A few thoughts on Iran.
Occasionally, I'll sit down to write a longish think post on this or that topic. I'll write, pine, edit, mull. And then I'll become so frustrated with it, I'll just jot down the highlights which the annoying process has helped me crystalize in my mind and post those.
It's sort of a microcosm of what most writing is like.
So here goes.
An Iran with nuclear weapons would make the world a lot more complicated and dangerous for the United States. And we should do everything we reasonably can (note: key elastic phrase) to prevent it. Assuming sensible leadership on our side I think that means at least the background threat of force, if for no other reason than that no high-stakes serious diplomacy is effective without the possibility of stronger measures somewhere in the background.
But, ahh, sensible leadership. Would that it only were true.
The problem we face is that the White House and the agencies it controls have no credibility whatsoever in telling the country or the Congress the truth when it comes to just where the Iranians are in their quest for nuclear weapons. (I believe the Iranians are trying to build a nuclear weapon in spite of the statements from the administration, as much as because of them.)
A second and even more difficult problem is that past experience strongly suggests that the White House will approach this brewing confrontation not in order to settle the nuclear issue but rather using the nuclear issue as a pretext for confrontation. That of course is precisely what happened with Iraq.
Now, what does this tell us? What does it suggest as a sensible policy?
I think it tells us that we should avoid what I would term the peril of high-minded abstraction in policy-making.
Here's what I mean. When I look back on my own thinking about Iraq (in 2002) and the thinking of a lot of other sensible people, the biggest mistake was considering the issue in the abstract without taking into account who was really driving the car, i.e., who was president and who would make the key decisions.
Not that I didn't think about it on some level, of course. Most of what I wrote at the time suggested that the Bush White House would screw things up. But I considered that a secondary issue whereas in fact it was the primary issue. The fact that President Bush and his advisors wanted war and shaped their actions to achieve that goal was the issue. Everything else was secondary.
Folks like me, who thought that threatening war (and being willing to follow through on the threat) made sense, assuming a good-faith commander-in-chief at the helm, were just wasting their time and making a major miscalculation.
And that is one thing I fear in the current debate. I think a lot of people of good faith will game out the Iranian nuclear question acting on the hypothetical assumption that we have a president whose goal is to prevent a nuclearized Iran and who is acting in good faith.
That, after all, is what right-thinking, mainstream foreign policy types are supposed to do. They're not supposed entertain the possibility that the president or his advisors are dishonest in their portrayal of the entire situation or pursuing goals different from the ones they profess to be pursuing. And they're certainly not supposed to tailor their policy prescriptions to take into account that possibility. That's political. It's not policy.
But to follow that approach -- sensible under sensible circumstances -- just doesn't take into account what we've all seen in the last five years.