Paul Pillar

The Political Echelon's Stupid Idea

Meir Dagan, the recently retired director of Mossad, made headlines in the Israeli press over the weekend by remarking at a conference that any military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would be a “stupid idea.” Dagan, who headed the Israeli intelligence service for eight years and knows a thing or two about the behavior and perspectives of other actors in the Middle East, further commented that such an attack would risk a long war and might not even achieve its initial objectives. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded by stating that Dagan was “not wise to share his thoughts, as legitimate as they may be,” with the public. “In the end of the day,” said Barak, “these issues and decisions belong by their nature to the political echelon.”

As a retired intelligence officer who, having been liberated by retirement, now shares his thoughts with the public, I naturally take a dim view of Barak trying to shut up Dagan. More important, especially for anyone who may have Israel's interests at heart, stifling open analysis and debate—including the observations of someone with the regional experience and knowledge of Dagan—is a prescription for arriving at policies that are apt to be damaging to those interests. And this in a country that legitimately prides itself in having vigorous public debate on issues of national importance.

Fortunately, the danger of either Israel or the United States going to war against Iran seems less at the moment than it has at times during the past several years. The futures markets that trade in predictions of such things say that danger has been going down over the past twelve months. This reflects a combination of technical problems apparently slowing again the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, a sufficient number of other subjects to preoccupy both Israel and the United States, and a sufficient measure of sanity in the current White House.

But the possibility of such a war still lurks over the horizon. It is a specter that, if it ever were to materialize, would be not only stupid for Israeli interests but also disastrous for U.S. interests. So it is still worth worrying about this possibility, and about the defects of discourse and debate on this subject that might cause odds on the possibility to shorten again. One reason that a course of action that should have been discarded long ago as utter folly is still considered a possibility at all is the influence of that close-minded political echelon in Israel. Another reason is that what has passed for informed discussion of this topic in the United States has been at least as truncated as the comparable discussion in Israel. In contrast to all the anxiety over how many centrifuges are spinning at Natanz, there has been a paucity of attention to the many ramifications of an attack against Iran—including both what would probably ensue as well as what would be only possible but would be even more disastrous. And this is in addition to there being almost no real analysis of exactly what the consequences would be if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon. Instead of analysis there has only been emotional, absolutist rhetoric of the “must never be allowed to happen” variety.

Let us hope that before the price of futures on war with Iran begins to rise again, we will hear more careful discussion of the consequences. Let us further hope that in such discussion, we will hear fully from the Meir Dagans in both Israel and the United States, and not let them be silenced by the Ehud Baraks and other members of the political echelon.