Shadow Government

Iranian containment: Refocusing the argument

A couple of my recent posts have provoked my FP colleague, Tom Ricks. Provoked him to the edge of reason. As a public service, I think I ought to at least try to reel him back off the ledge.

Besides, he is an old friend who has a gazillion more readers than I do. So let's take his arguments one at a time.

First, he objects to my observation that Republicans need not fear crediting Obama when it is due because his foreign policy successes have mostly come from following Republican (specifically his predecessor's) policies. Tom's rebuttal appears to be that Bush invaded Iraq and Obama did not. I'm sure Tom knows that the issue is more complex than that, but if we are going to keep it at that level of first-cut analysis, what about this table?

I am sure there are items that could go into the emptier cells, just as I am sure we could easily find more examples to reinforce the pattern displayed above. My point, which others besides Tom missed, is that it is possible to acknowledge instances where Obama has succeeded without simultaneously undermining the case for a Republican alternative.

Next, he objects to my observation that containing Iran would be a daunting challenge and that sometimes opponents of the military option are cavalier about the difficulties. His rebuttal appears to be that containing Iran would not be harder than containing Stalin's Russia. 

The pedant in me -- and every professor has a little pedant inside yearning to seize the microphone -- is tempted to point out that this is a textbook example of sloppy analogizing. 

But setting pedantry aside, let me make three quick points. 

  • First, I never said containing Iran was harder than containing the Soviet Union. Rather, I said it was hard, and linked to a serious report by Tom Donnelly and other AEI experts that reviewed the costs of containment systematically. I think it is better to engage the report in serious debate -- which is precisely what my post was calling for -- than blithely assuming the problem away.
  • Second, if Tom is willing to stipulate a comparable military effort -- hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops indefinitely deployed on the border, a nuclear arms race resulting in tens of thousands of warheads, defense budgets at 10 percent of GDP -- then I am willing to consider whether Iran might be similarly contained. Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why the Iranian containment problem differs from the Soviet containment problem, but the analogizing was Tom's, not mine. If you want to rise above the analogy, I recommend engaging the containment problem seriously, as the AEI report did.
  • Third, my post was not an endorsement of a military attack on Iran. I specifically said that I could see reasonable arguments that came down on the side of containment. What motivated the post was my sense that good arguments were getting crowded out by bad arguments, ones grounded more in the psychological phenomenon of bolstering than in careful net assessment.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Looking to history won't help the Iranian situation today

Optimists and pessimists on the Iranian nuclear issue can both find support for their dispositions from recent developments. Optimists can point to Tehran's growing international isolation, reduction in petroleum export markets, ineffective Hezbollah attacks borne of desperation, the genuine bite of economic sanctions, fragility in its main ally in Syria, and some new indications of Iran's openness to inspections and negotiations. Pessimists can point to Tehran's blustering defiance, continued enrichment activities, dispersal and hardening of nuclear sites, endurance of tremendous economic hardship (and even willingness to self-inflict further hardship by cutting off petroleum exports to fragile European economies), activation of its global terror networks, continued ambivalence from Russia and China, and Israel's heightened anxieties.

Both camps also invoke history to support their judgments. Yet just how history can actually guide U.S. policy towards Iran is less clear. Frank Gavin and Jim Steinberg have a very insightful article addressing this question, and their answer is as true as it is unsettling: history can't help as much as we might hope, at least in the sense of offering prescriptive "lessons." Describing the tendency of policy-makers to cherry-pick historical analogies in support of pre-existing positions, Gavin and Steinberg show how the misuse of history can distort more than enlighten. Yet they also explain that the fact that the "lessons" of history do not produce a clear answer on the "to bomb or not to bomb" question does not mean that history has no insight to offer. Rather, history reminds us that plans and predictions are frequently confounded, that actions taken -- or not taken -- almost always have second, third, and fourth order effects, and that the consequences of such choices are often not known until decades after. Just as history's guidance may be uncertain, history's verdicts can be unforgiving.

Along with the Gavin and Steinberg article, Peter Feaver's post below discusses another frustrating facet of the prevailing Iran debate: the tendency of advocates on all sides to maximize their optimistic assumptions while minimizing the risks and uncertainties of their preferred position. As intellectual critiques, the points made by Gavin, Steinberg, and Feaver are serious and well-taken. Moreover, neither article represents a case of armchair quarterbacking. Each author knows that policy choices will need to be made amidst these uncertainties, with the attendant trade-offs and risks and potentially grave consequences.

To indulge in some unseemly disciplinary chauvinism, one thing that history can tell us is how relatively unique the Iran situation is, with no clear historical precedent or analogy. This contrasts with the limited predictive value of political science modeling that substitutes parsimony for complexity. For example, this article runs a quantitative analysis of the previous behavior of states that acquire nuclear weapons, and essentially concludes that nuclear states don't show a greater propensity for international mischief and disputes. Unfortunately the model treats all nuclear states as the same monolithic actors, and ignores other complicating factors such as changes in the international system, nuclear safeguards, ties to non-state actors such as terrorist groups, and especially regime type.

In contrast, history can tell us just how unprecedented the current Iran situation is: a potentially nuclear-armed state that combines support for terrorism, existential threats to neighboring states, an apocalyptic religious ideology, substantial energy reserves, and ambitions for regional hegemony. Yet history also reveals that the current international campaign to pressure Iran may also be unprecedented: extremely tight economic sanctions imposed by the world's two largest economies (the US and EU), escalating defense counter-measures by most regional powers, a vigorous sabotage and covert action campaign, and a brittle regime desperately afraid of further mass protests by its own citizens. Finally, history shows that our plans, assumptions, and actions rarely turn out as we hope, and so whatever course of action the Obama Administration takes -- whether attack or not -- robust contingency plans will need to be in place to deal with the unexpected.

Finally, as Gavin and Steinberg describe, there remains a pressing need and opportunity for more rigorous training across disciplines on how historical consciousness can be brought to bear on strategy and statecraft. To that end (shameless plug alert!), here at the University of Texas-Austin we're putting together a program to do just that. Aspiring grad students take note: If great college football, delicious BBQ, and studying history and security policy appeal to you, then keep us in mind.

Meanwhile, as history continues to unfold, its wisdom remains available to policy-makers -- if they listen and ask of it the right questions.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images