War with Iran?

03.15.12

Don't Prove Walt and Mearsheimer Right

A recent Saturday Night Live episode opened with a sketch that said a lot about America’s views on war with Iran. In the sketch, Andy Samberg, playing Rick Santorum, tells the audience that the coming presidential campaign is about two things: “One, making the family once again the center of our nation’s public policy, and two, starting a war with Iran, as a favor to Israel, whether Israel asks us to or not.” Samberg forgot to add: “and whether or not it’s actually good for the U.S., Israel or the Jews.”

That sketch brings back memories of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s infamous book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. In it the authors asserted that AIPAC and other American pro-Israel organizations (referred to collectively, and to many, objectionably, as the “Israel lobby”) led the push for war with Iraq. Walt and Mearsheimer were mistaken. While many of the people supporting the Iraq war were Jewish, anyone working these issues in Washington during the relevant years can confirm that AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations weren’t the driving force behind that war.

Regrettably, in making a direct link between Israel and a war with Iran, Samberg’s Santorum is not similarly mistaken. For more than a decade the same forces that Walt and Mearsheimer erroneously blamed for America’s Iraq debacle have openly led efforts to convince Washington and the American people that war with Iran is necessary and inevitable.

These efforts have included a ceaseless stream of warnings, breathlessly hyped by AIPAC and others in talking points and policy memos to lawmakers and voters, to the effect that Iran is on the verge of getting a nuclear bomb – warnings that have become no less alarmist even as they have proven wrong, year after year. They have included AIPAC-led pressure, backed by nearly every Jewish organization, for ever-increasing sanctions on Iran.

And where in the past sanctions focused on the Iranian regime and its nuclear program—a rational approach that may actually be responsible for the relative slow pace of Iran’s nuclear program thus far—in recent years this pressure has focused on sanctions aimed at the Iranian people, in the hopes that in their U.S.-imposed misery they would overthrow their regime or force it to change its behavior (like in Cuba, Iraq, North Korea, and Gaza, they failed to do so). Sanctions that, absent accompanying diplomacy, were guaranteed to fail, bolstering the impression that they were really about looking tough and checking off a box on the way to war, rather than trying to resolve America’s issues with Iran.

These efforts culminated in the recent AIPAC-backed pro-war resolutions in the House and Senate. AIPAC may not want war with Iran.  However, the resolutions, coupled with the bellicose rhetoric of last week’s AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, send an unambiguous message: they lower the bar for war while taking all options, except military action, increasingly off the table.  This includes recent calls for a blockade or a no-fly zone—both of which would be acts of war.

All this pressure for war is completely removed from the question: What can resolve the challenge posed by Iran today? Sanctions and saber-rattling alone were never going to do the trick, nor would periodic efforts at one-shot diplomacy. Rather, what has always been needed is a combination of multilateral pressure and sustained, tough diplomacy. That is the kind of multilateral pressure that exists today, for the first time in history—just when AIPAC and others have determined that the clock has all but run out on all options but war.

Missing entirely from this campaign toward war is any real consideration of the question: Is this good for Israel? Virtually all experts believe a war with Iran will be long, painful, replete with unintended consequences, and in the end will do no more than delay Iran’s nuclear program while hardening Iran’s resolve to acquire a nuclear weapon to deter a future attack.

Indeed, the war option is so bad that to an objective observer, those pushing for war can only be fanatics or fantasists: believing either that the Iranian regime is irrational, genocidal, and suicidal, or convinced that it is a good idea to shake things up, like we did in Iraq, in the hopes that something good will emerge from the chaos. More sober thinking aligns with that of Meir Dagan, former head of Israel’s Mossad, who has repeatedly and very publicly cautioned against war. It aligns, too, with the Israeli public, which in recent polls (also here) makes clear that it isn’t nearly as sanguine about war with Iran as many in the United States.

Absent, too, is consideration of the question: Is this good for the United States? Clearly the U.S. doesn’t need another war—one that will almost certainly bring higher oil prices, high military costs in blood and treasure, and potential reprisals against U.S. interests worldwide.

Indeed, the only interests served by this eagerness for war are political, locking President Obama into one of two losing scenarios. If he rejects war on Iran he will be branded “not a friend of Israel.” If there is a war, he’ll seek re-election amidst skyrocketing gas prices and with the U.S. embroiled in another soon-to-be-unpopular Middle East war.

And finally, this pressure from most of the organizational American Jewish community for an ever more belligerent approach to Iran seems to entirely ignore the question: Is this actually good for the Jews?

Walt and Mearsheimer were mistaken five years ago when they pointed the finger at the “Israel lobby” for America’s war in Iraq. The authors of a future book about America’s decision to attack Iran, if such a decision is taken and if such a book is written, will not be mistaken if they put much of the responsibility for that war in the same place. If this comes to pass, as my grandmother would say, this will almost certainly not be good for the Jews.