March 7th, 2012

Campaigning Republicans are banging the patriotic and Israel-first drums for a preventive war against Iran, allegedly to stop it from deploying atomic weapons: though how this is supposed to work without a full-scale invasion and 20,000 American dead is left studiously unclear. “Surgical” air strikes, perhaps? Pillar:

As Richard Betts remarks in his recent book about the American use of military force, anyone who hears talk about a surgical strike should get a second opinion.

All that would do is make Iran absolutely determined to get the bomb.

(Back-of-envelope guesstimate: coalition military casualties in Iraq from Gulf War II and the occupation stand at 4,804, all but 300 or so American. Iran has 2½ times Iraq’s population and 4 times the area. Its armed forces have not been degraded by any equivalent of Gulf War I and the subsequent sanctions. There’s no equivalent of Kurdish secessionism or the Sunni/Shia split, and the Iranian army and populace would be united. An invasion of Iran would not aim at the simple decapitation of an autocracy in its capital, but would need to secure and destroy a good number of dispersed and concealed nuclear facilities, fighting over far more rugged and defensible terrain.)

At the same time the Republicans are treating a gasoline price of $3 a gallon as a shameful assault on the American Way of Life. What do they think would happen to the world oil price when Iran closes the Straits of Hormuz to commercial shipping (they can’t easily close it to the US Navy, but they can make tankers uninsurable), and launches a wave of sabotage attacks on US refineries, LNG terminals and other oil and gas infrastructure? They would, IMHO, be entirely justified in doing so, in response to a naked act of aggression.
[Update 9/04: Matt Yglesias dots the i's on oil prices.]

This project is nuts.

40 Responses to “Beat the drum slowly”

  1. Anomalous says:

    Are you suggesting that the GOP is promoting an unrealistic, dangerous and internally inconsistent policy for raw political gain? I just can’t believe they would do such a thing.

    • Tut, tut.
      We have also to be very worried that the war talk is pushing Obama in a bellicose direction. There should at least be a debate whether stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions is really a casus belli for the United States, or just a major diplomatic objective.

      • Rob in CT says:

        Seriously. Obama came out and said containment isn’t an acceptable option. That’s actually terrible. It only looks reasonable in comparison to the wingnuttery on the Right.

  2. Ebenezer Scrooge says:

    I agree that the project is nuts, although for different reasons than Wimberley’s. The shooting phase, I think, would be a replay of the Iraq war: a rapid and crushing kinetic victory, at relatively low cost to the invaders’ lives. The Iranian military just isn’t all that strong. No military whose primary task is domestic repression is ever that strong. And even a decent military can’t hold out in the face of assured US air superiority.

    The problem, of course, is that the US would then be in the position of the dog that caught up with the car. The post-invasion would be much worse than Iraq, because it would galvanize anti-American sentiment among all sectors of the Iranian population for at least a generation. No government we installed would have the slightest shred of legitimacy.

    • “No military whose primary task is domestic repression..” Any evidence?
      The Iranians drew their long war with Saddam Hussein (1980-1988), at huge cost in casualties. Armies usually learn from wars. The Iranian army will also have observed closely the two later Gulf Wars, Kosovo, Lebanon, etc. I agree that they would initially lose; but could surely inflict a higher conventional price than Saddam. On the other hand, they hold a lot of asymmetric cards, as I pointed out. A full-scale terrorist and sabotage campaign against US interests worldwide conducted by the intelligence service of a large modern state would have little in common with al-Qaeda’s ultimately pathetic and self-defeating efforts. How much would it take to close down Citibank?

      • Brett Bellmore says:

        “At the same time the Republicans are treating a gasoline price of $3 a gallon as a shameful assault on the American Way of Life.”

        When it’s the result of a deliberate effort to raise the cost of energy? Yes, that’s exactly what it is. Energy is the oxygen of an industrial economy, deliberately driving it’s cost up is the equivalent of strangling a person, making every breath a desperate effort.

        And there have been too many previous statements by administration figures about the desirability of high gas prices, to dismiss the actions which led to them as simply bad judgement.

        • Jamie says:

          You missed the part about how attacking Iran would surely drive up the cost.

          You missed the part about Obama making the obvious point that expensive gas is bad politics, so why the hell, etc.

          Better trolling, pls.

        • Rob in CT says:

          Holy crap. You actually believe that Administration policy played more than a de minimis role in gas prices?

          You’re smarter than this. You know oil is a global commodity.

        • Barry says:

          Gawd, it’s more and more clear every day that your engineering degree exists only in your deluded mind.

    • paul says:

      The post-invasion part is the only part that actually counts. Unless there’s an occupation, rebuilding the bomb-making infrastructure is fairly straightforward. If there’s an occupation, we’ll be looking back fondly on the GWB years. (As probably, would the remnants of Israel. Once you’ve done the big bad thing you were threatening, you don’t really have much bargaining power to prevent attacks.)

