Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

28 October 2007

Common Sense and Iran

About a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt offered a simple, common-sense prescription for dealing with rogue regimes. “Speak softly,” he said, “but carry a big stick.”

Have George W. Bush and Dick Cheney followed that prescription? Not hardly. They’re threatening and growling like two-bit tyrants. When it comes to credible deterrence, they’ve reduced the world’s only superpower to the status of a paper tiger.

Far from speaking softly, Bush loves to “ratchet up the rhetoric.” His public posturing gives us little to distinguish him from the belligerent and irresponsible Ahmadinejad, except that Bush claims to be on our side.

As the world’s only superpower, we have the strength to act calmly and deliberately. We are supposed to stand for democracy, reason and the rule of law. We therefore ought to speak in muted tones. That obligation is especially important now that we have started an unnecessary war that we cannot seem to end.

Bush’s threatening and alarmist rhetoric is wildly inappropriate because we are far from the end of our diplomatic rope. Iran has yet to develop any fissile material suitable for weaponry, let alone enough for a weapon. Even if it does, Iran then has to develop suitable triggers for nuclear devices and test them.

There are many ways to detect nuclear explosions, including x-ray and gamma-ray bursts, leaks of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere (from underground tests), and unusual seismic activity. We have so many bases and friends close to Iran that—if we are doing only half of the scientific monitoring that we should be doing—we will know instantly of any successful test by Iran, no matter how small or (like North Korea’s) marginally successful it might be. And we will know exactly where the test occurs. We still are a long way from any urgent need for a military option.

Bush’s inability to restrain his “Texas swagger” and speak softly, as Teddy advised, is just another example of his supreme incompetence. Besides making Iran even more intransigent, his approach foments fear and hostility in our own country, which are the enemies of rational policy. If Bush can’t open his mouth without sounding like an alarmist or a bully, he should just keep it shut.

The second part of Teddy’s prescription was his advice to “carry a big stick.” That advice has two aspects. First, you have to have the stick. Second, you have to show it publicly, so as to dissuade unpredictable adversaries like Iran from dangerous action. So far, Bush and Cheney have failed miserably on both counts.

Far from developing a credible military strategy, Bush has gotten us bogged down in an interminable land war right in Iran’s neighborhood. There Iran has harried us incessantly, supplying our enemies with modern weapons and sophisticated IEDs.

That is not all. By overextending our limited ground forces, Bush has made us look weak before the entire world. He has done the exact opposite of providing credible deterrence. He has made Teddy’s big stick appear small and fragile.

If you want to know how to handle dangerous regimes flirting with nuclear brinkmanship, study Israel. Israel has to be smart because it is small and vulnerable. It doesn’t have the luxury of being the sole remaining superpower. Nor does it have thousands of miles to shield it from any likely arena of conflict. A single nuclear device in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem could ruin Israel forever.

Yet Israel has shown the way. It destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Recently it appears to have destroyed a shipment of nuclear-weapons-related material from North Korea to Syria. Neither action preceded a ground invasion or provoked a war.

As Israel’s leadership teaches, the only rational military response to nuclear brinksmanship by rogue nations is good intelligence and surgical air strikes. Air power is the only big stick that makes sense in this context.

But what kind of air power? It is now almost half a century since the Soviets shot down Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane over their territory. Those of us alive then still remember the diplomatic pain of that incident and the national embarrassment of seeing an American hero made the pawn of a hostile regime.

Those painful memories should teach us something. Pilots are vulnerable to capture and worse. Attempts to rescue them create even greater risks of diplomatic and military disaster.

Half a century later, we seem to have learned little. Yet there is a better way. We now have ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles. These weapons have no onboard pilots to shoot down, capture, display and mistreat.

We should therefore make them the centerpieces of our deterrent force for the twenty-first century. We should convert a large fraction of our ballistic missile force to conventional (non-nuclear) warheads, leaving only the minimum number of nuclear weapons needed for credible deterrence. We should be arming whole squadrons of planes and all our navy’s ships with conventional (non-nuclear) cruise missiles. We should embark on a crash program, similar to the Manhattan Project, to create a formidable force of remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles capable of taking out a nuclear facility or missile plant with surgical precision, low cost, and low risk of human casualties.

A big stick is no deterrent unless you show it. So simply building these deterrent forces is not enough. We also have to test and display them. Our development and testing should be transparent, frequent and public. We must let rogue regimes like Iran know just what they are up against. The technology itself must remain secret, but its existence and capability should be well advertised.

I see no evidence that we are doing any of this. Already we have used remotely controlled aircraft for “combat” missions in Iraq, flown by pilots sitting comfortably in air-conditioned offices in the American West. We should be pushing this technology far and fast; it would cost a small fraction of what we have wasted on our disastrous misadventure on the ground in Iraq. If we were doing so, the public would know, and the world should know, for purposes of deterrence.

Teddy was a member of Bush’s own party, just a lot smarter than Bush. What we need now is to return to Teddy’s simple formula. We can do so by pursuing the three D’s: diplomacy, democracy and deterrence.

We should begin by speaking softly and putting our shoulder to the wheel of diplomacy. We should build a regional coalition to counter Iran’s hegemonic impulses and to deter it from nuclearizing the Middle East. We should develop our human intelligence inside Iran and provide covert support for its democratic forces.

And as a last resort, we should develop remotely controlled non-nuclear air power as a deterrent to Iran’s dangerous behavior. We can use that force to destroy dangerous weaponry and weapons factories if all else fails. That would be a far better way to protect Europe (and ourselves) from the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran than developing a “Star Wars” missile shield that is unlikely to work reliably when needed and is threatening to re-ignite the Cold War with Russia.

Having done none of these things (at least not effectively), Bush and Cheney get a grade of “F” in handling the Iran “crisis.” That’s one of the many reasons why we badly need a regime change here at home. We need leaders who can think at least one step ahead of our adversaries, not ones who react spasmodically in fear and panic.

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