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February 13, 2007

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More generally, I think the United States suffers from an extreme Ameri-centric view with respect to Iran.

I mean this in the nicest possible way, but is there any issue on which the United States as a whole does not suffer from an extreme Ameri-centric view?

Sign me up as a Publosonian. This is genuine realism, a recognition that "coercive diplomacy" isn't diplomacy.

Applause. Despite your smear of my brethren Eagle Scouts on the way.

my critique – among others – of the neocons is that they elevate military force as an end unto itself

Unfortunately, that's exactly right. War as 'clarifier'. Gives a new twist to the phrase 'human resources'. People are the ultimate fungable commodity. It isn't necessarily not an unbad thing to 'cull the herd' sometimes, right? And war is always handy, politically...

The only rationale left for attacking Iran is the idea that war would be 'purifying' somehow; that it will be super cheap and easy and it just might work.

It's just so morally bankrupt, not to mention intellectually so.

I thought I'd throw this bit of the recent piece by James Fallows in The Atlantic into the mix:

"If we could trust the Administration’s ability to judge America’s rational self-interest, there would be no need to constrain its threatening gestures toward Iran. Everyone would understand that this was part of the negotiation process; no one would worry that the Administration would finally take a step as self-destructive as beginning or inviting a war. But no one can any longer trust the Administration to recognize and defend America’s rational self-interest... What the Congress can do is draw the line. It can say that war with Iran is anathema to the interests of the United States and contrary to the will of its elected representatives. And it should do that now."

That's why I think Publius is right, and Von is wrong.

I just posted this comment on Ezra Klein and will repeat it here:
Thank you for this post. I have taken the position that anyone who says "all options are on the table" is a danger to world peace. "All options" would logically include the current US doctrine of unilateral preemptive war, which in practice has actually been the more extreme doctrine of preventive war (where there is no imminent threat). So we need to challenge every politician, Democrat, Liberal, or whatever, who utters that Bush "all options" mantra by demanding to know just what options they have in mind.

Very good article.

I especially like the snake comparison.

Count me in as Publosonian.

If we learn nothing else from the Bush Years, we should plant firmly in our minds the fact that for all their gangsterish "tough-mindedness", neocons don't actually have a very good grasp of how the real world operates.

They are cynical yet naive, sort of llike Space Ghost.

I think even if the current administration would actually want to "take the option off the table", it couldn't. Cheney/Bush could take an oath on the Bible that they have no hostile intentions towards Iran and they wouldn't be believed (neither in Iran nor elsewhere).
There is no credible "un-threat" option at the moment.
In general, even written safety guarantees have a tendency to be not worth the paper (not limited to the current US btw. Look at world history).

Don't talk about Iran. There is no such place. It is a fairy tale, an allegory--like its orthographic cousin, Iraq. No one who pretends to be talking about Iran, or about terrorism, or about "radical Islam", is actually talking about any of those things. All of them are merely symbols for ideas and factions in the domestic political struggle. They have no other significance whatsoever. Our task is to unwind the allegories and metonymies and call things by their right names.

Good post. There is a lot of meat here, and for me this is your most substantive and convincing post on the topic.

I stipulate that coercive diplomacy has had mixed results at best throughout history, also that to be successful it relies heavily on rational actors on both side of the table.

Given that, I am trying to come up with some historical examples where non-coercive diplomacy was successful – that is, where there was absolutely zero threat of even an implicit nature involved when negotiating the end to some crisis with an adversary.

It seems to me that even in the case of negotiating a simple trade agreement with an ally there is some level of threat involved (economic in this case- tariffs, etc).

It also seems to me that by letting the EU-3 take the lead in these negotiations that the diplomacy has been mostly non-coercive to this point. Yes, there is the occasional statement from us or another country that, “Iran will not be allowed to get the bomb”. But for the most part direct negotiations have been with those who offer no credible military threat. Our background saber rattling has also been primarily to push the UN for tougher sanctions, not threaten attack. Or do you think they’ve played a role in a “good cop bad cop” scenario (Deal with us or we’ll bring those crazy Americans to the table)?

