The release this week of former President George W. Bush's memoirs is a welcome reminder of how American foreign policy has changed for the better since the good old days of launching wars for no reason. Unfortunately, Sen. Lindsey Graham of North Carolina doesn't seem to have caught up on his reading. Instead, at a Nov. 6 conclave in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he came out swinging in favor of a new war. The target: Iran. The goal: to "neuter the regime."
War proponents seem to have realized that the massive downsides involved in launching a war are scaring people off. So Graham's rhetorical tack was to acknowledge the risks and then sweep them away with a confusing metaphor. "If you take military action," he said, "you do open up Pandora's box. But if you let them get a weapon, you empty Pandora's box."
What exactly that means is difficult to say. The argument rests, as do all hawkish takes on Iran that I've heard, on the logical chasm between taking military action and Iranian non-acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
Graham's construct implies, without in any way explaining, how launching a war is supposed to keep Iran's hands off the bomb. But let's think about the United States of America. We have a large, powerful military that claims a significant share of our overall national resources. That military also expends a lot of money on the acquisition of weapons systems and the research and development of even newer systems. But current defense spending isn't at some theoretical maximal peak. Congress can and does adjust it up and down in response to events. So imagine if some country -- Iran, say -- felt threatened by America's growing military capacity and decided that the best way to deter us was by blowing up some of our existing military facilities. Would that speed or slow the pace with which the Pentagon acquires new capacity?
The answer seems obvious to me. We'd get new weapons faster, not slower. We responded to Pearl Harbor and September 11 by increasing our financial commitment to the military, and our response to a hypothetical Iranian attack would be the same.
So why should we expect Iran to back down when attacked? Attacking Iran will increase support, at all levels of Iranian society, for a more aggressive military expansion in that country. Whether the net impact of a U.S. policy switch and the damage of bombing would be to speed or slow Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon is hard to say. But it's certainly reckless to just assume that attacking Iran would have the desired impact.
In the case of Iran and nuclear weapons, the situation is even more uncertain because of the international context. After all, Iran would have a nuclear weapon today if the government of Russia or China or Pakistan were willing to sell them one. Instead, virtually every country on Earth has taken at least some active steps to hinder Iran's nuclear activities. Will that hold up if the Iranians can accurately argue that their country is being subject to attacks from the world's only military superpower? Will non-nuclear regional powers such as Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia, sympathize more with the superpower bully or with the regional victim?
Growing awareness of the problems with military options is presumably what's driving Graham's talk of "neutering." Up until now, the primary issue under discussion was bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. This, however, won't stop Iran from getting a bomb and may make it go nuclear sooner. Hence Graham's proposal "not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force, and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard -- in other words, neuter that regime."
This entire proposal, however, is one part wishful thinking and one part hand-waving with a dash of madness thrown in to boot. A regime is not a dog. The idea of neutering one is either meaningless or else a call for yet another invasion and occupation of a medium-sized Muslim country. Even if such a plan in some sense "worked," it would only reinforce the message Iran learned from the invasion of Iraq -- that the United States is an insanely aggressive country, undeterred by standard military accoutrements. Nuclear weapons start to look more appealing.
So far, though, nobody seems quite prepared to push for invasion. Instead, Washington is buzzing with morally hideous speculation over the possible political benefits to the Obama administration of starting a war. The hope, it seems, is that the administration will want to avoid a political fight on this topic and can be nudged into an ever more hawkish posture. One can only hope, however, that the White House learned during the Bush years not only the perils of hawkish delusions but also that there is little political profit for Democrats in signing up for foreign-policy disasters. Barack Obama is president today in no small part because he stood against the Iraq War at a time when most of the Democrats' leading lights went along with it. Now that Obama is running the show, he needs to reconnect with that moment and start pushing back before it's too late.