Paul Pillar

How Liberals Buy Into Stupid Wars

Richard Cohen's column in Tuesday's Washington Post, under the headline “Dangerous behavior from Iran,” deserves scrutiny, and not just to pick on Cohen (although he deserves to be picked on for this kind of work). The column exemplifies several of the types of distorted thinking and non-thinking that were critical in pushing the United States into an enormous blunder of a war eight years ago and are threatening a repeat performance with another of the countries in the same part of the world that has a four-letter name starting with “I.” Moreover, the column by Cohen—who on most matters other than stumbling into disastrous wars can be considered a liberal—illustrates how the arguments and attitudes that have greased the skids on which the United States can slide into such a war are not the exclusive province of neocons or others who are the prime movers of such misadventures.

The column begins, unsurprisingly, with the outrage du jour: that strange plot involving DEA informants and a used car salesman in Texas. Cohen has a nifty way to dispose of the chief reason skeptics have found it hard to believe this was an officially instigated Iranian operation—namely, the disconnect between the crazy nature of the plot and the careful tradecraft that the Iranians have consistently exhibited. “I agree” the plot was crazy, says Cohen. “But so is Iran.” It's a rhetorical twofer: not only is the bizarre plot kept in play, but it is done in a way that pushes the main theme of the anti-Iran agitators, which is that Iranian leaders are supposedly irrational and thus cannot be trusted not to do crazy things with whatever capabilities they have, especially a capability as momentous as a nuclear weapon. “The mistake with Iran,” says Cohen, “is the tendency to think its leadership is rational.” But like others who invoke this theme, Cohen adduces nothing in the record of behavior by the Islamic Republic that suggests irrationality and ignores the fact that the record is overwhelmingly one of caution and careful calculation.

Oh, Cohen cites a record, and like most others who do, it concerns Iran's past terrorist operations. But invoking the terrorist record ignores that these very operations were carefully targeted responses to what Iran's adversaries were doing, with every indication that the Iranians were fully mindful of consequences. There were the assassinations (which pretty much ended a decade and a half ago) of expatriate dissidents, which served to eliminate a political threat to the leadership of the Islamic Republic. Cohen tries to make an argument that the assassinations exemplify sloppy methods (even suggesting at one point that a stabbing is somehow sloppier than other methods of killing people), with the Iranians not covering their tracks well. With hits on individual Iranian dissidents, part of the purpose was not to cover tracks but instead to send a message to other would-be oppositionists. When the target was foreign, the track-covering was careful and effective. With the bombing of the U.S. military barracks at Khobar, Saudi Arabia in 1996 (which Cohen also mentions), the tracks were so well covered that Iranian involvement was not established until years later.

Then there were the bombings by Lebanese Hezbollah against Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s. As I briefly noted a few days ago, these operations were specific retaliatory responses to Israeli actions in the Middle East, each of which preceded the response by only a few weeks. The bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 responded to Israel's assassination of Hezbollah secretary general Abbas Musawi. The bombing of the Jewish community center in 1994 was a response to Israel's kidnapping of Lebanese Shia leader Mustafa Dirani and bombing of a Hezbollah training camp in eastern Lebanon. This kind of tit-for-tat retaliation is the epitome of carefully calculated use of the capacity to inflict deadly harm. The experience with Hezbollah in South America, far from demonstrating that Iran or its clients are apt to strike out irrationally, instead demonstrates a pattern of keeping a lethal capability in reserve and not striking out until being struck themselves.

Cohen plays the usual religion card in trying to establish the irrationality idea, referring to Iranians as “fervid Shiites.” The card is ultimately just another instance of religious stereotyping and prejudice. Is the fervidness of those Shiites, and the implications for public policy—including the use of military force—any greater than what one can find with, say, many fundamentalist Christians in the United States? Or with the religious right in Israel?