My biggest disagreement on this one is that I think you are seriously underplaying the threat of Iran acquiring nukes. The threat is not Iran per say, but that of starting a new arms race in the ME that can only end one way (very very badly).

"That’s why the relatively powerless A-jad makes all these grotesque speeches. The threat posed by the US is politically useful to him in the same way that, yes I’m going to say this, the specter of a terrorist attack is exploited by, and politically useful for, Karl Rove."

I wish more people would realize that A-jad is more bark than bite. It seems everytime that the population of Iran starts loosening up, Bush or another of the neocon team will start the saber rattling, and then A-jad and the rest get more support in their country.

If the neo-cons think that some form of even surgical strike will somehow cause support to fall from the current regie, they should remember what happened after 9/11 when even many Americans who were disaffected with Bush rallied to his support.

OCSteve: "But for the most part direct negotiations have been with those who offer no credible military threat."

Of course this is primarily because this administration has refused to be involved. Countries such as Iran and North Korea (or rather the leadership of those countries) want to be seen as major players on the world stage. One way to be seen as such is to do nasty things (such as building a nuclear program) and another is to be recognized as a player and someone worth talking to directly by the major power on the world stage. Guess which one is probably the more practical in terms of long term world stability.

Although I was sort of leaning towards von's perspective, I tend to agree with publius on this one now, specially since, as Hartmut points out, there is, in reality, no real taking the option off the table. This "litmus test" is really for domestic consumption more than international.

But the effect of a credible threat doesn't have to be a one way street and we never have 100% information re who on the other side is being strengthened or weakened at any given time by the threat. Radicals may be strengthened as your presenter argued but non-radicals can also react to the threat by placing internal and behind the scenes pressure on the radicals to reach an agreement and be picking up fence sitters along the way. Taking the threat away while the radicals remain in the mix, as your post admits that they do, gives the radicals the incentive to ride out the internal and external pressures because really bad things are now almost guaranteed to never happen. While you may not trust Bush not to act on an issued credible threat, and fair enough, removing the threat is not good negotiating tactics and ties the next - maybe more rational - guy's hands as well.

My biggest disagreement on this one is that I think you are seriously underplaying the threat of Iran acquiring nukes. The threat is not Iran per say, but that of starting a new arms race in the ME that can only end one way (very very badly).

I am not entirely certain that last part is true. Not that I want Iran to have nukes, particularly; I'd prefer that nobody new get them, and indeed, that nobody have them anymore at all, but that particular genie is out of the bottle.

But anyway, I grew up during the Reagan years -- turning 13 in 1982 -- when we were all "certain" that sometime in the next 15-20 years the arms race -- and the world -- was going to end in nuclear conflagration. (For those too young to remember it, the television movie The Day After had a staggering effect on people my age.) It didn't. And, in fact, the people who were rather dismissive of those concerns at the time tend to be the same people who are "certain" of future nuclear exchange in the Middle East now.

"The big dog is digging in our back yard, and we're justified in taking action."

Pssst, neocons. We're the big dog.

I think history shows far more examples of strengthening the radicals than giving the moderates the upper hand by (seemingly unprovoked) threats. In a few cases it actually drove the moderates from power because "they stood not up to the pressure".
On the other hand the threat is stronger than the execution as every chess player knows.
Not changing the attitude, if there actually is a change on the other side is another error often made. Aka "They are getting soft, let's further increase the pressure so we can get even more concessions from them!"
(can of course be played by both sides).
In short: Pressure alone seldom yields results, if it is applied without flexibility.

Pressure alone seldom yields results, if it is applied without flexibility

and it's corollary: The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

And, in fact, the people who were rather dismissive of those concerns at the time tend to be the same people who are "certain" of future nuclear exchange in the Middle East now

Well at least I can claim some consistency there. I was in the thick of it in the FRG during that period and there were times I was certain the world was going to end in 15 minutes much less 15 years.

So I wasn’t dismissive of those concerns then, and saying I’m certain of anything regarding the ME now is a stretch on my part. Still, ME arms race + Israel = nothing good, IMO.

It also seems to me that by letting the EU-3 take the lead in these negotiations that the diplomacy has been mostly non-coercive to this point.

