Just Rattle the Saber More Loudly

Will louder threats move the Iranian regime to back down?

Today’s drumbeat to war with Iran comes from David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post:

Recent history shows that the Iranian regime will change behavior only if confronted with overwhelming force and the prospect of an unwinnable war. Short of that, the Iranians seem ready to cruise along on the brink, expecting that the other side will steer away.

[…]

History shows that the clerics in Tehran won’t accept a deal unless they conclude that there’s no alternative but a punishing war. Somehow, the United States must convince Iran that this confrontation is deadly serious — and then work to find the rational pathway toward agreement.

Unfortunately, decades of mixed messages conveyed to the Islamic Republic of Iran have rendered any given day’s message ambiguous. Perhaps I misunderstand what Mr. Ignatius is saying but I interpret him as urging the U. S. that rattling the saber a little more loudly is likely to accomplish a foreign policy objective, getting the Iranians to abandon the nuclear weapons development program that our own intelligence apparatus continues to maintain they do not have. In my view escalating rhetoric, an exercise of our own in brinksmanship, runs the risk of crossing an important psychological barrier.

In their article, “The Rubicon Theory of War”, its authors, Dominic D.P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, note:

When people believe they have crossed a psychological Rubicon and perceive war to be imminent, they switch from what psychologists call a “deliberative” to an “implemental” mind-set, triggering a number of psychological biases, most notably overconfidence. These biases can cause an increase in aggressive or risky military planning. Furthermore, if actors believe that war is imminent when it is not in fact certain to occur, the switch to implemental mind-sets can be a causal factor in the outbreak of war, by raising the perceived probability of military victory and encouraging hawkish and provocative policies.

Preventive war other than that sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council is an illegal act of aggression under international accords to which the United States is party. It is also immoral. As Pat Lang and Larry Johnson (not to mention countless others in the intervening years) pointed out a half dozen years ago, nothing short of a full scale invasion and occupation of Iran is likely to force Iran to forgo any nuclear ambitions it has.

So, sanctions—yes. Covert action—sure. An escalating level of war rhetoric? No, if we wish to avoid an illegal, immoral, and futile war with Iran.

Prudently, the Pentagon and the Obama Administration have avoided that escalation of war rhetoric. Newspaper columnists, particularly those who, like Mr. Ignatius represent the prevailing wisdom, and Republican presidential candidates should follow suit.

FILED UNDER: General,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. Chico says:

    This is like 2002 and Iraq, except this time the US government is not leading it, it’s the media.

    At least in public, the government is keeping the rhetoric down. The media, on the other hand, is doing a Two Minutes Hate that’s stretching well beyond two minutes.

    Why is this happening?

  2. Hey Norm says:

    There are a whole lot of folks…including the entire Clown Car Posse…who seem to have forgotten everything that has happened in the last 10 years.
    Romney actually stood on the stage last night and claimed Obama opposed tough sanctions on Iran. That is a total denial of the facts…and as you say; this administrations prudent actions.
    The idea that a major political party would vote for any of these idiots is a very scary thing.

  3. Rob in CT says:

    @Chico:

    “The bubble-headed bleach blond comes on at 5. She can tell you about the plane crash, with a gleam in her eye. It’s Interesting when people die! Give us dirty laundry.”

    I watched the drive to war with Iraq back in ’02 with a mixture of disbelief and despair. This time, it’ll be pure, umitigated despair.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Rob in CT: Yo tambien, amigo.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    If the Israelis want to commit national suicide an attack on Iran is the way to do it. The Pentagon thinks it’s a really bad idea and many of not most of those in the Israeli military agree.

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    Ignatius of course thought invading Iraq was a just dandy idea. Actually I think his prestige as a serious foreign affairs correspondent suffered irreparable damage over his puffing of the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles.

  7. Moosebreath says:

    And then we have Tucker Carlson calling for the US annihilating Iran.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    It’s amazing how many people loudly pushed for the Iraq war and seem to have suffered absolutely ZERO consequences.

