percent support, which in their book is "plenty."
Of course I cannot verify this report.
Well, Rubin spoke too soon. The New Yorker's George Packer blogs:
Barnett Rubin just called me. His source spoke with a neocon think-tanker who corroborated the story of the propaganda campaign and had this to say about it: I am a Republican. I am a conservative. But Im not a raging lunatic. This is lunatic.
In the Washington Times, Arnaud de Borchgrave writes the following:
After a brief interruption of his New Hampshire vacation to meet President Bush in the family compound at Kenebunkport, Maine, French President Nicolas Sarkozy came away convinced his U.S. counterpart is serious about bombing Iran's secret nuclear facilities. That's the reading as it filtered back to Europe's foreign ministries:

Addressing the annual meeting of France's ambassadors to 188 countries, Mr. Sarkozy said either Iran lives up to its international obligations and relinquishes its nuclear ambitions or it will be bombed into compliance. Mr. Sarkozy also made it clear he did not agree with the Iranian-bomb-or-bombing-of-Iran position, which reflects the pledge of Mr. Bush to his loyalists, endorsed by Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Independent. But Mr. Sarkozy recognized unless Iran's theocrats stop enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), we will all be "faced with an alternative that I call catastrophic."

A ranking Swiss official privately said, "Anyone with a modicum of experience in the Middle East knows that any bombing of Iran would touch off at the very least regional instability and what could be an unmitigated disaster for Western interests."

So, we'll see after 9/11 whether the Bush administration can repeat history without it turning into a farce. Lord knows, Iran's regime will elicit little sympathy from Americans -- nor should it.

That said, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there are strong reasons to believe we won't be attacking Iran anytime soon. According to Spencer Ackerman over at TPM Muckraker:

Cheney's likely motivation for issuing such instructions to his think-tank allies would be to win an inter-administration battle over the future of Iran policy. Cheney, an advocate of confronting the Iranians militarily, faces opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where the primary concern is preventing an open-ended Iraq commitment from decimating military preparedness for additional crises. A new war is the last thing the chiefs want, and on this, they're backed by Defense Secretary Bob Gates. "It may be that the president hasn't decided yet," says Rubin.

On this reading, the real target of any coordinated campaign between the VP and right-wing D.C. think tanks on Iran isn't the Iranians themselves, or even general public opinion, but the Pentagon. Cheney needs to soften up his opposition inside the administration if Bush is to ultimately double down on a future conflict, something that a drumbeat of warnings about the Iranian threat can help accomplish.

This time around, Bush and Cheney will face a sizeable domestic opposition, a hostile foreign policy community, and opposition from within the executive branch. So I don't think they have the ability to just say "f$%* it" and go ahead.

The next few weeks will be a good test of this hypothesis.

One final caveat -- much of this speculation about a rollout in the first place relies on one source -- Rubin. So this might just be a lot of blog bloviation about nothing.

UPDATE: Some commenters are curious about where I stand normatively on attacking Iraq. Click here for an answer.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Hmmm.... is this evidence for the rollout? Or are Bush and Cheney merely dancing to the whims of the Israel Lobby? Who's the puppet and who's the puppeteer in this production?

posted by Dan on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM


I would dismiss this except for two things:

a) Bush would be foolish enough to do this...

b) The recent presidential speech on Iran a couple weeks ago sounded like they took a speach from 2002 and did a search and replace of Iraq with Iran.

posted by: Nicholas Weaver on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

Question: This seems a pretty clear prediction--how much credibility should one lose or gain if events don't follow the prediction? I'd say a lot. (Think how much credibility the administration has lost over its Iraq predictions.) If it is a lot of blog bloviation, there should be adverse consequences for the bloviators. If it isn't, I lose any credibility I have as a prognosticator.

posted by: Bill Harshaw on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

This is not a good "prediction case", because it depends on too many "unknown unknowns".

Eg, will Carl Rove explain to the Decider that "bombing Iran means $5/gallon gasoline and a republican route come November". If so, no worries.

If not, worry.

posted by: Nicholas Weaver on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

Well, it's after Labor Day, and so far, judging by the papers, the Administration's big rollout is "the surge is working," "our new local strategy in Iraq is paying off" etc. Nothing about Iran.

Could this be a piece of misdirection and/or a bargaining chip? The left mobilizes to oppose war against Iran, the positive news from Iraq boosts public support for the war in Iraq, and the Administration compromises by agreeing not to attack Iran, just to stay the course in Iraq.

posted by: y81 on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

And Daniel's reaction to the war drums?

So, we'll see after 9/11 whether the Bush administration can repeat history without it turning into a farce. Lord knows, Iran's regime will elicit little sympathy from Americans -- nor should it.

