Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Daniel Larison’

Iran and Nuclear Domino Fears

By Taylor Marvin

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Writing in the Spectator, Matthew Kroenig again argues in favor of a US attack targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.* The ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group and November intirm agreement are likely to fail, Kroenig writes, meaning that the US must be ready to choose “between bad options,” and weigh the risks of war against the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The most obvious flaw in Kroenig’s argument is his hand-waving away of the difficulties and long-term consequences of a US strike on Iran. While an American strike would do far more damage to Iranian nuclear infrastructure than an Israeli one — Kroenig specifically cites the destructive power of the US 15 ton Massive Ordinance Penetrator bunker buster, which is carried by strategic bomber aircraft Israel does not operate; not if a retired US Air Force officer and other hawks don’t have their way, that is — it isn’t a simple task. “A US strike would set Iran’s nuclear programme back by a number of years at minimum and create a significant possibility that Iran could never acquire nuclear weapons,” Kroenig writes, but this is a blithely dismissive justification for actions that would create a virulently and justifiably anti-American Iranian citizenry, war with Iranian proxies, and an open-ended commitment to periodically bombing the country, as well as instantly validating the worldview of Iranian hardliners. These aren’t “serious risks”; they’re guaranteed disastrous consequences that would do enormous lasting damage to America’s global standing and the world economy.

Proponents of striking Iran have offered numerous reasons why an Iranian nuclear capability or assembled weapon would be more dangerous than violently delaying Iran’s nuclear program. Kroenig justifies the consequences of his preferred policy by citing the fears that a reliable weapon and delivery system would give Iran greater freedom to support international terrorism and its proxies, and while admittedly the Iranian leadership is not suicidal, a nuclear-armed Iran could still stumble into a disastrous nuclear war. Another fear is that an Iranian bomb would lead to nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, either through Iran exporting nuclear weapons or promoting its rivals to themselves arm:

Tehran would probably export do-it-yourself atomic bomb kits to other countries around the world. And the global nonproliferation regime would collapse as it became clear that the international community lacked the resolve to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Fears of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race were also recently trumpeted by an Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs cartoon (via Nima Shirazi), which in addition to notably not depicting India, Pakistan, Russia, and — ahem — Israel’s nuclear status, somewhat implausibly shows the barely-functional states of Afghanistan and Libya attaining nuclear weapons as well.

Leaving aside questions of whether Iran actually intends to assemble a nuclear device, not everyone buys this theory. In particular Daniel Larison cities a 2010 Foreign Affairs piece by Johan Bergenas which points out numerous flaws in the nuclear domino argument. Additionally, John Mueller’s Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda and Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities both show that states have often elected not to acquire nuclear weapons when they ostensibly have strong incentives to do so, or otherwise constrain their nuclear capabilities. (Pakistan, one of Reiss’ case studies, tested a nuclear weapon after the book’s 1995 publication, as has North Korea.) Nuclear weapons are expensive, distasteful, and carry diplomatic costs. In contrast to more than a half century of grim predictions that widespread nuclear proliferation is imminent, the states that have acquired nuclear weapons have tended to be either existing or aspirant world powers, those facing extraordinary security situations, and the extremely isolated. (Of course, these categories bleed into each other; for example South Africa’s nuclear ambition was motivated both by its apartheid-era isolation and the perceived security risk of Soviet influence in southern Africa.) Others have the capability to quickly build nuclear weapons but have not actually assembled them, or abandoned nuclear programs.

All of this isn’t to say that the nuclear domino theory is worth dismissing out of hand. Israel and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may have not lead to nuclear proliferation across the wider region, but Iran is a fundamentally different case. For all of the vitriol directed at Israel, large regional states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been tacitly aligned with Israel for most of the life of the Israeli nuclear deterrent. All of these countries are also long-time US allies — a NATO member, in Turkey’s case, and the US has gone to war to defend Saudi Arabia — making them inclined to not see Israel’s nuclear weapons as an unconstrained threat. None of this is true of Iran, so there’s little the Israeli precedent can tell us about the likelihood of an Iranian weapon spurring Saudi or Egyptian nuclear ambitions. Examples of rivals’ mutual decisions not to initiate nuclear arms races, like Argentina and Brazil, aren’t comparable to the far more acrimonious Saudi Arabia-Iran relationship.