    They’re Very Serious, you see. They were wrong, but for the Right Reasons. Lots of people may have been right, but for the Wrong Reasons. Dirty Hippies.

  9. Rob in CT says:

    @Moosebreath:

    About that, from Jeffrey Goldberg:

    UPDATE: This is Tucker’s explanation, to Glenn Greenwald, about the motivation behind his statement:

    It’s my fault that I got tongue tied and didn’t explain myself well last night. I’m actually on the opposite side on the Iran question from many people I otherwise agree with. I think attacking could be a disaster for the US and am worried that Obama will do it, for fear of seeming weak before an election. Of course the Iranian government is awful and deserves to be crushed. But I’m not persuaded we or Israel could do it in a way that doesn’t cause even greater problems. That’s the main lesson of Iraq it seems to me.

    Here is an e-mail I received from Tucker shortly after I posted on the subject: “I was arguing that an attack on Iran might cause a massive spike in energy prices that could tank our economy. In other words, slow down — just the opposite of what you claim I said. Watch the fucking tape.”

    For the record, I watched the fucking tape before I posted. On tape, Tucker did say he favors the “annihilation” of Iran. It is true that Tucker opposed the Iraq war, btw.

    He got “tongue tied” apparently. WTF.

  10. legion says:

    It’s amazing how many people loudly pushed for the Iraq war and seem to have suffered absolutely ZERO consequences.

    Talking heads like these guys get paid because people want to hear what they’re saying. But when their opinions are so deeply flawed, their assumptions so clearly mistaken, and their entire output so clearly dictated by outside sources, you can’t help but realize that they’re all just brainless tools – their opinions mean nothing in the context of their own names, because they’re only writing what they think certain other people want to hear – not what anyone else actually thinks.

    Rest assured – if Obama isn’t re-elected, we _will_ invade Iran. And it will be just as wrong an idea and just as poorly run as when we invaded Iraq.

  11. Rob in CT says:

    Rest assured – if Obama isn’t re-elected, we _will_ invade Iran. And it will be just as wrong an idea and just as poorly run as when we invaded Iraq.

    My fear is that we will end up in a war with Iran even if he is re-elected. Less likely than if the GOP is in charge, but not enough to make me comfortable.

  12. Hey Norm says:

    “…It’s amazing how many people loudly pushed for the Iraq war and seem to have suffered absolutely ZERO consequences…”

    Truer words have never been spake.
    This has always bugged me our political system. I mean…the people who pushed for and supported Iraq were/are fools. Iraq was the worst foreign policy blunder in US history. It cost us way too much blood and way too much treasure and it only served to strengthen the real problem in the region…Iran. And yet now the same fools are allowed on TV to urge yet another ill-advised misadventure with the beneficiary off their previous f’up. They should all be declared insane and institutionalized. If I ever f’ed up in my job as badly as they f’ed up I’d have my license stripped, and would never be allowed to practice again. Yet for them…as you say…no consequences.

  13. Rob in CT says:

    Iraq was the worst foreign policy blunder in US history

    Woah there. It’s got stiff competition. Vietnam, at least, has a strong claim. I really can’t see how Iraq was worse than Vietnam. ~68k US dead vs ~5k. Millions of civilians died, IIRC. Civilian deaths in Iraq are in the hundreds of thousands, no? Seems to me Vietnam “wins” this contest easily.

    It doesn’t harm your larger point.

  14. Moosebreath says:

    Rob and Norm,

    “If I ever f’ed up in my job as badly as they f’ed up I’d have my license stripped, and would never be allowed to practice again. Yet for them…as you say…no consequences.”

    If Iraq was the only thing they ever got wrong, I’d be willing to put them on probation and let them get on with writing. But what have they gotten right? In the last 20 years, the Washington pundit consensus has been totally off base on everything in sight, from claiming the Clinton tax increases would kill the economy to rooting for Gingrich to shut down the government to saying Clinton needed to be impeached to saying the surpluses at the end of the Clinton Administration were a problem to saying Wall Street needed to be bailed out without strings attached to cheerleading spending cuts during a recession. All without consequences.

