The title of this post is borrowed from George McGovern, who famously said “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.” Nowadays we’d presumably say “people” rather than “men,” partly because it’s much more common today than it was in McGovern’s heyday for women to serve and die in our military right alongside men, but mostly because I hope we realize by now that no war, at least no modern war, has ever just killed “men.” They don’t just kill the folks who choose to serve, either, or the people we’re fighting against. Very often they kill men, women, and children who could couldn’t care less what we’re fighting about and more than anything just want to be left in peace. Ironically, or maybe it’s intentional rather than ironic, the folks who seem least likely to die, or be injured, or even to suffer any personal or professional hardship as a result of the wars we fight are the professional thinkers and writers who dream up the wars they think we ought to fight and then work like hell to see that we wind up fighting them.
McGovern was talking about Vietnam, but if you replace “old men” with “neoconservatives” and “young men” with “other people” in the quote above, it works just as well today. From Vietnam, when neoconservatism began to take shape, to Central America, to the Balkans, to Iraq, to Georgia, to Syria, to Ukraine, neocons never miss a chance to advocate sending other people off to fight, to die, and (sometimes we forget this one) to kill in the name of American preeminence. Their white whale is, and has been since even before their pet Iraq War began, Iran.
I’ve got a piece up at Lobe Log, “Give Iran Peace (Talks) a Chance?” It’s a recap of a debate I attended on Tuesday held by the McCain Institute, which was called “Iran Nuclear Deal: Breakthrough or Failure?” The debate included Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert from the Carnegie Endowment, and Robert Einhorn, an arms control expert from Brookings who previously served as State Department Special Advisor for Nonproliferation under Secretary Clinton, both arguing “breakthrough,” and Bret Stephens, foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, arguing “failure.” This, I think, is the key point (but please go read the whole thing, the Lobe Log folks will like me more if you do):
Another hotly contested point had to do with the efficacy of international monitoring. Einhorn praised the JPA for its verification provisions and for laying the groundwork for even tougher monitoring in a permanent agreement. He pointed to successes in identifying the facilities at Natanz, Arak, and Fordow as evidence that monitoring and intelligence gathering has worked, while Stephens pointed to America’s failure to predict India’s 1998 nuclear tests as evidence that verification can easily fail. Gerecht argued that Iran will resist more stringent monitoring in a permanent agreement, and warned that the US intelligence community likely has no sources in high positions either in the Iranian government or its nuclear program, and therefore lacks the ability to check what international monitors find.
The debate over monitoring highlighted what seems to be a fundamental flaw in the neoconservative position: by their logic there seems to be no circumstance under which negotiations can be allowed to work. After all, according to their argument the Iranians cannot be trusted, verification does not work, and toughening sanctions is always better than easing sanctions. If there is no way to trust that verification can work, and no way to trust the Iranians themselves, then how can there be a diplomatic solution to this situation? Gerecht’s question about pre-emptive military action could easily be reframed for opponents of the JPA: “are you prepared to ease sanctions on Iran, ever, in exchange for any Iranian concessions?” Are sanctions, and the implicit threat of military action they contain a means to the end of preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon (or rapid breakout capacity), or are they the end in themselves?
Sun Tzu wrote that “there is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare,” but try telling that to someone like Stephens or Gerecht, who eagerly pushed for war with Iraq (Gerecht boldly predicted that invading Iraq and toppling Saddam would spur a democratic revolution that would topple the clerical regime in Iran, so…well, it’s only been 11 years or so, probably too early to judge him on that one), and apparently haven’t paused to reflect on that in any meaningful way since. Let’s attack Iran, let’s patrol a no-fly zone over Syria, let’s put missiles in Poland and admit Ukraine into NATO so we’re required to go to war there too. Why not? Even when they’re not calling for direct U.S. military action, yet, as in Stephens’ case with Ukraine, they’re still convinced that every world event that doesn’t immediately go America’s way could be made to go our way if we were just tough enough. Toughness doesn’t ultimately mean anything without an implicit military threat lurking in the background, and Stephens knows that.
In Iran they’ve got no alternative to military action because their position on monitoring can’t logically support any of the alternatives. The international consensus is that Iran must be prevented not just from having a nuclear weapons program, but from having a quick breakout capacity (the time from “hey, why don’t we build a nuclear bomb?” to actually having a nuclear bomb). That means limited ability to enrich uranium and no ability to reprocess spent reactor fuel into weaponized plutonium. But you can only cut a deal with those kinds of terms if you have stringent inspections in place to verify that enrichment and reprocessing programs are within agreed upon limits. The neocons reject the idea that any amount of inspections can work, because, heck, the bad guys can always hide something from you, right? Therefore Iran must be prevented from having any breakout capacity at all, which really means no nuclear program, and since there’s no way the Iranians will agree to dismantling their nuclear program altogether, welp, I guess they’ve left us no choice, right?
There is no negotiated settlement on Iran’s nuclear program that could satisfy these guys, because any negotiated settlement ultimately depends on verification, and as far as they’re concerned there is no such thing as verification. If you point out, as Karim Sadjadpour did repeatedly the other night, that if America actually approached the nuclear talks in such a heavy-handed way it would shatter the international consensus that holds the current sanctions regime together, they just handwave that away, because obviously other countries are irrelevant when America is involved. These are the guys who had us invading Iraq alongside Micronesia and Palau and pretended that it was a global coalition. And what about the consequences of a strike, which aside from breaking the P5+1 coalition would cause Iran to fast-track a nuclear weapon (and the thing about a strike is that you can destroy infrastructure and equipment, but the knowledge and skills to reconstitute those things can’t very well be bombed away)? Who cares? We’ll just bomb them again! Or maybe bombing them will cause a popular revolution that will topple the current, undesirable regime! Sure it will–and the Iraqis will start greeting us as liberators any day now, right Vice-President Cheney? Dr. Wolfowitz?
The thing about the neocons is that, on some level, I assume they think they’re doing the right thing. They really believe that a hyper-aggressive, overly militaristic American foreign policy is the best thing for America, the best thing for our allies (and, yes, Israel in particular), and the best thing for the world. They didn’t spend the better part of a decade calling for war with Iraq over oil, or if they did it was in the sincere belief that the security benefits that access to Iraqi oil would bring would make the world a better place in the long run. We contested Vietnam over a sincere belief that losing there would cause all of Southeast Asia to fall under Communism and irrevocably tilt the global balance of power toward the Soviets. It’s not that their motivations are cynical, or evil. The issue is that no matter how wrong they turn out to be, it never seems to impact their worldview. Whatever happened in the past is in the past, but this next war, that’s the one that’s going to make everything better. We’re fortunate that they’re no longer in a position to seriously influence our foreign policy, but they’re always just one election away from being there again.