Matthew Kroenig a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations has written this year's version of Ken Pollack's "Next Stop Baghdad" - namely the Foreign Affairs article that makes the case for US war in the Persian Gulf. Nine years ago, Pollack was writing about Iraq; this year Kroenig is writing about Iran.
But to be fair this is an article that could have been written nine years ago insomuch as the author appears to draw no lessons whatsoever from US military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan - and while we're at it, Vietnam.
Over at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt has done an excellent job of demolishing the main points of Kroenig's piece, which is poorly reasoned, based on overly optimistic scenarios and dramatically overinflates the strategic impact of an Iranian nuke on Iranian regional behavior. But I want to pick up on a few points that are not only problematic about this whole problematic argument - but indeed much of the foreign policy analyst community.
The problems begin at the top of the piece:
The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.
And is summed up at the end:
Iran’s rapid nuclear development will ultimately force the United States to choose between a conventional conflict and a possible nuclear war
Notice what happens in these paragraphs and the assumptions that are made - Iran is a threat to not just the region, but to "the world"; a military strike can be "managed carefully" (more on that later) and finally that waging such a war would improve the "long-term national security of the United States" with the untested and unassessed assumption being that to allow Iran to get a nuke would imperil the long-term national security of the United States.
Moreover, in Kroenig's construct the only real option ultimately facing the US is war . . . or war. The possibility of a diplomatic or containment solution doesn't really enter into the equation.
This is of practically the default position of the DC-based foreign policy analyst; war can be waged carefully, US national interests are so broad and acute that even using force is a price the country should be willing to pay to protect them and lastly every challenge is a "threat" (and a global one at that) that can best be managed not via diplomatic or other coercive means, but rather by the use of force.
Of course to draw such conclusions one must begin with the assumption not only that the US has a direct national security interest in preventing Iran from getting a bomb, but that such a situation while perhaps not an existential threat, is of grave danger to the United States and its interests. This is the strawman that Kroenig constructs:
A nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East. With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war, forcing Washington to think twice before acting in the region. Iran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, would likely decide to acquire their own nuclear arsenals, sparking an arms race. To constrain its geopolitical rivals, Iran could choose to spur proliferation by transferring nuclear technology to its allies -- other countries and terrorist groups alike. Having the bomb would give Iran greater cover for conventional aggression and coercive diplomacy, and the battles between its terrorist proxies and Israel, for example, could escalate. And Iran and Israel lack nearly all the safeguards that helped the United States and the Soviet Union avoid a nuclear exchange during the Cold War -- secure second-strike capabilities, clear lines of communication, long flight times for ballistic missiles from one country to the other, and experience managing nuclear arsenals. To be sure, a nuclear-armed Iran would not intentionally launch a suicidal nuclear war. But the volatile nuclear balance between Iran and Israel could easily spiral out of control as a crisis unfolds, resulting in a nuclear exchange between the two countries that could draw the United States in, as well.
Let's put aside for a second the first two sentences of this paragraph which assume that constraints on US freedom of action in the Middle East or "acting in the region" are actual casus belli for war.
Dan Drezner also noted the bolded contradiction above - and it's an important one. If Iran is not intent on committing national suicide that would assume a certain level of rationality by the mullahs. So with that in mind, why would they follow the course of action above and potentially inflame Israel and/or the United States . . . and risk national suicide. Many countries have had nuclear weapons; few that are as economically, politically and military vulnerable as Iran have followed as provocative a course as Kroenig is suggesting Tehran will. I can see no reason to believe that Iran is different from these other nuclear nations and at the very least Kroenig hardly makes the case that it is. Indeed, this entire argument is a bit of 1% doctrine on steroids or perhaps the domino theory (another worst case scenario theory that proved to be disastrously wrong). Everything potentially bad that Iran could do, says Kroenig, they will do.
In addition, Kroenig later writes that even after the US strike that he believes should occur Iran might feel pressured to act out against its neighbors, but Kroenig says they won't: "It would also likely seek to calibrate its actions to avoid starting a conflict that could lead to the destruction of its military or the regime itself."
Again why would Iran not make the same strategic calculation after it has a bomb? It's not as if the bomb provides Iran with omnipotence. Iran would still want to avoid the destruction of its military or the regime itself, wouldn't they? Kroenig says that the US could impose "redlines" on Iran even after conflict breaks out. Again, as Barry Posen has suggested, why can't redlines be imposed on Iran after it has a bomb? Is Iran the only country ever to get a nuclear bomb that can't be deterred or have redlines placed on its behavior?
Now Kroenig is certainly correct that if Iran gets a bomb things could easily spiral out of control in the region. Indeed I made precisely this argument not long ago - and it's one of the reasons why efforts to stop Iran from getting a nuke are quite important. But here's the thing I don't understand - couldn't things just as easily spiral out of control if the US went to war against Iran? Why is it only worst case scenarios occur when the US does nothing; but when the US acts militarily everything goes rosy? Now granted if Iran doesn't have a bomb you have a lessened chance of nuclear conflict - but there are many out of control situations that can develop below nuclear conflict yet still quite deadly.
Indeed, wouldn't the safer course of action for the US be not to create new conflict in the region, but rather create a security structure that will ensure that even if Iran gets a bomb worst case scenarios can be minimized? Quite simply, isn't containment a smarter, likely more effective approach than war? it's not as if the United States didn't spend 60 years successfully carrying out a containment strategy versus a nuclear power. We have some experience in this area.
