The Skeptics

North Korea Reprises Its Role as International Beggar

The Skeptics

The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il put relations with the rest of the world on hold. But Pyongyang has stirred, reprising its role as international beggar.

The new regime, at least nominally headed by Kim’s twenty-eight-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, issued its first statement regarding relations with Washington. The United States should send more than 300,000 tons of previously promised food aid and end economic sanctions to “build confidence” with the North. In return, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might be willing to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. The United States, Japan and South Korea stated yesterday that a “path is open” to restarting the six-party talks to address the concern over the North’s nuclear program.

Pyongyang seemed particularly aggrieved that the Obama administration would link humanitarian assistance to security issues. Shocking!

As Yogi Berra famously said, it is déjà vu all over again. North Korea makes agreement. North Korea gets aid. North Korea breaks agreement. North Korea blames West. North Korea offers to negotiate agreement. And the cycle starts again.

No one knows what to do with the DPRK. So far, regime elites have preferred even impoverished stability over anything more than pro forma reform. The death of Kim Jong-il creates an opportunity for change, but there is no obvious constituency for revolution among the party apparatchiks and military officers who dominate the system.

That almost certainly means that Pyongyang is not prepared to negotiate away its existing nuclear capability. Only two men have ruled the North in the past sixty-three years; Kim Jong-un has none of their authority, and there are several plausible claimants for the throne. None is likely to be so foolish as to alienate the military by campaigning to give away its ultimate weapon.

It still is worth talking with North Korea. Despite good reason for skepticism, lesser objectives might be achievable—limits on missile development, withdrawal of advanced conventional units, even caps on nuclear capabilities. Moreover, the DPRK appears to moderate its behavior while engaged in negotiations.

However, Washington should not pay for more promises. And the United States should not provide inducements just to get Pyongyang to talk. America has much to offer—diplomatic relations, end of sanctions, access to international aid, military withdrawal from the South. If confidence is to be rebuilt, it must be rebuilt on both sides.

Washington should make no exception for food aid. The suffering of the North Korean people is tragic, but it remains the result of conscious policies adopted by the North Korean regime. In fact, that is what “Juche,” the oft-proclaimed policy of self-reliance, is all about.

Moreover, the DPRK would view any government assistance as political affirmation. And any assistance would bolster a system under siege, aiding the government as it attempts to demonstrate its power and wealth this year during its centenary celebrations of founder Kim Il-sung’s birth. If the North needs more help, let it go to China, which already is keeping this desolate land afloat economically.

Refusing to engage other nations rarely makes sense, even in the case of North Korea, despite the monstrous nature of the regime. However, engagement does not mean appeasement. In the future, Washington should restrict its rewards to the North for acting, not promising.

Image: Stephan

TopicsHuman RightsForeign AidRogue StatesSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

Iran, Restraint and Grand Strategy

The Skeptics

As a realist, an advocate of American restraint and a general ideological cuss, I think attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is a bad idea. But the best argument for restraint rests on different grounds than have been recently offered. The problem with an American attack is not that it would be an unnecessary and costly failure, from a military perspective. The problem is that it would probably “work.” And if it worked, our leaders would falsely conclude that regional hegemony can produce results. It would further entrench America in its poor grand strategy.

This assessment is not simply the product of biased analysis. Five years ago, Austin Long and Whitney Raas showed that the Israelis had a very good chance to destroy the key Iranian nuclear facilities by themselves. Long believes that though the problem has gotten somewhat worse with the passage of time, the mission is still doable. The upshot is that if a successful attack is a sporting proposition for the much smaller Israeli air force, it will be a fait accompli for the powerful American air force.

Moreover, the analysis implies that the delay of the Iranian nuclear program wrought by a successful attack could be quite considerable, if not permanent. Any follow-on program would have to be buried incredibly deep. This could prove very difficult given the depth to which American munitions can penetrate—especially when successive laser-guided bombs are bootstrapped through the holes made by their predecessors—and the large facility size needed to effectively house centrifuges. For instance, the much-touted hardened facility at Fordow—which Long believes the Israelis could still reach—holds only three thousand centrifuges, compared to Natanz’s fifty thousand.

In addition, the Iranians would need to procure a robust Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) to prevent attacking forces from operating at their leisure. Such an effort would require considerable Iranian investment in its rag-tag and poorly trained air forces, including the purchase of high-tech fighters and radars. Furthermore, to rebuild their program, the Iranians would need to regenerate it from their own technological base, which remains opaque—we know that Iran required help from A.Q. Khan to get its program going in the first place, and that route has been closed.

