The Myth of Iranian Nuclear Coercion

Paul Pillar

One of the most oft-repeated, widely accepted and habitually unquestioned beliefs about the Iranian nuclear issue is that if Iran got a nuclear weapon then Tehran would—merely by possessing such a weapon, even if it never detonated one—throw its weight around in the region in ways that it wouldn't or couldn't do without a nuke. A nuclear-armed Iran, according to the belief, would coerce and influence neighbors in untold ways we are not seeing now from a non-nuclear-armed Iran. This belief is shared by a wide variety of people who disagree on other aspects of Iran and its nuclear program. It is held by many people who are firmly committed to using diplomacy to resolve differences with Iran, as well as by people who are itching to launch a war against it. It is held by many people who reject the notion that Iranian leaders are mad mullahs who would nuke Tel Aviv at the first opportunity, as well as by people who peddle some version of that notion.

It is remarkable how a belief that has come to play such a major part in discussion about an issue as prominent as the Iranian nuclear issue has been so automatically accepted and so infrequently examined or questioned. Probably the most prominent questioning of it was in a short piece last year in Foreign Affairs by Kenneth Waltz. But Waltz, despite his long-established reputation as an eminent political scientist, has been preemptively pigeon-holed on this issue as an outlier. He had long ago argued, without specific reference to Iran, that the spread of nuclear weapons has been more of a stabilizing than a de-stabilizing force. His piece on Iran is titled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.” So, sort of like George Ball in his devil's advocate role regarding the Vietnam War, Waltz with his argument on Iran has been treated as someone to be politely acknowledged but safely dismissed.

A few others have questioned the belief about Iranian nuclear coercion, bucking its entrenched status in the conventional wisdom. I did so a year ago, pointing out how the belief simply does not hold water when well-honed doctrine from the Cold War about nuclear weapons and influence is applied to it. Stephen Walt has also shot down the belief, reviewing how the history of nuclear weapons and attempts at coercion simply does not support it. And yet the image of Iranian nuclear extortion continues to prevail, probably in large part because for most people it seems to make intuitive sense that ownership of something as awesome as a nuclear weapon ought to have a significant effect on the owner's international relations.

Those still stuck in the intuitive mode ought to consider the findings of a study reported in the current issue of International Organization by Todd Sechser of the University of Virginia and Matthew Fuhrmann of Texas A&M. Their study is partly a rigorous quantitative version of what Walt did, as an examination of the historical record of attempts at coercion. They used a comprehensive database covering both nuclear and non-nuclear would-be coercers and spanning the entire nuclear age and more. Their finding: possession of nuclear weapons does not help in coercing other states. This is true whether or not explicit threats to use the weapons are made (they seldom are).

Sechser and Fuhrmann accompany their quantitative results with the key analytical points that explain those results. Nuclear weapons are great for deterring a catastrophic action—one that would extinguish one's regime. But they are not very useful in imposing one's will regarding other matters. They are less useful for that latter purpose mostly for reasons examined many years ago by Thomas Schelling when he contrasted deterrence with—his newly coined word—compellence. It is very difficult to threaten credibly the use of nuclear weapons to coerce change to a situation that the threatener has already been living with. And the very awesomeness of nuclear weapons means great costs to anyone who uses them, even if the use does not start a full-scale nuclear war.

Given the stakes involved in the Iranian nuclear matter—with talk still out there about the “military option”—it is irresponsible for so many people who talk about the subject to be relying on intuition rather than on analysis and the historical record.

TopicsHistoryNuclear Proliferation RegionsIran

Why Does Martin Peretz Hate the New Republic?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Martin Peretz is going to war again, or at least he thinks he is. The former owner of the New Republic began his intellectual career as a man of the left before he began drifting towards neoconservatism in the early 1970s. Now his drift appears to have been consummated. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Peretz retails many of the grievances that the neocons historically directed toward his magazine. In the  Journal, which appears to be one of the few outlets that will publish him, Peretz complains that his former magazine is becoming a redoubt of leftism. Whether his account amounts to more than peevish rantings, however, is another matter.