But previous examples of the proliferation-domino dog not barking like Japan and South Korea “were allies or clients of the United States, and therefore enjoyed an additional layer of protection – both conventional and, in certain cases, nuclear,” Shashank Joshi wrote in late 2012. “Yet this is also true of Iran’s rivals today, even if the future alignment of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is in greater doubt than before the Arab Spring.” Joshi also reminds that Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation could take the form of weapons-sharing or a Pakistani nuclear security guarantee, rather than assisting Saudi nuclear development or outright giving the Kingdom the bomb: nuclear proliferation is not a simple nuclear-arms-or-not dichotomy.

It is worth remembering that this isn’t a discussion about Iran at all. If Iran elects to actually construct a nuclear weapon, whether Saudi Arabia or Egypt choose to do the same is a question about these states’ natures, not Iran’s. Moreover, this discussion makes little sense on its face. Given the known extremely negative consequences of a US strike on Iran, why is war the go-to option for forestalling a Saudi nuclear weapon? Are these second-order effects really sufficient rational for illegal, globally unpopular strikes? Is it really easier to attack Iran than to convince or coerce Saudi Arabia from acquiring nuclear arms?

So the question of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race shouldn’t be immediately thrown out, even if Saudi Arabia and Egypt are unlikely to match Iranian nuclear weapons capability with their own. But if someone uses the nuclear domino theory to argue for striking Iran, rather than a more measured discussion of the international community’s leverage over the third and fourth dominos — because remember, Iran is not the first — then they’re trying to sell you something.

*Kroenig is the author of A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat, which I have not read.

Demonstrating Resolve, the Roundabout Way

By Taylor Marvin

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

How can the United States and its European allies show Vladimir Putin that their warnings against further Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine are serious? New America Foundation president, Princeton professor, and former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that President Obama must “demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations” by striking the regime of murderous Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. “The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow,” Slaughter writes, by demonstrating American resolve and causing Putin to reconsider the credibility of American threats. Limited strikes in Syria — she specifically suggests destroying the Syrian government’s fixed-wing aircraft — “might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.”

Daniel Larison rejects Slaughter’s logic, writing that “it makes absolutely no sense to argue that bombing a Russian client in one place will change Russian behavior in another place for the better.” In fact, Larison and the National Interest’s Robert Golan-Vilella note, Slaughter’s argument has already been tested: the Obama administration already used forced to punish an authoritarian ruler massacring his own people, in Libya. Admittedly Syria is a Russian client in a way that Gaddafi’s Libya was not, but the point stands: if using force in Libya did not send a strong message about US resolve, would additional military intervention in Syria marginally strengthen the cumulative evidence of the Obama administration’s willingness to use force to the point that Putin would have never annexed Crimea, or — if the strikes were carried out now, as Slaughter proposes — suddenly stand down?

Of course not. The lesson the world drew from the war in Libya is not that the United States and its allies would use force in all circumstances, but instead that the United States and its allies would use force in very specific ones. In Libya organized rebel forces were ready to be the ground army airpower would support, Libya did not have an Iranian ally that could match intervention with asymmetric retaliation, and there was little risk of downed aircraft and dead pilots. In Syria, none of these conditions hold, and similar benchmarks certainly don’t hold in Ukraine.

Larison further writes that “nothing would be more useful for Moscow as a matter of propaganda than to have the U.S. illegally attacking another country.” This is also true. Arguments that failing to punish Russia will usher in a future of frequent great power aggression are often met with the counterargument of, well, this future is just the recent past, and Americans only notice and object to sovereignty violations when it’s not them doing the violating. While sovereignty and non-interference concerns are not in and of themselves a reason to dismiss hitting the Assad regime, advocates of intervention in Syria should acknowledge that it would strength Putin’s diplomatic position as well as weaken it. While global opinion has been generally against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, this opposition has not been as strident as the US and Europeans would have hoped. If strikes in Syria allowed a ‘well, both sides do it’ thought to take root, many leaders would find themselves with a convenient excuse to avoid the diplomatic and political risk of meaningfully punishing Russian aggression.

But ultimately the entire discussion is silly. Strikes in Syria can only be expected to influence Moscow’s calculus if they prompt a reassessment of the punishment Russia could face for further action. American resolve has no bearing on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, because everyone — Obama, the EU, Putin, the Ukrainians, everybody — knows that the United States is not going to go to war or even meaningfully threaten war with a major nuclear power. Striking Syria as a proxy demonstration of American resolve just makes this more obvious. If America is so committed to facing down Putin in eastern Ukraine, why is it striking Syria then? Because the United States cannot credibly threaten to use military force against Russia. The only coercion that is on the table is diplomatic efforts, which striking the Assad regime has at best a negative relation to. It’s akin to punching the skinny guy next to the hulking bar-fighter you’re trying to intimidate, just to show you’re serious.