In sum, Tehran would have to reconstruct a program that took decades to build, from technology it could have serious trouble reproducing locally, in expansive facilities buried deep underground, while simultaneously making a major conventional effort to produce an IADS, all out of an economically struggling and generally impoverished resource base. A revived program could meet long delays and might never become viable.

On the cost side, Iran’s major strategic threat—to impede the flow of Persian Gulf oil—is also hollow. As Ben Friedman has noted in this space and Caitlin Talmadge has analyzed at length, American naval capabilities are more than sufficient to hold the Straits of Hormuz open and to reduce Iranian harassment to a minimum. Miranda Priebe and Josh Shifrinson have further shown that another commonly mooted threat—an Iranian missile attack on Saudi oil facilities—lacks the capacity to seriously harm Saudi oil production. Though the market will probably react negatively for a short duration, a real threat to Gulf oil is beyond Iran’s meager means.

None of these are particularly good reasons to attack Iran’s program, mind you. And, to be sure, there are other potential costs: Iran can use its proxies to stir up trouble for Israel and can launch attacks on American military targets in the Gulf and in Afghanistan. The potential death of American servicemen and women and a possible sequence of escalating military attacks with Iran are not costs policy makers should take lightly. But they are the type of costs that American decision makers have been willing to bear in the past two decades. An attack will probably produce a rally around the flag effect in both countries, a series of tit-for-tat military exchanges, a temporary spike in the price of oil and a destroyed Iranian nuclear program. And when the dust clears, it is likely that the American national security-class will regard this outcome as a delicious strategic meal at a tasty price.

The perception of success could reinforce America’s worst strategic tendencies. American statesmen will have strong incentives to increase the American military presence in the region in order to keep the Iranians from rebuilding their program. What is worse, Washington will have a new case study in the efficacy of American military power, one that appears to vindicate the broader policy of regional hegemony. Though speculative, evidence from the recent past supports the possibility of this sort of reaction.

The difference in the votes to authorize the use of force in the two Gulf Wars demonstrates that politicians drew one prominent conclusion from Desert Storm: Do not be on the wrong side of a victorious military. More recently, the political reaction to the 2007 “surge” in Iraq is instructive. Though the surge failed to deliver on its promises—a stable and democratic Iraq—the subsequent reduction in violence made it a political winner. In Afghanistan, we have “surged” twice and are pursuing a nation-building effort even more difficult than our failed efforts in Iraq—while admitting that the terrorist presence purportedly justifying our efforts is minimal.

The American national-security establishment has learned lessons from our hegemonic adventures, but not the right ones. I think that a strike on Iran will succeed, if viewed in terms of the narrow costs and benefits common to the current debate. But I fear it will cause our leaders to further embrace America’s role as hegemonic manager of Middle Eastern politics and a new role as counterproliferators of last—perhaps even first—resort.

This will continue an American grand strategy that has been off the rails in Southwest Asia since the aftermath of the first Gulf War, when statesmen declined to return America to its position as an offshore balancer and instead pursued a policy of regional hegemony. This strategy has been disastrous, both because it has been extremely costly and because it has substituted American power for local political equilibria, encouraging free riding on American security guarantees and irresponsible behavior from many regional actors. Rather than focus narrowly on the costs and benefits of a strike itself, the Iranian nuclear question is best viewed within the framework of American grand strategy in the region as a whole.

Though a difficult task given the present domestic consensus on foreign policy, I would argue the case against attacking Iran on grand strategic grounds: the Middle East is a hornet’s nest we would do well to stay out of. There are certainly nontrivial dangers to Middle Eastern proliferation: military pathologies inimical to deterrence, the difficulties of N-player deterrence and the danger of small numbers of weapons, to name a few. But these dangers are a threat only to regional actors and not to the security of the U.S. homeland. U.S. security guarantees and a military presence in the Middle East are not necessary to ensure the stability of the region. If the United States stops underwriting regional security and the worst-case scenario of Iran going nuclear transpires, the associated problems will help put an end to regional free riding by incentivizing states to provide their own security. As importantly, it will serve as a source of discipline on our own interventionist proclivities.

We can, and should, continue to vouch for the marker we laid down in 1991: There shall be no conquering of oil. Regional actors can be assured that the American Navy will ensure their oil gets to market. And tacit support for some sort of order in Saudi Arabia is reasonable, if any such helpful measures exist. But otherwise, our friends in the region should quietly be told that Iran is their problem, and that they would be wise to pool their efforts in figuring out how to deal with it. And the American public should be told loudly that the very real dangers of proliferation are not dangers to us.

