Walt Still Doesn’t Get It (Iran)

I am very sympathetic to the substance of Stephen Walt’s numerous critiques of Matthew Kroenig’s call for war against Iran. But I have to admit, I was amused to see him title today’s posts, “What Iraq can teach us about Iran.” Why? Because, it is obvious that Walt has not thought enough about why he lost the debate over the Iraq war, and why his arguments cannot carry the day in regards to Iran either.

Walt’s position is pretty straight forward, and is accurate as far as it goes:

By any objective measure, therefore, Iran isn’t even on the same page with the United States in terms of latent power, deployed capabilities, or the willingness to use them. Indeed, Iran is significantly weaker than Israel, which has roughly the same toal of regular plus reserve military personnel and vastly superior training. Israel also has more numerous and modern armored and air capabilities and a sizeable nuclear weapons stockpile of its own. Iran has no powerful allies, scant power-projection capability, and little ideological appeal. Despite what some alarmists think, Iran is not the reincarnation of Nazi Germany and not about to unleash some new Holocaust against anyone. 

But unfortunately, in many ways, the ship has sailed on this. It sailed in 1979, and has been sailing in the same direction for 30 years. If you are relying on convincing the public and decision-makers that Iran is not a threat, you are going to lose the debate. If you are arguing, in effect, that we should just ignore them and rely on deterrence, that is also going to lose the debate.

The reason the neocons won the debate on Iraq was precisely because they were proposing a solution to a widely recognized problem. It may have been the wrong solution, and the problem was not as severe as they claimed. But the reality is that in policy debates, those able to credibly argue for a “winning” strategy to a problem will always have the upper hand over those proposing muddling through or living with risk.

Walt does not seem to understand that because he is again making the same mistake he made in 2002 and 2003. He isn’t listening to people’s concerns. He is just trying to dismiss them out of hand. The fact that he’s right on substance is, unfortunately, wholly irrelevant. It is a losing strategy in terms of winning the debate.

What Walt — and other opponents of war with Iran need to do — is to propose a plausible alternative way to “win.” There are several options:

(1) Co-opt the “Bush causes the Arab Spring” position and argue that we just need to give it more time to spread to Iran.

(2) Making a vigorous argument in favor of deploying regional ballistic missile defense systems to thwart emerging Iranian capabilities.

(3) Argue for covert support to Iranian dissidents to topple the regime from inside.

(4) Whatever, make something up, something that will surely be costly and stupid, but probably less costs and stupid than a war would be.

But here is my prediction. If the debate turns into one where one side proposes war as a solution to the Iranian problem and the other simply denies there is a problem in the first place, the result will be war. Why? Because it will be too easy to paint the deniers as naive, particularly since the idea of an Iranian threat is so deeply embedded in American political culture.

But that is not the path Walt is taking. And when he loses, do you wanna bet he’ll take it as yet another confirmation of insidious Israeli control of our politics?

5 comments to Walt Still Doesn’t Get It (Iran)

  • Jason J. Gross

    Bernard,
    There is a lot political wisdom in your post. I agree.
    JJG

  • You leave out some pretty important factors in your analysis, namely the political effects of:

    1. Iraq WMD debacle. People are going to be more skeptical this time around.
    2. War fatigue among the public.
    3. Our economic woes.

    The President barely had the political capital for our comparatively limited operation in Libya. There are some significant political obstacles to overcome before a full-on war with Iran would be accepted by the American people IMO.

  • [...] brilliant analysis explaining why logic is futile in a nation with a broken OODA loop:  “Walt Still Doesn’t Get It (Iran)“, Bernard Finel, 3 January [...]

  • [...] have noted that in the United States, at least, there is a broad consensus that there is an Iranian [...]

  • [...] Bernard Finel makes an excellent point about why the hawks have the upper hand in the “war with Iran” debate. While he’s specifically taking to task recent columns by Stephen Walt, the argument applies equally to those, like myself, who have been arguing the folly of military action against Iran’s nukes: [T]he ship has sailed on this. It sailed in 1979, and has been sailing in the same direction for 30 years. If you are relying on convincing the public and decision-makers that Iran is not a threat, you are going to lose the debate. If you are arguing, in effect, that we should just ignore them and rely on deterrence, that is also going to lose the debate. [...]

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