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July 30, 2007

Will We Go To War With Iran?

You know, it's worth remembering that when the Bush administration wanted to invade Iraq, they spent the better part of two years pursuing a massive PR strategy to sell the deployment. Going to war is actually a relatively tough thing to do, even in a system that gives fairly significant levels of foreign policy autonomy to the executive.

But when talking about going to war with Iran, a lot of arguments rest on what I'll call the reverse-crazy theory. It's become a truism among liberals that you can't rule out any Bush administration actions based on the formerly useful analytical strategy of "doing that would be $^%&# nuts." Some folks, though, take that a bit further, and come pretty close to saying that the Bush administration will do X because X is $^%&# nuts, and so are they. But I don't buy that.

This is, rather, a deeply ideological group, with a set of fairly coherent goals, who approach the world in an almost surprisingly predictable way. And going to war with Iran would be very counterproductive to a number of those goals. The first, and in some ways most important, is that it would roll back the administration's long-term effort to arrogate more power to the executive. It's been a core part of this White House's philosophy that the post-Nixon era resulted in too much authority being devolved from the executive, and that part of their mandate was to recapture that freedom of movement, as the post-9/11 world required an absurdly powerful executive. But go to war in Iran without congressional approval, and we'll see a series of laws passed very quickly that make it almost impossible for the president to declare war on his own. That's not something they want.

Second, there's actually been a change in the Bush administration towards realism on foreign policy. Dick Cheney may still be nuts, but all reporting suggests that his power is ebbing, particularly as compared to Condoleeza Rice's influence. And Rice does not want to go to war with Iran. What she does want to do is, say, negotiate with North Korea, which the Bush administration then did, to the consternation of longtime Cheney favorites like John Bolton. Indeed, Cheney's favorites are actually leaving the White House in frustration. Bolton fled, for one, as has J.D Crouch, a hardline deputy national security advisor, and the former policy planning director at State, Stephen Krasner. And the new hires, as Steve Clemons has been ecstatically documenting, are realist-Rice types.

None of this is to say that we couldn't yet bomb Iran. But literally no foreign policy type I've spoken to -- which includes establishment folks who wouldn't be unhappy with that outcome -- thinks there's much of a chance that we will. And the actual movement within the Bush administration appears very much against the hardliners on the issue. And reporting on the opinions of the military types suggests that they too are against bombing Iran, and are probably telling Bush what a disaster it will be. The scenario in which all bets are off is one in which Cheney becomes president, as the Daily Show so ably documented a few weeks ago (mildly not safe for work). But in general, I think the situation is largely aligning itself against such crazed actions.

July 30, 2007 in Iran | Permalink

Comments

"The scenario in which all bets are off is one in which Cheney becomes president"

Actually, I think the scenario in which all bets are off is for airstrikes to take place between the '08 elections and the inauguration.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 30, 2007 12:43:40 PM

But go to war in Iran without congressional approval, and we'll see a series of laws passed very quickly that make it almost impossible for the president to declare war on his own. That's not something they want.

So the Republicans will filibuster those laws. Or Bush will veto them. Or he'll brush them off with a signing statement. Do you really think he wouldn't?

I think you need to consider these possibilities, too.

But on balance, I think you're right -- if the admin were bent on war with Iran we'd be in the midst of a massive PR blitz comparable to pre-Iraq, and we're not.

On the other hand, maybe the lesson they've drawn from Iraq is, 'Don't bother trying to win public opinion. Just do whatever the hell you want to do.' There's considerable ongoing evidence for that possibility.

Posted by: Ryan | Jul 30, 2007 12:47:26 PM

Well Condi and Gates may be opposed, but to listen to the thin gruel that Rove is offering the GOP (GOP problems are scandal-derived, not from Iraq) isn't going down well among those who could be thrown from office (or have their govt contracts/tax breaks repealed).

So, don't discount the therapeutic-to-the-GOP political rationale for an Iran attack: it sells to the public.

