Iran Nuclear Deal: The Diplomacy-or-War False Alternative

When Obama announced the Iran nuclear deal, he explained the rationale for taking the diplomatic path. There were, he said, three options: negotiate as good a deal as we can get; pull out of the talks; or else take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, igniting another Middle East war. Turns out these boil down to only two options, really, since pulling out of talks, according to Obama, would also end up leading to military action. So, if the options are diplomacy versus going to war, you can see why Obama’s case has swayed some people. But that argument hinges on a tendentious framing of the possibilities.

Obama’s either/or argument is a classic example of a false alternative. When the deal was announced, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal rightly protested that there was at least one more option: inflicting even stronger economic sanctions to pressure Iran. Fair point: Obama’s two alternatives hardly exhaust the possibilities. In my view, the time for considering sanctions, with all of their limitations, passed long ago. But the point stands: Obama’s argument hinges on an alternative that’s unduly narrow.

Now look at how Obama’s argument slants the framing of the two alternatives. Start with the administration’s preferred option, a negotiated deal.

Advocates of the deal portray it as requiring inspections so “intrusive” that if the Iranians inched beyond the terms of the deal, “the world would know it.” Except that the administration has already started walking back the hyped claim that nuclear inspectors will have “anytime, anyplace” access. The record on monitoring such nuclear deals is pitiful: Recall that in 1994 the Clinton administration struck a deal with North Korea over its nuclear program. That deal subjected North Korea to strict nuclear inspections, but the regime has since built and tested nuclear devices and sold some of its technology.

Of course, Iran has cheated at every step so far. The question is not if, but when and in what way(s) Tehran will violate the deal. In theory Iran would face a “snap back” re-imposition of sanctions, if its breach of the deal could ever be detected and if the facts can be agreed upon by a multi-nation committee. Good luck with that.

To imagine that this alternative can reduce the threat of a nuclear Iran is ridiculous. It’s like popping two Advil in the expectation of curing a fast-growing cancerous tumor. You delude yourself that you’re “doing something” about the problem — Advil is a medicine, after all — even while allowing it to worsen.

The chief selling point for Obama’s nuclear deal, however, lies in what the deal is not — it’s not military force. And by that, he means we can avoid another Iraq.

The Iraq war was a debacle. And we all recoil from the idea of another quagmire. Is it right, though, to equate military force with a monumentally irrational, disastrous application of such power, the Iraq war? No.

The military is a powerful instrument, but it is our foreign policy that directs it. Clearly military force can be — and, in the past, has been — guided by better policy, and it was effective in advancing our self-defense (World War II comes to mind). What unfolded in Iraq was nothing like the military action necessary for our self-defense. In Winning the Unwinnable War, I explain that it was fundamentally a policy, not a military failure: in short, it was a nation-building welfare mission, not a self-interested mission to eliminate threats we faced. The wider point is that it’s tendentious to equate the Iraq war (as horrific and disgraceful as it was) with military action in self-defense, and then dismiss that option.

The Iraq war should be taken as discrediting, not military action, but the ideas of our policymakers, who set the battle plans for the military.

 What’s missing from the debate over Iran is the one option we most need: a fundamentally different approach to our foreign policy, one that properly identifies and eliminates threats to our lives and freedom. For my detailed answer about how to respond to Iran, I point you to my book. Two brief points:

First, we have put ourselves into a situation with Iran that a rational foreign policy would never permit us to get into. We find ourselves here, precisely because Washington for years has followed a perversely short-range and unprincipled foreign policy. At the time of Iran’s first act of war against us, three decades ago, we should have retaliated decisively. We didn’t. We should have acted after Iran’s second, third, fourth, umpteenth act of war. We didn’t. For the last decade plus, the evidence of the regime’s nuclear program was ineluctable, but we basically allowed it to proceed. For years by letting Iran attack us with impunity, we’ve encouraged it. By wooing it to the negotiating table — a process that began under Bush — we’ve signaled that we regard it as a legitimate interlocutor.

Second, we have disarmed ourselves even as the threat from Iran has grown. We ought to recognize that military action — from threats, ultimatums, targeted strikes, and up to war — is sometimes necessary to defend ourselves and (when guided by rational principles) effectual. I have argued that the threat from Iran requires applying military coercion in our self-defense. That would look far different from the self-destructive mission in Iraq. In chapter 7 of my book — which you can read here in PDF — I illustrate the sharp contrast between the policies that begat the nightmare of Iraq and what a rational approach entails.

One of the many pernicious consequences of Bush’s foreign policy is that people have come to believe that our military — despite being unrivaled — is ineffectual and, if used, counter-productive. This notion that our self-defense must preclude military action goes a long way to explaining how Obama’s nuclear deal is seen as even remotely plausible.