I don’t think it is, as Danny Hirschel-Burns said on Twitter, surprising that a former “senior US policymaker would have such a simplistic view of credibility” because this really isn’t an argument about Ukraine at all. Anne-Marie Slaughter has favored military intervention in Syria for years, endorsing in January 2012 intervention under the responsibility to protect doctrine should conditions be favorable and calling for unilateral limited military efforts to establish safe-zones in February 2012. Maybe, given the enormous human suffering in Syria over the last two years, the world should have followed Slaughter’s advice — reading 2012 Syria op-eds in 2014 is deeply sorrowful — but in any case it is obvious now that this military intervention is not coming. Citing strikes in Syria as a useful part of the Western toolkit in Ukraine is just, in my mind, a way of keeping the possibility of intervention in the public eye. The crisis in Ukraine is simply an excuse to keep that conversation going.

Rehabilitating Pinochet?

Image by Archivo Clarín Argentina, via Wikimedia.

Image by Archivo Clarín Argentina, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Following the recent coup in Egypt, the Wall Street Journal posted a fairly run-of-the-mill editorial in favor of President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. Arguing that the polarizing and Islamist Morsi government necessitated a military coup, the Wall Street Journal expressed hope that the Egyptian military would wisely steer Egypt back to democracy and resist the urge to govern the country directly. Accusing it of “trailing events at every turn,” the op-ed’s authors also denounced the Obama administration’s foreign policy, while neglecting to admit that the US has little ability to positively influence events in Egypt, and even less ability to foresee them — again, a fairly typical argument from the Journal.

However, in its last paragraph the op-ed veers into what can only be considered at best wildly historically myopic, or more likely simply deeply offensive:

“Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi’s fate.”

This is, to put it mildly, insane. After participating in and then subsuming the military junta that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973, Pinochet personally ruled Chile for nearly two decades. In that time he oversaw the deaths of 3,000 people (in a country of 13 million in 1990) and torture and execution of democratic activists, fought all meaningful democratic reform, and nearly fought what would have been an entirely-preventable conflict with Argentina. Ultimately, Pinochet left power not out of some respect for democracy, as the Journal seems to believe, but when he was essentially forced out. If the Wall Street Journal’s editors had any respect at all for Pinochet’s victims — or, perhaps more pertinently, any understanding of the legacy of his regime — they would not hold Pinochet as an example for Egypt’s newly re-empowered generals.

As Colin M. Snider writes, this argument is “vile, disgusting, repugnant, vulgar, and ignorant.”

But perhaps more interesting is what this op-ed represents. The Pinochet regime has long enjoyed some cachet among American conservatives, both for the regime’s anti-Communist stance and neoliberal economic reforms, and during his tenure Pinochet enjoyed close ties with the both the US government and neoliberal economists, notably Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. With the end of the Cold War American elites had much less incentive to support anti-leftist Latin American military dictatorships, and generally turned away from previously-favored right-wing autocracies. But due to his free-market reforms and Chile’s subsequent economic growth the Pinochet regime continued to enjoy some degree of respect that other, once similarly favored regimes like the pre-1982 Argentine junta and Paraguay’s Stroessner regime gradually lost. This respect continued beyond Pinochet’s ouster, with American conservatives especially often rhetorically conflating arguments highlighting the regime’s economic success with some nebulous endorsement of it, while downplaying Pinochet’s crimes and the growth in Chilean inequality he oversaw.

But American economic conservatives ready to celebrate the Pinochet regime’s economic policies are usually quick to denounce its autocratic nature, even while implicitly endorsing the regime overall. This position stems from a somewhat understandable dilemma. In the American elite imagination the Pinochet regime is most often offered as clear-cut economic success story — acknowledge the regime’s crimes and the whole narrative edifice threatens to come crashing down. Some commentators attempt to streamline this historical narrative by insisting that while Pinochet was a brutal dictator the Communist-leaning Allende government it overthrew would have been worse. While this plays into American Cold War biases and draws on the specter of leftist insurgencies elsewhere in Latin America, it’s also a counterfactual, and ultimately not very convincing.

Given this rhetorical challenge — the contemporary conservative need to condone Pinochet’s economic policies while also denouncing its abuses — the Wall Street Journal simply elected to avoid the narrative bind entirely, drop the qualifications, and endorse the Pinochet regime whole-heartedly. Admittedly the op-ed only mentions Chile in the last paragraph and is focused on another issue, but this failure to qualify its celebration of Pinochet at all remains noteworthy.

