Looking at Iran with Iraq-colored lenses


 Stephen Walt draws 10 lessons from the Iraq war.

They launch this sequence of thoughts (for me, anyway):


1) They’re worth reading as a summary of what went wrong. My issues with the book he and John Mearsheimer wrote, "The Israel Lobby," are manifold and have been chronicled here, but as I noted in my review of the book, some of its chapters were superb consolidations of facts (the chapter outlining the history of the pro-Israel lobby) and arguments (the chapters on the moral and strategic cases for the U.S.-Israel alliance). This is a good consolidation of outcomes of the Iraq War.

2) They’re worth reading as a summary of what might go wrong. Hardly anyone is advocating war with Iran, yet. But no serious player advocated war for war’s sake with Iraq, either. Instead, the decision to strike was cast as an inevitable outcome of Saddam Hussein’s alleged refusal to cooperate with inspectors. That is emerging as the case with Iran. It is true that the evidence of a suspected Iranian nuclear weapons program is much more substantive than that of the Iraqi WMD programs, but if anything, the haste to draw conclusions 10 years ago underscores the need to fully consider the evidence today.

3) They’re worth reading because some folks don’t want you to. There is an effort afoot in some quarters to marginalize arguments against military action as being the views of Iran apologists, or containment enthusiasts. There are apologists, yes, and there are those who favor containment. But there are plenty of opponents of military action in the near term who believe that alternatives — sanctions, diplomacy, isolation — are the best means of keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. No option should be obscured.

There are also those who disdain any attempt to liken Iraq to Iran. The threats each has been perceived to have posed are vastly different, it is true — but, again, the experience of misreading Iraq should be apt to any consideration of engagement overseas, as long as the differences are acknowledged.

4) Walt’s point two is worth reading because it epitomizes the flawed understanding of power and human nature that continues to dog Walt and Mearsheimer and many of those who admire them:

The remarkable thing about the Iraq war is how few people it took to engineer. It wasn’t promoted by the U.S. military, the CIA, the State Department, or oil companies. Instead, the main architects were a group of well-connected neoconservatives, who began openly lobbying for war during the Clinton administration. They failed to persuade President Bill Clinton, and they were unable to convince Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to opt for war until after 9/11. But at that point the stars aligned, and Bush and Cheney became convinced that invading Iraq would launch a far-reaching regional transformation, usher in a wave of pro-American democracies, and solve the terrorism problem.

This curious view deprives the two most powerful men of the last decade of agency. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and their multiple biographers have chronicled at length the various life events, streams of thought, and political and philosophical outlooks that led them to choose war; yet Walt sticks to a bizarre scenario in which they come across like an elderly couple subject to the suasions of cleancut cultists who happened to knock at the White House door one bright afternoon, saying "Just read the pamphlets, and we’ll be back in a couple of days, and we can talk more!"

5) Point two does not explicitly mention Israel or the pro-Israel lobby. Walt, at least, appears to be backing away from the central calumny of the thesis he and Mearsheimer advanced: That the lobby was an essential component of the decision to invade Iraq. 

This is worth reading not just for the "finally!" it might elicit among those of us who covered that era, but because it invites speculation as to why: What has convinced Walt to back away from that assertion?

Let me speculate (he hasn’t answered my questions to date, so I might as well): Walt is now witnessing how the pro-Israel lobby acts when it is invested in ratcheting up pressures on an enemy of Israel. Its principal instrument, AIPAC, openly advocates for a congressional resolution that would advance the longstanding American redline (weaponization) to the Israeli red line (capability of weaponization.) The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, makes the same case (although he walks back after some counterpressure from president Obama). Both AIPAC and Netanyahu make the case that a nuclear Iran is a threat not just to Israel, but to the United States and to both countries’ allies.

Which is not to say that Netanyahu and AIPAC are wrong, or that the red line should not be capability, nor that these arguments lack resonance. But it is to say this is happening in the open, unabashedly, and that there is no need to "uncover" a pro-Israel subterfuge in the argument for confronting Iran because it is self-evident.

It is that self-evident openness of petitioning government in the American sphere that should have guided the thinking of Walt and Mearsheimer, and not the toxic notions of cabals of 25 or so people who "engineer" wars.

6) The points, collectively, are worth reading precisely because Israel and the pro-Israel lobby are openly advocating a ratcheting up of pressure on and confrontation with Iran.

Aaron David Miller makes a strong case today at Foreign Policy (which is also Walt’s host) against claims that Israel and the pro-Israel lobby are driving the United States into war with Iran:

This year’s presidential election has been dominated by the economy, but when foreign policy has intruded into the campaign, it has been on one issue: Iran. It’s erroneous, however, to conclude that because it’s an election year, Obama is being pushed to war — either by Republicans or by the pro-Israel community. Sure, he has toughened his rhetoric, but whether that’s smart politics or smart policy (to keep the Iranians under pressure) isn’t clear. It’s probably both.

The fact is, this president doesn’t do anything quickly or recklessly — or under pressure. He’s the deliberator-in-chief. And as he ponders, one thing is clear: The last thing he needs leading up to an election he has a very good chance of winning is a war in the Middle East. And an Israeli strike or an American one that would bring on $200 a barrel oil, thus raising prices at the pump and deflating the fragile U.S. economic recovery, is not something Obama wants.

Should Obama strike Iran, or endorse an Israeli strike on Iran, it will be because Obama (like every president before him) has weighed the American interests in such an involvement. Seconding to a foreign nation of the most serious decision a president can make — to go to war — is political suicide, not salvation.

But: That does not obivate the outfront role Israel and its friends may well play in arriving at such a decision. 

Hence the importance of reviewing Walt’s consolidation of Iraq war outcomes: Should a war with Iran go awry, its advocates will be held accountable in the same way that advocates of the Iraq War were held accountable, in the free market of ideas.

Some were driven from office, or from jobs of influence. Some reputations that once spanned the partisan divide have shrunk back into polarized corners of the national debate.

In the case of Iran, those advocates would likely include significant portions of the pro-Israel community. 

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