  3. Foster Boondoggle says:

    “the Republicans are treating a gasoline price of $3 a gallon as a shameful assault on the American Way of Life”

    Not really. The R’s are treating it as another club to bash Obama with. If John McCain were president, it would just be the free market at work. (Someone unearthed a Faux News show from ’08 saying exactly that.)

    Aside from bashing Obama with the issue, the oilmen among the R’s owners see this as another opportunity to push for more cheap access to US energy resources that they can get even wealthier from.

  4. koreyel says:

    Campaigning Republicans are banging the patriotic and Israel-first drums…

    Israel-first? But but but…
    Isn’t Israel one of the leading countries in fetal stem cell research?

    Between 1998 and 2007, Israeli academics researching human embryonic stem cells published 55 papers in scientific publications on the topic, according to an article in the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell. During this same time period, researchers in the United States published 150 stem-cell research papers.This means that Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, has been producing more than 10 times as much embryonic stem-cell research per capita as the United States, with its population of 300 million.The comparison reflects a stark, little-noted difference between the two countries when it comes to public policy on this field — one hotly debated in the United States as a “right to life” issue by opponents, while proponents argue for its potential as a therapy offering cures that would save millions.

    As someone who believes in fetal stem cell research,
    I really want to take a second here to thank Republicans for their support of that research too….

  5. C.E. Petit says:

    What I want to know — as a career Air Force officer and professional military historian — is this:

    Is the surgery (and, for that matter, aftercare) covered by my health insurance plan? And what hoops do I have to jump through with the health insurance provider to get that second opinion? (And if my “surgical strike” is done not by US military forces, but by CIA drones, would that be out of network? Or, perhaps, uncovered experimental treatment?)

    Better yet, as implied in Professor Kleiman’s entry on due process, who gets to sit on the death panel?

    Proposal: Nobody gets to propose “use of force” until they’ve sat in the room, silently, with the speakerphone on, while a commanding officer makes That Phone Call to the next of kin. It’s a horrifying experience, even in so-called “peacetime,” even when the death on active duty was caused by the kind of accident that could happen to anyone (like a house fire).

    • Dennis says:

      Amen. Better still, no one gets to propose “use of force” until they’ve been with a visitation team when the news is given to the next of kin. Wear your suit, STFU, watch and learn. The phone calls are bad enough, the visits are worse.

      • Geoff G says:

        As Paul Pillar says in his Washington Monthly piece, someone who uses a worst case scenario to justify war – “Iran with a bomb will almost certainly wreak havoc, maybe even a holocaust” – but then uses a best case scenario to predict success – “they’ll fold like a cheap shalwar kameez once we attack” – is not dealing in good faith. Tell the American people that a war will cost ten thousand American lives and lead to $8.00 gas and a global recession (not the worst case scenario, by a long shot), and see how many takers you get.

      • C.E. Petit says:

        I can’t agree… but only because once one reaches a certain level of horror, there’s no point in trying to determine which is worse. I’ve actually done both (I became the “old man” when I was 23), and both the phone call and direct visitation are shattering experiences for everyone involved. In a way, the Army has it easy with its assigned notification personnel, because they usually didn’t know the servicemember or his family first.

  6. Andrew Laurence says:

    Where I live, gasoline is $4.33/gallon at the cheapest place I can find.

  7. Richard W. Crews says:

    If I were Iran, I would cut a deal with China and maybe India to block sell a whole bunch of oil at a discount for American cash – that China has plenty of. Then I would split the cost and delivery of an overland pipeline to China following the old Silk Road. Every county – Kazakstans and other ‘stans ( not going to the map for this …) get a cut of either delivery passage fees. This should shield it and protect it from national attacks.
    Then I would have Saudi Shiites guerillas attack and destroy Saudia Arabias refineries and shipping terminals. Take SA and maybe the Emitites out of the picture for a year – and see how things go.
    just sayin’ ….

  8. politicalfootball says:

    They would, IMHO, be entirely justified in doing so, in response to a naked act of aggression.

    Holy cow, James. I hope I’m not nearby when Obama’s drone catches up with you.

  9. larry birnbaum says:

    The comparison to the invasion of Iraq is irrelevant. I don’t think we have any interest in or intention to invade and occupy Iran. Nor would an invasion or occupation be necessary to render its nuclear weapons capabilities non-functional. Our own casualties directly from such an air campaign would be very low.

    As to whether Iran would be justified in retaliating to a “naked act of aggression:” To me, context and intentions matter; so while I understand that they would think so, I (unlike James) don’t agree that they would be. I suppose you could say that Israel’s bombing of the reactor in Syria a couple of years ago, or in Iraq a couple of decades earlier, were “naked act[s] of aggression.” I on the other hand think it was pretty aggressive of the Syrians (or the Iraqis) to try to build a nuclear weapon in the first place. As I think it’s pretty aggressive of the Iranians to try to build one now.

