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.
Over at Shadow Government, Peter Feaver suggests that those arguing so strenuously against a war with Iran are afflicted with an “Iraq syndrome” that leads them to stack the deck against the military option. While it is logically possible that all the relevant considerations point in the same direction, with the costs of attacking Iran high and the costs of not attacking low, it is not likely, which is why policy makers charged with dealing with the Iran issue rarely see it in such stark, and easily solvable, terms. Military force may have a number of downsides, after all, but if there is no other way to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and containment is unlikely to be a viable fallback, then the military option should not be taken off the table.
My Skeptics colleague Justin Logan has already penned a response to Feaver, insisting that he has mischaracterized the Iran debate. As it turns out, those opposed to war and advocating for containment and deterrence do understand that the problem is a hard one and that no option is without drawbacks. Nor, I would add, has the “pro-war faction” been able to resist the temptation to oversell (a point which Feaver concedes). As I noted in a previous post, “too often hawks traffic in worst-casing when discussing the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran while switching to best-casing when discussing the consequences of military action by the United States or its allies.”
For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that Feaver is right, and that the “anti-war faction” tends to overstate its case, as often happens when the goal is advocacy. The question becomes: Is this nearly as objectionable as when the “pro-war faction” engages in the same kind of logical double standards? I would argue that the answer is no, for two reasons. First, the burden of proof should always be on those advocating for war, not on those advocating against it. This is one of the takeaways from just-war theory, which sets a high bar for the use of force. Unless a compelling case can be made that war is necessary for self-defense and can be brought to a successful conclusion at acceptable cost, we should be reluctant to sanction it. In other words, there should be a presumption against war, all else equal. It is exactly this asymmetry that makes full-throated anti-war agitation less problematic than its opposite.
Second, more often than not the pro-war faction enjoys propaganda advantages that the anti-war faction does not, especially when top decision makers are in on the game. They can make reference to alarming intelligence supposedly showing that the threat is dire, appeal for national unity so as to maximize pressure on the adversary and stir up mass nationalism. Only under relatively unfavorable conditions, for example when the public has recently gotten a taste of protracted warfare, are these propaganda advantages likely to be nullified. The privileged political position that the pro-war faction tends to occupy is another reason why we should be less forgiving when it makes claims that are “clearer than the truth.”
None of this is to suggest that doves should throw all restraint to the wind and engage in wanton mythmaking. At the end of the day, those engaged in the marketplace of ideas should be held to account for the quality and integrity of their contributions to the discussion. At the same time, it is my belief that hawks should be held to a higher standard when they advocate for war. Unfortunately, the opposite too often seems to be the case.