via Lobe Log

News and views relevant to US foreign policy for Sept. 10

“Nuclear Mullahs”: The former executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, summarizes the debate over Iran’s nuclear program and concludes that no war with Iran is far better than a preemptive war and hopes for a change in US policy toward Iran following the 2012 presidential election:

At the end of this theoretical exercise, we have two awful choices with unpredictable consequences. After immersing myself in the expert thinking on both sides, I think that, forced to choose, I would swallow hard and take the risks of a nuclear Iran over the gamble of a pre-emptive war. My view may be colored by a bit of post-Iraq syndrome.

What statesmen do when faced with bad options is create new ones. The third choice in this case is to negotiate a deal that lets Iran enrich uranium for civilian use (as it is entitled to do under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty), that applies rigorous safeguards (because Iran cheats), that gradually relaxes sanctions and brings this wayward country into the community of more-or-less civilized nations.

That, of course, won’t happen before November. Any U.S. concession now would be decried by Republicans as an abandonment of Israel and a reward to a government that recently beat a democracy movement bloody. We can only hope that after the election we get some braver, more creative diplomacy, either from a liberated Obama or (hope springs eternal) a President Romney who has a Nixon-to-China moment.

“U.S. Attack on Iran Would Take Hundreds of Planes, Ships, and Missiles”: Noah Shachtman breaks down Anthony Cordesman’s assessment of what the United States would have to commit militarily if it were to launch “preventive strikes” against Iran’s nuclear sites. Cordesman seriously doubts Israel’s capacity to execute an effective attack and doesn’t necessarily favor the US doing it for the Israelis as Matthew Kroenig did late last year. In short, the costs would likely be monumental while the benefits would be short-lived:

* “Israel does not have the capability to carry out preventive strikes that could do more than delay Iran’s efforts for a year or two.” Despite the increasingly sharp rhetoric coming out of Jerusalem, the idea of Israel launching a unilateral attack is almost as bad as allowing Tehran to continue its nuclear work unchallenged.  It would invite wave after wave of Iranian counterattacks — by missile, terrorist, and boat — jeopardizing countries throughout the region. It would wreak havoc with the world’s oil supply. And that’s if Israel even manages to pull the mission off — something Cordesman very much doubts.

* The U.S. might be able to delay the nuclear program for up to 10 years. But to do so, it’ll be an enormous undertaking. The initial air strike alone will “require a large force allocation [including] the main bomber force, the suppression of enemy air defense system[s], escort aircraft for the protection of the bombers, electronic warfare for detection and jamming purposes, fighter sweep and combat air patrol to counter any air retaliation by Iran.”

Here’s a visual representation of what a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would like.

“How to Tackle Iran”: The RAND corporation’s Dalia Dassa Kaye writes that Israel’s Iran policy and the US’s response to Israeli sabre-rattling can have damaging effects including a war that few want or need. Meanwhile there are other options and existing assurances that should be considered:

Rather than public posturing aimed at encouraging the United States to make such firm declaratory policies – creating a sense of mistrust and tension in U.S.-Israeli relations that can only benefit Iran – Israeli officials should work with their American counterparts to quietly seek common strategic understandings on what type of Iranian endgame is acceptable and what conditions would need to be in place for force to be contemplated.

At the same time, the United States can continue the wide array of “assurance” policies already underway to ease Israeli concerns over Iran and bolster its military capabilities. With all the apparent doubts among Israel’s political elite that they can’t count on the United States, it is easy to overlook the unprecedented levels of military assistance and cooperation between the two countries.

U.S. military aid to Israel has reached record levels, providing Israel with the most advanced American weapon systems. President Obama and other senior administration officials have also made a number of public statements suggesting that U.S. policy is not to contain Iran but to prevent a nuclear weapons program. In the backdrop of such statements is a steady U.S. military buildup in the Gulf region, including the bolstering of naval vessels and fighter aircraft that could reach targets throughout Iran.

‘America the brittle?‘”: Stephen Walt reminds us that the US is secure and that the only way to get Americans to support militarist foreign policy is by scaring them into believing otherwise:

…The United States is very secure by almost any standard, and most countries in the world would be delighted to be as safe as we are. For this reason, most Americans don’t worry very much about foreign policy, and the only way you can motivate them to support the sort of activist foreign policy that we’ve become accustomed to since 1945 is to constantly exaggerate external threats. Americans have to be convinced that their personal safety and well-being are going to be directly affected by what happens in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, or some other far-flung region, or they won’t be willing to pay the costs of mucking about in these various places. Threat-mongering also depends on constantly overstating our adversaries’ capabilities and denigrating our own. So senior officials tell sympathetic journalists that our foes are “resilient” and clever and resourceful, etc., while bemoaning our alleged lack of fortitude. The good news is that it’s not true; if anything, Americans have been too willing to “pay any price and bear any burden” for quite some time.

“Tenacious Sanctions”: Paul Pillar writes that a US trade sanction from 1974 targeting the Soviet Union that’s still in effect even though it’s economically damaging demonstrates how this diplomatic tool can easily morph into a double-edged sword:

This baggage demonstrates how it is far harder to remove a sanction—either a special-purpose injunction such as Jackson-Vanik or placement on a list such as the one for state sponsors of terrorism—than to impose it in the first place. Imposition is usually a gesture of disapproval rather than a well-conceived tactic to elicit a change in behavior. Moreover, lifting of a sanction, regardless of changes in conditions that may justify lifting, gets perceived as making nice to the regime in question, and that can be a domestic political liability. As a result, sanctions that have already demonstrated their ineffectiveness get perpetuated; any disagreeable behavior by the targeted regime, even if it has little or nothing to do with the reason the sanction was imposed, is portrayed as a reason to keep the sanction in place.

“Remaking Bagram”: A day after the New York Times reported on US efforts to transfer its detention operations to the Afghan government in accordance with a March 9 Memorandum of Understanding, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) released a report finding that the agreement and US-retained management and authority over parts of the Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP) at the Bagram airbase have resulted in an “Afghan internment regime” and “differences in understanding” about who controls the handling of suspects and detainees. (Find my related report here.)