The Cuban missile crisis vs. Iran: making an opponent blink
This blog isn't really becoming an "all Iran, all the time" zone. But at the moment, the conundrum we face over Iran is particularly pressing, involving some very basic ethical and tactical questions that interest me. So, here we go again--
The situation reminds me (in several different ways) of an image I recall from the end of the movie "On the Beach" (stuff of nightmares), a banner reading:
There is still time, brothers.
Yes, there is still time. But how much time we have left is not at all certain, although it's fairly clear that all of those speculating on that question do not know the answer.
In today's Washington Post, David Ignatius has written this column on the subject of Iran (via Austin Bay, whose analysis of the Ignatious column appears here). Ignatius's piece illustrates the strange propensity of many writers to make assumptions that they believe are obviously valid--no need to argue the points; enough to merely to state them as though they are tautologies. But are they?
For example, Ignatius writes the following:
The administration insists that it wants diplomacy to do the preemption, even as its military planners are studying how to take out Iran's nuclear facilities if diplomacy should fail. Iran, meanwhile, is pursuing its own version of preemption, announcing yesterday that it has begun enriching uranium -- a crucial first step toward making a bomb. Neither side wants war -- who in his right mind would? -- but both frame choices in ways that make war increasingly likely.
There are two things I notice right away about that paragraph. The first is the tendency of Ignatious to "frame" the situation in terms of symmetry: both sides are thought to be doing what they are doing in order to effect "preemption." But the assumption on the part of Ignatius that preemption is Iran's goal--rather than a first strike on, for example, Israel--is mere speculation, although he bases his argument on it.
But the even more serious speculation in which Ignatius engages is in the last sentence of that paragraph: Neither side wants war--who in his right mind would?
The unfounded assumption in that sentence probably leapt out at any sentient reader. Ignatious's wishful thinking--that Iran's leaders do not want war, because they must be in their right minds--is understandable, but only as wishful thinking, rather than being based on the evidence (not that Ignatious presents any evidence). After all, who among us in his/her right mind would want to believe that the leaders of a large country developing a nuclear strike capacity and in league with global terrorists are not in their right minds?
But, understandable though this wish is--just like Neville Chamberlain's similar hope that Hitler was a gentleman with whom he could do diplomatic business--taking it on faith and believing it is a dangerous idea that could (to use Ignatius's very own words) "frame choices in ways that make war increasingly likely," as a similar notion arguably did in Hitler's day.
After all, even Seymour Hersh's article (which Ignatius has obviously read, since he quotes it in his very next paragraph) indicated that many consider the Iranian leaders to be "nutcases--one hundred percent totally certified nuts." But Ignatius manages to write an entire piece ignoring that elephant in the room by simply dismissing it without discussion in one quick sentence--"who in his right mind," indeed!
Ignatius briefly compares the current Iranian situation to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. He writes that Kennedy came up with what he calls a "creative" solution to that one [emphasis mine]:
[Kennedy] issued a deadline but privately delayed it; he answered a first, flexible message from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev but not a second unyielding one; he said he would never take U.S. missiles out of Turkey, as the Soviets were demanding, and then secretly did precisely that. Disaster was avoided because Khrushchev believed Kennedy was willing to risk war -- but wanted to avoid it.
I would suggest to Ignatius that, although that is true as far as it goes, he is missing the point. Disaster was avoided for a combination of reasons, and the one he states would not have mattered in the least had not there been an answering echo on the part of Khrushchev who, likewise, was willing to risk war but wanted to avoid it.
And that's not "wanted to avoid it" in the sense of "would have vaguely preferred not to." It means very deeply wished to avoid it, because Khrushchev was a rational actor and believed nuclear war between the superpowers would wreak havoc on the world, as well as his own country and people.
Khrushchev was many things, but he was not a sadistic butcher like his predecessor, Stalin. He believed the Soviet system would triumph, but he wanted the Soviet people to actually survive long enough to do so. He was a practical man, focused quite clearly on this world rather than rewards in the next, and as such, he was indeed a rational actor in the political sense. That meant that he was, in a very real way, a "partner for peace"--or, at least, a partner for cold war rather than hot.
And that was the real reason Khrushchev blinked when confronted with Kennedy's "creative" solutions.
I've written elsewhere that I believe the best course of action right now vis a vis Iran would be to work for regime change though clandestine operations within that country. I also believe we need to have a plan in place to take out Iran's nuclear facilities if need be. I have no idea whether we still have the time, the resources, the expertise, and the will to succeed in either of those endeavors. But I do know that, so far, there has been no evidence that the current Iranian administration qualifies as a rational actor with self-protective instincts towards its own people, and that would preclude us from relying on a particular subset of possible solutions (creative or otherwise) that assume that the Iranian leaders are indeed in their right minds.
The need to protect one's own people in this world--rather than to secure them a place in the world to come--seems to be a prerequisite for traditional deterrence to work. After all, blinking is a self-protective function.
[ADDENDUM: Shrinkwrapped weighs in on the state of mind of the Iranian leaders. And Shrinkwrapped, unlike David Ignatius, is in the business of being able to predict future violent behavior.]
[ADDENDUM II: Unless some important news breaks on the Iran front, I plan to take at least a short break from posts about Iran, starting tomorrow. Promise.]
[ADDENDUM III: Vital Perspectives sums it up rather nicely, I think: ...the pundits tend to fall back on the old models of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Yet Iran is not the Soviet Union and represents a threat on a completely different level. Simply put, the world has never seen an Islamic extremist terrorist state armed with nuclear weapons.]