TopicsGrand StrategyMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIranPersian GulfMiddle East

Grasping at Straws: The Mexican Government’s Latest Spin on Drug Violence

The Skeptics

On January 11, the attorney general’s office in Mexico City released the latest casualty figures in the government’s war against the drug cartels. Most people would regard the news as thoroughly depressing. The AGO’s statement confirmed that there had been 47,515 drug-related killings from December 2006—when President Felipe Calderón gave the army the lead role in attacking the cartels—through September 2011. During the first nine months of 2011 alone, 12,903 people died in the violence. That figure compared to 11,583 during the same period in 2010.

So, not only is the carnage taking place at an alarming pace, but the annual toll is getting worse. According to the Mexican government, though, the news is actually somewhat encouraging. Why? Because, as the AGO statement stresses:

It’s the first year (since 2006) that the homicide rate increase has been lower compared to previous years. (Emphasis added.)

In other words, the already-terrible situation may be getting worse, but it is getting worse at a slower pace than in recent years. And that is supposedly good news.

It is truly a case of grasping at straws when Mexican authorities have to cite that development as the principal sign of progress in the war against the drug cartels. But it’s hardly the first time that officials in the Calderón administration have whistled past the graveyard when it came to the drug war.

The attorney general’s office even seems miffed that journalists and other analysts focus so much attention on the overall death toll. The most important thing, the AGO statement insisted, is “to guarantee that each killing is investigated.” That spin is not likely to work either. An Associated Press reporter noted dryly that “records show few of the killings have been investigated.”

At almost the same time the AGO’s statement was released in Mexico City, the U.S. Treasury Department declared that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, was the most powerful and dangerous drug trafficker in the world. The reality is that El Chapo is not only the most powerful drug trafficker, he is one of the most powerful individuals in the world, period. Any doubt on that score vanished when Forbes magazine once again included him on its list of the world’s wealthiest people, with an estimated fortune of $1 billion. Guzmán has been on that list continuously since 2009.

The Mexican government’s optimistic version to the contrary, several of the drug cartels in Mexico are flourishing. Indeed, they are rapidly expanding their operations into Central America and elsewhere, posing a serious threat to the viability of those countries. And the level of violence in Mexico itself is getting worse, not better. Mexican—and U.S.—authorities need to abandon a policy that consists primarily of denying unpleasant realities.

The Calderón administration’s strategy of waging war on the cartels has failed—as has the entire drug prohibition model that Washington has pushed for decades. It is well past time to try a different approach.

Image: Senado de la República de México.

TopicsEconomic DevelopmentTradePeacekeepingSecurity RegionsMexico

Realists Are Right

The Skeptics

Readers with interest in the ongoing discussion about realism in U.S. foreign policy (see Dan Drezner here, Justin Logan here) may want to visit Sebastian Rosato’s and my response, posted yesterday at Drezner’s blog. As the authors of a recent article on the subject, we have a keen interest in this debate.

The author’s views are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the Air Force or the Department of Defense.

TopicsCivil SocietyMuckety MucksGrand StrategyPublic OpinionPolitical TheoryPolitics

Why Libertarians Are Skeptics (But not all Skeptics Are Libertarians)

The Skeptics

Earlier this week at Cato-@-Liberty, David Boaz posted a very useful and timely response to a Heritage Foundation view of military spending that will likely be of interest to a wide audience.

The Heritage “charticle” published in Tuesday’s print edition of The Washington Examiner, showed that military spending as a share of total government spending had fallen, and that entitlement spending consumes a larger share of the federal budget than it did three or four decades ago. But we didn’t really need fancy charts to know that. David included a few charts of his own, and closed with an important challenge. Surely, Heritage scholars wouldn’t:

suggest that U.S. national security should be measured by the relationship of military spending to entitlement spending. Surely we would agree that military spending must be sufficient to ensure U.S. security and not tied to some extraneous factor. So I invite the creators and promoters of the…chart to explain exactly what they think it proves.

Boaz also alludes to serious disagreements between some conservatives* and many libertarians about the foreign policy tradition of the Founders. David linked to a true gem from the archives—Ted Galen Carpenter’s essay on the Constitution and U.S. foreign policy from 1987. But others have written on this topic, including Justin Logan in a more recent issue of Cato Policy Report. And I discuss the historical roots of restraint in my book, The Power Problem.

