The American people hear from government officials and presidential candidates nearly every day about military action against Iran. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently said that the United States and Israel would not allow Iran to get a bomb. Are these words standard fare for an election year? A strategy to restrain Israel from unilateral action? Or do these threats signify that war is in the “minds of men”?
Conservative ideologues taste the possibility that a leader whom they might influence may return to the White House. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has already pledged to appoint John Bolton, a neoconservative superstar, as his secretary of state. Is it surprising that Gingrich, who has said he would rather plan a joint operation with Israel against Iran than force the Israelis to go it alone, is the candidate with the strongest commitment to military action?
Have we forgotten what Iraq and the United States have been through since 2002? Were it not for that ill-begotten war, thousands of Americans (and Iraqis) might still be living. America would be a trillion dollars richer and still be the proud, respected and economically healthy nation the world had known.
The defenses of peace were built in many of America’s most illustrious minds since World War II — but only after those minds had been humbled by the ravages wrought by their earlier decisions. Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy recognized, after the fact, the disasters caused by their certitude in Americanizing the Vietnam War. Super Cold Warrior Dean Acheson turned out to be the most influential member of Lyndon Johnson’s “Wise Men” to urge him to stop the failed war in Vietnam. More recently, dozens in leadership positions at the start of the Iraq war realized too late the folly of that decision and the incompetence of its execution.
Asked in the mid-1950s whether he would consider strikes against the Soviet Union to preempt its nuclear weapons program, Dwight D. Eisenhower, our president most expert on the limits of military power, replied: “A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility today. How could you have one, if one of its features would be several cities lying in ruins, where many, many thousands of people would be dead and injured and mangled? . . . That isn’t preventive war; that is war.”
Military action is becoming the seemingly fail-safe solution for the United States to deal with real and imagined security problems. The uncertain and intellectually demanding ways of diplomacy are seen as “unmanly” and tedious — likely to involve compromise or even “appeasement.” President Obama made efforts to engage Iranian leaders his first year in office but, when rebuffed, turned in a different direction. Since then, our most effective diplomacy regarding Iran has been to muster support worldwide for an unprecedented series of sanctions and ostracization.
Iran presents a serious threat to U.S. and regional security, one that would grow immensely if its nuclear program produces weapons. The United States must set out on a relentless search for a better way to get at this seemingly unknowable regional power. Without that patient search for different ways to deal with Tehran, Washington will be stuck with a policy that will not change Iran’s practices or its regime and could lead to a catastrophic war.
We and our colleagues in the Iran Project — an initiative of ours that has suggested diplomatic strategies and encouraged direct U.S.-Iran discussions for nearly a decade — have for three years proposed ways to contain Iran’s nuclear program, wall it off from developing weapons and engage Iran in a dialogue on other regional issues. It is not too late.
History teaches that engagement and diplomacy pay dividends that military threats do not. Deployment of military force can bring the immediate illusion of “success” but always results in unforeseen consequences and collateral damage that complicate further the achievement of America’s main objectives. Deploying diplomats with a strategy while maintaining some pressure on Iran will lower Tehran’s urgency to build a bomb and reduce the danger of conflict.
The slow, elusive diplomatic process to achieve U.S. objectives does not provide the sound-bite satisfaction of military threats or action. Multiple, creative efforts to engage Iran’s leaders and provide a dignified exit from the corner in which the world community has placed them could achieve more durable solutions at a far lower cost. It is a lesson that those urging military action against Iran have failed to learn. Clearly, the Iraq war did not build “the defenses of peace” in their minds. And such efforts must truly fail before more forceful action is made in a genuinely multilateral action, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.
Acheson, that brilliant strategist and close friend of Archibald MacLeish, criticized advocates of “massive retaliation” in the 1950s. It would be mad, he said, to “embrace disaster in order to escape anxiety.” Greater knowledge and closer contact with an enemy reduce anxiety and reveal surer ways to avoid disaster.