And, I haven't seen ANY major Dem. come out strongly against an Iran attack. In fact, the Dem. candidates are rehearsing the choir anthems just like they did in the lead-up to Iraq. My guess is that the Dem leadership would NOT propose legislation to prevent an Iran war.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 30, 2007 1:29:38 PM

Several of us have gone the rounds over this several times. I think the strongest point against the war-with-Iran scenarios is related to what Ezra says about the military not wanting to do it. It would put every goal they have about Iraq, and the soldiers, at extreme risk; indeed it would probably sink any prospects of anything resembling a positive outcome in Iraq. The military is already stretched to the breaking point. Even if the attack on Iran were merely bombing (which wouldn't accomplish much in terms of military goals), the risk of Iran retaliating in Iraq would be near total, and Iran has plenty of weapons and troops to give us far more trouble than al Qaeda in Iraq does. In addition to the military, I'm sure Gates, who does seem to care about the lives of the troops, would argue very forcefully against it. All of this is the opposite of what led up to Iraq, where there was a big push from Defense saying it would be easy and successful.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 30, 2007 1:30:42 PM

I think Gates and Rice have formed a faction within the Administration determined to frustrate Cheney's desire to attack Iran.

Why does Cheney want to attack Iran? Because, unless someone breaks Iran's legs, so to speak, the outcome of the Iraq War is like to be Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf. Iranian hegemony in Iraq will be bad for U.S. and Saudi oil interests -- very bad.

Cheney has sufficient power to carry on a propaganda campaign, which has blamed Iran for the Iraqi insurgency, even though Saudi Arabia is financing the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

Now the trick will be provoking an incident.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jul 30, 2007 1:45:18 PM

Well I certainly hope you are right. But I fear that this post is going to look really bad in a couple of years time.

Your argument about the likely upshot w/r/t congressional action after such an attack is the worst kind of wishful thinking, for many reasons which frankly I am too depressed to list here. I will briefly mention the 97-0 vote a couple of weeks ago; while some of my fellow non-interventionists did overreact slightly to that vote, it was a very, very bad sign to say the least.

As for the changes in the Bush administration, I think you suffer from more wishful thinking, albeit with marginally greater justification. (a) You underestimate the extent to which Cheney still controls the agenda, and (b) you overestimate Bush's commitment to the realist advisors - i.e., when they fail to get results vis a vis Iran, which they likely will given the fact that the administration is clearly unwilling to make the necessary concessions, Bush is likely to turn to the Cheney option.

At this point the ONLY hope, sadly enough, is one that you do not mention but one of your commenters does - the opposition of the military. I don't find it particularly comforting to rely on that factor to avoid Armageddon.

Posted by: LarryM | Jul 30, 2007 1:54:00 PM

But go to war in Iran without congressional approval, and we'll see a series of laws passed very quickly that make it almost impossible for the president to declare war on his own.

Um, don't such laws (and the appropriation process) already exist? And don't they require a President who respects the law, as Ryan points out? This President would use his fanciful "inherent Article II powers" to override actual Article I powers in a trice, and either illegally transfer explicitly-earmarked funds (as he did in the Iraq war run-up), or defy Congress to "defund" the troops that he's put in harm's way (as with every attempt at withdrawal legislation). I'm going to grudgingly admit that they might not actually start something with Iran unless another mysterious personal cost-benefit analysis demands it; it's probably much better for them to offer the Republican field a chance to say, "Iraq? Well... Hey! Look over there! Iran threatens us with total nuclear annihilation!"

Posted by: mds | Jul 30, 2007 2:05:26 PM

You are forgetting to apply the DeLong Law to your analysis.

Remember, this administration is worse than you can imagine, even when you take into account the fact that they are worse than you can imagine.

It is unquestionable that there are people in this administration that want to go to war very badly. This is obvious from the information that has been leaking from "anonymous" sources and the usual hawkish right wing mouth pieces.

Now WHY they want to... well that's a good one. I'm still trying to figure out WHY we invaded Iraq.

Posted by: IMU | Jul 30, 2007 2:13:02 PM

The real question is whether the administration Hawks can talk their way into some kind of military action, supposedly short of war, that ends up sparking a general conflagration.