I would suspect though, that the problem with negotiations done by the Europeans is that we're not involved. Iran's quest for nukes is not really related to Europe, it's related to many things, most of which involve the US. So if we're not involved in the negotiations, why would the Iranians care about them? They want to negotiate with us, and there's certainly no guarantee the Bush administration would consider themselves bound by any agreement Iran reached with other countries. And the Europeans aren't even really working as middlemen, talking between two groups that won't talk (the US and Iran) they're only talking to one side. That's not really negotiating.

Basically, we have all the carrots and sticks Iran cares about, so if negotiations are going to work, we have to be involved. And that's anathema to the Bush administration.

Steve: My family was stationed in Germany from 1976-79. I, at least, could draw some comfort from the idea that missiles would mostly only be flying over us, not at us.

You are working the "powerless A-jad" horse pretty hard. What he said is perfectly in line with more 'moderate' functionaries like Rafsanjani have been saying for years. And both are allegedly right in step with the pronouncements of both Ayatollahs when it comes to destroying Israel. How crucial to your thesis is it that the president of Iran has very little power?

Furthermore, how crucial to your thesis is the idea that none of the presidents of Iran are speaking in line with whomever you see as the 'real' leaders? Rafsanjani is the Chair of Expediency Council right now. That puts him right at the top of the 'consultive' body for the Supreme Leader.

Anyone who has been involved in negotiations (or litigation, for that matter) knows the value of doubt. Doubt of radical action is a sure way to keep folks honest and on point.

I think this is just not true.

In negotiations between sane people, "doubt" takes the form of holding your cards closely, not disclosing more of your position than you want to, and maintaining the appearance of being willing to take or leave any possible result.

The "radical action" under consideration with Iran is this -- we will come to your house and kill you. That does not inspire anyone to be "honest and on point". It inspires them to load their gun.

The analogy to litigation or similar negotiation is not apt. There is no negotiation here. There is the threat of unprovoked attack, made concrete by the buildup of military assets.

Do you think that threat would be removed if the Iranians stood down from nuclear development? I don't.

Do you think that threat would be removed if the Iranians cut off any and all support for any Shi'a activities in Iraq? I don't. It would be impossible to demonstrate that, in any case.

There is no negotation here. There is an internal argument within the US government, conducted more or less in secret, over whether we will conduct an unprovoked military attack on Iran. That is not "negotation", it is waiting to find out exactly how crazy the madman with the gun is.

Thanks -

Ah, this is great:

President Bush said Wednesday he's convinced that the Iranian government is supplying deadly weapons to fighters in Iraq, even if he can't prove the orders came from the highest levels in Tehran.

More important, Bush said in his first news conference of the year, is protecting U.S. troops against the lethal new threat. "I'm going to do something about it," Bush said.

Wonderful.

"The big dog is digging in our back yard, and we're justified in taking action."

Pssst, neocons. We're the big dog.

Correct. And, it's not our back yard.

Thanks.

My biggest disagreement on this one is that I think you are seriously underplaying the threat of Iran acquiring nukes. The threat is not Iran per say, but that of starting a new arms race in the ME that can only end one way (very very badly).

Verily. But even if your risk assessment is correct, the mitigation strategy that you're endorsing is counterproductive. See the section publius labels "Second" or russell's comment just now, or any number of theoretical analyses of security policy.

I'd go a little further even, and argue that a counterproliferation strategy would have to be abandoned within a few years anyway even if we were to get into a shooting war with Iran. (i.e. that any policy aimed at preventing the arms race from starting is structurally doomed, in the same way that the long-term occupation of Iraq was doomed)

The arms race you're fretting about has already started, and modulo global warming the chance that it will end in less than about three generations is near-zero. So sooner or later we will have no choice but to fall back to a "deterrence" posture. Not ideal, but not as bad as Armageddon, and (IMHO) more effective now than after the shooting starts.

First, I command the Vonnites -- all one of him -- to again use the term Publosonian in the future. My will be done .... by me.

Second:

If, however, we lifted this threat (by, say, diplomatic recognition or a security guarantee as part of some larger agreement), it would really open things up for the more pro-democracy, anti-theocratic forces.

