Bolton on Bombing

John Bolton writing in the Wall Street Journal:

We therefore face a stark, unattractive reality. There are only two options: Iran gets nuclear weapons, or someone uses pre-emptive military force to break Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle and paralyze its program, at least temporarily..

Given how much of an opponent of hawkish neoconservatism I am, it might come as a surprise that I generally agree with Bolton’s assessment of the choices faced (though not of course which one should be pursued).

Bolton’s right that sanctions won’t work and pursuing them is the equivalent of doing nothing.  In fact I would say it’s worse than doing nothing–it’s pursuing the wrong thing.  Bolton’s correct I think that the Obama administration is generally resigned to the reality of a nuclear Iran (or at least what Colum Lynch calls a virtual nuclear power)–i.e. the Obama administration does not appear likely to bomb Iran.  And the chances of internal regime change  are not realistic.  Anything’s possible of course, but the policy should not be built around a triple bank shot theory of what is going to happen in Tehran.

Here’s where I think Bolton starts to go wobbly:

President Obama’s likely containment/deterrence strategy will feature security assurances to neighboring countries and promises of American retaliation if Iran uses its nuclear weapons. Unfortunately for this seemingly muscular rhetoric, the simple fact of Iran possessing nuclear weapons would alone dramatically and irreparably alter the Middle East balance of power. Iran does not actually have to use its capabilities to enhance either its regional or global leverage.

Facile analogies to Cold War deterrence rest on the dubious, unproven belief that Iran’s nuclear calculus will approximate the Soviet Union’s. Iran’s theocratic regime and the high value placed on life in the hereafter makes this an exceedingly dangerous assumption.

I agree that an Iranian move to nuclear power will dramatically alter the Middle East balance of power.  I would add however that the American toppling of The Taliban regime in Afghanistan and more importantly the destruction of the Hussein Baath regime in Iraq made Iran the regional power that it now is and was bound to do so.

While I’m certainly not sunnily optimistic about the near/medium term prospects for the Middle East, I can’t help but think the balance of power in The Middle East does need to be shaken up–and not in some magical neoconservatism myth of flowering democracies via unnecessary invasions and occupations.  It’s going to be a messy transition but it must happen.  Turkey is going to assert itself and work towards a more independent status.  Groups like Hezbollah are being integrated, however imperfectly, into a political order at least marginally better than the autocracies that otherwise dominate the region.  Capitalization and foreign investment is picking up strongly in places like Kurdistan.  The creaking hulls of Egypt and Syria could very well crack sometime soon.  The demographics of the region suggest major change in the coming decades.

And Iran is going to be part of that mix.  A major part of it.

I agree with Bolton that an Iranian nuclear arsenal could spur other countries in the region (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and/or Turkey) to gain nukes, which is certainly worrisome but not inherently a march to Armageddon.

This notion that the Iranian regime cares about the after life and therefore fundamentally questions the validity of MAD is pretty pathetic.  Their might be other reasons to make such an argument, but millenarian fervor doesn’t seem like one of them.

Meanwhile the deterrence analogy doesn’t have to be to The Soviet Union, it can just as easily go to Maoist China.  A nuclear power that was riled with revolutionary fervor, people willing to die for the cause, and a crazed leader who made comments about how they would destroy the West and not hesitate to sacrifice millions of their own people (and actually starve/sacrifice millions of their own people).

And then finally Bolton in his characteristic full on whacked out mode:

We should recognize that an Israeli use of military force would be neither precipitate nor disproportionate, but only a last resort in anticipatory self-defense. Arab governments already understand that logic and largely share it themselves. Such a strike would advance both Israel’s and America’s security interests, and also those of the Arab states.

A last resort in anticipatory self-defense?  Only if you can absolutely guarantee that if and when the Iranians get nukes they plan to unprovoked, launch a nuclear attack on Israel and/or transfer the weapons to some other group who they know will do the same.  Boltonites need to show rather than merely assert via half-baked theological arguments, why Iran would do such a thing given the obvious retaliatory obliteration it would face in such a scenario.

Absent such an argument (which I have yet to see made), an Israeli strike is really about maintaining Israeli nuclear hegemony in the region (“the balance of power”).

We do know such an attack would lead to loss of life and quite likely violent responses aimed at Israel (and likely US personnel in the region if not outside the region).   Only if one takes Bolton’s ultra-apocalyptic and deterministic view concerning nuclear weapons could one claim that somehow an attack that will undoubtedly provoke counterattacks make two countries (who would receive such counterattacks) more “secure” not less.

Bolton’s conclusion:

Absent Israeli action, no one should base their future plans on anything except coping with a nuclear Iran.

I think this is right.  I come down on the side of coping with a nuclear Iran and hoping Israel doesn’t make what I think would be a horrible mistake.  But either way, I think Bolton has the right description wrong prescription.