Pithily noting that “anyone familiar with the political views of the WSJ’s editors couldn’t have been too surprised,” Daniel Larison sees the Pinochet reference as a predictable repurposing of American foreign policy tropes to fit a new situation:

“On one level, it was just an old rehashing of Cold War-era justifications for U.S. support for anticommunist authoritarian rulers, except that Islamists were now filling the role that communists and socialists used to play. On another, it was a fairly predictable expression of support for perceived ‘pro-American’ forces abroad even if they happened to be military officers engaged in a coup against an elected government.”

This is of course correct. But it’s possible that there’s something else here. The Pinochet regime is now nearly a quarter century in the rearview mirror. With this growing historical remoteness, it would be unsurprising if American conservatives gradually drop their qualifications when arguing in favor of the regime’s economic policies. After all, noting that a regime best-known (in the United States I don’t think this is an exaggeration) for its arguably-beneficial economic policies was also a reprehensible, anti-democratic dictatorship complicates the narrative. Given that the Pinochet regime is most often mentioned in the US as an appropriated tool in American economic policy debates, this complexity is relevant, and unwanted. As time goes by I would not be surprised if explicit endorsements of the Pinochet regime like the Wall Street Journal’s become more and more common.

Correction: This piece originally misidentified the Wall Street Journal editorial as an op-ed.

The Wrong Lessons from Iraq

By Taylor Marvin

The tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq continues to draw revealing reflections on the lessons of the war. Ezra Klein attributes his (admittedly, college-age) support for the invasion to the influence of Ken Pollack’s The Gathering Storm and warns against trusting what “everyone knows”, while failing to mention that numerous IR academics presciently warned against the invasion.

Elsewhere, Daniel Larison fears that many Americans have failed to learn from the war, and still view preemptive invasions as a “legitimate form of self-defense.” Stephen Walt voices similar concerns over policymakers’ continuing failure to consider tangible American interests when proposing foreign military interventions, a clear rejection of both neoconservative and liberal interventionist policy. Both Larison and Walt make valid points — while the abject failure of the Iraq War seems to have conditioned many Americans to reject boots-on-the-ground military adventurism, it doesn’t appear to have sparked a popular rethink of the purpose and limitations of US foreign policy as a whole.

Like Larison, my fear is that future observers will attribute Iraq War’s failures to factors specific to the conflict itself, rather than general limitations on the United States’ ability to successfully use force to remove and replace foreign regimes. These implicated determinants can be specific to Iraq — the country’s sectarian and tribal divides, for instance — or the incompetence of the Bush administration. It’s this incompetence that has the potential to be truly blinding. While the decision to pursue war with Iraq itself was misguided, the Bush administration’s initial missteps were so mistaken that they draw the analytical spotlight:

  • Invading with a post-Revolution in Military Affairs force that was ultimately too small to provide security after the overthrow of the Hussein government and secure the weapons depots that would later provided insurgents and IED makers with armaments.
  • The decision to base the astoundingly lightly-sketched visions of post-Hussein governance around Ahmed Chalabi, an exile who enjoyed no legitimacy within Iraq. Chalabi had every incentive to mislead Bush administration officials, and it should have been extremely obvious that he would not be a viable leader of post-Hussein Iraq.
  • Paul Bremer’s disastrous order to the disband the Iraqi Army, which — to the horror of US military officials — dumped thousands of unemployed and angry armed men into already unstable Iraqi society. “There was simply no upside to firing hundreds of thousands of young men who knew where the guns, ammunition, and explosives were kept,” Steve Saideman recently wrote, terming it, not the decision to invade overall, the single worst US foreign policy decision ever.
  • Bremer’s similarly-misguided policy of de-Ba’athification, which removed Hussein-era Iraqi elites from civil society and demolished state governing capacity.
  • The Bush administration’s tragically comic policy of turning the Coalition Provisional Authority administration over to young American graduates, nearly all of which had zero relevant administrative or cultural experience.

All of these decisions were indefensible at the time, and reveal both arrogance and astounding general incompetence on the part of the officials responsible.  But the scope of these errors has the potential to obscure the Iraq War’s real lessons. David Ignatius explicitly qualifies his condemnation of the invasion with this logic, remarking that “we’ll never know whether the story might have been different if better planning had been done for ‘the day after,’ or the Iraqi army hadn’t been disbanded, or several other ‘ifs.'” But this qualification misses the general point. The invasion wasn’t “risky”, because it had little hope of meeting its stated goals in and of itself — even if none of these decisions had been made it’s still difficult to imagine the invasion’s aftermath proceeding according to plan.