  15. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Woah there. It’s got stiff competition.

    It’s not the biggest but it’s certainly one of the big four the other three being as you say Vietnam, isolationism (probably the biggest), and the dismemberment of the Austro Hungarian empire.

  16. Boyd says:

    Preventive war other than that sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council is an illegal act of aggression under international accords to which the United States is party. It is also immoral.

    I find the proposal that the United Nations confers morality on anything ridiculous, Dave.

  17. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Boyd:

    I find the proposal that the United Nations confers morality on anything ridiculous,

    He didn’t say the UN conferred morality, just that a pre-emptive war was illegal under UN accords to which we are a party.

  18. Hey Norm says:

    @ Rob…
    There is an argument to be made there…no question.
    I base my position on the fact that Iran was a clear victor in the Iraq war without really lifting a finger. Our real problem was made worse by the action and it’s un-intended consequences. Vietnam…not so much really as there wasn’t a real problem there to begin with.
    Worst…or tied for worst. Either way…

  19. Rob in CT says:

    isolationism (probably the biggest)

    Disagree. How was staying the hell out of European entanglements as long as we did harmful to us?

    the dismemberment of the Austro Hungarian empire

    We did this? Not, like, WWI? Or just the march of history (the A-H empire was slowly disintegrating for basically its entire existence, as far as I can tell).

    Setting that aside… why, exactly was that a bad thing? Is your argument that it resulted in the rise of Hitler?

  20. Boyd says:

    @Brummagem Joe: Read the quote, Joe. Dave said that preventative war without UNSC sanction is immoral. Or maybe that all preventative war is immoral, which is an equally ridiculous claim.

  21. @Chico:

    The media, on the other hand, is doing a Two Minutes Hate that’s stretching well beyond two minutes.

    Why is this happening?

    New wars are great for ratings.

  22. Dave Schuler says:

    @Boyd:

    Dave said that preventative war without UNSC sanction is immoral. Or maybe that all preventative war is immoral, which is an equally ridiculous claim.

    What I said was that it was illegal which is uncontestable.

    I added that it is immoral, a different subject. You must distinguish between preemptive war which may be moral and preventive war which is rarely if ever moral. If you have good reason to believe that our enemy is about to attack you and you preempt his attack with a spoiling attack, that’s preemption.

    When you attack somebody because they might be in a position to attack you some day although today they have neither the ability nor an operational plan to do so, that’s preventive war. Asserting that such preventive moves are justifiable is just asserting that all war by any country is justifiable, a position that I reject.

  23. legion says:

    @Boyd: Um, no Boyd. He didn’t. Read the quote yourself – those are two distinct concepts in two distinct sentences:
    a) the invasion was a violation of accords the US signed on to.
    b) the invasion was immoral.

    Your conflation of those two points is simply wrong.

  24. legion says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    New wars are great for ratings.

    Correct. We also would have accepted: Republicans have richer sugar-daddies, so we make more money keeping them happy.

  25. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Boyd:

    Read the quote, Joe. Dave said that preventative war without UNSC sanction is immoral.

    I read it. I think you have comprehension problems buddy…. viz

    Preventive war other than that sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council is an illegal act of aggression under international accords to which the United States is party. It is also immoral.

  26. Rob in CT says:

    The classic example here is the 6-day war, right?

    In a situation where you have multiple neighboring states mobilizing their troops and massing them on your borders, you can make a solid case for preemptive war. In other words, I don’t fault Israel for what happened in 1967, based on what I know of it.

    This situation is not the same.

    By the way, which nation-state in the region is ringed with troops of a hostile power, including… what is it, 3 carrier task forces off its coast, and has been hit with trade sanctions?

