A lot of the usual suspects in blog-land are agog over my “Contentions” item earlier this week praising two articles in Foreign Affairs that advocate military action against the Iranian nuclear program. I concluded thusly: “I have yet to see (have I missed it?) an equally detailed and convincing exposition of the anti-bombing side.” This has various Twitterers rushing to point to a National Interest article by defense analysts Elbridge Colby and Austin Long arguing against bombing.
Having read it, I stand by my original comment–the Foreign Affairs articles are more compelling.
Colby and Long write “that attacking Iran without provocation is a dangerous course.” But of course no one is talking about attacking Luxembourg. That really would be an unprovoked attack. In the case of Iran–which has spent decades illegally supporting terrorist groups, killing and kidnapping American citizens, threatening its neighbors, and developing an illicit nuclear weapons program–an attack would hardly be unprovoked. Indeed, Iran has provided so much provocation since its Islamic revolution that it is a wonder its aggression has not yet been met with military force, at least not since the Tanker War of the 1980s.
Then Colby and Long toss out various unconvincing arguments which they claim “are well-known”: “deterrence, while neither easy nor cheap, can work; the costs of likely Iranian retaliation outweigh the likely benefits, perhaps markedly; and the United States (and its allies) have considered preventive attacks against adversary nuclear programs before, thought the better of it and come out tolerably.” But while deterrence worked against the Soviet Union–just barely–there is good cause to be worried it will not be so successful against a country like Iran whose leaders are not about to set-up a hotline to Jerusalem or Washington so as to improve the handling of crises.
It’s true the U.S. in the past decided against preemptive attacks on nuclear sites in states such as the Soviet Union and Red China, but then they were, after all, superpowers. We also decided not to launch a preemptive strike on North Korea, but the merits of that decision remain far from clear. One American ally–Israel–has actually mounted preemptive attacks on the nuclear programs of Iraq and Syria and done so with complete success and without suffering any negative repercussions. Is Iran more like Iraq/Syria or the USSR/China? The question answers itself.
Perhaps recognizing the weakness of these arguments, Colby and Long trot out two more. They claim advocates of military action “fail to explain how the United States will prevent Iran from simply restarting its program, this time in deadly earnest. Moreover, they don’t explain why such strikes won’t contribute to the immediate rallying of the Iranian people around the otherwise reviled regime.”
It’s certainly true there is no guarantee Iran could not restart its nuclear program after air strikes. But if it does, it’s always possible to mount further air strikes–a model the U.S. actually followed with Iraq between 1991 and 2003. And it may be possible that no further strikes will be needed at all, because restarting a nuclear program is no easy business. The authors cite the aftermath of Israel’s 1981 strike on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear facility as evidence that air strikes on Iran will not deliver long-term benefits, but the opposite is true: Despite Saddam’s efforts to restart his nuclear program, he still had not come close to producing a bomb ten years later when the Gulf War occurred. If not for the Israeli strike, Iraq probably would have gone nuclear by then and Kuwait would today be Iraq’s 19th province.
A lot can happen in the years after successful air strikes–including regime change. Not by foreign invasion but by people power. Those who discount the possibility of a peaceful revolution in Iran are ignoring the lessons of the past year: The Arab Spring has shown even the most repressive regimes are more brittle than they appear at first blush.
Colby and Long claim air strikes will unite Iranians around their regime. “Large-scale bombing campaigns didn’t break support for North Vietnamese or North Korean regimes, or for the German or Japanese governments during World War II,” they write. “Rather, they hardened support for them.” This may or may not be true. How do we know what the Vietnamese, North Koreans, Germans or Japanese thought about their governments when they had no opportunity to express their sentiments at the ballot box? But even if this is accurate it’s irrelevant. No one is advocating massive bombing of Iran to topple the regime.
All we are discussing is the possibility of limited air strikes against a few nuclear sites. Such strikes might well cause a surge of support for the government, but in all likelihood it would be fleeting and temporary. A few weeks later Iranians would realize all of their old grievances with the government–from its repressive social policies to its lack of economic opportunity–would remain intact. Indeed, successful air strikes might well help to dispel the aura of fear that surrounds the theocratic regime by showing it is not nearly as invincible as its leaders claim. Such benefits are, admittedly, speculative–but no more speculative than Colby and Long’s assertions that air strikes would prolong the mullahs’ foul rule.
All we know for certain is if we do nothing, Iran is likely to go nuclear before long–and if we bomb their nuclear sites we are likely to set back their program for a considerable period of time. That, in a nutshell, is the case for action if further sanctions do not work.