Bombing Iran: “On Batsh*t”

More on Iran: why we think asymmetrically and bomb casually.

Before I respond to Steve’s and Mark’s posts on Iran, let me note that the flamboyant labels that I’ve been applying to the idea of massive bombing to end Iran’s nuclear program apply to the idea, not to those holding it. Through out this post I’ll make some suggestions of why batsh*t ideas occur to brilliant, thoughtful people on this subject.

On to substance.

First off, something about this issue induces people to practice massive asymmetry in their assumptions: Iran’s threat is potentially unlimited, diverse, impossible to predict, and constantly growing, but our options are considered limited to one (and that rapidly disappearing). Why can’t creative actions cut both ways?

Take Mark’s reasons why Iran’s nuking Tel Aviv might not lead to massive retaliation. First, Israel may not have intermediate-range missiles (though Iran has, in the scenario, acquired same without great trouble), nor planes that can drop bombs from that far away. I doubt this, but if so there’s a simple solution: sell Israel five such missiles or a few planes. Why does the U.S. have to bomb another country into rubble to preventively protect an ally who can easily be enabled to defend itself? Note also that Iran’s intermediate-range missiles have suddenly morphed into ICBMs: we’re supposed to be skittish regarding “U.S. cities at risk from a still-nuclear-armed Iran.” Yet again, Israel’s acquiring even intermediate-range missiles is assumed to be all-but-impossible. (True, Iran might build suitcase bombs. And Mossad can’t?)

Bruce Moomaw, quoted in Mark’s post, asks how many times his Ceaucescu scenario has to be repeated. He intends this rhetorically, but the answer is “until it starts making sense.” If I read the case correctly, the idea is that the mullahs will get so afraid of losing power that they use nuclear threats to raise cash. I must confess that the bank-robber incentive baffles me to begin with—what good the cash would do if the mullahs feared “getting massacred when they lose power”? (Ceaucescu had plenty of money when he got strung up.) But if we’re afraid of its happening, the solution is of course to arrange immunity and exile when the time comes, not to slaughter lots of innocents ten or fifteen years before any of this hypothetically happens.

The whole scenario is bizarre anyway: Iran, though no liberal democracy, is a roughly electoral regime whose past (and defeated) leaders demonstrably live peacefully in their own country. If any nuclear power is likely to face a “desperate dictator” scenario, it’s Pakistan. And while I realize that we have to reward that country for its stunning success at hunting down bin Laden and limiting religious extremism, the fact that nobody is spinning nightmare scenarios about Pakistan suggests to me that what’s going on is not risk analysis but “our guys vs. their guys” thinking. The latter must be about to collapse in some desperado fashion because, well, that’s what bad guys do. The same goes for Mark’s observation that armies can be nuttier than leaders. Of course this is true—but less true in Pakistan? And why does nobody wonder what some messianic Israeli settler with an Army commission might do?

While I’m aware that Bertrand Russell defended melting millions of innocent Russians into pemmican to avoid having to practice deterrence, I don’t regard this position as worth a detailed response.

Both Steve and Mark think that the issue of Iranian casualties, and the world reaction to it, cut both ways—better us inflicting them than Israel (or better us now than in retaliation for a nuclear attack on Tel Aviv). But Mark says this because he still thinks for some reason that we have to do Israel’s self-defense for it: if Israel retaliated itself for a bombing of its own city, I don’t see how American civilians would suffer the consequences (and anti-Israeli sentiment among Muslims can hardly get much worse). Steve argues that Israel’s (conventionally) taking out Iran’s nuclear program would be more “destabilizing” than our doing so. While I’m not sure that’s true on most definitions of destabilizing, and probably nobody knows for sure, I’m also sure that it would be a different kind of destabilization: again, we have (slightly) more to lose in world opinion than Israel does, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Israel-Iran war actually glossed like a fair fight in many quarters where a U.S.-Iran war would look very different. Besides, given how many people who support a U.S. bombing run justify it by the fear that Israel won’t do likewise, I handicap this as far from a sure thing.

Steve wonders whether the Iranian leadership has the same definition of rationality that reasonable folks (like Cheney and Wolfowitz and Perle?) have. While it’s possible that anybody might be seeking martyrdom , I’m very leery of believing such things: it’s just too easy, and there’s too long a history of ascribing inscrutability to those culturally different from ourselves. In the same paragraph Steve in fact attributes to Iran’s future leaders some strikingly rational strategic objectives—of the kind we’ll have to get used to living with, as the neighbors of India (on-again, off-again Hindu fanatic in rhetoric), Pakistan (ditto with Islam), and Israel (ditto with something they call Judaism) live with theirs.

I can’t help thinking that behind all of this is an unwillingness to face what “bombing” is. It’s deliberate, mass killing: not “murder” if in self-defense, but not remotely all right for any other reason. I’m neither a pacifist nor a cosmopolitan (nor a dour moralist, though I admit I sometimes blog like one). I supported the Afghanistan war, I was on the fence on the Iraq war when I though WMDs existed, and I’m willing to support Americans’ killing other people’s children if absolutely necessary to protect our own. But casual talk of “4000 sorties” to safeguard “strategic” goals or some unspecified form of “stability” makes me ill—and evokes my highly unprofessional adjectives. The U.S., blessed with no war on our continental soil since 1865, and still obsessed with Pearl Harbor at that, has the luxury of forgetting what happens when the bombs fall. Think about a four-year-old with no arms left. And remember what it means to be the object of “preventive” war rather than the party free to think of it as grand strategy.

UPDATE: Bruce Moomaw writes to say that in positing a regime

so WEAK and wobbly, and fearful of a popular revolt that might kill a good many of its officials, that it gets quite rationally desperate enough to make threats with its Bombs, in order to raise the cash to stay in power, that would be totally insane for the officials of a democracy who don’t fear getting massacred when they lose power

he meant, “obviously,” not that the leaders in this scenario want money for themselves (what I called the “bank-robber scenario”) but that “they want to acquire cash to avoid losing power in the first place—not personal cash, but money and power for the entire regime, extorted from its neighbors.” Actually, I find the point less than obvious because it makes sense only if the country in question faces utter financial collapse such that foreign aid can make a difference. (The popular revolt that its leaders hypothetically fear is then presumably happening for this reason.) This of course describes one nuclear power, North Korea—but no other. It literally never occurred to me that anyone could consider this a live possibility over the next few years in Iran, whose GDP per capita is $8000 (before bombing). Just for a random comparison, Pakistan’s GDP per capita is less than a third of that.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

One thought on “Bombing Iran: “On Batsh*t””

  1. Iranian Guano Fetish

    Andrew Sabl has a really good post responding to Mark Kleiman's paranoia on Iraq. Myself, I'm thinking it is Groundhog Day all over again. It's going to be a great summer. But just to add a bit here, I must…

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