Most of the arguments against a war on Iran are predicated on the assumption that there is too much institutional resistance (military, etc.)to allowing Bush to make such a stupendous blunder as invading Iran. However, if the proposed military action is presented as a "compromise" short of war (air strikes, targeted seizures of the SW oil fields, etc.) it isn't clear that such resistance would remain solid.

Or course it's nuts to think we could contain the Iranian reaction but then it was nuts to think we could contain Iraq.

Can't say that I put much stock in this Administration's fear of Congressional reprisal. Their theory has always been that they are operating in war time and that war time rules place the Executive beyond the reach of both Congress and the Courts.

Hope your right though.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Jul 30, 2007 2:19:17 PM

$^%&# nuts? Did you stop saying fuck?

Posted by: Eric the Political Hack | Jul 30, 2007 2:49:18 PM

You know, I really shouldn't do this, because I can tell by the thread the BDR is rampant here, but, what the hell...

The United States will probably not strike Iran, kids. It won't be necessary. Either the Iranians will get rid of their theocracy (very unlikely scenario) or, if they can get the Russians to finish their plant, the Iraelis will do it (Israel has absolutely no difficulty in identifying the risk to their national security should Iran develop a nuclear weapon capability with a viable delivery system).

No matter what you think, or fervently believe, or no matter what you wish was only true, somebody, somewhere, and maybe sooner than you think, is going to pull a trigger on Iran. Big boom. Lotta dust. Very much like Iraq in '82.

The world does not operate the way it does in San Francisco, except in San Francisco.

Posted by: B Dubya | Jul 30, 2007 2:53:18 PM

Good post, Ezra -- I'm pretty close to convinced.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 30, 2007 3:00:35 PM

The world does not operate the way it does in San Francisco, except in San Francisco.

The string theory of "conservative" politics. San Fransico exists in a parallel dimension.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Jul 30, 2007 3:15:41 PM

I know many would consider this paranoia, but shouldn't the context for these issues be whether it makes sense for the Bush/Cheney business interests?

It's the only context that properly explains why we went to and are still in Iraq (so many lucrative defense contracts for our business associates!) why they pushed so hard to privatize Social Security (billions of dollars going in and out each month -- think of the money management fees that could be made!) and just about every otherwise-insane action they've taken.

And in that context, I don't see attacking Iran as being a good business decision. But threatening Iran may be.

Posted by: PapaJijo | Jul 30, 2007 3:19:24 PM

BD,

You know, if it wasn't so depressing, given the state of the world, to be lectured at by the likes of you on the way the world operates, it would be hilarious, given the manifest incompetence and detachment from reality of the administration which you support. Now it's entirely possible that Israel will, indeed, make the mistake of bombing Iran. They are, after all, currently led by a crew only slightly less inept than we are. But getting rid of the Iranian nuclear program would not just be a matter of bombing one or even a few targets; it would entail taking out many targets, mostly hardened and many in unknown locations. The people who, you know, have actual knowledge about the subject (as opposed to armchair strategists like yourself, blogging from your parent's basement), and I'm not talking about bloggers but the military and the intelligence community, have determined that a strike against Iran would only delay, not stop, the Iranian nuclear program.

And then what? Well let me tell you a little lesson about the real world. Iran, led by the same people who you believe are so crazy that they would nuke Israel despite the certainly of mutual destruction, are not going to just meekly accept it. Actually, they might in the short run (the smarter call IMO, but less likely), but in the long run it would guarantee that the most radical elements of the theocracy would be in control for a generation at least, and, when they do finally get the bomb, would be far more likely to use it.

The more likely result is immediate escalation, probably involving the United States, resulting in, eventually, millions of deaths. The majority of those deaths will be Iranian, of course, so I guess that's not a downside for a moral monster such as yourself. But there would be plenty of dead Israelis too, and even a good number of your fellow citizens, economic chaos worldwide, etc., etc. Now I realize that you are probably getting excited just thinking about all of that blood and death, but the sane ones among us kind of recoil from that sort of nightmare.