Peretz, who most recently got into hot water for his musings about denying American Muslims their constitutional rights and then issued a mealy-mouthed apology, may not be the best judge of what constitutes the appropriate boundaries of debate about race in America. But he doesn't let that stop him. On the contrary, he assails New York Times editor Sam Tanenhaus for publishing a provocative piece that delved deeply into American political history called "Original Sin" about the Republican party and race. Merely raising the topic appears to be taboo for Peretz who declares but does not show why the essay is intellectually wanting. Nor, for that matter, does he acknowledge that Tanenhaus published a number of important pieces during Peretz's own tenure at the magazine.

Nevertheless, for all his indignation over Tanenhaus, Peretz's real aim is to depict himself as the victim of a terrible betrayal. Peretz suggests that he has been betrayed by Chris Hughes, the new owner of the magazine who is trying to revive it. According to Peretz,

What made the "Original Sin" issue unrecognizable to this former owner is that it established as fact what had only been suggested by the magazine in the early days of its new administration: The New Republic has abandoned its liberal but heterodox tradition and embraced a leftist outlook as predictable as that of Mother Jones or the Nation.

Yikes! This is quite a claim to advance since only two issues of the magazine in its fresh incarnation have appeared. Peretz, however, is undaunted. He adds, "Mr. Hughes is not from the world of Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, the old-school liberals who founded the `journal of opinion' in the hope that it would foment in its readers `little insurrections of the mind.'" But how does Peretz know that? And is the stuffy "world of Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann," as Peretz pretentiously puts it, something that is worthy of aspiration a century later? In any case, his dismissive depiction of Hughes is redolent of the worst kind of intellectual snobbery.

The preening Peretz goes on to boast about his own record as editor, pointing to his support of the Nicaraguan contras and Israel as the kind of heteredox positions on the left that testify to his own bravery. What he does not acknowledge, however, is that his increasing intellectual rigidity and incessant fulgurations ended up running the magazine into the ground. His views were not fresh and surprising and insightful; they were utterly predictable. His revelations were only revelatory to himself. Now that he has been stripped of his blog at TNR, he can only broadcast them occasionally and is lurching ever further into cranky irrelevance. By now Peretz isn't worthy of scorn but pity.

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Convergence and Divergence in Israeli Values

Paul Pillar

From time to time we hear news from Israel that reflects growing religious intolerance there. An attention-getting story from a little more than a year ago concerned ultra-Orthodox men in the community of Beit Shemesh spitting on an eight-year-old girl and calling her a prostitute because her modest dress was not modest enough to suit them. An immediate thought such incidents engender is how remarkably similar this is to the religious intolerance displayed by Muslim fundamentalists, including ones in Arab countries surrounding Israel. There is the same effort to impose sectarian preferences on a larger society. And there is the same gender discrimination involved in efforts to constrain and subjugate women.

The very high birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox—and thus their growing demographic and political weight—underlies increasing intolerance in Israel. But there is more to it than that, in a state that defines its existence and character in terms of single religion or ethnicity. This definition not only implies second-class status for citizens not of that religion but also enlists the power of the state in the sectarian aims of whoever gets to specify in more detail the nature of the dominant religion.

It is that same power of the state, which was not involved in the incident with the spat-upon schoolgirl, that is the most noteworthy aspect of an incident this week at the Western Wall. Ten women, including two American-born rabbis, were arrested by Israeli police for praying there while wearing prayer shawls traditionally used by men. This was not a demonstration by the women or an attempt by them to disrupt the peace. It may be disturbing enough for some that even a rabbi could not pray as she wished at a Jewish holy site. What should be even more disturbing is that police on the public payroll are enforcing such intolerance.

This incident and others like it inspire two further observations. The first is just to underscore the irony of the convergence of behavior by religious fundamentalists in Israel and those in Muslim-majority countries. Israel, given its current political direction, has walled itself off from its neighbors and accepts estrangement from them. Israelis say we should be concerned about increased political roles assumed by religious fundamentalists in neighbors such as Egypt. And yet at the same time there is an increasing amount of behavior in Israel, supported or condoned by state power, that looks just like the behavior of those other fundamentalists.

