December 29, 2011

The War Over Iran

Matthew Kroenig, Steven Walt and others have given us a real Christmas treat in the form of the debate over Matt's recent article in Foreign Affairs. Walt responded to Matt's article, as did Dan Drezner and Paul Pillar. Although I was inclined to agree with Walt when the debate began, I was put off by the condescension -- as I perceived it -- in his original response, so I was especially pleased to see him then allow Matt a chance to reply before posting one final time himself. Students of international relations and Middle East policy should take the time to read through the informative back-and-forth, and I thank both scholars for getting their ideas out there in the public sphere.

I have a few problems of my own with Matt's original article. Those problems all concern second and third-order effects.

If Iran gets the bomb, I have heard all kinds of worries about what would then happen in terms of regional security. But in conversations with leaders around the region, I have heard very few specifics. Why, exactly, would a nuclear Iran be so much worse than a non-nuclear Iran? Bear with me here: Let's say Iran gets a nuclear weapon. What happens next? Would other states bandwagon? What would that bandwagoning behavior look like in real terms? (For the record, I have never heard any compelling answer to this question in travels around the region.)

Would other states seek nuclear weapons? How, exactly? Let's pick one example: Saudi Arabia. Why, first off, has Saudi Arabia not already begun a nuclear energy program? (And don't say "oil," because there is an opportunity cost to Gulf states using oil for their own energy rather than selling it on the open market for $100 a barrel.) Does Saudi Arabia have the technical expertise to start a nuclear program? If so, how long would it take them? Would Saudi Arabia instead buy a bomb? From where? From Pakistan, perhaps? Why would the Pakistanis sell one to them? Why might the Pakistanis not sell one to them? You can see where I am going here: once you start trying examine the second and third order effects and their various branches, it's tough to explain how, exactly, a nuclear Iran would be that much more dangerous than a non-nuclear Iran. I am not saying it would not be more dangerous -- I am saying it is very hard to explain how, exactly, a nuclear Iran would be more dangerous. And I think those arguing for war with Iran have an obligation to sketch out those specifics to both policy makers and to the public.

On the flip side of the equation, what might be the adverse second and third order effects of a U.S. strike on Iran? I agree with Matt's critics that he gives us the best-case scenario. But how does the situation look if we work through the effects of a U.S. strike on Iran country-by-country? How might another war affect U.S. security and economic interests elsewhere in the region? How might such a war affect U.S. interests outside the region? How might Iran respond?

I like Matt as both a person and a scholar. I think he owes us more analysis, though, than he has thus far given us.

Update: On the other hand, I can think of few people less qualified to answer the questions I have asked in the above paragraphs than this freaking guy. I mean, why in the world would any responsible analyst or policy maker listen to what John Yoo, J.D., has to say about the regional security architecture of the Persian Gulf? Or military operations? It's not as if the Republican Party does not have plenty of smart people who can speak about each. I have no idea what the editors at the National Review were thinking.