As it happens, I was in Naples, Florida yesterday giving a talk on the subject, and my video discussing libertarian foreign policy was recently posted at

In the video, and in my lecture last evening, I stressed the Founders’ deep and abiding skepticism of government, and their fears of, in George Washington’s words, “those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty.” In drafting the Constitution, James Madison aimed to prevent the new nation from acquiring such a military by limiting the federal government’s ability to wage foreign wars (through restrictions on funding for the military) and by constraining the one branch most prone to initiate war, the executive.

He saw the vesting of the war powers in the legislature, not the executive branch, to be one of the most important provisions of the entire document. Madison explained the rationale in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.”

Such sentiments strike many today as unnecessarily unwieldy, and perhaps even dangerous. They doubt the wisdom of having foreign policy conducted by 535 de facto secretaries of state. The world is simply too dangerous, they say; the president of the United States must have the power to initiate wars unencumbered by the doubts of the public who will actually fight them and pay for them.

There were no doubt some in the late eighteenth century who believed much the same thing. Though the Congress was much smaller then, the politics were just as nasty. Gridlock was the rule. Meanwhile, the dangers facing the dis-united states were far greater than what we confront today. But by fortunate circumstances as much as by design, a foreign and military policy founded on—in Jefferson’s immortal words from his first inaugural address—“peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none,” survived and thrived in North America.

Libertarian skepticism of an activist foreign policy, particularly one that is prone to waging foreign wars, is also informed by F. A. Hayek’s observations on the “fatal conceit;” the erroneous belief that “man is able to shape the world around him according to his wishes.” (For more on Hayek’s theory as applied to foreign intervention, see this paper by Christopher Coyne and Rachel Mathers).

What Hayek called the knowledge problem also contributes to unintended consequences. These can be quite serious in the domestic context. They are more serious still in foreign policy. This is obvious when one recalls the rather banal point that wars aim to kill people and break things. Even well-intentioned wars—those, for example, that are designed to remove a tyrant from power and liberate an oppressed people—unleash chaos and violence that cannot be limited solely to those deserving of punishment. And repression and the stifling of human rights and individual liberty often occurs in the aftermath of wars that appear to have achieved their original objectives. (Just ask the people of Iraq.)

For all of these reasons—the expansion of state power, the problem of imperfect knowledge, the law of unintended consequences—libertarians should treat war for what it is: a necessary evil. “War cannot be avoided at all costs, but it should be avoided wherever possible,” writes Boaz in his seminal work Libertarianism: A Primer . “Proposals to involve the United States—or any government—in foreign conflict should be treated with great skepticism.”

Another argument that some conservatives advance in support of a crusading foreign policy abroad is that freedom needs a champion, and the United States is the only country that can play that role. People living under a tyrant’s heel must be liberated; the power of the U.S. military might convince the petty despot to step down. Failing that, the sharp end of American military power might deliver him to a prison, or the gallows.

But freedom has a champion—many, really—and it is a grave disservice to the work of institutions like the Cato Institute, the Atlas Foundation, the Institute for Humane Studies, and of countless other libertarian and classical liberal organizations to suggest that liberalism can only flourish under the covering fire of American armaments. Implicitly, calls for wars of liberation ignore or dismiss the progress toward liberty that has occurred during the past half century, and that has taken place peacefully. The U.S. role has largely been to provide a suitable model to emulate.

That was the approach favored by the Founders. Washington, in his Farewell Address and Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address both admonished their countrymen to steer clear of the internal affairs of foreign powers. Both were anxious for the United States to avoid unnecessary wars. Any claim that Washington or Jefferson secretly aspired to promote their ideas around the world by force, but were unable to do so solely because the new nation was too weak militarily, ignore that the government of the early Federal period was weak by design. A government large enough to preside over an empire of liberty would likewise be able to stifle liberty at home.

* A number of outspoken conservatives, including the editors and contributors to The American Conservative, as well as Andrew Bacevich, Douglas Macgregor and Bruce Fein, articulate a conservative, originalist interpretation of U.S. foreign policy.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsGrand StrategyThe PresidencyPolitical TheorySecurity RegionsUnited States

Will 2012 Be to Iran What 1998 Was to Iraq?

