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Israel’s Iran Policy Doomed to Fail Whatever the Choice

I was just reading Paul Pillar’s incisive essay in the Washington Monthly which puts the argument against war with Iran about as strongly as anyone can.  Pillar is a 28 year veteran of the CIA specializing in the Near East and South Asia, and currently is director of graduate studies at Georgetown.  The essay is so strong that even summarizing it would be a waste of time.  Just read it.

obama aipac

Pres. Obama has two options regarding Iran and both will fail (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Reading it got me to thinking about Israel’s choices at this juncture relating to Iran.  As the lyrics of Mrs. Robinson go: “Anyway you look at it you lose.”  If Israel attacks Iran it will lose because it will not do so with enough force to deal its nuclear program a knock-out blow.  Iran may be set back a year or two or even three, but not permanently.  Iran will in turn redouble its efforts to get a weapon and do so overtly, rather than covertly.  Iran will also counterattack and cause extensive damage both to Israel, possibly American interests, and even the world economy.  Here’s how Pillar puts it:

When the Brookings Institution ran a war-games simulation a couple of years ago, an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities escalated into a region-wide crisis in which Iranian missiles were raining down on Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, and Tehran launched a worldwide terrorist campaign against U.S. interests.

If that happens, after the slight euphoria of Israel’s Shock and Awe against Iran wears off, and people start linking up for gas whose price has doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, then the bellyaching will begin.  Israel won’t look so good at that point, when the world is looking for someone to blame.

Let’s say in the best possible scenario for Israeli war hawks that the U.S. joins in the fight.  It brings far more extensive firepower to bear against Iran and does extensive damage to the nuclear program.  Even then, the U.S. is unlikely to entirely wipe out this program and it certainly will not have wiped out Iran’s will to have such a program.  That means that no matter how much damage ensues, Iran’s leaders and scientific community will be emboldened to resume the program as soon as practicable.  Further, if the U.S. doubles down on Iran and joins in the fray, then Israel will no longer be the party the world blames if anything goes wrong afterward.  Then they’ll put a nice big bull’s-eye on our backs and blame it all on Uncle Sam.

Pillar also speculates about how such an attack would reflect on American interests in the Arab world:

Regional political consequences would include deepened anger at the United States for what would be seen as unprovoked killing of Muslims—with everything such anger entails in terms of stimulating more extremist violence against Americans. The emotional gap between Persians and Arabs would lessen, as would the isolation of Iran from other states in the region. Contrary to a common misconception, the Persian Gulf Arabs do not want a U.S. war with Iran, notwithstanding their own concerns about their neighbor to the north.  Saudi and other Gulf Arab officials have repeatedly indicated that while they look to U.S. leadership in containing Iranian influence, they do not favor an armed attack. The former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al Faisal, recently stated, “It is very clear that a military strike against Iran will be catastrophic in its consequences, not just on us but the world in general.”

So short of embracing regime change and boots on the ground, I don’t see any way that either Israel or the U.S. can win with a war strategy.  But that may not be the worst of it.

Let’s say Israel doesn’t attack (and to me it’s becoming increasingly clear that it will).  Israel (and the U.S.) will still come out losers.  They will have bet the house on a bellicose strategy of threatening war and invoking savage sanctions designed to destroy Iran’s economy–and all for the purpose of stopping an Iranian bomb.  But none of this will stop Iran from getting a bomb if it wants one.  Just as North Korea is a savagely mismanaged country facing mass famine, Iran will be a country brought to its knees through a starvation regime caused by western nations intent of humbling Iran.  The world will look at Iran’s starving children and again blame it on the leaders who devised the strategy in the first place: Obama and Netanyahu.

At that point you will have two world leaders who did and said everything in their power to get Iran to bend to their will, and failed.  They in turn will look weak and ineffectual.  In truth, those of us following Obama’s approach to Israel over the past three years have known he was ineffectual.  His failure in this matter (Iran) will only confirm that judgment.  It will begin Obama’s lame duck status just as his second term begins, not traditionally the point at which presidents are accustomed to seeing themselves become politically irrelevant.

