There’s been a deluge of articles and features in the media in the last week about the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War. The bulk of it has been a rehash of the old “Bush lied us into war” thesis that was convincingly debunked by Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy yesterday. Though much of what people think they know about the mistakes made by the U.S. before the invasion and after it are wrong, suffice it to say that most Americans aren’t particularly interested in debating the issue anymore. The prevailing narrative that the decision to topple Saddam Hussein was a mistake based on false intelligence and that all of America’s efforts to stabilize the country afterward were futile has become entrenched in our popular culture and the minds of most Americans, and it’s not likely anything can change that.
But the focus of American foreign policy is no longer whether Iraq was the wrong war or Afghanistan was the right one. With even President Obama acknowledging last week that Iran is probably within a year of a nuclear weapon, the question is whether the nation’s Iraq hangover will prevent it from taking action on a threat that can’t be honestly represented as the product of cooked U.S. intelligence or a neoconservative plot. As they continue to stall Western diplomats and ignore President Obama’s threats, Iran’s leaders are counting on America’s Iraq hangover to prevent Washington from ever taking action to forestall their nuclear ambitions.
Whether that calculation is correct will depend on whether the president means what he says about stopping Iran and all options being on the table—promises that he will repeat this week when he visits Israel. But as we get closer to the administration’s moment of truth on Iran, it’s vital to point out that the analogies between this dilemma and the Iraq conflict are specious and should be ignored by the president.
As I wrote in part one of this post, liberal hypocrisy about the anti-terror policies of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations has made clear that partisan affiliation seems to play a large role in the way Americans think about the wars the country has become embroiled in over the last half century. Just as anti-war sentiment about Vietnam mushroomed after Richard Nixon replaced Lyndon Johnson in the White house, it evaporated about the war on terror when Obama replaced Bush. After 2009, the outrage about Guantanamo and abuse of terrorists was no longer a potent political weapon for Democrats to pound a Republican target and simply faded from view. Four years after Obama first took office, it is now clear that his administration has not only kept most of Bush’s terror war infrastructure in place but has arrogated to itself power that its predecessor never thought to assert for itself. Yet few outside of the far left seem to think it is a problem.
Democrats ought to be ashamed of this but few seem to be blushing about their hypocrisy. Some may rationalize their behavior by saying that only their side can be trusted to lead wars that America should be fighting and that men like Obama can be relied upon to behave responsibly while Bush and Cheney could not. Yet there is nothing in the record of the past two administrations that backs up a conclusion that would draw any broad moral distinction between their records in fighting against Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The slaughter from that the drones have caused is something that conservatives think is justified by the need to fight an ongoing war against Islamists terrorists. But it makes the measures undertaken by Bush and Cheney — that were widely blasted by Democrats as a threat to American liberty — appear restrained. The question is, how will this undeniable pattern impact the chances that the U.S. will use force to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.
Iran’s official denial of reports of a major explosion at its underground nuclear facility in Fordow is heartening for those who are hoping that the rumors about a setback for the Islamist regime are true. The optimistic scenario would be based on the notion that if Iran is bothering to deny the stories of something bad happening, then something must have happened. But the unconfirmed rumors with details about hundreds of workers being trapped in the underground facility may also be a matter of hope being father to the wish, as many in the West would like to believe that some sort of covert intelligence activity or computer virus will be so successful as to relieve either the United States or Israel of the need to take overt military action to neutralize the Iranian threat.
If there is one place in Iran that Western observers would like to see spontaneously explode it is Fordow, where hardened bunkers built into the side of a mountain house Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. As the International Atomic Energy Agency reported last fall, it is there that the Iranians have stepped up their activity, enriching uranium at a rate that might soon accumulate enough material to allow Tehran to begin amassing their own nuclear arsenal. But even if the reports about an explosion are true, it is: a) by no means certain that the event was not an accident rather than part of a daring operation conducted by American and/or Israeli intelligence forces, and b) no guarantee that the Iranian program has been dealt anything more than an insignificant setback.
As the Obama administration and its European allies prepare to embark on yet another drawn-out and almost certainly futile round of diplomacy with Iran, the lack of a sense of urgency about the nuclear threat is once again obvious. The belief that more negotiations or sanctions can convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambition seems to be rooted in the idea that the West has virtually unlimited time to deal with the problem. That’s why so many in the chattering classes mocked Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu when he famously drew a red line across a cartoon bomb when speaking at the United Nations. Some in the foreign policy establishment seem to think Israeli fears about Iran are overblown or merely a ploy by its right-wing government. But it is also rooted in a degree of complacency about Iran’s capabilities. That complacency seemed to underline the optimism about the ability of the Stuxnet virus that was reportedly unleashed on Iran by the U.S. and/or Israel last year even though it was soon apparent that it had only a temporary affect on their nuclear project.