    But still we’re left with the question of whether an attack on Iran’s nuclear program would make long-term strategic sense; and more specifically whether it would be possible to deter them from retaliating. I don’t know that we could deter them from retaliating. Of course any large-scale retaliation (stopping shipping in the Gulf say or attacks inside the US or its allies) would lead to a much larger war, in which our aims would necessarily expand from destroying their nuclear capabilities to destroying their military infrastructure generally — in other words something like the Gulf War or the first part of the Iraq War prior to the actual invasion. I don’t know whether the prospect of such an outcome would deter them from retaliating but I assume that figuring that out is a big component of our thinking right now.

    • On the likely results of an air-only attack by either Israel or the US, see Pillar’s article (link in post), and <a href=""The Economist, which thinks the US would sit out a probably ineffective Israeli attack. Bottom line: bombing would buy time (“maybe one, possibly two years” for an Israeli attack, according to Leon Panetta; more for a US one with bigger bombs) but hardens the underlying Iranian hostility to Israel and the US and Iran’s determination to join the nuclear club. It’s very hard to see such action as a better bet for Israel’s or the US’ national security than the null option of diplomatic containment.

  10. larry birnbaum says:

    I missed the “Israel-first” bit on first reading… I guess because I don’t expect that kind of rhetoric here. You should be ashamed of yourself.

      • larry birnbaum says:

        Just so you know, I find it personally offensive.

        • Rob in CT says:


          Quit advocating for the US to get into a war it doesn’t need to fight, and maybe I’ll work up some sympathy.

          I know, I know. We’re all anti-semites because we don’t want to fight a war with Iran.

        • Barry says:

          Too bad. Most of these war supporters are people whose primary loyalty is not to the USA. Usually not even to Israel; they’re a combination of profiteers, and more evil people who figure that a large human sacrifice in the Middle East will allow them to avoid dying.

        • James Wimberley says:

          An inssincere apology. What;s insulting about the phrase “Israel first”? It’s simply descriptive of AIPAC’s objective, and therefore of politicians like Cantor who alignment their stated views entirely with it.
          If I were a rich Maldive-American, I’s be a “Maldives-firster”. Climate change poses an existential threat to the Maldives that simply doesn’t exist for the USA. I’d agitate exclusively in American politics for strong climate action. Similarly if I were a strongly Zionist Jewish American, I’d probably be more worried about the perceived existential threat to Israel than about anything else en American politics. I suppose as a European I’m more used to the idea of multiple e loyalties and identifies as the norm.

          There’s nothing strange or unpatriotic about AIPAC’s ex-Likud agenda (sense is another matter, or even objective correspondence to Israel’s national interests or mean Israeli opinion). What I do find strange and indeed a bit unpatriotic is the uncritical acceptance of any single-issue lobby view by American candidates for national public office. Bias is par for the course, prejudice is not.

          • larry birnbaum says:


            1. AIPAC’s position, I believe, is that a strong alliance between the US and Israel, strategically and operationally, is in the best interests of both nations. To describe that position as “Israel first” is incorrect. I suppose you could argue that they’re being insincere. What’s your evidence for that? But that, of course, is insulting, and indeed argues for a hidden agenda, which is even more insulting.

            2. I strongly object to questioning the patriotism of American politicians under any circumstances barring actual sedition or treason. I take it for granted that they believe they are guided by the best interests of the nation as they see those interests. I believe this of Dennis Kucinich as much as I believe it of Eric Cantor, even though I also believe that both of them are idiots (useful or otherwise). I wonder whether you’ve questioned the patriotism of American politicians who have taken what you characterize, tendentiously, as “uncritical acceptance of any single-issue lobby view” in any other instance.

            3. The use of this phrase necessarily, as I’m sure you understand, evokes the phrase “Israel-firster”, which is certainly derogatory, and historically echoes with a great deal of scary rhetoric around dual loyalty aimed at Jews, from Charles Lindbergh and long before.

            4. It provides social validation for people like Barry above to explicitly raise the issue of loyalty, and then move on to the well-known trope of blood-sucking war profiteer, strangely enough in the guise of attempting to deny that loyalty is even the relevant category for such people. (“Rootless cosmopolitans” was of course the Soviet euphemism for disloyal Jews.) I think it’s important for people on the left as well as the right to understand and be aware of the psychological and social pathologies that underly this kind of thinking and be careful about it. Frankly most of my bitterness about the Republicans for the past few decades stems from the constant stoking of these kinds of problems. I don’t ascribe intentionality to you as I do to them. I do however believe that you’ve failed to think through where this is going. (By the way for all I know Barry is Jewish; Jews suffer from these pathologies as well.)

