Wednesday, October 31, 2007

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The twin sins of Norman Podhoretz....

Lots of bloggers of the liberal/left persuasion have been linking to this debate between Norman Podhoretz and Fareed Zakaria:

Zakaraia highlights Podhoretz's obvious sin -- failing to understand the logic of deterrence.

Podhoretz commits another sin, however, in that by framing the debate as being about deterring Iran he rather misses the point. Over at Democracy Arsenal, Ilan Goldenberg writes, "you can boil down the entire argument over Iran between the crazies (Podhoretz) and the sane people (Zakaria)." Er, I'm afraid it's not that simple.

If the effect of Iran's nuclear program were limited to what Iran would do with nuclear weapons, that would be OK. But the massive negative externality of Iran's nuclear program isn't its effect on Israel or the United States -- it's the effect on the rest of the states in the Middle East:


The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy explains:

This week Egypt became the 13th Middle Eastern country in the past year to say it wants nuclear power, intensifying an atomic race spurred largely by Iran's nuclear agenda, which many in the region and the West claim is cover for a weapons program.

Experts say the nuclear ambitions of majority Sunni Muslim states such as Libya, Jordan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia are reactions to Shiite Iran's high-profile nuclear bid, seen as linked with Tehran's campaign for greater influence and prestige throughout the Middle East.

"To have 13 states in the region say they're interested in nuclear power over the course of a year certainly catches the eye," says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former senior nonproliferation official in the US State Department who is now a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "The Iranian angle is the reason."

But economics are also behind this new push to explore nuclear power, at least for some of the aspirants. Egypt's oil reserves are dwindling, Jordan has no natural resources to speak of at all, and power from oil and gas has grown much more expensive for everyone. Though the day has not arrived, it's conceivable that nuclear power will be a cheaper option than traditional plants.

But analysts say the driver is Iran, which appears to be moving ahead with its nuclear program despite sanctions and threats of possible military action by the US. The Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of Saudi Arabia and the five Arab states that border the Persian Gulf, reversed a longstanding opposition to nuclear power last year.

As the closest US allies in the region and sitting on vast oil wealth, these states had said they saw no need for nuclear energy. But Fitzpatrick, as well as other analysts, say these countries now see their own declarations of nuclear intent as a way to contain Iran's influence. At least, experts say, it signals to the US how alarmed they are by a nuclear Iran.

"The rules have changed on the nuclear subject throughout the whole region," Jordan's King Abdullah, another US ally, told Israel's Haaretz newspaper early this year. "Where I think Jordan was saying, 'We'd like to have a nuclear-free zone in the area,' … [now] everybody's going for nuclear programs."

Just to be clear, nuclear programs do not automatically translate into nuclear weapons proliferation. But don't tell me it's not a distinct possibility.

Zakaria might argue that none of this is a problem, since deterrence can still work. My concern is that managing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is kind of like... managing democratization in the Middle East. In theory, the end state is robust and stable... but the road from here to there is so fraught with peril that I'm very skeptical of it actually working.

This is the point Scott Sagan tried to make in a Foreign Affairs article from last year:

[B]oth deterrence optimism and proliferation fatalism are wrong-headed. Deterrence optimism is based on mistaken nostalgia and a faulty analogy. Although deterrence did work with the Soviet Union and China, there were many close calls; maintaining nuclear peace during the Cold War was far more difficult and uncertain than U.S. officials and the American public seem to remember today. Furthermore, a nuclear Iran would look a lot less like the totalitarian Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China and a lot more like Pakistan, Iran's unstable neighbor -- a far more frightening prospect. Fatalism about nuclear proliferation is equally unwarranted. Although the United States did fail to prevent its major Cold War rivals from developing nuclear arsenals, many other countries curbed their own nuclear ambitions. After flirting with nuclear programs in the 1960s, West Germany and Japan decided that following the NPT and relying on the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella would bring them greater security in the future; South Korea and Taiwan gave up covert nuclear programs when the United States threatened to sever security relations with them; North Korea froze its plutonium production in the 1990s; and Libya dismantled its nascent nuclear program in 2003.

