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The Iran Debate is Dicier Than Nick Kristof Thinks

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.

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  • Jon Burack

    I am fascinated by the bullying style of a certain large segment of American political intellectuals in our day. Kristoff telegraphs it with his laughable use of the climate change metaphor. His game is as follows. Act as if climate change is understood by all right-thinking people to be a settled business. Apply the concept to another realm so as to draw on the venemous demonization of all dissent on climate change as “denial.” Use that herd-mentality heft to avoid having to make an actual case in the case you are applying it to. It is an elaborate game of hitching your cause to an already existing purification ritual that is only about identity reaffirmation, not truth or understanding. Pure anti-intellectual bullying. Not worth taking seriously.

  • Andrew Allison

    I couldn’t agree more with @1

  • nadine

    Let me also second @1. I had to laugh at Mr. Byer’s statement “Iran is not climate change. There is no science to it.”

    There is precious little science in climate change either! as shown by the need of its chief proponents to lie and cheat to cover up the climate’s failure to behave the way their models predicted 15 years ago.

    But I fancy the whole scare is on its way out. “Dog that did not bark in the night” alert: the lack of MSM articles proclaiming that the recent unseasonable March heat wave in much of the USA proves that climate change was upon us. Five years ago, the New York Times would have run a 5,000 page front page article on the theme.

    As for Mr. Kristof, the incoherence of his argument is best summed up by the fact that in one short op-ed he both assures us that the debate itself is “false” and “credible experts are overwhelmingly on one side” yet then informs us “Whether Israel will attack Iranian nuclear sites is one of this year’s crucial questions, and people in the know seem to think the odds are about 50-50.”

    Then Israel must have at least a 50% shortage of “credible experts” in it, as the debate seems real enough over there. What else am I to conclude, but that the Israelis are too stupid, uninformed or emotional to decide where their own interests lie, and should listen instead to the various professors & policy wonks Mr. Kristof cites to them, who clearly understand their situation better than they do?

    The bullying nature of Mr. Kristof’s argument is matched only by its arrogance.

  • vanderleun

    “…the same kind of debate as the one about climate change — credible experts are overwhelmingly on one side.”

    Ah, the fully colonized mind on full display.

  • Kris

    Kristof: “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.”

    I suppose that I too am a victim of this mistaken impression, as the opening did not in itself leave me with any clue as to what the “sensible” position is.

    As I’ve written before, as Iran further develops its nuclear program and strengthens its defenses, Israel’s window of opportunity for a successful strike (the odds of which are already iffy) is rapidly closing. If Israel holds back yet another year, it might well be reduced to doing nothing and hoping for the best. (Alternate scenario: preemptive nuclear strike. Now isn’t that something to look forward to!)

    One can be pessimistic about the results of an Israeli strike. One can think that Israel should trust the US. One can think that a nuclear Iran is something Israel can live with. But I find it hard to believe that someone cannot recognize the case for speedy Israeli action that I have presented.

    I realize that opinion columnists are paid for being opinionated, but when I argue, I first try to understand my opponent’s position, if only to avoid looking like an uninformed fool.

  • Alex Scipio

    The absurdity of some – many – in this discussion literally knows no bounds. Iran is building a nuke. Period. Ahmadinejad has stated many times, as has their spiritual leader, that Israel must be destroyed. Their president believes that the second coming of the 12th imam will be hastened by chaos. A nuclear attack on Israel will result in the destruction of Israel and chaos, both STATED goals of the rulers of Iran. Yet the Left insists on projecting western values and precepts in complete disregard of the multiculturism they espouse.

    So it seems that the Left is completely ok with the destruction of Israel and the global economy – as long as we don’t attack Iran. Somehow they’ll be fine with excuses for mushroom clouds over Jerusalem, but can’t be bothered from stopping it while they can.

    And talk of troops in Iran is beyond normal Baby Boomer stupid. We have nukes with subsurface burst capability that EASILY can destroy Iran’s nuke program. All the talk about conventional bunker busters is just normal vapid Boomer nonsense. In war ALL that matters is the size of the bang. How that bang is created is totally irrelevant.

    Nuke the Iranian weapons sites – NOW. The failure to do so will cost millions of lives.

  • Anthony

    Steven Pinker offers some timely advice: to recognize the futility of cycles of violence…and to re-frame violence (war, strikes, etc) as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won (the escalator of reason).

  • Cunctator

    The experts speak with such certainty that they really make a mockery of the idea of learned discourse. I am certainly glad that, in 1939, the world was not afflicted with the international relations specialists that we have in so great a quantity today.

    If that had been the case, we would surely have heard (had we been alive), that (1) sanctions would force Hitler to get out of Poland, (2) there was no viable military option to dealing with the Nazi threat (3) Germany’s aggressive foreign policy was entirely intended to obtain the respect of the UK and France (4) that war would lead to far greater problems (5) that an attack would unite the German people behind Hitler and the Nazi regime (6) only a few hawks actually supported a military option.

    The two situations –Iran in 2012 and Germany in 1939 — are not analogous, obviously. But employing the same arguments against war in 1939 shows how wrong those arguments might be in 2012.

  • Albert

    A military strike on Iran’s nuclear progam this year? Before the first Tuesday of November? With gas going to more than $6 a gallon. Hurting Bambi’s re-election prospects. I don’t believe it for a second.

    Isn’t that what Kristof is talking about?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Albert: Israel’s calculus could be different, and that makes things more complicated.

  • Kris

    Cunctator@8: Sadly, there is one argument that was actually made then and is still being made now: The Joooooos are dragging us into war!

    WRM@10: Well, the confusion is understandable. Kristof’s introductory sentence refers to an Israeli military strike, but his arguments seem primarily relevant to the US. I used to read Kristof regularly and consider him to be a relatively good bloke, but, as I said before @5, this is a highly unimpressive column.

  • Fred

    @#7, Pinker might be right in the best of all possible worlds, but that ain’t the world we live in. In this world, violence doesn’t beget violence, weakness begets violence. When you’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death, you’d better be the meanest SOB in the valley and the strongest.

  • Mike

    I had wondered where the neocons went. Now I see they are posting on this web site. I even saw a poster refer to the 12 Imam as proof that Iran will strike Israel with a nuke. He probably learned that from listening to Glen Beck.

    The consensus among most sane people that know anything is that bombing alone will not ensure success in Iran, and after the debacle in Iraq, there is no chance of any land war in Iran.

    Strike on Iran will not happen this year or next, disappointing the many keyboard warriors on this site, including the main blogger.

  • Kris

    Mike@13: Neocons, Glen [sic] Beck, land war, keyboard warriors, blah blah blah. In a fit of optimism, I’ll try to actually engage you in discussion: What will ensure success? What would you consider success?

  • Anthony

    @12: Fred, all the regular shibboleths and catechisms are taken for granted in this Quick Take response – paraphrasing Pinker to add more perspective in open forum.

  • Cunctator

    #13 Mike — I rest my case, as you are a perfect example of the expert who “knows”. I cannot lay claim to any certainties, either as to the success/failure of a strike should one occur or when it might happen.

    One does not have to be a NeoCon to refuse to accept such “convincing” positions as those who oppose a military option in dealing with Iran.

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