            5. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive. Nevertheless I’m sure you’ll agree that in this case, as in similar cases involving other racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, it’s my hackles and not yours that must be accorded the greater respect.

            I appreciate your engaging with me on this issue.

  11. larry birnbaum says:

    Read John Warden or about the air campaign in the Gulf or Iraq wars — or maybe for a better parallel, because of its far more limited objectives, the air campaigns in the Balkans. Lots of people thought there was no way we could stop the Serbs without putting boots on the ground. They were wrong. The level of causal analysis underlying a modern air campaign as pioneered by Warden and his students is quite striking. Example: we eventually determined that the Bosnian Serbs were prevailing in battles not because they had more or better troops and weapons, but because they had the capability of quickly marshaling forces once a battle started. So the conclusion was, attack their mobility to undermine this advantage. That meant bombing trucks at night, bombing roads, etc. (The level of thought went down to exactly how to bomb the roads: We wanted it to be relatively easy to rebuild after the conflict ended. So instead of, e.g., bombing the road in a mountain pass, we would bomb the hill above the road. That brought down a huge pile of rubble and dirt that made the road impassable. On the other hand, it could be easily cleared later.) The strategy worked and the Serb advantage in mobility was eliminated; after that they stopped winning battles all the time.

    On the issue of the Iranian attitude, they’re already implacably hostile to us, and they already seem quite committed to gaining nuclear weapons. It’s true that right now this attitude is more that of the government than the people. But, while I’m not sure containment wouldn’t work — I’m not sure it would either — I don’t see how we could pursue that approach without constantly irritating them as well.

    Finally I’m quite sure that taking military action off the table, which is the point of your post, will ensure the failure of any effort to get Iran to give up trying to build nuclear weapons; and that the more credible this threat is, the more likely it is that we won’t have to use it.

    • Foster Boondoggle says:

      I guess the idea of killing possibly tens of thousands of unlucky Iranians is not part of the equation.

      • Rob in CT says:

        Eh, no matter. Just some collateral damage. And later, when some Iranian retaliates with an act of terrorism, the US government will be totally, 100% innocent. Mentioning the 2012-2013 airstrikes/war will be very uncouth. In fact, if those who do mention them will be told to be ashamed of themselves.

        Sadly, this is all pointless, as even the horrible, anti-Israel Barack Obama has declared containment isn’t an option.

    • Barry says:

      Simple question:

      Did you support the Iraq War?

      • Barry says:

        Sorry – to Larry

        • larry birnbaum says:

          Yes, at the time I did. In retrospect, I felt that I’d allowed myself to be misled. Some good things came of the war (the end of Saddam’s regime) but on balance I think it was a mistake. If your question is, have I re-examined my beliefs (or my gullibility) sufficiently seriously in response to my failure, I think I have. But I could be wrong.

      • James Wimberley says:

        As it happens, no. See Thomas Aquinas and Robin Cook.

    • James Wimberley says:

      The tactical bombing of Serb army forces in Kosovo was, by the accounts I’ve read, a failure: Yugoslav army doctrine, inspired by WWII, laid great and effective stress on camouflage. The strategic bombing of Belgrade was, against the historical run, effective. It worked because Milosevic was a Bonapartist not Leninist autocrat, ultimately responsive to public opinion for his survival: and he decided that hanging on to Kosovo wasn’t worth losing Belgrade.

      I don’t see how the analogy of either Iraq or the Balkans applies to Iran: a curious dual parliamentary theocracy, with the role of the constitutional monarch – George III or Kaiser Bill – replaced by s co=optative oligarchy of clerics. It looks robust to the replacement of individuals like Ahmedinejad and Khamenei. The only plausible and helpful “régime change” scenario – the progressive eclipse of the theocracy by the elected parliament – would be delayed or destroyed by an attack.

      As Ebenezer Scrooge points out, even with the cleverest air support you get your successful invasion and destruction of the nuclear sites. Then what? Looks to me like the British invasions of Afghanistan in 1838 and 1878. Controlling and running the whole hostile country is entirely out of reach, and their are no Quislings in sight. “Mission accomplished”, march out with bands playing well apart from the casualty planes, then the aggrieved Iranians start up their bomb project again with greater determination.

  12. larry birnbaum says:

    Rob is correct. Per James’s point that we need a public discussion, we’re actually in the midst of a public discussion. The President has said that he doesn’t believe containment is a viable option, and he’s explained his reasons, which include not only Israel’s legitimate security concerns but also those of other US allies in the region and of the general problem of having a nuclear arms race in the middle of an incredibly volatile region that also happens to be the world’s gas station. We are, right now, having that discussion. It’s happening inside the government, it’s being discussed on the front page of the Times, it’s happening on this blog, it’s happening in Congress.

  13. darms says:

    Don’t forget the 20 million Iraqi Sunnis who might not appreciate an attack on Iran…

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