The Skeptics

I have been fairly sanguine that another war in the Middle East will not occur despite the recent outbursts from both Washington and Tehran. My thinking has been that neither the administration nor the American people have much of an appetite for another war, and Congress seems to have decided that Romania would be the last country on which America would ever declare war (during World War II). Posturers like Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman may wish to remind themselves that if they desire a war with Iran, they are constitutionally empowered to start one, if they have the courage of their convictions and the votes of their colleagues.

However, Tuesday in the Washington Post a “senior U.S. intelligence official” admitted that the aim of President Obama’s policy with regard to Iran is—wait for it—“regime collapse.” In the same article, another “administration official” says that this is not true, offering this entirely unconvincing explanation:

The notion that we’ve crossed into sanctions being about regime collapse is incorrect. We still very much have a policy that is rooted in the notion that you need to supply sufficient pressure to compel [the government] to change behavior as it’s related to their nuclear program.

And now the Post is running a correction saying that the “regime collapse” bit was wrong, and that a better formulation of what the first official was saying is that the sanctions are designed to “build public discontent that will help compel the government to abandon an alleged nuclear weapons program.” It’s worth examining what exactly is going on here.

For instance, when it comes to the amended comment from the first official and the analysis of the second official, how exactly are sanctions supposed to create pressure that will compel the Iranian government to change its behavior on its nuclear program? Presumably via creating fear in the Iranian government that public unrest resulting from the pain imposed by sanctions could bring down the regime. This sounds eerily similar to the model that has worked so well for the United States in places like Cuba and Iraq.

More generally, all of this is getting a very uncomfortable feeling about it. In 1998 when the Democratic president Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, under pressure by usual suspects from the Beltway foreign-policy community, few people clearly foresaw the wreckage of the 2000s. But once the Bush administration decided to take the country to war, the neoconservatives who were pushing the war were at pains to point out that their preferred policy was hardly some sort of Straussian conspiracy that their critics alleged—after all, it was the liberal Democratic president Bill Clinton who made regime change the policy of the United States! Don’t blame us!

I don’t know who will be the next president and neither do you. But this sounds to my ear very much like one more click of the “regime-change ratchet,” regardless of who winds up in the Oval Office in 2013.

TopicsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesPoliticsSecurity RegionsIran

Dan Drezner Is (Partly) Wrong about Realism

The Skeptics

I read with interest both Robert Kaplan’s profile of John Mearsheimer and Dan Drezner’s response to it. Drezner centers on Mearsheimer’s idea that America is a uniquely antirealist place and calls baloney. According to Drezner, this is

a sloppy argument lacking in empirical foundation. Just for starters, even realists acknowledge that Ron Paul's campaign is doing well because it's sympatico with the realist critique of American foreign policy.

First, I have seen no evidence that Ron Paul’s campaign is doing well because of, rather than despite, his foreign-policy views, although it would be reassuring to someone like me if I could be convinced of this.

Dan points to his article about realism in American public opinion as a rejoinder, which to my mind did call into doubt that American public opinion is inherently antirealist. Then again, Marshall Bouton and Benjamin Page surveyed the same sort of data Drezner did and concluded that American public opinion is inherently liberal. Interestingly, both Drezner and Page/Bouton judged that American policy makers regularly defy public opinion. Why? Because they can. As Page and Bouton pointed out, when members of the Washington foreign-policy elite were asked what they thought the public believed about eleven international political issues, they were only able to correctly identify what a majority thought in two cases. For a massive, tremendously secure country like the United States, foreign policy just isn’t terribly salient except for in rare occasions.

And on the occasions when foreign policy does become salient, what happens? The public follows elite cues. And who are the elites sending those cues? Neoconservatives and liberal imperialists, not realists. John Zaller, call your office.

The point is that the public may have some inchoate, a priori opinions about foreign policy, but they don’t matter all that much when it comes to influencing foreign policy. As Drezner concedes, “it’s somewhat more accurate to say that America’s foreign policy elites are more hostile to realpolitik—though even here, things can be exaggerated.” I actually don’t think that’s exaggerated at all. Can Dan name three realists who served in senior policy-making positions in the last decade? I can’t.

He closes by saying academic realists possess a “strong, cultivated sense of victimhood” despite the facts that

There is a long intellectual lineage in the American academy—starting with Hans Morgenthau and continuing with Mearsheimer and his students—that evinces realist principles. There is an equally strong intellectual lineage of policy principals—starting with George Kennan and continuing with Brent Scowcroft and his acolytes—that walk the realist walk.