Given these facts, Washington should work harder to prevent the unthinkable rather than accept what falsely appears to be inevitable. The lesson to be drawn from the history of nonproliferation is not that all states eyeing the bomb eventually get it but that nonproliferation efforts succeed when the United States and other global actors help satisfy whatever concerns drove a state to want nuclear weapons in the first place.

Again, to be clear, this does not mean we should attack Iran. But it does mean that the U.S. shouldn't be as blasé about the matter as Zakaria suggests. Because it's not just about Iran -- it's about the regional spillovers as well.

posted by Dan on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM


Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have followed the NPT, but they also have nuclear power. so it's not clear how to extrapolate that point to the Middle East.

Iran's influence here may be a little overstated. The resurgence of interest in nuclear power is pretty widespread:

posted by: Luke Stebbing on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

First off, Your map is messed up. I know it's not your fault directly, because you got it from the christian science monitor, but Israel is a nuclear power. They have both nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. So, that's pretty messed up that it is ignored in the map.

As for the debate itself, the most annoying part of it is that it assumes that Iran is making nuclear weapons. I just want to remind all you crazy conspiracy theorists out there, there is NO EVIDENCE that Iran is making nuclear weapons. Even the IAEA says that! So, this debate deserves to be knocked down on the credibility scale even more.

But as for the specific positions, the first is that Podhoretz is a crazy loon. Listening to him is like listening to the batsh%t guy on the street who thinks the FBI put a microchip under his skin last time he was in the hospital. He is a total waste of time. But the more interesting is that almost all republicans have painted themselves in the corner that he advocates. It is hard for me to see republicans, at least rhetorically, come to any conclusions different than the ones he comes to. As a practical matter, maybe those people are less insane than Podhoretz, but they all have demonized Iran to such an outrageous extent that they can't but conclude Iran is too evil to be trusted with a tea pot, let alone the KNOWLEDGE of nuclear technology... or more.

As for Zakaria, he can't win the debate with the position he is trying to advocate. It is simply too easy for irrational fear to trump some obscure policy like "deterrence." It is just too easy to argue that the threat, though tiny in likelihood, is too great in consequence... So Zakaria can't win if he keeps to that view. Of course, too, implicit in the argument he makes is that Iran will continue to be a threat to the USA and that there will be continued hostility on both sides. This simply strengthens the hand of those nutjobs like Podhoretz.

If Zakaria wanted a more serious position, he should do the following in this order:
1) Argue the fact that there is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. He doesn't have to make any claims about whether he likes or trusts Iran, but simply stick to the fact that there is no evidence.
2) Argue secondly that IF AND ONLY IF there was clear and direct evidence that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, the best policy would be to engage Iran normally. To do this, the USA could publicly announce a list of concessions they would be willing to make to ensure Iran kept in compliance with IAEA standards. So, for example, the USA should put everything on the table: ending sanctions, restoring diplomatic relations, signing a non-aggression pact, encouraging Iran's inclusion in financial systems, encouraging American investment in Iran... and such other positive incentives... By doing so, the USA could stake the high ground and eliminate any excuse Iran might have to be secretive (the advantages would outweigh the incentive for secrecy).
3) Offer an alternative proposal for allowing Iran to have the nuclear fuel cycle (which is Iran's right) on their own soil. For example, the Americans could provide technology and scientists to Iran to work together in Iranian facilities, as long as there was a very high level of transparency in the program.
4) although I totally disagree with this position, since I realize that most Americans love to bomb poor countries, as a last resort, the USA could threaten "deterrence" (i.e. to bomb Iran to the ground) if Iran tested or used a nuclear weapon.

