US policy towards countries such as Iran treats war as a “last resort” — but in so doing makes war almost inevitable

In the past 21 years, the West has engaged in three wars in the Near/Middle East (Iraq I/II and Afghanistan), has enabled at least one revolt with relatively low-level military support (Libya), and now seems headed for military involvement in two more countries in the region (Iran, Syria).

In all but one of these conflicts (Afghanistan — which the US invaded in the heat of the moment after 9/11) — US policy has been one that might be called “Noisy Gradualism.” It has started with public threats and exhortations, then has moved to UN and other collective condemnations, then has escalated to trade and financial sanctions, and until very late in the game has treated military involvement as a distant possibility.

This violence-avoidance strategy is expensive; and all the diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing with first-class airline seats and five-star hotel suites is the least of it. The US during these long, drawn out fests of diplomacy has to (quietly) trade all kinds of favors to tin-pot regimes around the world in exchange for their votes at the UN or cooperation with sanctions. Economic sanctions that raise domestic prices (e.g., gas prices) also have high costs for Americans. And of course the months-long delay gives the opponent regime time to prepare for war.

On the whole, this diplomatic interlude may be less costly than outright military engagement — and I have no doubt that the geniuses at the State Department use this argument to get their way again and again. But somehow the end result is always an utter recalcitrance on the part of the opponent regime (e.g., Iraq in 2003, Iran and Syria now), so that military action — which everyone initially treats as a last resort — becomes necessary.

Why do we always use “Noisy Gradualism” in our dealings with countries like Iran? Why does this policy seem always to end in military conflict?

These are questions that I think we Americans find hard to answer, because they involve stepping outside our culture and examining it critically — and also, understanding other cultures.

Why Noisy Gradualism?

The idea that war-scale violence can only be a last resort seems to be deeply embedded in the American mind. We see this as a basic trait of civilized people, not just of governments. In Hollywood movies, it seems to be a requirement that the good guy takes a lot of knocks before he finally escalates to an all-out fight (and defeats the bad guy). If he goes to battle pre-emptively, the audience may find him unsympathetic. A very similar pattern in which we wait and wait, and are rebuffed and humiliated, seems to occur before our actual wars.

Thus the NYT today quoted President Obama:

“… do we want a distraction [i.e., an Israeli attack] in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim, and deflect attention from what has to be the core issue, which is their potential pursuit of nuclear weapons?”

As an aside, I think that Obama here goes much too far in assuming that Iran can be viewed as a victim (by whom? we might ask). But his basic logic is tuned to the American way of thinking. Moreover, a delay of war till later this year — say, October — would benefit him for special reasons.

I hardly need to add that Noisy Gradualism also benefits the diplomacy industry. It amounts to a lavish, taxpayer patronage of a large, self-important troupe of actors.

Why is the Last Resort the Inevitable Resort?

Here’s another quote from Obama, from the same NYT piece: “… as president of the United States, I don’t bluff.”

Unfortunately, to most authoritarian regimes around the world, shouting and arm-waving and alluding to war — but not actually waging war or even taking any concrete steps in that direction — is going to be viewed precisely as a bluff. And that is what the US has done, in the runup to nearly all its recent wars, and now again with Iran (not to mention North Korea). The Iranians have responded with defiance and/or contempt, and each time the US has come back to the table to sweeten its offers.

Now of course we are at the collective sanctions stage, and these sanctions are hurting the Iranian people. But the Iranian regime, like most authoritarian regimes, is mainly concerned with direct, violent threats to its rule. As Ahmadinejad and Khamenei and others must see it, sanctions and all the diplomatic noise will fade away eventually, but the Iranian nuclear capability will remain.

And of course, now that Iran’s rulers — responding to the US posture of weakness — have been induced to show so much public defiance and contempt, their surrender (without a fight) would mean too great a loss of face, and too great a loss of authority over their people.

Thus our policy of gradualism induces Iranian recalcitrance, which in turn moves us to war.

Incidentally, the NYT wrote:

The president, who made outreach to Iran a hallmark of his first year in office, said he still believed Iran’s leaders could make a rational calculation, under the pressure of harsh sanctions, to give up their nuclear ambitions.

This view of “rational calculation” is itself irrational. Governments such as Iran’s, which have staked so much on their defiance of the US, do not “rationally calculate” to surrender to their hated enemy. In simple hedonic terms, the pain of surrender would be greater than the pain of sanctions. In that sense, their response so far has been rational.

What Should Have Been Done Instead

A smarter policy would be to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” as Teddy Roosevelt famously suggested. If an opponent regime refuses to accede to quiet but unambiguous pressure (direct, carrot-plus-stick demands backed by carrier and troop movements, none of it publicly discussed), then military action should begin without further ado. If this policy is carried through once or twice, the lesson will be learned by other such regimes, so that henceforth only the initial quiet pressure will be needed. This would be a logical, efficient, and above all violence-sparing approach.

A president who takes that approach would have to overcome the cultural assumption about “violence as a last resort,” presumably by reasoning as I have done here. A big question is whether the American cognitive style is now too empathy-driven to abide such cold rationality.

Other Random Thoughts

It would be very hard for Israel or even the US to do sufficient damage to Iran’s nuclear program purely from the air. If either country does mount a campaign, I wouldn’t be surprised to see significant numbers of (elite) ground troops going in and holding territory around nuclear sites while destroying them methodically and rounding up key personnel. Air cover that is not carrier-based probably would have to operate from a temporary forward base, e.g., in a remote desert area of Iraq.

The real, long-term problem in Iran is not the presence of nuclear engineers and nuclear technology in places such as Qom, but the political leadership in Tehran. It must have occurred to Israeli (and US) war planners that the latter might be easier to get rid of than the former.