There may be a way for Obama to save face and redeem a reasonable amount of the political capital he frittered away on his policy belligerence and confrontation.  He could embrace the very approach he just denied in today’s Aipac speech: containment.  Despite the fact that he renounced containment, it is, in fact, the only reasonable approach.  As such it will win out in the end.  The only question is how much of Obama’s power and influence will ebb before he reverts to the policy he could’ve followed all along.

It won’t matter as much for Netanyahu, as Israeli leaders have a habit of making disastrous decisions and not being held to account for them.  Chances are that Israelis will not make Bibi pay a price for his failures regarding Iran.  They’ll allow him to continue muddling through, going from failure to failure until he gives way to the next leader who will stumble through yet another series of policy gaffes and misjudgments probably involving another war or two in Gaza, Lebanon or God knows where else.

Yeah, I know…what a bummer.  Sorry to bring you down like this.  But to think that all of this didn’t have to happen.  If someone with leadership could’ve just looked Bibi in the eyes and told him to go to hell without worrying about Aipac or the Jewish vote and pro-Israel donors.  Alas, we don’t have a leader like that now and may never have.  Which is why we and our leader, Pres. Obama, will have to suffer whether we go to war against Iran or not.

On a related matter, Obama’s speech was typical fence-straddling.  He threw a bone to Israel with all the “got your back” nonsense and he also admonished Israeli and U.S. war hawks who’ve been nattering away about the glories in store if we go after the mullahs hammer and tong.  But there was one statement which offered Bibi a green light to attack Iran:

Israeli leaders…recognize their obligation to defend their country.

Iran’s leaders should…not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.

I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power

He couched this statement just vaguely enough, that if Israel does attack he can point to the fact that he was clearly stating a preference for diplomacy and using war as a last resort, and that Israel misinterpreted his remarks.  Israel, suitably, will read the passage precisely the way it wishes and read this as a presumptive seal of approval for its war policy.  The result will be an Israeli war against Iran that will do little more than “mow the lawn,” in that obscene phrasing that Israeli generals and politicians like to use.  The attack will set back Iran marginally, but cause immense hardship and suffering for Iranians, Israelis and the rest of the world as well.  To quote another great American songwriter: “That’s the way that the world goes round.”

{ 17 comments… add one }
  • pabelmont March 5, 2012, 5:13 AM

    Pillar writes that some (Republicans?) believe that: “Iran is ruled by the “equivalent of al-Qaeda,” that its “theology teaches” that its objective is to “create a calamity,” that it believes “the afterlife is better than this life,” and that its “principal virtue” is martyrdom”.

    Well, isn’t this — in fact — close to the teaching of (some) fundamentalists in American evangelical churches who support Israel in the hope of bringing about the war of Armageddon and a calamity, a catastrophe, whereby the end of the world occurs and all non “saved” Christians go to Hell (Jews better convert, now, ya hear?). And hasn’t USA’s (and fundamentalists’ ) support for Israel tended exactly toward war (to say nothing of cruelty and oppression)?

    So this quasi fear of Iran is really a sort of psychological projection of the warlike attitudes of those who hold it — and “takes one to know one” takes on new meaning.