This gets to the inevitable next part of the "pro-war" argument - containment doesn't work. This of course was the exact argument used in the run-up to the Iraq War. Although Kroenig approaches the question from a different perspective; he says containment is too difficult and too expensive:
To keep the Iranian threat at bay, the United States would need to deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come. Alongside those troops, the United States would have to permanently deploy significant intelligence assets to monitor any attempts by Iran to transfer its nuclear technology. And it would also need to devote perhaps billions of dollars to improving its allies’ capability to defend themselves. This might include helping Israel construct submarine-launched ballistic missiles and hardened ballistic missile silos to ensure that it can maintain a secure second-strike capability. Most of all, to make containment credible, the United States would need to extend its nuclear umbrella to its partners in the region, pledging to defend them with military force should Iran launch an attack.
In other words, to contain a nuclear Iran, the United States would need to make a substantial investment of political and military capital to the Middle East in the midst of an economic crisis and at a time when it is attempting to shift its forces out of the region.
This is by far the weakest part of Kroenig's argument and I found it to be so poorly conceived that is practically disqualifying of the entire piece. Kroenig is asserting that rather than put in place a containment structure that "might" cost several billion dollars, the more cost-efficient approach would be go to war. How is is possible to argue that containment would be a "substantial investment of political and military capital to the Middle East in the midst of an economic crisis" and not say the same thing about initiating military conflict?
I suppose this makes sense; it's not as if foreign wars have ever cost more than assumed at the beginning of the conflict. Just ask Larry Lindsay.
Although Kroenig has a bit of a solution to this problem:
The U.S. government could blunt the economic consequences of a strike. For example, it could offset any disruption of oil supplies by opening its Strategic Petroleum Reserve and quietly encouraging some Gulf states to increase their production in the run-up to the attack. Given that many oil-producing nations in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, have urged the United States to attack Iran, they would likely cooperate.
It begs a rather obvious question: if the US can get Saudi Arabia to cooperate in helping pay for the consequences of a war in the Gulf . . . why can't the US get them to cooperate in helping pay for a containment regime in the region? The lack of seriousness with which Kroenig addresses the containment question is a telling sign. Containment is by far the least intrusive, most realistic alternative to the use of force against Iran. Kroenig's inability to honestly and forthrightly grapple with it as an alternative suggests to me that he doesn't have a good explanation for why such a strategy should not be undertaken. Quite simply, the weaknesses of his own argument - and his clear bias in favor of force - is evident.
it is worth noting also that we have a great deal of evidence demonstrating that countries, even nuclear powers can be contained. Iran's neighbor Iraq was contained quite effectively for 12 years. North Korea got a bomb; it is still largely contained. India and Pakistan is a little trickier, but for the most part both countries have avoided actions that would risk nuclear conflict. There is no reason why Iran should be any different. In fact, already Iran has found itself more and more isolated in the region . . . and it didn't even take an air campaign to do it.
This gets to the last point - Kroenig's bizarre assumption that war against Iran will be easily manageable and obviously successful. I'll just use a few small quotes to demonstrate the fallacy of Kroenig's argument:
Attacking Iran is hardly an attractive prospect. But the United States can anticipate and reduce many of the feared consequences of such an attack.
. . . A carefully managed U.S. attack would prove less risky than the prospect of containing a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic -- a costly, decades-long proposition that would likely still result in grave national security threats.
Really? When in American history or in the history of warfare for that matter has the US or any other country correctly anticipated and reduced the consequences of going to war?
Forget history - how about the last ten years? Did the US anticipate not being welcomed in Iraq as liberators; did they anticipate an insurgency; did they anticipate full-fledged sectarian war; did they anticipate that its key allies and the UN would largely abandon the effort; did they anticipate a nine-year occupation at the cost of several trillion dollars? I could point to similar examples in Afghanistan, in Vietnam, the first Gulf War, hell even Kosovo.
If there is one lesson that every serious foreign policy analyst should take from the study of armed conflict it is that war is utterly and completely unpredictable. Precisely for this reason if you are going to make the case for war it is essential to argue that truly no other option, short of war, exists. Kroenig doesn't even come close. He adopts a position that would have made the Johnson and Bush war cabinets proud - 'there is no recourse short of the use of military force.' And even more bizarrely he writes, "attempting to manage a nuclear-armed Iran is not only a terrible option but the worst." How can anyone possibly believe this when the alternative is the initiation of military conflict with all its obvious uncertainties and unknowables?
As Stephen Walt pithily puts it, "Kroenig makes the case for war by assuming everything will go south if the United States does not attack and that everything will go swimmingly if it does. This is not fair-minded "analysis"; it is simply a brief for war designed to reach a predetermined conclusion."
The thing about this article is that eleven years ago it would have been considered a crazy and easily dismissed polemic. But one would think that after the Iraq disaster there would perhaps be some introspection and humility among those making the case for another war in the Persian Gulf. One would think that there would be perhaps more meditation on whether rosy assumptions about the use of US military force still hold up under the harsh light of scrutiny.
But alas, instead you get articles like Kroenig's - ones that present the use of military force as both the default position in dealing with international challenges and the ONLY option for protecting and furthering US interests. It makes you wonder if after ten years we have learned anything.