Dan is right to say that there are living, breathing realists in the academy, but he is wrong to imply that there are living, breathing realists among policy principals. Brent Scowcroft will be 87 years old in March, and I think his realist credentials are far from what would qualify in the academy. Perhaps a better question for Dan would be whether he could point to three or four realists under 60 years old who are movers and shakers in the Beltway foreign-policy community. Again, I can’t.

The vast majority of realists opposed the war in Iraq, opposed the surge in Afghanistan and support pressuring the Israelis to stop expanding settlements and cut a deal with the Palestinians. Given the alleged prominence of realists in Washington, how come they’re constantly losing arguments? Why didn’t Barack Obama appoint one single person who opposed the Iraq War to a senior policy position? If Drezner is right, these are real puzzles.

But I think I know the answer. Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, had a funny line about my Cato colleagues when we were futilely opposing the Iraq War before it started:

I don't look to the Cato Institute or any of their writers for instruction on foreign policy. Is libertarianism a school of thought, or is it four or five people in a phone booth?

The academy is a different story, but when it comes to Washington, you could probably fit the bona fide realists into a phone booth as well. To my mind, that’s a big problem that goes a long way to explaining how the country got into the mess it’s in.

TopicsCivil SocietyMuckety MucksGrand StrategyPublic OpinionPolitical TheoryPoliticsSecurity

Getting Tough with Iran

The Skeptics

One would think that America’s volatile and still inconclusive intrusions into Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and, most recently, Libya would give American pundits and policy makers pause when discussing Iran. No such luck. Rather than appreciate the highly detrimental consequences unleashed by the aforementioned conflicts—some of them more harmful than others—many prominent observers seem to evince only mild unease when arguing for either attacking Iran or implementing confrontational policies that put the West on the path of attacking Iran. Such accepted wisdom is dangerous.

Iran is militarily inferior compared to the United States and Israel. Iran spends a piddling $10 billion per year on its military, compared with America’s nearly $700 billion. Ironically, American hawks are now invoking Iranian weakness as reason to deploy a U.S. naval carrier to the Persian Gulf. Though understandably intended to signal that Washington will not to be intimidated, the double-edged sword of this “get-tough” approach is that it increases the likelihood of a murky, Gulf of Tonkin-like scenario that can legitimate a unilateral strike. Even a minor, isolated incident could spiral out of control. If such a scenario were to unfold, even the most precise and targeted attacks on Iran could unleash a dangerously unpredictable chain of events, potentially triggering another war in the Gulf and possibly a short-term economic crisis.

Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, has said that a strike on Iran would be “stupid,” with more downside than upside. (Dagan has also said that Iran will not get a bomb until at least 2015.) Ephraim Halevy, another former Mossad chief, has said an attack could impact, “Israel and the entire region for 100 years” and that Iran is “far from posing an existential threat to Israel.” Former secretary of defense Robert Gates reportedly warned that bombing Iran could trigger “generations of jihadists” and spawn other unpalatable consequences. And former CIA officer Bruce Riedel has argued that “Iran’s capability to retaliate for an Israeli strike against the U.S. is enormous.”

In this respect, Iran is not as weak as, say, Afghanistan or Iraq. Afghanistan suffered more than two decades of continuous warfare before a small number of U.S. personnel teamed up with the Northern Alliance to punish al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban in autumn 2001. In the run up to the spring 2003 invasion of Baghdad, a great deal of Iraqi infrastructure and human capital had been destroyed during Desert Storm (1990– 91) and further impoverished, bombed and rocketed after a decade of continuous sanctions and no-fly zones.

To give context to the differences, laying out how a widened scope of potential conflict could play out may be helpful. If attacked—again, if attacked—Iran would have the casus belli to retaliate, and although Iran’s military is woefully substandard, it does possess certain asymmetric advantages that deserve consideration. A great deal has already been written about the Strait of Hormuz—the shipping gateway for one-fifth of the world’s oil. But Tehran could also use Shehab-1, -2, and -3 missiles to target U.S. personnel, camps and regional bases in Afghanistan (Herat, Kandahar and Shindand), Kuwait (Ali Al Salem, Ahmed Al Jaber, Buehring, Spearhead, Patriot and Arifjan), Qatar (Al Udeid), the United Arab Emirates (Al Dhafra), Bahrain (Naval Support Activity, Al Manamah) and Oman (Thumrait). In addition, Iran exerts influence in the Levant through proxies like Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all of which can attack—and have attacked—Israel.

