Insanity on Iran

by Paul Pillar (source: The National Interest)
Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sometimes even crazy ideas acquire the semblance of respectability if they are repeated enough in otherwise respectable circles. That has long been the case with the idea of launching a war against Iran in the name of setting back the Iranian nuclear program. This notion gets chanted in a verse about “the only thing worse than a war with Iran is an Iranian nuclear weapon” with almost no careful attention in the chant to how the incentives facing Iranian leaders would affect their decisions, exactly how an Iranian nuclear weapon would affect Iranian behavior, what a military strike could reasonably be expected to accomplish, and the full consequences of a war with Iran. The craziness was in full display in an appearance by John Bolton before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday.

Bolton is no stranger to not letting reality getting in the way of whatever bellicose campaign he is waging, including ones involving presumed unconventional weapons programs in states he doesn't like. When he was an undersecretary of state in the Bush administration, he agitated about a presumed biological weapons program in Cuba. When public statements he tried to make on the subject went beyond any available information, and intelligence officers he wanted to concur in those statements refused to do so, Bolton responded by browbeating the officers and demanding to their superiors that they be fired.

In his testimony to the House committee, Bolton dismissed the idea of any mutual deterrence relationship with Iran because, he said, deterrence is only for atheists. Containment and deterrence worked with the Soviet Union, he said, because the Politburo did not believe in an afterlife. But Iran, he says, has “a theocratic regime that values life in the hereafter more than life on earth.” Bolton did not provide any evidence for this being the utility function of Iranian leaders. Nor did he address the implications of his argument for deterrence of states associated with other religions that envision an afterlife. (Watch out not only for Christians but also for those Buddhists itching to get to nirvana.)

The irrepressible and undeterrable Mr. Bolton did not let even what would seem to be inconvenient facts for his argument get in the way of the chant. There is, for example, the likelihood that we in the West do not know the full extent of the Iranian nuclear program. All the more reason to be alarmed, says Bolton. He never addressed what this meant for whether a military strike could find and destroy all of Iran's nuclear facilities.

Then there is the fact that any Iranian nuclear force would be tiny in comparison with Israel's nuclear arsenal (which Bolton never mentioned), not to mention that of the United States. Ah, says Bolton, that very smallness is all the more reason to be worried, because “that means its nuclear weapons will not really be military, but instead will be weapons of terrorism, a threat not to military targets but to our innocent civilians.” So we should be less concerned if a much larger Iranian nuclear force somehow could spring into existence?

Bolton's presentation concluded the way the chant usually concludes, which is that because “diplomacy has failed,” the only “realistic alternative” is to use military force preemptively. And also as usual, he said absolutely nothing about all the ways in which diplomacy has not yet been tried.

The one accurate and reassuring thing that Bolton said is that President Obama is unlikely to join in the insanity and start a war with Iran. So for the time being Bolton looks to Israel (“America's truest ally in the region”) to do the deed. He predicts that Iran's only response to being attacked would be to “unleash” Hamas and Hizballah on Israel. He offers no reason to believe that after having become the victim of aggression by America's “truest ally,” Iran would stop there.

It is scary to hear Bolton, and it is scarier still that such blather is not shouted down. Unfortunately, too many other people share in the insanity about Iran—including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who said at the hearing, “I love John Bolton.”


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