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.
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.
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):