Isn't "some larger agreement" that avoids the need to threaten military action the endgame for everyone involved? Certainly it is for me, definitely it is for the folks at Foggy Bottom, and most likely it's also a goal of the Bush administration. The question has always been whether to drop the threat of military action prior to reaching the "some larger agreement" or as part of that agreement.

I (obviously) strongly favor the latter. This is one reason why I oppose any litmus test or preemptive declaration of non-invasion. Indeed, there's an inherent conflict between the notion of unilaterally declaring that force won't be used and declaring that force won't be used in connection with "a security guarantee as part of some larger agreement."

von: It's surely the endgame for me, and for you. The Bush administration is another story, what with their having refused to explore a serious proposal for just such a deal in 2003.

Isn't "some larger agreement" that avoids the need to threaten military action the endgame for everyone involved?

Maybe. But so what? Litigation and negotiation really are fundamentally different, no matter what anyone may be telling you. Negotiation strategies which are "rational" when some third party has a monopoly on the use of force may be irrational when both parties are sovereign.

Avoiding military action may in some trivial sense be a goal of the Bush administration, but it is quite clearly among their lowest priorities.

But even if your risk assessment is correct, the mitigation strategy that you're endorsing is counterproductive.

Not sure I endorsed any strategy (at least in this thread) – I was more questioning the wisdom of giving them everything they want up front – including security guarantees. If we offered them 2 party negotiations, security guarantees, and yet another big bag of carrots – that would only encourage the past undesirable behavior that got them what they desired IMO. I certainly do not believe that they would then just throw open the doors to inspectors. They might make some moves in that direction but weapons development would go on in secret full speed ahead.

So sooner or later we will have no choice but to fall back to a "deterrence" posture.

I’m a deterrence kind of guy. After all it’s worked out pretty well once now. The issue is that it only works with rational adversaries. Israel possesses a huge deterrent factor against Iran. Once those 3,000 centrifuges come on line (assuming that is not already in the works) I doubt that their deterrent factor will make Israel feel very secure at all.

Ok, I feel this is not OT because Edwards proposed cutting troop levels by a third, and certainly that's on the topic of signalling intentions.

I'm wondering which Dem has the best shot of winning. This bizarre race to the bottom as to who can pull out first won't be helping. I wanted to know if this is a reason to detest the man.

Or maybe criticizing Edwards for this is as bad as the fellow who criticized posh firms for defending Guantanamo detainees.

Ara - "This" is an article in the Washington Times. You might just as well cite the Weekly World Globe, in terms of credibility.

I’m a deterrence kind of guy. After all it’s worked out pretty well once now. The issue is that it only works with rational adversaries.

The biggest knock on the Israeli nuclear deterrence is that it doesn't help in the case of nuclear terrorism. Which is why they need to stop being coy about their capabilities. Keep a big list of all countries known to have produced nuclear weapons who don't like them and let it be known that, in the event of nuclear attack, they will eliminate all of them. Put it up on a billboard.

It really creates an incentive for countries to not even develop the capability. Really, all countries should have their billboards. It would bring MAD into the 21st century.

"The issue is that it only works with rational adversaries."

I really, really hate this argument. A lot. Add demonization of your opponent as "irrational" and voila --> an airtight argument for war over deterrence. I mean, when have the right-wingers in the US ever considered our adversaries "rational"? The Soviet Union was irrational and that's why we needed to roll back communism instead of just containing it. Remember?

What specific evidence is there that the relevant parties in Iran are truly irrational (as opposed to "irrational in the fevered imaginstions of warmongers")?

Ahab: So then why wouldn't Cheney attack Israel? I bet Cheney's Most Wanted list corresponds with Israel's.

Ahab: Too much of a signal there for the terrorists. They'll just park it in some other country and watch the Middle East turn to glass. Best to make it like the Security Council a system: a P5 and then a few rotating chair. Only the rotating chairs have to be kept a secret, not on that billboard at all, and maybe all countries have an equal-opportunity shot of being on it, friend or foe. That way, there's no way of gaming the deterrence system.

It was the Soviet Union that backed down from plunging the world into thermo-nuclear hell during the Cuban missile crisis. They thought Kennedy was the crazy one.