Posted by: LarryM | Jul 30, 2007 3:27:20 PM

Or course it's nuts to think we could contain the Iranian reaction but then it was nuts to think we could contain Iraq.

Right, but the principle nuts who pushed for Iraq are now discredited and mostly gone. Bush was getting very different advice about Iraq than he's getting about Iran.

The prospect of Israel bombing Iran is more problematic. I expect the US to pressure Israel not to as long as we're in Iraq. And we do have very strong influence.

I know many would consider this paranoia, but shouldn't the context for these issues be whether it makes sense for the Bush/Cheney business interests?

No. It's pure baloney that this explains their behavior as well as the explanations actually given by the architects of their policies. Read Wolfowitz's pre-2001 writings about Iraq or the behind-the-scenes books that explain the rationales. Those all make more sense than the idea of trying to earn money by war, which involves, well, lots of murder. Yes, what you're thinking now is paranoid.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 30, 2007 4:15:45 PM

I hope Ezra is right.

I think the threats to Iran are a win-win to the oilmen in office. The reason is that threats of more war in the Mideast contribute to higher fuel prices, without having the costs to drill and produce fuel increase. So, it's pure profit.

Posted by: American Citizen | Jul 30, 2007 4:26:37 PM

"But go to war in Iran without congressional approval, and we'll see a series of laws passed very quickly that make it almost impossible for the president to declare war on his own. That's not something they want."

It'd be crazy, almost unconstitutional. Of course, Article I, Section 8 is also unconstitutional. Its crossed out on my copy.

Posted by: yoyo | Jul 30, 2007 5:12:04 PM

Iran support both Shia and Sunni groups in Iraq.And many soldiers of the coalition forces there died for this.One problem is that too much iranians reject the Tehran regime.And they are being prosecuted and executed in Iran.The question is if an attack to Iran may consolidate more the regime.

Posted by: Carlos | Jul 30, 2007 5:35:05 PM

Well Carlos, I agree that that is a "question" in the limited sense that answering it is important. Just as the question as to whether the earth is round is important to someone, say, trying to sail around the world. But I don't think that either "question" is open to serious dispute. No one REALLY thinks that an attack on Iran will do anything other than consolidate the regime. A few people PROFESS to believe differently, but I doubt their sincerity. No one has their head THAT far up their ass, even this gang.

Posted by: LarryM | Jul 30, 2007 6:28:31 PM

"Dick Cheney may still be nuts, but all reporting suggests that his power is ebbing, particularly as compared to Condoleeza Rice's influence."

I'm not sure that "all reporting" agrees with you. What about this item in The Guardian from two weeks ago suggesting that Cheney is winning the battle with Rice over this very issue and that Bush is back to siding with him?

Posted by: Lukeness | Jul 31, 2007 12:05:30 AM

That's the article where an anonymous source says Bush and Cheney showed frustration at the lack of diplomatic progress and on this basis (no other direct evidence is cited) concludes, "The balance has tilted. There is cause for concern."

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 31, 2007 12:30:51 AM

Because, unless someone breaks Iran's legs, so to speak, the outcome of the Iraq War is like to be Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf. Iranian hegemony in Iraq will be bad for U.S. and Saudi oil interests -- very bad.

Why, exactly? Sure, it would give Iran the power to shut off Gulf oil exports. But Iran has that power now. It's called Moskit. (And, for that matter, C-802.) Look it up.
Otherwise... what's Iran going to do? It's still going to sell its oil onto the world market. The production from Iraqi fields won't change if they're run by Iran; in fact, given the state they're in right now, the yield will probably go back up towards peacetime levels.
Iran doesn't have enough refining capacity to meet domestic demand; it still won't if it unifies with Iraq. It'll need to keep sending its own crude overseas to be refined and then reimporting refined product.
If (post-Anschluss) the Unified Islamic Republic of Iranq turns off the taps, their own society will start getting very thirsty for oil.
Nor will Iranq try to invade Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. They may have (in this scenario) beaten back the US invasion, but they know very well what happened in '91; and it would happen again.
Why is this something we need to be concerned about?

Posted by: ajay | Jul 31, 2007 5:44:56 AM

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