Paul Pillar

Feeble Pushback from the Prowar Crowd

Those agitating for a war with Iran got a jolt of reality last week in the form of remarks by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who reminded his listeners at a Saban Center forum why a military attack on Iran in the name of setting back its nuclear program is an atrocious idea. The agitators naturally see the need to push back against the defense secretary, no matter how vacuous the pushback is when examined at all closely. Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in trying to take on Secretary Panetta, exhibits some of the usual characteristics of the prowar agitation, especially the tactic of making the rosiest possible assumptions about the aftermath and consequences of an attack.

Singh allows that the secretary of defense may know of what he speaks when Mr. Panetta noted that an attack would set the Iranian program back only a year or two because some of the nuclear targets are very difficult to reach. But Singh doesn't want to concede the point, saying that recent explosions such as at a missile facility “suggest they are vulnerable” (what does that have to do with the problem Panetta mentioned of not being able to reach—or even to locate—some of the nuclear facilities?) and adding an observation about centrifuges having specialized components, which does nothing to refute the observation that the most that could be expected from an attack is a short delay of the Iranian program.

To Secretary Panetta's reminder that an attack would increase support for the Iranian regime both inside Iran and elsewhere in the region, Singh asserts “it is far more likely” that Arabs “would at least privately cheer a successful attack”—ignoring repeated indications that the prevailing Arab view is instead one of concern about what Iran is doing but opposition to anyone starting a war against it. Singh cites a poll to try to support his point, but the latest poll I am aware of—which I discussed here recently—showed that 64 percent of those polled in five Arab countries believe that Iran has a right to its nuclear program and that the international community should not pressure Iran to give it up, let alone go to war over it. As for sentiment inside Iran, Singh says “far from bolstering the regime an attack may undermine it,” ignoring the strong view of Iranian opposition leaders that an armed attack is the worst thing that could happen to their movement and the best thing that could happen to hard-liners in the regime. In what is perhaps the biggest stretch in his piece, Singh mentions as supposed support for his view a reference in a speech by Supreme Leader Khamenei to how previous Iranian regimes had shown vulnerability in the face of foreign powers—which sounds much more like an expression of defiance and determination not to make the same mistake.

Then there is all the economic and political damage that, as Secretary Panetta also reminded his audience, would result from the Iranian response to an attack, the subsequent escalation and the resulting larger war. Singh tries to turn tables on the secretary by criticizing him for making it sound like we would not strike back hard to their striking back—as if our tough talk would be enough to diminish the Iranian response to an armed attack on their territory. To have some sense of how little sense this makes, ask yourself if someone else's tough talk would diminish our response to an armed attack on our territory. One might add that it would not be necessary for Secretary Panetta to say any of this if it were not for people like Singh agitating for a disastrous war in the first place.

The end of Singh's piece exhibits another common attribute of the agitation, which is to promote the notion of having to be resigned to the inevitability of a military attack. “The timing may not be up to us,” says Singh. But of course not only the timing, but also whether to launch a war at all, would be very much up to us (or to the Israelis, if they are the ones who start such a war). The idea that “we would have no choice” to launching a war or “there would be no other option” is probably the single most persistent theme in the prowar campaign. The strategy is clear and simple. It really doesn't matter to the prowar crowd how feeble their arguments are (one can easily picture Singh wincing at some of his own) as long as the idea of a war with Iran is kept prominently in play. Keep it in play long enough (maybe until after a new president takes office) while continually repeating the further theme that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be absolutely unacceptable, and eventually there would be a time to declare that we have “no other option” but to launch a crazy war, even when a case had never really been made for one.