The more crazy a regime appears from the outside, the more absolutely self-interested you tend to have to be to rise to the top within it. Which is why it's a matter of giving deterrence some massive teeth rather than assuming that the other side is irrational. I think my Israeli proposal gave a good example of that.

Ideally, sides would automate these kinds of responses so that there was no risk of the other side counting on human kindness to save them in the end. If the countries on that billboard knew that the instant an atomic blast went off in Israel, they had 10 minutes to bask in their legacy, they would become the greatest protectors Israel ever had.

Personally, I tend to view all of my adversaries as rational, but weak. It allows me to respond to them with pity rather than total destruction.

Ara: I agree that the random factor is a good way to increase the value of deterrence.

As to the terrorists who might decide to eliminate all their enemies at once, this doesn't really help since they could easily decide to hide under the sea in secret bases there. Unless we're willing to boil the world's oceans (something we should be researching), we can't get them everywhere. The key then would be making the surface unlivable when they tried to come up for air.

Also, you get a lot more people trying to kill the terrorists since those self-interested mullahs don't want to be baked.

Really, if these hypothetical terrorists can survive all that, acquire nuclear weapons and set them off, they deserve to inherit the earth. They've proved themselves worthy.

Ara: It's good to see that you're letting go of your fear.

What Russell said.

Current Iran policy is all stick, and no carrot. Threat of force as an adjunct of diplomacy only makes sense when you make serious proposals for peace. Otherwise, it's just various degrees of warmongering. Since our policy is fundamenatlly regime change (and we threaten use of force with that goal in mind), we are in a cold war with Iran that can end only if that occurs.

Remember, the Bush administration has labeled direct talks with Iran as allegedly giving in. They have created a paradigm in which force is the only means of negotiation.
________________

Isn't "some larger agreement" that avoids the need to threaten military action the endgame for everyone involved?

There is no evidence that this is true. I would like to hear you articulate what the Bush administration would advocate as the terms for the "larger agreement," other than a demand that they do 100% of what we want with nothing offered in return.

Litigation and negotiation really are fundamentally different, no matter what anyone may be telling you.

Seconded.

My father has worked in industrial relations almost his entire life, negotiating with unions (mostly steel-workers unions) on behalf of a number of employers. He then worked as a mediator for an industrial court.

His view, as expressed to me, is that the purpose of negotiation is to reach an agreement amicable to both parties. In this case, trust is far more valuable than doubt. He always said that the worst people to negotiate with were people you couldn't trust, because they can never make an offer that you can be certain they will deliver on.

The question has always been whether to drop the threat of military action prior to reaching the "some larger agreement" or as part of that agreement.

The issue is not that military action is on the table so much as it is that Iran can't be certain what will provoke a military response. At the moment, the best way for Iran to guarantee that the US won't attack them is to develop nuclear weapons (see North Korea). Establish for Iran exactly what will trigger a military response from the US, and convince them the US will stick to these conditions, and then negotiations might progress. If the litmus test leads to a clear policy on when military action is justifiable (as opposed to the incredibly vague attitude of the current administration), then it would be a step in the right direction.

This is great that a lot of people are coming around to my view on absolute clarity of response.

The question remains how you automate it. Because, at the point that Cleveland goes up in a mushroom cloud, you don't want to be having the debate on whether or not it counts as a 'major US city' or some such. You want instant action without human intervention.

In terms of political will, it's important to remember that it will be easier to convince politicians to build a system that launches automated retaliation than to convince them to live up to a set of standards they've laid down. Most of them lack the will and the strength to accept the blood of tens or hundreds of millions on their hands. We have to make it easier for them.

At the moment, the best way for Iran to guarantee that the US won't attack them is to develop nuclear weapons

which is one reason Bush won't too long to attack.

It is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy... the FEAR to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling, the Doomsday machine is terrifying and simple to understand... and completely credible and convincing.

Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you keep it a secret!

If we'd had automated retaliation during the cold war, most of us wouldn't be alive now.

There were a number of false alarms during the cold war; thanks to a number of people (the only one I know is Stanislav Petrov), none of these turned into World War III.

I would agree that being coy about nuclear programs isn't necessarily making anyone safer.

won't too long = won't wait too long

(just in case that was too tough to discern from context)

discern? no, 'infer' is a better word.

that does it - no more blogging for today. i'm getting some pie.

