Why did I feel déjà vu all over again while reading Niall Ferguson’s much-discussed Newsweek column from earlier in the week? Simple: not merely because it was wrong, but because it was wrong in such familiar-sounding and well-worn ways. I might have thought that some number of years would pass before we’d be having these arguments all over again.
Among the false claims made to us in 2002 and 2003, as the pounding of the war drums grew more incessant, was that “containment” had failed in Iraq. George H.W. Bush, this argument went, had committed the moral lapse of not permitting our troops to march into Baghdad from the freshly liberated “Province 19” (Kuwait) and had settled instead for the idea that we could keep Saddam Hussein hemmed in. The latter’s use of chemical warfare on the Kurds, his ever-expanding arsenal of WMD, and his nuclear weaponry, which was as little as six months away from becoming cold physical reality, demonstrated that the idea of containment with regard to so lethal a madman was itself madness.
The intent was not merely to bang those drums, but, as was the wont of those history-obsessed neocons, something larger: to argue more broadly that a fundamental idea of American foreign policy of the last 50 years was now outdated, dead. “Containment,” it was allowed, had been all well and good when we were talking about the lethargic Soviet Union of Brezhnev. But an uncaged tyrant like Saddam demanded a posture at once more nimble and aggressive. That two of the three justifications for this new posture turned out to be lies (WMD, the infamous mushroom cloud) was something we learned later, and so they didn’t manage to get in the way of the mendacious case for war at the time.
The rewriting (or at least reframing) of history; the insistence that the circumstances that once made a universally endorsed stance viable no longer exist; the need to elevate brute arguments to the level of the theoretical: these are peddled to us as high-minded and bold gestures. They are in fact warning signs that should—especially after a decade like the one past—place our bullshit antennae on DefCon4.
Which brings us to the new case for war against Iran. Now under the microscope is the doctrine of mutual assured destruction: the idea that nuclear powers would not actually use nukes because they’d know that blowback in kind would be coming their way. That worked with “responsible” nation states. But Iran? We simply can’t count on it.
This is meant to be Ferguson’s case-closing argument. Of his five points, he saves this one for last and huffs: “Wait. We’re supposed to believe that a revolutionary Shiite theocracy is overnight going to become a sober, calculating disciple of the realist school of diplomacy ... because it has finally acquired weapons of mass destruction?”
Um ... why not? Substitute “Godless, atheistic dictatorship” for “revolutionary Shiite theocracy” above, and it’s obviously a question that was often asked in this country 60 years ago by people who swore we were doomed to extinction. In the current case, the mullahs would surely know that the United States (and that other country that “has no nuclear weapons”) would utterly wipe them off the face of the planet. Are they that crazy? In any event, my last two sentences are mere conjecture, not an ounce more or less valid than Ferguson’s speculation.
Beyond the wobbly realm of hypothesizing, there are such things as historical facts, brought to bear in this instance by James Fearon of Stanford. Fearon conducted a study, which James Fallows discussed on his blog, of the belligerent habits of nuclear states before and after they got the big one. He found that of eight nuclear states, all but two initiated fewer military disputes per year after they got the bomb than they had before it (Fearon did not have figures for the pre-nuclear United States, so it isn’t included).
Fearon’s exercise is not comprehensive, but it does suggest that countries that become nuclear powers—ranging from France to China to Pakistan—do not go around looking for fights. We also have the evidence that no country (except the United States, in one very specific historical context) has ever launched a nuclear weapon. There might be a case to be made that Iran would behave differently. But Ferguson’s rhetorical taunting doesn’t make it.
His other four points are rickety as well. He argues that the regime would not survive the “military humiliation” that the United States and Israel would visit upon it in a preemptive strike against its nuclear facilities. Really? How many peoples in the recent history of the world have responded to an attack on their country by siding with the attackers and overthrowing their government? There would surely be forces inside the country trying to oust the regime, but we don’t know how that internal battle would play out. The assertion that the regime would just fold, and that would be that, and the rose petals will be strewn ... as they used to say in the Borscht Belt, stop me if you’ve heard that one.
I don’t want a nuclear-armed Iran any more than Ferguson does. But I also don’t want to be jollied into another war, having just helped as a U.S. taxpayer to spend more than $1 trillion on the biggest fiasco in our foreign-policy history that killed tens of thousands and displaced countless others and brought us a rather long list of problems, on assurances like these. We cannot foreclose the possibility that a strike against Iran might one day be defensible or necessary. But we should be acknowledging that prospect humbly, and with awareness of the certain fact that it will unleash forces that we can’t anticipate or contain, which is a far different thing from a blithe call from Harvard Yard for “creative destruction.” You’d think if our war caucus had learned anything in the past decade, they’d have learned that.