The other observation is that this convergence with one of the more intolerant and ignoble aspects of life in the Middle East is part of a divergence of Israel from the values of its superpower patron, the United States. The notion of shared values has always been a leading rationale for the extraordinary patronage bestowed on Israel. That notion always has been flawed, and it is becoming decreasingly credible. One of the basic flaws involves religion, with one state defined in terms of a particular religion and the other based on a separation of church and state. Of course, there are fundamentalists in the United States who try to erode that separation, whether it is school boards messing with textbooks, employers wanting their personal religious beliefs to shape national laws regarding health care, or a fervently Christianist candidate (Rick Santorum) making a serious run for the presidency last year. But overall the establishment clause of the First Amendment is still operative.

A federal court in Minnesota reaffirmed that clause last month in dismissing a lawsuit contending that Hebrew National kosher hot dogs are not really kosher. That's not the business of courts, this court properly decided. What makes a hot dog kosher is a religious question to be decided by rabbis in the private sector entities that certify such things. In the United States it is not a matter for judges, police or anyone else on the public payroll, any more than proper wearing of a prayer shawl would be a matter for them.

Freedom of the press is another First Amendment freedom where Israel diverges significantly from the United States. There is an irony here, too, in that there is freer discussion in Israel, including the Israeli press, than there is in the United States about basic issues of Israel's direction and its relationship with the United States. But on many other subjects the Israeli military censor heavily restricts what can be reported, as demonstrated by a story this week about a Prisoner X who mysteriously died in a high-security Israeli prison. In the most recent press freedom index calculated by Reporters Without Borders, Israel ranks 112 out of 179 nations worldwide. The United States is 32nd.

Then there is the issue of gender equality. In the United States the status of women has been improving at least since enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment. In many ways Israeli women enjoy more equality than in many other countries, but with the growing impact of religious fundamentalism on gender issues it would be hard to say that current trends in Israel are going in the same direction as the United States.

Finally there is the issue on which there is the greatest divergence, which concerns political rights for all regardless of ethnicity or religion. True, there are elements in the United States that are trying to mess with this one too, by making it harder for some segments of the population to exercise their right to vote. But with the United States there is nothing remotely comparable to the wholesale denial of political rights for entire ethnic groups that there is in territory controlled by Israel.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Michael Jacobson. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsHuman RightsMediaReligion RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

North Korea Is Irrelevant to Size of U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

The Buzz

Two things happened earlier this week that have very little to do with each other in reality but are nevertheless being tied together in the media and official commentary. First, on Monday the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was likely to press for a cut in the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to “just above 1,000” deployed strategic nuclear warheads. This would represent a reduction of about a third from the limit of 1,550 set by the New START agreement.

Second, the following day North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. It didn’t take long for opponents of the rumored nuclear reductions to seize on the news as a reason to argue against them. As Senator John Hoeven said in a statement:

North Korea’s nuclear test today poses a threat to the United States and our allies, and underscores the need for the United States to maintain its strong deterrent capabilities. Yet now, even before implementing the reductions required under the New START Treaty of 2010, the Obama administration has signaled that it may be willing to reduce unilaterally the U.S. nuclear capability even further. In light of North Korea’s actions today, this is clearly not the time to diminish these critical strategic forces.

Leave aside the fact that it’s far from clear that Obama wants to undertake these cuts “unilaterally,” as Hoeven says. (The Times article reports that the administration’s preferred option would be to make them through an “informal agreement” with Russia “within the framework” of New START.) Even if the reductions were to be made unilaterally, there is no conceivable military mission that the United States could have vis-à-vis North Korea that could not be completed with 1,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. To the extent that the U.S. nuclear arsenal needs to be sized against another nation, that country is Russia, not North Korea. Washington and Moscow both maintain stockpiles of thousands of nuclear weapons, which are far greater than those of any other nation. In contrast, North Korea, according to estimates, has less than ten. Tuesday’s test does not change that basic calculus. To argue that it does, and that North Korea’s test should forestall any U.S. nuclear reductions, is the geopolitical equivalent of giving Pyongyang a “heckler’s veto” over our security policies.