Update I:

A point North raises in the comments that’s worth keeping in mind (comment #3 quoted in full):

Okay now lets be real here. Assume (big assumption) that we agreed that the Iranians are loons and can’t be allowed to have nuclear weapons. What would it take to stop them? Seriously. We’re talking about an invasion. We’re talking Iraq redux. We’re not talking Osirac here, no one can just waltz in with a jet and blow their program ass over teakettle. Not the Israelis, not us. We don’t have the munitions or the intel to do so.  That’s where I always depart from the neocons or Likud Israeli right. They think we can stop the Iranians on the cheap. Yeah, and maybe the missiles and bombs will be greeted as liberators as well.

Fortunately there appear to be some sane heads over at the IDF. Because if they thought it could be done on the cheap they’d have done it a year ago. Since they haven’t yet I doubt they will.

Update II: Video just in of a Bolton Press conference after the fold (hehe):

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15 thoughts on “Bolton on Bombing

  1. Iran’s leader has already stated multiple times what he would like to do to Israel. Why should they wait until he actually has a bomb to see if he makes good on his threats? Sometimes folks have to learn the hard way that mouthing off can have serious consequences.

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    • @Scott, for one, he’s not their leader. I think he’s more puppet and court jester than actual king.

      It’s tough to know for sure whose really in charge, but my sense is that the certain factions of the Revolutionary Guard are. Sanctioning them sees like a bad action given that state of affairs (imo). But they’ve built themselves for years on trying to gain power I’m not sure why they would waste that power once they get it.

      My sense of Iran is they want a bomb so they can prevent any future US and/or Israeli regime change/attack and they want major power status in the region. I don’t think they want to use said bombs.

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      • @Chris Dierkes, “don’t think they want to use said bombs.” Yes and yes. It is one of the key calculations with nukes that using them has an incredibly high cost since you almost certainly get massive retaliation. You can only really win if you never use them and just get the added protection and power. The Bolton theory just applies megatons of Handwavium to the fear and cost of suffering retaliation.

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      • @Chris Dierkes,

        Really Chris, when did you become the expert on the Iranian regime? Let me sum it up, you don’t who is in charge but you trust “them” not to use a weapon if they get it. I’m glad you are so trusting. These of course were the same people that used human wave attacks on Iraqi position and to clear mine fields during the Iran/Iraq war.

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        • @Scott, if you’re looking for a scholar on the Iranian regime, I suggest Karim Sadjapour. His view (the one I find most plausible) is that what occurred after the flawed election was that in essence there was a military coup and both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are really puppets to more behind the throne powers (in the Rev. Guard). If you accept that theory, then you study the Guards actions overtime (rhetoric notwithstanding) and they generally show a trajectory towards consolidation of power.

          As to the Iran-Iraq war the Iranian regime was massively under equipped relative to the Iraqi army. Their only advantage was asymmetrical warfare hence the kind of actions they used (suicide bombing, martyrdom, etc.).

          I would take actions like that to suggest they know asymmetrical warfare and therefore Israel bombing them would unleash said activities (covert ops, attacks through proxy, terrorism, etc.) on Israel and US positions in the Middle East. A very bad idea I think.

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          • @Chris Dierkes,

            So, the bottom line really is that you don’t know who is running the place but you will to trust “them” not to use a nuke if they developed them given all of Ahmadinejad’s foaming at the mouth?

            My world view is that the consequences are too grave to mix nukes, religious fanatics and leaders that foam at the mouth. Maybe Iran getting a nuke is inevitable but perhaps they should be made to wait until they remove some of those elements form the mix or just show a little transparency so the rest of the world can tell who is actually in charge.

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            • @Scott, how exactly are they going to be “made to wait?” Even if bombing them pushes the date back say 2-3 years do you think there’s any chance that in the interim they would do anything but consolidate their hold on power after an attack? However much they are currently hated by the populace, they would have to rally around their gov’t in case of attack.

              In which case you are back to North’s comment–invading? Which is insane and would violate Bolton’s point about precipitate and disproportionate. Even though I disagree with him on whether an Israeli strike would violate such principles, he at least still adheres to them.

              Abandoning that and arguing for massive pre-emptive action is just basically we hate these guys and want to blow them up.

              Arguing for strikes doesn’t seem to achieve its end AND undoubtedly brings all kinds of other horrible consequences. Worst of both worlds if you ask me.

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  2. Okay now lets be real here. Assume (big assumption) that we agreed that the Iranians are loons and can’t be allowed to have nuclear weapons. What would it take to stop them? Seriously. We’re talking about an invasion. We’re talking Iraq redux. We’re not talking Osirac here, no one can just waltz in with a jet and blow their program ass over teakettle. Not the Israelis, not us. We don’t have the munitions or the intel to do so.
    That’s where I always depart from the neocons or Likud Israeli right. They think we can stop the Iranians on the cheap. Yeah, and maybe the missiles and boms will be greeted as liberators as well.

    Fortunately there appear to be some sane heads over at the IDF. Because if they thought it could be done on the cheap they’d have done it a year ago. Since they haven’t yet I doubt they will.

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