Anyway, that would solve the problem in a few weeks. and Zakaria would be in a much stronger position. Podhoretz discredits himself with his stupidity anyway. But he does have the position that the republicans are almost trapped into, so you might have to use the counter argument...

posted by: Joe M. on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

So Joe, to summarize what you said and look at it from our point of view, America's position should be that as long as Iran successfully keeps its program a secret, we should do nothing. But if they slip up, then we should start appeasing them. Well, I can't think of any historical evidence to suggest that appeasement is a bad idea... oh, wait

posted by: Justin on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

I can't imagine that anyone supposes that a nuke-armed Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, etc. would be a good thing. But if we take Germany and Japan as a model (and could throw in South Korea as well), could the US reasonably put those countries under its nuclear umbrella as a way of forestalling their interest in developing nukes? I take it that if we withdrew all of our forces and protection from Japan and South Korea, for example, they'd certainly take steps to develop (at the very least) a "bomb in the basement" that could be put together on very short notice and serve as a deterrent to their enemies (i.e. NK and China). I just can't see, though, the US extending similar protections to places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But maybe I'm wrong...

posted by: Michael Simpson on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

Zakaria's problem, and the problem of a lot of people who keep chirping about deterrence is a huge failure of imagination. Take, for example, Iran circa 1997/1998. They've been found to be complicit in the Khobar Towers bombing, and after US reaction makes it clear to them they should not try it again, they back off. Imagine what a nuclear armed Iran would be able to get away with. And they don't have to have ICBMs to hit American soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere else in the ME. Take a look at what Pakistan has been able to get away with in Kashmir against a much more conventionally powerful India. Pakistan has done a great job in the last decade of exhibiting the possibility of instability should India launch a conventional attack in response to their support for terrorism, thereby keeping India from responding in any more than a limited manner.

Something tells me that the ones who are now claiming deterrence will work will be the same ones to claim 10 years down the road that we should not respond, or limit our response, to Iranian-backed terrorism for fear of how a nuclear armed, conventionally weaker Iran might respond to a US attack. Podhoretz is at least right that the do-nothings are being hugely irresponsible. And after Dan's attaempts over the past months to claim Iran is doing nothing wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is good to see that he is coming back to reality.

The thing is, you don't have to support a military strike - a lot of neocons don't. There's a first step we have to take, and that's to decide whether this is a problem and whether we have to do anything at all. Zakaria obviously thinks not. I think we do. Once you make that decision, then you can decide whether the situation warrants a military strike or some other kind of response. But the problem is, most of the people criticizing Bush over Iraq criticize him when he does ANYTHING, be it threaten to declare Quds Force a terrorist group (which, as Petraeus testified, led Iran to withdraw substantial numbers of Quds Force from Iraq, at least for a time), or actually consider a military strike, clearly people don't think its a problem at all for Iran to get nuclear weapons.

Oh, and Fareed Zakaria was clearly being disingenuous in this debate. He said Iran might get the knowledge to make a nuclear bomb in the next decade. They're a bit ahead of the "brainstorming" phase. And then he said Podhoretz recommended invading a third Muslim country in the past 5 years. But Podhoretz said nothing about a mass invasion. He was talking about a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

posted by: Alenda Lux on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

Oh goody - Zakaria pulls out the "Iran and al Qaeda were sworn enemies" line. Do they know they're supposed to be sworn enemies?

Honestly, let's just give up now b/c we're never gonne get anywhere with "experts" like this.

posted by: Alenda Lux on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

I do think Podhoretz missed a huge chance to use Zakaria's argument against him. Rather than focusing on the religious fanaticism argument, Podhoretz should have said, "You're right, Iran does care about their national interest. Like other countries, such as Pakistan, they pursue a revisionist foreign policy. Given their conventional weakness, they use support for terrorism as one way to achieve their foreign and domestic policy goals. But at the moment, national interest dictates that they can only take this foreign policy so far before they bump up against the United States, or the West in general. When that happens, they back down - for a time. Their ideal situation would be to offset their conventional weakness so they don't always have to be seen as backing down and acquiescing to US threats. A nuclear weapon would be the perfect solution to their dilemma. The US will not respond to ongoing, especially low level terrorist attacks, with a conventional attack on a country that could drop a nuclear weapon (or more importantly, who makes it look like it might just be crazy enough - hence the religious fanaticism rhetoric - to drop a nuclear weapon) on US troops in the Middle East. So, yes, maybe Iran has been largely pragmatic in backing down from support for terrorism when threatened with retaliation. But even if Iran continues to follow their current foreign policy of making up for conventional weakness with support for terrorism, having a nuclear capability makes it all the less likely that the national interest for them will require backing down from support for terrorism with the same frequency as it has in the past."