Western overconfidence about Iran’s capabilities should have been shelved after that, as well as the wave of cyber attacks believed to have originated in Iran that crippled computers in the Saudi Arabian oil industry as well as some American financial institutions last fall. The fallout from those attacks led outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to say that the U.S. was vulnerable to a “cyber Pearl Harbor” but in case no one was paying attention, it appears the Iranians have struck again. This time the targets were American banks, and American security experts were clear that the culprit was Iran.
That the Iranians—who are the world’s leading sponsor of terrorist groups—would wish to harm the United States is not a secret. But what seems to surprise some observers is the skill and sophistication that is evident in this cyber offensive. According to the New York Times, the nature of these attacks dwarf what the Russians did to Estonia in 2007 when it attempted to take down its Baltic neighbor’s economy. While the cyber attacks are troubling in and of themselves, they also ought to expose the idea that the Iranians are years away from a bomb as the sort of hopeless optimism that ought not influence the debate about whether to forestall the threat.
Pentagon officials and journalists have been speaking publicly about their concerns regarding advances in Iranian missile technology. No one should underestimate Iran’s indigenous armament industry or the capabilities of Iranian engineers and scientists. Given enough time and, when needed, assistance from North Korean, Pakistani, and Turkish scientists, they are capable of reverse-engineering any military system.
It is against this backdrop that the increasing production of Iranian Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) should pose a concern. The issue is not simply Iranian bluster about their capabilities to replicate the technology in the state-of-the-art U.S. drone seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps after landing inside Iran. (Why President Obama did not order it to be destroyed on the ground in Iran is a question that will haunt families of future Iranian terror victims).
President Obama has repeatedly pledged that he will never allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. But given that his various attempts at engagement, diplomacy and now sanctions show no signs of working, it is inevitable that speculation about his willingness to use force persists. However, that is the one thing Washington has never seemed willing to contemplate. Though even the president will occasionally say that no options are being left off the table, the administration has been doing its best to argue that military strikes would only give the West a temporary respite. But, as Lee Smith writes in Tablet, the claim that strikes on Iran wouldn’t effectively end the threat tell us more about the president’s unwillingness to use force than it does about its effect on Iran.
This premise that Iran’s nuclear program is basically invulnerable to military attack is wrong. Though its targets are spread out and many have been hardened to render air strikes less deadly, the notion that a concentrated campaign couldn’t take them out underestimates American air power. Moreover, the notion that the Iranians would have the personnel, the resources and the will to start from scratch again overestimates their capabilities. The difficulties that are cited as insuperable obstacles to an attack have been inflated out of proportion to the actual problem, because the administration has no interest in undertaking the mission.
Since the beginning of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran, foreign policy establishment figures have been bubbling with optimism about the negotiations leading to a deal that will settle the crisis. The inauguration of the talks is considered a master stroke that will head off the possibility of a Western or Israeli attack on Iran and allow the European Union to back off its pledge to implement an oil embargo on the Islamist regime. All that will be needed, we are told, is a little patience, and then EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will broker an agreement that will involve the removal of refined uranium from Iran but allow Iran to continue its “peaceful” nuclear research.
But if President Obama thinks the negotiations are the perfect way to kick the nuclear can down the road while he is running for re-election, the Iranians think the talks are a triumph for their nuclear ambitions. As Hamidreza Taraghi, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated in a startlingly frank interview with the New York Times, the regime’s stalling tactics have been an unmitigated success, allowing them to transgress every red line set by the West and forcing them to accept Iran’s terms. As the Times notes:
In continually pushing forward the nuclear activities — increasing enrichment and building a bunker mountain enrichment facility — Iran has in effect forced the West to accept a program it insists is for peaceful purposes. Iranians say their carefully crafted policy has helped move the goal posts in their favor by making enrichment a reality that the West has been unable to stop — and may now be willing, however grudgingly, to accept.
Taraghi is, of course, absolutely right. The opening of the talks in Istanbul gave the Iranians reason to believe the international community was prepared to accept their nuclear enrichment program as well as buying the fiction that Iran’s Supreme Leader had issued a fatwa against a nuclear weapon. The question these conclusions pose for President Obama is whether he is really prepared to allow Ashton and the Europeans to broker a deal while he is running for re-election that will, in effect, give the international seal of approval to an Iranian nuclear program that is likely, deal or no deal, to lead to a nuclear weapon?