Another copyrightable title, Publius. I have the urge, the next time someone asks me how things are going, to hold up a fist and say 'just keeping it credible'

If we'd had automated retaliation during the cold war, most of us wouldn't be alive now.

But those who were left alive would be stronger for it and would have learned some valuable life lessons. Global warming would also likely not be an issue.

Well, gosh, maybe we should start a nuclear war just to improve the race a little.

Another vitally important point to make, shouldn't it be PublIsonian, not PublOsonian. I'm also suspicious of the 'blo' in the middle of it. I'm sure everyone, with a little reflection, will come around to my way of thinking on this.

Right, no global warming, just global irradiation.

But those who were left alive would be stronger for it and would have learned some valuable life lessons.

This is a joke, right? Too many Mad Max movies, maybe? An overdose of Herman Kahn? Maybe my irony detector is on the fritz.

Those of us who were left alive would not be stronger. Nothing would be stronger, except perhaps cockroaches and a handful of exotic sea jellies.

If MAD or anything like it was ever a tenable theory, in the presence of less-than stable nuclear states and the possibility of non-state nuclear actors, it is no longer. All bets are off. The doctrine itself as expressed during the Cold War would say as much.

The valuable life lesson we would have learned would be to never listen to statements like yours.

Thanks -

Those of us who were left alive would not be stronger. Nothing would be stronger, except perhaps cockroaches and a handful of exotic sea jellies.

If humans could not outcompete cockroaches and sea jellies, they would deserve to inherit the earth. Perhaps their descendants would make better decisions than we did.

If MAD or anything like it was ever a tenable theory, in the presence of less-than stable nuclear states and the possibility of non-state nuclear actors, it is no longer.

It simply has not been sufficiently generalized. People know that retaliation would be directed at certain locations, so they don't fear it. If you'd followed the thread, you'd see a poster suggested above that we randomize our deterrence policies. No one would no who would be held accountable for an attack. No one would know where to hide. This hit the problem of not being able to boil the earth's oceans, but I'm sure we could solve that.

The valuable life lesson we would have learned would be to never listen to statements like yours.

Clearly, you've already submitted to your sea jelly masters. Don't worry, they'll treat you kindly.

Why don't you say openly that you are plotting to rise R'lyeh next Winter Solstice in order to deliver the world to Great Cthulhu and his star-spawn?
And I want a jelly pie for my little shoggoths (or a predigested pony)!

The Soviet Union was irrational and that's why we needed to roll back communism instead of just containing it. Remember?

What I remember is that the Soviets were quite rational. They loved their children and their families and their country as much as Americans did at the time.

I remember the Soviet War Memorial and how I was more awestruck and reverent than I had ever been in any similar American memorial. I remember trading cigarettes and small talk with a Soviet enlisted man in East Berlin, and thinking how alike we were and just maybe the world was not going to end after all.

What I do not remember - Soviet officials talking about erasing countries from the map or bringing on the end of the world to usher in some hidden imam. MAD worked because the Soviets were quite rational.

What I do not remember - Soviet officials talking about erasing countries from the map or bringing on the end of the world to usher in some hidden imam. MAD worked because the Soviets were quite rational. OCSteve

I would not say that Soviet officials didn't use that kind of language occasionally (especially domestically) but it was (usually) clear that it was just rhethorics and not an announcement of a "new style" foreign policy.
The most common form I remember was the qualified one: "If [negative buzzword for the West] attacks the [positive buzzword for the East], it will end with the total destruction of [negative buzzword again]!"
And the final victory of communism had about the same quality as the return of the hidden Imam (i.e. very unlikely to happen soon).
Otherwise not disagreeing with you here.

I think the Iranian leadership is less rational than the Soviets were but still not actually suicidally insane.
And just in case somebody brings up Hitler: Adolf had a fair chance of winning (and even a loss would not have meant ethnic suicide), Iran on the other hand can't win and faces annihilation in case it tries to actually follow the vile rhetorics of its mouthpieces.

And the final victory of communism had about the same quality as the return of the hidden Imam

heh - too true.

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