  • weindeb March 5, 2012, 7:15 AM

    I strongly recommend a visit to Mondoweiss and a brief video of a young, courageous woman standing up against AIPAC and assorted apostles: http://mondoweiss.net/2012/03/young-activist-disrupts-aipac-panel-about-israel-on-campus.html/comment-page-1#comment-430154. Richard, you may be quite morally, even strategically, correct about President Obama’s vacillations: “If someone with leadership could’ve just looked Bibi in the eyes and told him to go to hell without worrying about Aipac or the Jewish vote and pro-Israel donors.” But then you might also want to consider that he is one shrewd cooky who would rather not commit political suicide. Hopefully this attitude of his means clever moves on the political chessboard in the name of justice and not on the other hand that he is willing to commit war, even as he has unfortunately committed the 5th Fleet to the Persian Gulf. But then again, referring to the young warrior in the video, I feel she has shown a far greater active commitment in the cause of human rights and justice vis a vis Israel than occurs, say, in your blog, which tirelessly and, yes, significantly lists countless Israeli, AIPAC and associated outrages, but somehow, it seems to me, never seriously discusses what should be done about them. Easily declaring that America should not be a part of the outrages and that the international community must act remains nothing more than glib and safe expressions, surely no more courageous than Obama’s declarations. Perhaps as merely another visitor to your important blog I’m wrong in suggesting you function differently from the way you presently do, but because your blog does really signify something shouldn’t it in addition serve as a forum not just inventorying those aforementioned outrages, but seriously, honestly, courageously discussing what to do about them? Instead by and large we seem to depend on that pitiful lament: “Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh, my!”

  • Piotr Berman March 5, 2012, 8:43 AM

    … listing Israeli, AIPAC and associated outrages … without proposing what to do about them.

    I think that to do something we need to have a consensus that there is a problem. War mongers believe that everything can be solved by force and threat and that we should “eliminate” from the world regime and political movements that are “evil”, and that national and international law should be used only when it helps us, and otherwise ignored.

    Very recently we have seen war-monger approach to allocation of TV frequencies. Send the troops. The idea that military forced should not be used unless necessary is totally alien to “certain regimes”. The paradigm is to instill fear and live in fear. One has to convince Americans that far from being admirable and worthy of emulation, we have to get rid of that paradigm.

    About USA attacking Iran, powerful action lead to powerful reactions. Russia, China and India do not cherish USA rampaging across Eurasia, and USA can be methodically booted out from the region. Our wobbly positions in Central Asia and Afghanistan will be first to go. Our domination of banking settlement system would probably go away too.

    • PersianAdvocate March 5, 2012, 10:21 AM

      They have overwhelming influence via cash contributions (rather than number of votes), media influence, bought politicians, and pressure group apparatus built to ensure their sway is not going to be untethered by any means available within the legal system or regular system of society.

      That means the revolution has to be in the mind. Ignorance is the frontier. Thus, listing these outrages is but the first step to providing the body with the neuronal impulse we call the motivation to act.

      No need to micro manage. Trust in people to realize right/wrong once they are enlightened with truth. Those that do not get it simply need to be shown the truth in a different way to overcome false apprehensions to what just IS.

  • yankel March 5, 2012, 10:04 AM

    One has to remember that what motivates Israeli policy-makers, strategists and tacticians alike, is “gaining” yet more time on the Palestinian front, where “Time is Real-Estate”.

    All else are either diversion tactics or manoeuvres to impact American politics.

    • weindeb March 5, 2012, 10:53 AM

      Wow! “Time is Real-Estate”. Now that says a lot, and it’s damned good history.

  • PersianAdvocate March 5, 2012, 10:12 AM

    This is a coup d’etats by the Koch Bros/Netanyahu against President Obama. The Iran tensions ratchet up gas prices. It is a direct attack on the pocket of Americans and thus influences their perception of the economy greatly.

    Netanyahu’s first prong of regime change in America is finished with the soft launch, and now here’s the grand opening.

    I stay silent as to who has the upper hand in this equation. But please, Mr. Netanyahu, speak your mind. Go on TV Mon-Fri and tell us how Israel NEEDS a war and wants to drag us into it. This is a great idea. You’ve become a bright man today. Mazel mazel.

    • lysias March 5, 2012, 2:01 PM

      So why does Obama take this attack lying down? He should fight back, address the nation over television, and explain just what is going on.

      • David March 5, 2012, 7:19 PM

        Great idea. I will write Obama and suggest just that. It would not break him as a politician as everyone seems to think — it would make him because everyone I talk to has had it with the two parties and the congress of poison. But he won’t risk it.

        I’m not making fun — wouldn’t it be great to hear some truly wise words about the pressures on the President and from whence they come and then about true American interests etc?

        I’m just not going to hold my breath.

