Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Just What Would We Be Preventing?

Quick. Which one of these two sentences makes you more nervous?

1) The West might just have to learn to live with Iran's uranium enrichment program.
2) The West might just have to learn to live with Iran's nuclear program.

I'll bet you picked no. 2. But whichever one you picked, I'll bet this one gets you even more scared: The West might just have to learn to live with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

To explain, I first started thinking about the significance of how we describe the standoff over Iran's efforts to aquire uranium enrichment capacity yesterday while writing up the Le Figaro interview with Shimon Peres. At first I used "uranium enrichment program", but went back and changed it to "nuclear program". Primarily because that was the expression used in the original French, but also because it struck me as odd to discuss sanctions with regard to an uranium enrichment program, since there's absolutely nothing illegal or prohibited about Iran developing the capacity to enrich uranium.

I started thinking about it even more last night while reading Colin Gray's monograph on Preventive War for the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. It's a fascinating read for anyone who's found themselves wondering about just what kind of role unilateral preventive military force should play in our counter-proliferation doctrine.

The article is so chock full of quotes that I was tempted to just lift the entire thing and clip it into a post last night. But to stick to the most salient arguments, Gray begins by specifying the difference between pre-emptive war (a first strike in anticipation of an already ordered or launched attack) and preventive war (a first strike in anticipation of a potential future threat, whether of attack or a less advantageous balance of power).

Despite a confusion in terms in the policy debates of the last four years, the Bush Doctrine actually emphasizes preventive intervention in the face of proliferation threats. But the lengthened time component inherent in a preventive strike leads to a greater margin for error:

...preventive action has to entail striking on the basis of guesswork about more or less distant threats. And threats, of course, are a matter of guesses about capabilities times political intentions. Capabilities can be predicted with some, one must commit only to some, confidence, but political intentions can alter overnight. (p. 17)

Gray then adds a third category, with an even longer temporal component, which he calls "precautionary war":

...a precautionary war is a preventive war waged not on the basis of any noteworthy evidence of ill intent or dangerous capabilities, but rather because those unwelcome phenomena might appear in the future. A precautionary war is a war waged "just in case," on the basis of the principle, "better safe than sorry." (p. 15)

I think it's clear that a military strike against Iran would not qualify as a pre-emptive war. The question remains whether it would be a preventive or a precautionary one. The answer, of course, depends on what motives one ascribes not only to the Iranian nuclear program (ie. civilian or military use), but also to a nuclear-armed Iranian regime (ie. aggressive or deterrent intent).

Certainly, an Iranian state in possession of a nuclear deterrent becomes much more difficult to manage. But does it necessarily become a threat? Or would we be attacking it "just in case"? Again, Gray:

Most powerful strategic ideas are attended by potential pathologies. In the case of preventive war, a leading malady inseparable from it is a quest for absolute security. After all, a policy of preventive war amounts to an unwillingness to live with certain kinds of risk. (pp. 12-13)

In other words, Iran's "nuclear ambitions", whatever they are as of today and however they may evolve with time, present the risk of a threat. Are we willing to live with that risk? I think it's a valid position to declare that, No, we can't afford even the risk of such a threat. But that means we run other risks:

...the military option cannot offer a guarantee of complete success, and incomplete success might amount to failure. Preventive war, though practicable in some cases, cannot prudently be viewed as a “silver bullet,” as a panacea. It is not certain to be swift, decisively victorious, and definitive in positive consequences. (p. 40)

The fundamental calculation for any American or American-sponsored strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, then, has to weigh the likelihood for success against the likely consequences of a strike, whether successful or not. Frankly, I'm pessimistic about that calculation. Iran's got a pretty solid range of military and/or terrorist parries, and that's not even counting third parties like Russia deciding that now's as good a time as any to challenge American hegemony:

History shows that the anticipation of major shifts in the military dimension of the balance of power can be periods of acute peril. Other states may well reason “now or never.” Certainly they will consider the argument that since war in the future is judged highly probable, the sooner it is launched, the better. (p. 38)

America is clearly at a relative lowpoint in terms of both our international influence and our ability to militarily project our power. Yet our ambitions, at least as expressed by the Bush Doctrine, remain grandiose:

Obviously, the concept, perhaps the principle, of preventive military action, is open to abuse. An aggressive imperial or hegemonic power could wage a series of wars, all for the purpose of preventing the emergence of future challenges to its burgeoning imperium. (p. 28)

Russia and China both realize that, and it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that they, too, might be tempted to check American overreach now, while we're hamstrung, rather than later, once we've recovered.

Which means that the potential risks of even a successful attack (Iranian reprisal, both direct and by proxy, with possible support from Russia and China) seem to far outweigh the risks of an Iranian regime capable only (for the time being) of enriching uranium.

Here's Gray's checklist for assessing a potential preventive strike:

  • Force must be the last resort, not temporally, but with respect to the evidence-based conviction that the nonmilitary instruments of policy cannot succeed.
  • There must be persuasive arguments to the effect that the conditions to be forcibly prevented would be too dangerous to tolerate.
  • The benefits of preventive military action must be expected to be far greater than the costs.
  • There must be a high probability of military success. The U.S. preventor would be risking its invaluable reputation, after all.
  • There should be some multinational support for the preventive action; indeed the more, the better. However, the absence of blessing by the world community cannot be permitted to function politically as a veto. (p. 52)

I don't think a strike against Iran meets any of these pre-requisites, and it certainly doesn't make sense in the timeframe now available to the Bush administration. Unfortunately, my gut feeling is that the Cheney Gang is motivated by another agenda altogether:

...to endorse a doctrine of preemption-meaning-prevention is to challenge the slow and erratic, but nevertheless genuine, growth of a global norm that regards the resort to war as an extraordinary and even desperate measure. A policy that favors military prevention proclaims that it is acceptable to decide coolly and in good time that war is preferable to the conditions predicted for “peace.” (p. 44)

Should they succeed in forcing an American strike on Iran, I'm convinced that it will result in America being placed on a permanent wartime footing for many years to come. And that strikes me as a greater threat to this country than a nuclear-armed Iran.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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