Another incalculable risk of provoking and potentially attacking Iran is that even proponents of attacks readily concede that it would only retard Iran’s nuclear program and thus may encourage Tehran to pursue a nuclear deterrent in the future. In December, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta—who has cautioned against, but has not effectively ruled out, a unilateral strike—has said an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would “at best” delay the nuclear program by one or two years. Robert Gates also said, “a military attack will only buy us time and send the program deeper and more covert.”

Hopefully, this author is wrong and none of these events will unfold. After all, previous American-Iranian naval stand-offs have led nowhere, and as my colleague Ben Friedman notes, “the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, they would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike.” But it is absolutely wrong for anyone to suggest that opponents of attacking Iran neither recognize nor appreciate the threat its nuclear program would pose. And to readily dismiss the potential ramifications of provocative, “get-tough” approaches exemplifies the senselessness that lead to America’s eight-year, multi-trillion-dollar debacle in Iraq. Do the risks of provoking or attacking Iran today outweigh the costs of dealing with a nuclear Iran tomorrow? Readers can draw their own conclusions. Certainly, Iran could develop a nuclear deterrent some day in the future, but rattling the saber in order to stop it may prove a horrible idea.

TopicsMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIranPersian Gulf

An Insecure America Scapegoats China

The Skeptics

A new year brings new opportunities for harsh rhetoric toward China. On issues ranging from Beijing’s valuation of its currency to China’s military modernization program, to the PRC’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, critics in the United States are voicing shrill complaints. Many of those critics warn that Washington must “stand up” to Beijing.

Some of this is the typical posturing that seems to occur in every U.S. presidential election cycle. There are many political points to be scored by bashing China, and fewer to be scored by advocating a friendly, “soft” policy. Staunch conservatives still often regard China as an evil totalitarian power, despite the numerous capitalist economic reforms that have taken place since the late 1970s. Human rights activists across the political spectrum loathe Beijing’s policies toward Tibet and toward political dissidents generally. And labor unions resent China’s low-wage competition in a growing number of industries. The combination of those factors has long made China a convenient whipping boy in election campaigns.

Chinese officials and opinion leaders have tended to brush-off the anti-China rhetoric. In my conversations with those individuals over the years, they note that successful candidates for president have never drastically changed the substance of U.S. policy toward China, no matter what they said when running for office. They have a point. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign referred to Chinese leaders as the “butchers of Beijing” and the candidate himself denounced President George H. W. Bush for appeasing China in response to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese exports of advanced weapons to radical regimes, and other sins. Yet within a year, Clinton’s stance moderated and U.S.-China trade soared. Candidates George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan also signaled an intent to adopt more confrontational policies toward China, but once in office, their policies were generally conciliatory.

It is tempting to assume that this pattern will hold following the 2012 election. But there are new factors that suggest a possible divergence. On previous occasions, the gap between America and China in military and economic capabilities was enormous. Washington could always approach relations with China from a position of strength and confidence.

That is less true today. The gap in economic power has narrowed dramatically, with some experts predicting that the Chinese economy could overtake America’s as the world’s largest by the early 2020s. The gap in military power has not narrowed as much, but Beijing has developed some important asymmetrical capabilities and could make U.S. power projection into the western Pacific problematic.

And most telling, there has been a dramatic shift in fiscal fortunes. The massive U.S. federal budget deficits have made China our principal foreign banker, giving Beijing potential financial and diplomatic leverage and heightening the sense of vulnerability among many Americans. That has bred resentment at America’s dependence and increased the temptation to blame China for Washington’s woes.

It is that decline in confidence and the corresponding increase in resentment that may cause this round of China-bashing to endure rather than fade following the election. That shift might occur despite the continuing importance of the mutually beneficial bilateral economic ties. Chinese leaders do not seem to grasp the magnitude of the change in attitude that has taken place in the United States. They are in danger of being blind-sided by increased hostility among both the American population and the U.S. political and policy elites in the coming years.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsThe PresidencyTradeRising PowersPoliticsSecurity RegionsChina

Iran’s Bluster and Weakness

The Skeptics

Iran this week punctuated ten days of naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and threats to close it with a warning to U.S. Navy ships to stay out of Persian Gulf, which requires passage through the strait. The tough talk may have temporarily juiced oil prices, but it failed to impress militarily. Recent news reports have cited U.S. military officials, defense analysts and even an anonymous Iranian official arguing that Iran likely lacks the will and ability to block shipping in the strait. That argument isn’t new: Iran’s economy depends on shipments through the strait, and the U.S. Navy can keep it open, if need be. What’s more, the Iranians might be deterred by the fear that a skirmish over the strait would give U.S. or Israeli leaders an excuse to attack their nuclear facilities.

