The Secretary of State who cried “wolf”

What if Colin Powell is right?

The Aesopian fable about The Boy who Cried Wolf has two morals, of which only one — Don’t issue false warnings, or your true warnings will be disbelieved — is generally recognized. But the other — This time, there might actually be a wolf — is at least equally important.

Colin Powell relays word, seemingly from the People’s Mujaheddin, that Iran is acquiring delivery systems for nuclear weapons and using laser enrichment to produce bomb-grade nuclear material,

That is getting him the horselaugh from many of the people I usually agree with, including Kevin Drum.

My question to them is a simple one: What if it’s true?

Some of the folks around GWB are obviously pushing for war. That naturally makes those of who think that those same folks are running the country into a ditch somewhat skeptical.

But there are cross-currents. For one thing, confronting Iran will probably make the situation in Iraq much, much worse, since it would probably get Sistani strongly committed against us and whoever our remaining friends in Iraq might be.

For another, the source of the latest leak is a group that we have already called “terrorist,” and which the Europeans, as part of the latest deal, agreed to crack down on. No doubt the People’s Mujaheddin does use terror, and I’m sympathetic with the notion that terror, like torture, is never justified. But I’m worried that the “war on terror” slogan might have penetrated too deeply into some of the small brains now fouling up our foreign policy, and that, in the Iranian case as in the Russian case, they will opt to stand with the government-in-being against insurgents as long as the government proclaims its hostility to “terrorism,” no matter how terroristic its own policies might be.

Moreover, to the real bases-and-oil-concessions imperialists, an Iranian venture would be a no-hoper; we might take out the government, but making Iran an American province simply isn’t on; for one thing, the Russians, who have just announced that they plan to build a new generation of missiles designed to penetrate whatever we’re calling Star Wars these days, wouldn’t hold still for it, and the geography gives Russia a virtual veto over any long-term solution for Iran it can’t stomach.

And if you’re Karl Rove, going to war with Iran, which would (unless we get much more foreign help than seems remotely plausible) probably require a military force we couldn’t raise without something very much like a draft, has to look like a move with a huge political downside and not much political upside.

So, all things considered, I’m just as worried about BushCo being excessively lackadaisical about Iranian proliferation as I am about their being excessively aggressive. Maybe, in this case, Powell is speaking his own mind, rather than following the party line.

No one doubts that Iran has been, and is, pushing hard to join the nuclear club. Even the Europeans who just concluded a tentative deal with Iran don’t really believe it will slow the mullahs down much. It’s just that they can’t think of anything else to do but talk:

A European diplomat familiar with the British-French-German initiative said they were also pessimistic that Iran would back off its nuclear ambitions, but that they had no choice but to engage Iran because military options were distasteful or impractical after the troubled invasion and occupation of Iraq.

So the Europeans find the prospect of fighting another war in the Middle East, this one with an enemy whose army might not melt away before the battle, “distasteful”? I’m not surprised. No doubt it is.

But that reminds me of John Kenneth Galbraith’s definition of politics as the task of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.

I don’t know about your tastes, Kemosabe, but I can’t think of much that leaves a fouler impression on my palate than letting the sponsor of Hezbollah nuke up. (Letting the lunatics now running North Korea nuke up is perhaps slightly less bitter, since I can more easily imagine Hezbollah deciding to take out New York or Los Angeles than I can North Korea.)

And as to “impractical,” I can’t think of any thing more impractical than waiting to let one’s enemies arm themselves.

Now that we know that Iraq wasn’t anywhere near getting operational nuclear or biological weapons, the decision to invade Iraq when we did looks a lot less good in retrospect than it looked to me in prospect. (The decision to try to make Iraq an American puppet state always looked lousy, and now it looks worse.)

I’m still waiting for someone to explain how we were going to keep Iraqi WMD ambitions contained when the sanctions came off or came apart, as they were certainly going to do sooner rather than later. (No one has mentioned it yet, but since we now know that we didn’t really have a good exit strategy from Iraq after the Gulf War, it’s no longer obvious to me that fighting that war — as opposed, say, to encouraging Iraq’s regional opponents to deal with the problem themselves — was a good idea after all. Live and learn.)

Still, the case for haste, and the hawks who pushed the case for haste (not to mention those of us who accepted the case for haste, however reluctantly) aren’t looking very smart.

But one of the strongest reasons for not invading Iraq, or at least not doing it at the head of such a small coalition, was precisely that it would leave us less capable of doing anything about Iran’s nuclear ambitions (or, to a lesser exent, North Korea’s). So “We shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, and therefore now shouldn’t do anything military about Iran’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons” doesn’t really hold together very well as an argument.

What might be called the argumentum ad incompetens— BushCo f***ed up Iraq to a fare-thee-well, and there’s no reason to think they’d do better with Iran — has more cogency, but I’m still having a hard time imagining a worse outcome than a nuclear-armed Iran.

If there are enough nukes around in enough unreliable hands, eventually one of them is going to get used. The notion that the humanitarian position is the one in favor of letting that happen without fighting seems to me obviously false.

Again, one of the bad side-effects of taking out Saddam Hussein while making nice to Pakistan was to make it clear to every tinpot dictator in the world that acquiring nuclear weapons meant acquiring protection against being attacked by the U.S. But that makes the importance of showing the opposite — that attempting to get nuclear weapons guarantees being attacked by the U.S. — that much more important. Yes, yes, in the received law of war armament-building isn’t, by itself, a casus belli. But the sort of threat posed by nuclear and biological weapons is, I submit, sufficiently different from the sort of threat posed by armies and battleships as to require a rethinking of what constitues jus ad bello.

Yes, I’d like to be supporting a move toward war with Iran with a different team running it. But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

So, what it going to be, fellas? The unpalatable, or the disastrous?

You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Update Edited to correct a mistaken literary allusion. “Peter and the Wolf,” as various readers pointed out, is another story entirely.

To those readers who pointed out that we’re a little shy of troops right now to be thinking about fighting Iran, what with Iraq to deal with, I say: If Iran is really rushing to get nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, then nothing our troops are now doing in Iraq is nearly as important as putting a stop to that. So if we had to withdraw from Iraq to deal with Iran, we should do so.

We might, of course, wind up withdrawing from Iraq in any case, for example if the elections actually take place and the new elected government politely asks us not to let the door hit our ass on the way out. It’s not obvious that would be an especially bad solution, either, given the alternatives.

In fact, here’s a Machiavellian thought: Is it possible that some of the Iraq hawks around GWB now realize they’ve landed us in a quagmire, and want to use Iran as an excuse tog get out of Iraq? Or is it possible that Colin Powell has some such thought in mind?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “The Secretary of State who cried “wolf””

  1. The reverse double nutbar conspiracy theory with a twist

    From Mark Kleiman: "Peter and the Wolf" has two morals, of which only one — Don't issue false warnings, or your true warnings will be disbelieved — is generally recognized. But the other — This time, there might actually be

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