    [Jeopardy theme music]

    They aren’t allowed to be freaked out, though.

  27. JohnMcC says:

    When I pay much attention to those sh*th**ds my PTSD kicks up and I have to get back on Zoloft. In the Repub “debate” last night the three Very Serious People each virtually guaranteed a war with Iran. Which is a country three times the size of Iraq and with 2 1/2 times the population.

    Next they’ll be assuring us that we’ll be greeted as liberators. Hey! It’ll be like Paris in 1944!

  28. Andy says:

    Sad these threads always seem to degenerate in re fighting the debate over Iraq. This is especially strange since the circumstances and so-called “drumbeat” to war (can we please retire that terms?) for Iran are much, much different that Iraq. Oh well.

    Dave,

    What I said was that it was illegal which is uncontestable.

    I don’t think it’s so cut and dry. Illegal according to whom? In the US the decision of Congress trumps all other considerations to include any treaties the US is a party to. Therefore, the war in Iraq was perfectly legal and constitutional in the US.

  29. Ron Beasley says:

    @Andy:

    This is especially strange since the circumstances and so-called “drumbeat” to war (can we please retire that terms?) for Iran are much, much different that Iraq.

    Please explain how?

  30. Carson says:

    “Release the Kraken”

  31. Andy says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Sure.

    Iraq: The Bush administration wanted war and had to advocate for it, first to the UN and then the American people. War was the policy and so the administratio’s actions were designed to bring that policy into being and legitimize it. They wanted a war so bad they were willing to exaggerate and make shit up to get an AUMF.

    Iran. The Obama administration could not make it more plain that it doesn’t want to go to war with Iran. War is explicitly not the policy. There some very vocal outsiders pressing for war as well as some in the Congress and the media (I’m looking at you, neocons). But unless something fundamental changes on the ground, the President isn’t going to go to Congress and ask for an AUMF.

    Everything else flows from that fundamental difference of one executive branch that wants a war and another that doesn’t.

    The danger with Iran is not that we’re going to attack them, the danger is that we’ll get dragged into a war if Israel decides to do something stupid and then Iran doesn’t something stupider. Which is exactly why some prominent officials (like the CJCS) are telling Israel in the subtle language of public diplomacy – “You better not f’ing do this.”

  32. Tillman says:

    Preventive war other than that sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council is an illegal act of aggression under international accords to which the United States is party.

    Please. That won’t stop us.

    It is also immoral.

    Pff, that really won’t stop us.
    @Andy:

    Illegal according to whom? In the US the decision of Congress trumps all other considerations to include any treaties the US is a party to.

    The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Beneath that are ratified treaties. Beneath that are the laws enacted by Congress. I do believe we ratified a treaty that makes these things illegal. So, yes, it’s illegal for us as well. Hell, using War Powers resolutions to enact war technically is illegal too in this hierarchy, if I’m recalling it correctly.

  33. Tillman says:

    @Boyd: Punctuation matters, dude.

    Otherwise Id be writing like this with no way in hell for you to know when I stopped a thought now isnt that hard I certainly think it is

  34. Andy says:

    @Tillman:

    The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Beneath that are ratified treaties. Beneath that are the laws enacted by Congress. I do believe we ratified a treaty that makes these things illegal. So, yes, it’s illegal for us as well.

    And it’s the Constitution that defines when the US goes to war, so how is that illegal in the US? Congress authorized the war. Congress is specifically given that power in the Constitution. A treaty cannot trump that Congressional authority. Therefore, as far as the US is concerned, the war was perfectly legal.

  35. Tillman says:

    Congress authorized the war. Congress is specifically given that power in the Constitution. A treaty cannot trump that Congressional authority.

    If you want to get technical, Congress has authority to declare war, not authorize it. Authorization is a statute, and falls underneath treaties in that hierarchy.

    Congress also ratified the treaty that makes these things illegal. Congress isn’t repealing the treaties it ratified, now is it?