The obviousness of Iran’s bluster suggests its weakness. Empty threats generally show desperation, not security. And Iran’s weakness is not confined to water. Though Iran is more populous and wealthier than most of its neighbors, its military isn’t equipped for conquest. Like other militaries in its region, Iran’s suffers from coup-proofing, the practice of designing a military more to prevent coups than to fight rival states. Economic problems and limited weapons-import options have also undermined it ability to modernize its military, while its rivals buy American arms. Here’s how Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press summarize Iran’s conventional military capability:

Iran…lacks the equipment and training for major offensive ground operations. Its land forces, comprising two separate armies (the Artesh and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), are structured to prevent coups and to wage irregular warfare, not to conquer neighbors. Tehran’s air force is antiquated, and its navy is suited for harassment missions, not large amphibious operations across the Gulf. Furthermore, a successful invasion is not enough to monopolize a neighbor’s oil resources; a protracted occupation would be required. But the idea of a sustainable and protracted Persian Shi‘a occupation of any Gulf Arab society—even a Shi‘a-majority one like Bahrain—is far-fetched.

Despite Iran’s weakness, most U.S. political rhetoric—and more importantly, most U.S. policy—treats it as a potential regional hegemon that imperils U.S. interests. Pundits eager to bash the president for belatedly allowing U.S. troops to leave Iraq say it will facilitate Iran’s regional dominance. The secretary of defense, who says the war in Iraq was worth fighting, wants to station 40,000 troops in the region to keep Iran from meddling there. Even opponents of bombing Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons regularly opine on how to contain” it, as if that required great effort.

Some will object to this characterization of Iran’s capabilities, claiming that asymmetric threats—missiles, the ability to harass shipping and nasty friends on retainer in nearby states—let it punch above its military weight. But from the American perspective—a far-off power with a few discrete interests in the region—these are complications, not major problems. Our self-induced ignorance about Iran’s limited military capabilities obscures the fact that we can defend those interests against even a nuclear Iran at far lower cost than we now expend. We could do so from the sea.

The United States has two basic interests in the region. The first is to prevent oil-price spikes large enough to cause economic trouble. Although it's not clear that an oil-price shock would greatly damage the U.S. economy, we don’t want to chance it. That is why it makes sense to tell Iran that we will forcibly keep the strait open.

Iranian nuclear weapons would merely complicate our efforts to do so. For safety, both naval ships clearing mines there and tankers would want Iranian shores cleared of anti-ship cruise missiles and their radars, although doing so is probably not necessary to keep strait cargo moving. The possibility of nuclear escalation makes attacking those shore-based targets tougher. But the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, they would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike. Given that, it is hard to see how nuclear weapons make closing the strait easier.

The second U.S. goal in the region is to prevent any state from gathering enough oil wealth to extort us or build a military big enough to menace us. That means conquest. The vastness of our military advantage over any combination of Middle Eastern states makes that fairly easy to prevent. The difficulty of credibly threatening to stop exporting the chief source of your wealth makes the problem even smaller. Indeed, the odds of Iran becoming an oil super-state by conquest are so low that we probably do not need to guarantee any nearby state’s security to prevent it. For example, if Iran swallowed and magically pacified Iraq, the resulting state, while a bad thing, would create little obvious danger for American safety or commerce. Still, if we did defend Iraq’s borders, carrier-based airpower along with Iraqi ground forces would probably suffice to stop Iranian columns at the border. The same goes for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Because threats of nuclear attack better serve defensive goals, an Iran armed with nukes would not meaningfully change this calculus. Iran’s neighbors would not surrender their land just because Iran has nuclear weapons, if history is any guide. And U.S. guarantees of retaliatory strikes could back them up, if necessary. Nukes might embolden Iran to take chances that a state worried about invasion would not. But the difficulty of subduing a nationalistic country of 75 million already deters our invasion.

The current contretemps with Iran is no reason for “maintaining our military presence and capabilities in the broader Middle East,” as the secretary of defense would have it. Removing U.S. forces from Iran’s flanks might strengthen the hand of the Iranian minority opposed to building nuclear weapons, though it is doubtful that alone would be enough to let them win the debate anytime soon. But even if Iran does build nuclear weapons, we can defend our limited interests in the region from off-shore.

TopicsGlobal CommonsGrand StrategyMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationTradeRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIranPersian Gulf