      • PersianAdvocate March 5, 2012, 8:58 PM

        George Foreman wondered the same thing…

  • Clif Brown March 5, 2012, 11:06 AM

    How far we have come since “A day that will live in infamy”. When I was a kid (before Vietnam) it was a point of pride that the US had never lost a war. It was also a point of pride that we had not started one (nobody pays attention to the Spanish-American war).

    The US was able to keep itself out of WW2 until after it was attacked by Japan and then Hitler declared war on us.

    Now, not only do we start wars on the other side of the world for trumped up reasons, we put ourselves in the service of a tiny nation that forced itself in demands its neighbors do as it tells them to do.

    Could there be a policy any closer to national suicide than this? We have become the proxy of what was our proxy!

    Israel is a pariah for what it is doing and has done to the Palestinians. The U.S., once the hope of the world carrying the banner “Liberty and Justice for All” now binds itself to the pariah who is actively, deliberately and forcefully denying liberty and justice to an indigenous people.

    As was said in the 60’s, it is even more true today: the whole world is watching.

  • yankel March 5, 2012, 12:34 PM

    “They got the oil, we got the matches” is an old Israeli expression dating back at least to the 1970s (and probably earlier).

    While BB seems to be trying to cash on it as best he can these days, I doubt he’s got the means, let alone the nerve, to actually ignite the powder keg his sitting on. The trouble is, talking alone can sometimes prove incendiary enough and these days might prove to be one of those times.

  • Daisee March 5, 2012, 12:51 PM

    1. From Chapter II, paragraph 4:

    All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations. (Do they even care if this matters anymore? It does to the brown eyed, blue eyed, green eyed children in Iran) Weasel words.
    2. Obama is not done with diplomacy. “I firmly believe that an opportunity remains for diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed.” In Iran’s Friday elections the Majalis came out well, signalling there is a ‘permanent solution’ to the standoff. The election has demonstrated they have rational actors in Iran, Obama would be a fool not to make a deal.

    Personally I can’t to see Bibi and Obama thrown out of their jobs.

  • lysias March 5, 2012, 2:00 PM

    I just finished read Fidel Castro’s autobiography (as told to Ignacio Ramonet in a bunch of interviews edited together into a book). Castro and Cuba had made fools of this country and its governments for well over 50 years now.

    • David March 5, 2012, 7:23 PM

      Interesting. I’ll have to read it. But, Cuba paid a high price over 60 years.

  • dickerson3870 March 5, 2012, 10:44 PM

    RE: “I was just reading Paul Pillar’s incisive essay in the Washington Monthly which puts the argument against war with Iran about as strongly as anyone can.” ~ R.S.

    ALSO SEE: Would God want Israel to attack Iran? ~ By (Rabbi) Michael Knopf, Haaretz, 3/04/12

    (excerpt). . . With the American war in Iraq still fresh in our collective memory, Judaism’s standards for just wars become especially poignant. A decade ago, Bush Administration officials began calling for military action against Saddam Hussein. They contended that Hussein had secret weapons stockpiles, was producing weapons of mass destruction, and was supplying weapons to terrorists. Given Hussein’s belligerent attitude toward the West, his defiance of the international community, and his track record of brutality at home and abroad, these pieces of evidence were, at the time, offered to prove a clear and imminent threat to the U.S.
    So the U.S. invaded, igniting a nearly ten-year war that reportedly resulted in more than 150,000 deaths. Only amid the rubble and corpses did we discover that most, if not all, of the arguments in favor of the war were false. We let fears, not facts, govern our decisions. Our goal was to save innocent lives; we took many, instead.
    The Talmud teaches that, in 586 BCE, Judea was destroyed not because its defenses were too weak, but because the Jews were indifferent about shedding blood (Shabbat 33a). Let us pray that history does not repeat itself.

    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/would-god-want-israel-to-attack-iran-1.416343

    P.S. RE: “We let fears, not facts, govern our decisions.” ~ Rabbi Knopf
    MY CONTRIBUTION: “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but facts will never sway us.” ~ Neocon Creed

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