That's what Podhoretz needed to say.

posted by: Alenda Lux on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

You're right Alenda, it's a failure of imagination. Darnet,, we should just nuke our imgination so it no longer fails us! Oh wait, that already happend...last night on South Park.


posted by: James on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

To Justin,
Hans Blix was on Charlie Rose recently. During the interview Charlie was saying how strange it was that "everyone" got it wrong on Iraq. Blix contradicted Charlie saying something to the extent that none of the intelligence he saw was technical, but was strictly political in nature... For example, that they were guessing as to motivations for political moves, rather than assessments of actual evidence.

That said, when you say that my position is that "America's position should be that as long as Iran successfully keeps its program a secret, we should do nothing..." you are wrong. First, my position is that the USA should stop making wars and blowing up the world and disarm criminal states like Israel so that Iran does not feel threatened enough to have a use for nuclear weapons. But secondly, by far the most important thing to do would be to make sure that Iran's programs are not so secret that Iran doesn't even have a nuclear weapons program, like happened with Iraq.

Further, if the USA is so willing to go to war over the prospect of Iran having the knowledge to make nuclear weapons, why wouldn't they also be willing to go to war if Iran were close to actually having nuclear weapons? my point being, what's the hurry? it is clearly political. Bush is a madman and there is a segment of society that knows the next president (save the possibility of Rudy) will not be equally as insane as Bush and thus will not be insane enough to attack Iran. If they don't think the other candidates have the same willingness to attack as Bush, that must mean that the other candidates don't fear Iran as much for whatever reason. Knowing the dangers of attacking Iran for American interests, either 1) these people are not pushing for war to benefit American interests, or 2) they are just totally insane and don't know what the hell they are doing.

As for the comments of Alenda Lux, I must admit that a significant part of me hopes the USA attacks Iran. But for exactly the opposite reasons as this person. The USA is flirting with a serious disaster that it deserves. If the USA attacks Iran (even just by a "limited" attack of Iran's nuclear facilities), Iran will kill as many of the 150,000 American troops who are stationed in Iraq as possible. It is not exactly a secret where American military bases are, I am sure Iran has thousands of rockets and missiles aimed at them already. If the Americans think they have the right to attack Iran, than I hope Iran bloodies the American nose pretty badly. The USA needs to learn a lesson.

P.S. I am not advocating a war, I do not want there to be a war. But if the USA attacks, I hope Iran kills as many Americans as possible.

posted by: Joe M. on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

"disarm criminal states like Israel so that Iran does not feel threatened enough to have a use for nuclear weapons."

Wow. Beautiful. And Joe M's comments are the only explanation needed for why western civilization is doomed. I'm guessing by your constant use of "USA" (and you're desire for thousands of American soldiers to be killed) that you're not American - my guess would be maybe British. So apparently you guys have already given up, and that's fine. Just don't drag us down with you.

posted by: Alenda Lux on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

Alenda Lux,
Your mentality is ridiculously colonial. If you think the USA can go around the world killing who it wants and taking over which ever country it wants, you are nuts. If you think a tiny country like Iran is a threat to the USA, you are totally delusional. The USA is digging its own grave by doing these things. When the USA conquers a country, it is building a foundation of hate against it. When they squeeze a poor country with sanctions, they are growing a forest of anger against them. When the USA talks about human rights but then supports Mubarak or Saudis or Israel, the USA is just deepening it's problems. In the end, these things will bring the USA down. If the USA attacks Iran, it deserves it's fate. If you want to keep American soldiers safe, take them out of the line of fire. But you think the USA has the right to take over the world, and you are surprised that other people don't like to be conquered. if this is civilized to you, i don't want your civilization.

posted by: Joe M. on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

The most obnoxious aspect of Podhoretz's argument is his constant reference to 1938, as though all potential conflicts go through a Munich-like gestation phase, and all aggressors are Hitler. I wish someone would call Podhoretz on his fearmongering idiocy.

posted by: Troll on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

Joe M. cannot make any sort of 'argument' without stating that Israel is a 'criminal state'. And, wet pants coward that he is, he now wants the US to 'disarm' it.

