Iran War Posturing

Kevin Drum has the same basic take on the steady drumbeat of the “Bush is planning for war with Iran” meme that I do, namely that it is a PSYOP to enhance our diplomatic pressure on the mullahs. Mark Danziger thinks Bush hater Sy Hersh an odd avenue for such a campaign but, as a correspondent has noted, Bill Gersh served in much the same capacity during the Clinton administration.

Citing James Fallows‘ theory of “excess demand” for military action, though, Drum worries that, “If the PR campaign is too successful, then Bush will have boxed himself in. Eventually he’ll feel obligated to bomb Iran solely because he’s now under pressure to make good on his threats and doesn’t want to look like he’s backing down.” William Arkin thinks it much worse than that: “What is happening now though is not just an administration prudently preparing for the unfortunate against an aggressive and crazed state, it is also aggressive and crazed, driven by groupthink and a closed circle of bears.” Indeed, he sees eerie similarities to the run-up to the Iraq War.

Fallows, too, cites a similarity with 2003, although he does not make that connection: “About Iran’s intention to build a bomb, there is no serious disagreement among Russia, China, France, and the United States.” Fallows contends, “The inconvenient truth of American foreign policy is that the last five years have left us with a series of choices—and all of them are bad.”

While I agree that all of the choices are bad, it seems odd to blame that fact on the Bush administration. While it’s true that the Iraq War makes a ground war with Iran slightly less attractive than would otherwise be the case, no serious analysis I have read suggests that a ground war would be a very good idea anyway. And, fatigue aside, there is an undeniable advantage to having Iraq as a staging area were ground invasion deemed tactically necessary.

Danziger, while differing with Drum on the blame issue, nonetheless agrees that, “[T]oo much bluster . . . is exactly the wrong appropach to be taking right now. I think that it weakens us internally, stirs our opponents and sends an air of unseriousness. This is a case where we should be speaking very softly, and testing the heft of our biggest sticks.” I agree.

It seems to me, though, that this is precisely the tactic the administration is using. Indeed, the president himself has dismissed the reports as “wild speculation” and has been both rhetorically and actually committed to a diplomatic solution.

“The doctrine of prevention is to work together to prevent the Iranians from having a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Bush said after being asked whether the United States would allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. “I know here in Washington prevention means force; it doesn’t mean force, necessarily. In this case, it means diplomacy.”

Mr. Bush said the United States continued to work with Britain, Germany, France and Russia in finding diplomatic solutions that would ensure that the Iranians did not acquire even the research capacity to develop nuclear weapons. “One of the decisions I made early on was to have a multinational approach to sending messages, clear messages, to the Iranians, that if they want to be a part of the — an accepted nation in the world, that they must give up their nuclear weapons ambitions,” he said. “And we’re making pretty good progress.”

Keeping the military option on the table, including letting word out that active planning is ongoing is smart. Even Germany and France are doing it in this case. After all, as Frederick the Great noted, “Diplomacy without armaments is like music without instruments.”

Unlike Iraq, there is plenty of negative press out there to convince the public that war is not an attractive option. The pressure is on the administration to simultaneously “do something” about Iran’s nuclear programs and yet to avoid getting bogged down in a bloody war. Unfortunately, those two goals may be mutually exclusive.



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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    Normally I give short shrift to such discussions as well… there’s always some breathless report about how the military is ‘making war plans for such-and-such’. Big whoop – as I’m sure you know, James, the military makes & revises war plans for various parts of the world all the damn time – it signifies next to nothing.

    But the recent murmur about debating the use of tactical (or even strategic) nukes to clear out Iran’s problem areas makes me sit up a little straighter. That’s the sort of policy-level debate that only the really high-level decision makers get deep into; normal OPLAN revision doesn’t make new policy, it just adapts to the current policy.

    Also, you must admit, the things the administration is saying about Iran are exactly the same noises they made when gearing up for Iraq. And even Bush’s supporters now know that decision was made in private long before it was made in public…

  2. James Joyner says:

    Iran war planning is beyond standard contingency planning, given the gravity of the threat and the comparatively narrow window before the option is forestalled. If they reach the nuclear finish line, our options are even more limited.

    Nobody denies that a nuclear Iran is something to be avoided. The problem is that virtually everyone agrees there are not a lot of things we can do about it that won’t create a mess.

  3. ken says:

    James, as long as Iran faces the hormonally driven hostility eminating from the Bush administration they see that they have no choice but to obtain a nuclear arsenal as a deterent to unprovoked aggression. Who can blame them?

    I wish we could promise them no harm if they refrained from such a course but we cannot offer any gaurantees that Bush would not attack them anyway. Bush is insane.

    And if even we cannot trust Bush, why should the Iraqies feel any different about him?

  4. Jeff Cosford says:

    Ken I had no idea that Iran and Ahmadinejad were such reasonable chaps. I’m sure we can all sit down to tea and cookies and well after some heartfelt discussion the Mullahs will simply relinquish their weapons development.

    Ahmadinejad will of course take back that nasty bit about Armageddon and the 12Th Imam. And all we be right with the world before dinner.

    Thanks I was worried that the boys in Iran might be just a little bit nuts and not give hoot about our way of life and had it in for us in any manner that they thought they could dream up. Something to do with dhimmi stuff.

    After all the schools where children are taught how good it is to strap on some dynamite and walk into a crowd and poof or should I say boom.

    This stuff had me worried but apparently I was on the wrong track. Thanks for setting me straight.

  5. Herb says:

    The solution is to give full responsibility to Ken, Kerry, Gore Hilly Mae, Murtha, and the rest of the sorehead Democrats and help Iran get all the Nuclear Weapons they want. The result, according the the fore mentioned will be “Peace”, as they see it.

    The real world can then suffer the results of a Nuclear Holocaust brought on by the Islamic Extremist and enhanced by those who do not know the difference between what is good for the world and what is not.

  6. Barry says:

    James, Iraq is not a ‘staging area’ for a gound invasion of Iran. Unless you redefine ‘staging area’ to mean ‘hostile zone’. And any rational government in Iran’s place would now be at least thinking about nukes; Bush put them on his ‘take-out’ list, even though they sought better relations. Other countries have been alienated, making it harder to lean on Iran if we wanted to (frankly, if I were Putin, I’d be helping Iran develop nukes as a counterweight to the US).

  7. James Joyner says:

    Barry: Iran doesn’t HAVE nukes. The point is to deal with them before they do and our hands are tied.

    Putin is unstable but not crazy. He’s got a Muslim problem on his doorstep. A nuclear Iran is his greatest nightmare.

    And, despite our inability to stop suicide bombers, we still control Iraq’s airports and several military bases. It would certainly be a staging area for ground troops. Obviously, our carrier fleet off the Persian Gulf would be our primary launching pad.