Heh. No condemnation, no expressions of "is this mad", not even a scholars' insight as to the extent to which Iran's defiance is prompted by the United States' panting eagerness to displace the mullahs. You really will dance when they pound the war drums, huh?

I eagerly await the--no doubt fawning--review of Ledeen's new book on the Iranian Menace.

posted by: Demosthenes on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

The fact that a lot of informed comment believes Bush could do something agaianst Iran makes it an excellent time to run a bluff.

Of course, assuming that this administration could pull off a successful bluff means assuming a level of competence heretofore unseen.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

Dan, The ADL just posted this a short while ago:

First paragraph: Over the next few weeks and months, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) will roll out a public awareness and advocacy campaign aimed at focusing attention on the gathering threat of a nuclear-armed Iran to Israel, the Middle East and the world.

posted by: Jaideep on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

What are the prediction markets saying about this?

posted by: Klug on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

There are one big thing that dan missed:
1) In barnett's other post he noted that there were already complete plans for a full bombing campaign. it has been corroborated by other sources like this:
the second is a study paper on attacking Iran by 2 SOAS professors, One being a former adviser to the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament.

but that aside, why would Bush attack Iran? I mean, I know he is not an rational actor, but even someone so obviously brainless must see how big the downside would be. So what is his reason for being so aggressive? I honestly don't understand it. Unfortunately, i only half-heartedly believe Ackerman's theory. If Bush was rational, this theory would have more weight, but it is too expensive to do all this stuff just for political positioning, and bush has no history of making moves that he didn't want to follow through with. so, honestly, I am pretty stumped. Other than israel, i can't see any serious reason.

As for the puppet and the puppeteer, it doesn't make any difference. I personally would argue that the USA the puppet in this case, because Iran is only a significant danger to the USA IF the USA attacks them, while Israel is generally threatened by Iran. Also, i would just point out that there were reports of Israel advocating against the Iraq war because they thought Iran was the bigger threat. So, i mean, Iran has been fully on Israel's radar for a long time, while it is only now getting on America's. But again, it doesn't matter really, because in either case, the consequences of an attack by the USA are much greater to both Israel and the USA than the importance of who's policy it is. Plus, it is not like Israel and the USA make policy independent of each other anyway. I mean, one is not puppet and the other not puppeteer, they work stupidly together. Just like how they are collective punishing the Palestinians. Who's policy is that, Israel or the USA? well, obviously, both.

Lastly, this doesn't provide an example of a prediction because no prediction was made by Professor Rubin or any one else. But it is pointing to signs of a possible policy. Similarly, when all those hurricane centers were publishing reports saying that the levies in New Orleans were dangerous, that didn't mean they were predicting that there would be a huge hurricane that would destroy them. They were just warning that there were clear and obvious signs that it was possible.

posted by: Joe M. on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

OK, the week after Labor Day is almost over, so where is this rollout. The front page story on AEI's website? No Child Left Behind. The only mention of Iran I could find was a book review way at the bottom. No mention of Iran on the WSJ editorial page website over the past week. Two articles in the past week at the Weekly Standard even mentioning Iran, one of which was pre-Labor Day. Nothing in the September issue of Commentary about Iran, and nothing on the front page of their website. Since Labor Day, there have been a total of 4 postins at Commentary's blot, Contentions, even mentioning Iran. One was a critique of Mearsheimer/Walt, and the only mention of Iran in there is a quote from the book review in the NY Times. Another one was about the hijab in Iran. The third one was a post skeptical of another claim that Rafsanjani is a "moderate," and the last was about a deal between Tehran and an Austrian energy giant. I'm not going to go through Fox's archive, but I'm willing to bet the drumbeat for war with Iran has been as absent as it has been at these other "usual suspects."

So please point out to me where this drum beat is. Am I missing some of the "usual suspects?"

On a rather interesting note, Barnett Rubin is also apparently an expert on Nigeria, Rwanda, the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans in addition to Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East.

Why not just throw in Latin America and East/NE Asia and be an expert on the world?

posted by: Alenda Lux on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

"Since Labor Day, there have been a total of 4 postins at Commentary's blot, Contentions, even mentioning Iran."

Obviously that should be "postings at Commentary's blog"

posted by: Alenda Lux on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

I take some comfort in answering Klug's question by reporting that at the Dublin market (Intrade) "US/Israeli Overt Air Strike against Iran" March 2008 shares are priced at 21.5. A non-trivial risk, but still the odds are nearly 4-1 that sanity will prevail.

posted by: FairlySanguine on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

Any actual sources that Rubin cares to name; no I thought so. This story has floated from Haaretz to the Guardian to Raw Story to the Daily Kos with few alterations

posted by: narciso on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

The comment starts with a false premise. The left was in pretty much in
full opposition, misinformation mode, from before the Iraq invasion.

posted by: mandrewa on 09.05.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

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