Too scared of those 'criminal' Israelis to do it yourself Joey? Surely a superman such as yourself can brush away criminals with a mere wave of your magic wand.

Past time for your meds, eh?

posted by: anon on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

It seems to me that there is a dimension to the Iranian nuclear crisis beyond both potential Iranian nuclear use and cascading proliferation across the Suni Arab states of the Middle East. That is, although it may not pose an automatic existential threat as Podhoretz suggests, Tehran will nevertheless have much greater latitude to use coersion in its regional dealings with other states, including Israel and the US.

The presence of nuclear weapons means that there is an irreducible risk that conflict may escalate beyond the nuclear threshold. This consderation will severely constrain US reedom of action with regard to providing for Gulf Security into the coming decades.

posted by: R.H on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

DanDrez is right to highlight the issue of regional proliferation.

However, Zakaria considered in many of his other articles or appearances.

Beside that, just few facts:

1) Podhoretz claims that the US will attack Iran. WHy? Because "we cannot accept a nuclear Iran - so said the President". However, the PResident said also we could not accept a nuclear N.Korea (axis of evil speech). And he said we could not, because it was too dangerous. And it was too dangerous because N.Korea was dangerous (tautology). Ideology set the limits. These limits could not be respected, becuase they were to ambitious. But according to Podhy we have to all the way down despite. Wonderful. I do not know how people can take him seriously.

2) Someone in the comments claims that Iran did not fight the Taliban. In fact he is wrong. Islamic Iran has always fought the Taliban. Iran accepted thousands of (shia) refugess from the area, and during the 2001 Afghanistan war, Iran's help was pivotal for overthrowing the regime.



posted by: A. Gilli on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]


Ignoring the fact that there is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, assuming for the sake of argument that it gets a nuclear weapon some time, in what way does that give it "much greater latitude to use coersion[sic] in its regional dealings with other states, including Israel and the US."?

The only feasible result I can see would be that it would yield a greater deterrence force from the USA or Israel because their stakes in attacking Iran would go up, even though i can't think of a reasonable way they would be able to use nuclear weapons to prevent an attack.

It is total fantasy to think that any country except the USA can seriously threaten countries with nuclear war. The Iranian leadership is not stupid. And just look at India and Pakistan, both have nuclear weapons and none of their other relationships with other countries changed, same with N. Korea. Nuclear weapons simply have very very little strategic value. They have more value to the USA because they are already trying to rule the world and have a track record of totally insane and reckless actions of destroying other countries...

But Iran could not threaten the U.A.E. with nuclear weapons, further, they could not threaten Saudi with them... They can't even threaten Israel because they would not bomb the Palestinians. there is just no credible way they would gain influence from having nuclear weapons if they did get them.

Plus, the Gulf would be much much more secure without the USA. But that's an entirely different issue.

posted by: Joe M. on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

One problem with extending Dan's example of Germany-Taiwan-South Korea to, say, Egypt is why would they believe us when we guarantee a nuclear shield?

When we told Germany that we would protect them with our nukes if Russia nuked them we were believed. If we told Eqypt that we would use our bombs against Israel we would get laughed out of Cairo.

The only way that we can expect to prevent Arab states from building nukes would be to remove Israel's nukes. Clearly that is a non starter. This tells me the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable.

posted by: RobbL on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

The three largest nuclear threats to the US at the moment:

Russia (Material)
Pakistan (Material, Tech and Regime)
North Korea (Material, Tech and Regime)

The three largest terrorist threats to the to the US at the moment:

Saudi Arabia

The focus on Iran is driven by the pet project and private interests of a few who care less about the long-term interests of the United States than their own wet dream, target of opportunity.

posted by: Babar on 10.31.07 at 07:08 PM [permalink]

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