The debate over how many nuclear weapons the United States should maintain in order to provide for its security is a complicated one. But one thing is clear: whatever the optimal number is, the way in which we go about determining it should have absolutely nothing to do with North Korea.

TopicsArms ControlDefenseNuclear ProliferationWMDSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

The End of No Drama Obama

Jacob Heilbrunn

President Obama is ending the no drama phase of his presidency. Ever since his pallid performance against Mitt Romney in the first debate, Obama has been reinventing himself. Last night he emerged as the liberal president that has always been suppressed under his careful carapace of cool and calm. Taking a leaf from George W. Bush, Obama went on the offensive. He ended his speech with a fervent plea for gun control—a moralistic rather than policy-wonk ending that allowed him to claim the moral high ground. The only thing that threatened to overshadow his speech was the spectacle of Christopher J. Dorner engaged in a shootout in a cabin in California with the police.

Despite the nuclear test in North Korea—an ominous move that could portend real trouble for the administration in its second term—Obama treated foreign affairs almost as an afterthought, which, given the tenor of the Senate hearings on Chuck Hagel's nomination, in which Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made the odious suggestion that Hagel may have received tens of millions from North Korea and is, in effect, a communist fellow traveler, Obama might be pardoned for not wanting to tackle. But problems and threats are mounting abroad. But Obama made it clear that his focus will be on domestic policy. Troops are coming home from Afghanistan. No new wars are in the offing.

Obama staked out a firmly progressive program on guns, schools, climate change, and, above all, jobs. For those who proclaimed that he took a prolonged detour in enacting health-care during his first term, Obama made it clear that he's going to focus on employment in his second. And the deficit? Not so much. "Most Americans," he said, "understand that we can't just cut our way to prosperity. They know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue." The line coming from the White House will be that economic growth commands priority over cutting entitlement benefits. The unpleasant task of trimming, or even slashing, benefits for the elderly—something that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans really want to tackle—will be a problem for Obama's successor, whoever he or she may be.

Judging by Sen. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul's responses to Obama last night, it won't be either of them. At least if they don't become more polished. Rubio made waves not for what he said, but for his lunge for a water bottle during his response. Rand Paul always looks a little unkempt. Why the GOP, which proclaimed that it was going to speak with one voice, needed two to answer Obama is somewhat mysterious. But infighting among the Republicans is what Obama will rely upon to pass as much of his program as he can squeak through a fractured Congress. The complaint that Obama is promoting "big government" is too vague; the GOP would have to enunicate a program of what it envisions as reviving an economy that remains very much on the artificial life support being supplied by the Federal Reserve. The GOP's boldest move to counter Obama seems to have been to invite the rock star Ted Nugent who once advised him to "suck on my machine gun." But such inflammatory rhetoric was nowhere in evidence as the GOP tries to mount its new charm offensive with voters. It's dropped the searing language and becoming rather goody two-shoes. Senator Mike Johanns told the New York Times: "Good people will show that we're a governing party. You win elections because people believe you can make a difference."

Which is what Obama was trying to demonstrate last night. His new persona is winning him plaudits among liberals. David Corn, for example, observed,

With this address, he didn't hold back. And if he only succeeds in placing this nation on the road to universal preschool, that in itself would be a historic accomplishment of fundamental consequence. With this address—which seemed to bore House Speaker John Boehner—the president was not trying to win over recalcitrant Republicans and nudge them toward the compromises they have by and large eschewed. He was trying to lead.

For all Obama's rhetorical skills on Tuesday night, however, he will be judged not by his efforts on gun control or expanding preschools, but on his ability to improve the economy. If the unemployment rate falls significantly and if inflation remains low and the stock market continues to rise, the rest will follow. If they don't, he could still go down as a very unpopular president.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States