Thursday, April 13, 2006

James Fallows on bluffing and the risk of "excess demand" for military action against Iran 

Among respected journalists, James Fallows has been a particularly effective critic of the Bush administration's foreign policy. This is because the botching of decisions in bureaucracies has been something of a specialty of his since he published The National Defense, a stinging indictment of weapons development and procurement, 25 years ago. Since poor systems for the making of decisions seems to be the settled criticism of the Bush administration, Fallows has been in his element. In the last couple of years he has written a series of articles in The Atlantic Monthly that emphasized this theme. See, e.g., "Blind Into Baghdad."

As the confrontation with Iran has escalated, Fallows has written many times that military action to stop its nuclear program would be folly. In December 2004, The Atlantic Monthly sponsored a very interesting roundtable discussion -- a simulation, if you will -- that contemplated a military strike against Iran and concluded that it would be a very bad idea. Without getting into the merits of Fallows' argument, suffice it to say that he feels very strongly that an attack against Iran would backfire catastrophically.

Unfortunately, in his otherwise fairly sober (if anti-Bush administration) writing about military and foreign affairs, he expresses a particular concern that I think is absurd on its face. In the current (May 2006) issue, Fallows editorializes against not only an attack against Iran, but against hinting that there might be one:
As it has watched Iran’s evolution, the United States has delivered more and more studied warnings that “all options remain open”—code to the Iranians that they should worry about an attack. In different ways, George W. Bush and two aspiring successors, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, have expressed this view. Government officials in Israel have been more explicit still, with the defense minister saying that Israel “will not accept” Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Intellectuals, activists, and out-of-power politicians from Newt Gingrich to Benjamin Netanyahu have all urged their leaders to stand firm....

[Extended reprise of Fallows' argument that military action would be the worst possible choice.]

Perhaps the American and Israeli hard-liners know all this, and are merely bluffing. If so, they have made an elementary strategic error. The target of their bluff is the Iranian government, and the most effective warnings would be discreet and back-channel. Iranian intelligence should be picking up secret signals that the United States is planning an attack. By giving public warnings, the United States and Israel “create ‘excess demand’ for military action,” as our war-game leader Sam Gardiner recently put it, and constrain their own negotiating choices.

This strikes me as a silly argument against sabre-rattling for at least two reasons, and in no regard "an elementary strategic error." First, there is no evidence that the target of the bluff is only the Iranian government. Fallows is making that up. One can think of numerous audiences that might "benefit" from wondering about the risk of an American attack. At least four come to mind: (i) the Iranian elites who are on the outside of the current administration and not necessarily privy to back-channel signals, but in a position to influence policy; (ii) the European public, which may be more willing to impose sanctions on Iran if it thinks that the crazy Americans might launch another war if they don't go along; (iii) the governments of Russia and China, for the same reason (see yesterday's New York Times, in which Clinton era security advisor Ashton Carter is quoted making precisely this point) and (iv) the Israelis, Saudis, Pakistanis and Indians, who may wonder about the depth of the American resolve to stop a Persian bomb. Point is, Fallows' assumption that the Iranian government is the only intended audience for the bluff strikes me as highly problematic. I would be amazed if that were so.

The other concern, that Bush might box himself into a corner by creating "excess demand" for war on the part of the American public, strikes me as extremely far-fetched, especially under current political conditions. As deeply as the American public still loathes and resents Iran for the indignities of 1979 and 1980 -- in the past five months Fallows has edited two excellent articles by Mark Bowden on that subject -- I detect no desire in the American public to start a war with Iran. Bush's approval ratings are in the tank, and he is a lame duck. He is under precisely no pressure to start that war. Indeed, the most powerful evidence of this is that the hawks in the pundit class are quite obviously worried that his weak political position will sap his will to take the action that Fallows opposes. Their concern is not "excess demand" for military action, but no demand, or stomach, for it.


By Blogger Pax Federatica, at Thu Apr 13, 10:19:00 AM:

I think Fallows is right, but for the wrong reason.

The trouble with this bluff (assuming it is one) is that it's a lot more likely to get called this time around, because its targets sense that the U.S., being bogged down in Iraq and stretched thin elsewhere, and with Bush's approval ratings in the tank, isn't really prepared to start yet another war. The longer Iran goes without backing down, and without Europe, Russia, China et al falling for the bluff, the more pressure will the U.S. be under to either show its hand (i.e. attack Iran) or fold.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Thu Apr 13, 11:31:00 AM:

Joshua, that's a valid point. However, the stronger the Iranian leadership feels its position to be in relation to U.S. (in)ability to act, the more provocative the Iranians may become until the situation reaches a place where we WILL act, regardless of any perceived or actual weakness.

And I'm not convinced we are as weak as some estimates would have it. I think Eisenhower would have killed to have the geo-strategic advantages going into WW II that we now have with Iran.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Apr 14, 08:27:00 AM:

WW2 was a war on multiple fronts. We had a draft, we lost many, etc.

Since Iran isn't taking a cue from what happened with Saddam's rattling, maybe it's because they already have the bomb and want an excuse to use it. Or maybe they too have moles in the security council they think can outflank the USA.

Personally, I'm still waiting for the flaccid IAEA and the UN to do "something" to bail out the left's assertion that it's good for something other than diplomatic plates and double parking in NYC.  

By Blogger opit, at Fri Apr 14, 10:15:00 PM:

Sage advice was at least available going into Iraq. Nobody with a brain in his head and personal ambition will give those in charge a realistic appraisal : just to see it ignored.
Bush's numbers are in the tank. He's not up for re-election. The common wisdom that attacking Iran is political suicide may well make no impression. So far he has shown no sign of giving a flying f**k about anything except what is whirling around his own head.
Short version : Bush should have no problem projecting that he is a violent irrational idiot.  

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