NY Times columnist Nick Kristof makes quite a claim in the opening of his latest piece, entitled “The False Debate About Attacking Iran“:
I wonder if we in the news media aren’t inadvertently leaving the impression that there is a genuine debate among experts about whether an Israeli military strike on Iran makes sense this year.There really isn’t such a debate. Or rather, it’s the same kind of debate as the one about climate change — credible experts are overwhelmingly on one side.
Politico‘s Dylan Byers disagrees:
Early last month, former Democratic senator Charles Robb (chair the 2004 Iraq Intelligence Commission) and retired general and air commander Charles Wald (a leader of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Foreign Policy Project) wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal arguing that military action must be considered as a means for preventing Iran’s nuclear ambitions…Earlier this month, Michael Singh, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, argued in Foreign Policy that allowing Iran nuclear capability “would be a dangerous miscalculation.” He reiterated that strategy in an essay for The Washington Quarterly last week titled, “To Keep The Peace With Iran, Threaten To Strike.”…In perhaps the surest sign that a debate is taking place, on March 7, the Foreign Policy Initiative hosted a debate moderated by Newsweek’s Eli Lake titled “Time to Attack Iran? U.S. Policy and Iran’s Nuclear Program”:The debate—which included panelists CNA Research Analyst Elbridge A. Colby, FPI Executive Director Jamie M. Fly, and Georgetown University Professor Matthew Kroenig—focused on potential U.S. policy options towards Iran, ranging from containment and deterrence, to targeted military strikes on the country’s nuclear facilities, to broader military strikes aimed also at destabilizing the Iranian regime.There are, it seems, plenty of “credible experts” debating “about whether an Israeli military strike on Iran makes sense this year.”
Byers concludes his critique, which is worth reading in full, by noting “Iran is not climate change. There is no science to it.” Of course, a lot depends on how you define “credible expert.”The debate over Iran policy is a difficult one; at Via Meadia we think that for both the US and Israel the smart policy choice for now is to press on with sanctions and other efforts against the Iranian program in the hope of avoiding either a war with Iran or an Iranian nuclear weapon. And if that policy fails and we are left with the stark choice of an Iranian nuclear weapon or a military strike against Iran?At that point we side with President Obama, who has called an Iranian weapon unacceptable and says that “containing” a nuclear Iran is not an option. And while we have to wait for the secret cable traffic to be published on Wikileaks or leaked to the newspapers like everyone else, it seems to us that the go or no go moment on a military strike is not here yet, at least not for the United States. We hope it never comes.Others come to different points of view — some want a more aggressive, forward leaning posture that could lead to an Israeli or US strike sooner rather than later, and others disagree with the President and argue that the US could coexist quite happily with a nuclear Iran.Nick Kristof often has smart things to say about world affairs, but by consigning the advocates of a policy option he deplores to the far fringes of debate, he risks misleading both himself and his readers. What’s happening is that the discussion over how to frame the question about when to attack Iran is evolving, and depending on how that discussion goes, the military timetable could move up or down.Kristof himself seems to understand at least some of this; in a gentlemanly response to Byers’ Politico piece Kristof reiterates his climate change argument about the preponderance of expert opinion being against a 2012 strike against Iran but it comes with a significant qualification:
There’s plenty of honest debate about whether there should be a red line and where it should be (capability or weaponization). But very little debate about whether a military strike this year makes sense. Among int’l security circles, or retired mil/intel people, it feels just like the climate change “debate.”
As Byers responds, the connection between the debate over the ‘red line’ that would justify or even require an attack on Iran has huge implications for the question of whether an early attack on Iran makes sense. One reason that more voices aren’t advocating a 2012 strike is that so many people believe that the real question is what the red line is. If you think that ‘capability’ rather than ‘weaponization’ is the red line, it follows rather automatically that you are open to an attack in the short term. Arguing about an attack date in a vacuum doesn’t make sense; once you have established the parameters within which a military strategy takes shape, you will get an answer about when and if you should attack.If those who think that it is capability rather than weaponization that should determine the timeline for a military strike win that debate, the timetable discussion assumes a new and more urgent character and a 2012 strike might start to look considerably less unattractive. That uncomfortable and inconvenient truth would escape a casual reader of either Kristof’s initial column or his later response, but it is something to keep in mind when trying to make sense out of the conflicting signals coming from the Middle East.