The reality is that there never was a plausible case that invading Iraq would lead to the at least-nominal goal of installing a stable democratic government. The 2003 US military was entirely unprepared to fight a counterinsurgency, and no matter how much administration and military leaders pretended otherwise there was never justification for the assumption that Iraqis would go along with the administration’s post-war plans.

Instead, the clear lesson of the Iraq War is that US strategy should not be benchmarked around predicting the behavior of an indigenous population. Every initial, binding mistake of the war comes back to this assumption. Sufficient troops to secure and guard weapons depots would not be necessary, because post-invasion resistance would be limited to regime dead-enders. Troop numbers necessary for the high counterinsurgency threshold were excessive, because ethnic conflict was not expected. The CPA’s counterproductive policy of de-Ba’athification would not be problematic, because the Ba’ath party was a hated, tiny minority.

But the problems inherent to human behavior-assumptions don’t appear to have been incorporated into today’s interventionist theory. Most advocates of US or Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities base their proposals on the ludicrous assumption that an unprovoked attack on Iran will not permanently damage perceptions of the US among Iranians and empower Iranian hardliners at the expense of moderates, or, most fantastically, strikes will cause Iranians to rise up against the regime. This dumbfoundingly optimistic assumption grimly echoes Jeffrey Goldberg’s pre-war assertion that “people with limited experience in the Middle East” wrongly believe “the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.” Americans may, as Dan Drezner recently argued, have internalize a more realist post-Iraq outlook. But this really only extends to boots on the ground interventions. Given US policymakers’ perpetual temptation to leverage airpower and unconventional forces into low-commitment military interventions, this argument is almost peripheral to the general debate.

Messaging, Not Cost

By Taylor Marvin

At the American Conservative, Daniel Larison refutes the notion — argued by the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson* — that cuts in US military spending will significantly restrain American leaders’ interventionist tendencies. ” The decision to intervene in other countries’ conflicts and internal affairs is not necessarily prevented by a relative lack of resources,” Larison writes, noting that “the [US] military interventions of the last twenty years have been almost entirely optional.”

I agree with Larison, and think the entire question is largely irrelevant. US military resources will never be a constraint on potential military interventions, because the advocates of strategically-unnecessary wars have every incentive to downplay their expected force requirements and costs. Interventions are inevitably framed by their proponents as low-cost ventures and wars’ expected costs, when they are offered at all, are equally inevitably reliant on optimistic best-case assumptions. The invasion and initial occupation of Iraq was benchmarked around Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks belief, passed on to the wider Bush administration, that small numbers of highly-mobile troops were sufficient to occupy the country and nation-building would be unnecessary; a fantastic assumption. In turn this expected light-footprint informed — or, for the cynical, was mandated by — Dick Cheney’s assertion that Iraq’s oil wealth would pay for the war. Even if the United States spent significantly less on defense war advocates still would have been capable of justifying the invasion on their best-case assumptions.

The same is true for other potential US interventions. Advocates for military interventions will never offer reasonable and measured assessments of conflicts’ likely costs and benefits. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate bias: while advocates of intervention are obviously informed by the need for good public relations, Iraq hawks seemed to genuinely believed that a lengthy occupation was unlikely. Drawing the wrong conclusions from the Gulf War and 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and their own post-Vietnam distaste for counterinsurgency, these advocates refused to consider the possibility that the coming war wouldn’t conform to their neatly drawn assumptions.

This remains true today. When Senator Lindsey Graham claims he “doesn’t care what it takes” to contain Syrian chemical weapons, he likely isn’t referencing the assessment that it would take over 75,000 troops to secure Syrian chemical sites. Instead, he’s simply following the Iraq playbook, offering a worst-case take on the costs of inaction and nebulous-at-best consideration for potential costs. Of course Graham’s enthusiasm for intervention in Syria has little practical effect on US policy, which remains unlikely to turn towards entry into the conflict. But Graham’s attitude does illustrate this dynamic. The practical constraints that govern US entry into overseas conflicts isn’t practical resource or cost concerns. Instead, it’s simply the ability of war advocates to message their cause in the most urgent and least objectionable terms possible.

*Gerson uses the phrase “Shiite bomb” as a self-evident explanation for why the Iranian nuclear program is unacceptable, which is pretty damn unconvincing.