Thursday, September 23, 2010

Preventive (i.e., illegal) war against Iran and ther perils of the Munich analogy

Ali Gharib provides the full text of a speech delivered recently in the Washington area by Michael Oren, Isreali Ambassador to the US, in Reactions to Michael Oren's 'Warning to American Jews' LobeLog Foreign Policy 09/21/2010. Oren's speech seemed to be a pitch to Americans to support Israel in a war against Iran. Rather bizarrely, he uses the Book of Jonah, notable for its message of inclusion and its rejection of tribal chauvinism, to argue the necessity of war against Iran.

American neoconservatives are all fired up for such a war. But Juan Cole and Gareth Porter, neither of whom are inclined to be Pollyannish about such things, point to the strong indicators that the Obama administration isn't interested in attacking or invading Iran. There are many good reasons for that, not least of which is that Iran is a close ally of our partner government in Iraq. Attacking Iran would radically affect current plans for reduction of US troop levels in Iraq. It would almost certainly result in a big spike in American casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

If the neocons wanted war against Iran, they should have thought a lot more carefully about their long campaign to invade Iraq. It was obvious before we invaded Iraq - as opponents of the invasion pointed out repeatedly in the buildup to the war - that one consequence of the Iraq War would be the relative strengthening of Iran in the Middle East.

My guess is that Oren's speech is more in the nature of raising diplomatic pressure on Iran, at least in the immediate sense. But one particularly interesting aspect of it is the way he uses the "Munich analogy". This speech is a great illustration of why Jeffrey Record argues in The Specter of Munich: Reconsidering the Lessons of Appeasing Hitler (2006) that American foreign policy would benefit if we could just retire the Munich analogy altogether. Oren says in that speech:

Take, for example, the case of Winston Churchill. During the 1930s, he warned the world of the dangers of the rapidly rearming German Reich. The British people ignored Churchill- worse they scorned him, only to learn later that he was all along prescient and wise. But what if Churchill had become Britain's Prime Minister five years earlier and had ordered a pre-emptive strike against Germany? Those same people might have concluded that the Nazis never posed a real threat and that their prime minister was merely a warmonger.
Churchill also overestimated the strength of Germany's air force. And British strategists generally assumed that there was no effective defense against air power. These were two of the major factors that went into their massively wrong decision-making over the Czechoslovakian crisis decided at the Munich Conference in 1938. In more recent terms, we might say that Churchill along with other British leaders made a big mistake in overestimating the threat from Germany's "weapons of mass destruction."

I'm not aware that Churchill ever even suggested imposing "regime change" in Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. In any case, such "what if" speculations about history are only meaningful if they take real account of options available to the historical actors at the moment. Germany and France were not going to launch a new world war against Germany in 1933-35. And, as our more recent experience in Iraq could serve as a reminder, even bringing to bear overwhelming military power doesn't make "regime change" a "cakewalk", as the neocon Kenneth Adelman famously and foolishly predicted the Iraq War would be. The idea of Britain imposing "regime change" in Germany at that time is pure fantasy.

The Munich Conference also didn't take place in a historical vacuum. A more assertive policy by Britain and France over the 1934 attack on Austria that resulted in the assassination of Austria's Chancellor/dictator Engelbert Dollfuss, the 1936 German remilitarization of the Rhineland, the massive German and Italian aid to Franco's troops in the Spanish Civil War beginning in 1936 and the 1938 annexation of Austria would have placed Britain and France in a stronger position to deal with threatened German aggression against Czechoslovakia in 1938. Churchill, for instance, opposed British aid to the Republican government in Spain.

One might suggest drawing lessons from that aspect of British-French policy in the 1930s, as well. I'll refrain from making narrow analogies to US Middle East policy. But a key element of US policy in that region has been the promotion of Islamist parties and groups during the Cold War to offset the perceived threat of Nasser-type secularist "Arab socialism". We're still experiencing the blowback from supporting what in the 1980s were commonly described as the brave and fiercely independent Mujahideen freedom fighters in Afghanistan, now better known as Muslim terrorists who "hate us for our values". For that matter, the whole debate over attacking Iran is in significant part blowback from the supposedly brilliant success of the 1953 covert action to overthrow the moderate, secular, democratic government in Iran.

A more sensible approach for the United States would be one not so driven by short-term fears and aims. One that, for instance, would be more careful about building up Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime as a secular Sunni counterweight to radical, scary Shi'a Iran, then spending the last 20 years and counting opposing Iraq and the Saddam regime and dealing with the catastrophic results of the Cheney-Bush administration's invasion in 2003. Did I mention that Iran become considerably more powerful in the Middle East as a result of our war that replaced Saddam's Sunni secular regime with a Shi'a Islamist regime allied to Iran?

What Jeffrey Record argues is that what distinguished Hitler Germany as an adversary was that Hitler was not appeasable (i.e., not able to be satisfied by diplomatic concessions that would have been tolerable to the West), not deterrable and also in command of what was then the mightiest military force in the world. The constant use of the Munich analogy has morphed every enemy of the US since then into Hitler. But none of them has had anything reasonably comparable to the fatal combination of qualities the Hitler regime displayed.

One of the bad consequences of the overuse of the Munich analogy - often used as not much more than an argument that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain displayed insufficient testosterone during the Munich Conference - is what Record calls "threat inflation," i.e., overestimating the threat presented by adversaries, sometimes wildly so. And that exactly what Michael Oren does in his speech:

This is the radical, genocidal Iran whose leaders regularly call for Israel's annihilation and provides terrorists with the means for accomplishing that goal. This is the Iran that undermines governments throughout the Middle East and even South America, and an Iran that shoots its own people protesting for freedom.

Iran does all this without nuclear weapons–imagine what it would do with the nuclear arms it is assiduously developing. And imagine what you, awakening once again as the Israeli Prime Minister, will decide. Do you remain passive while Iran provides nuclear weaponry to terrorist groups, targets Tel Aviv with nuclear-tipped missiles, and triggers a nuclear arms race throughout the region? Or do you act, as Israel has now, joining with the United States and other like-minded nations in imposing sanctions on Iran, hoping to dissuade its rulers from nuclearizing? And, if that fails, do you keep all options on the table, with the potentially far-reaching risks those options entail? [my emphasis]
It's certainly news to me that Iran has been undermining governments throughout South America!! But once you make your enemy into Hitler, it's easier to believe almost any claim of their evil potential.

Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons. Even if Iran had a nuclear weapon, there is no reason to believe that Iranian leaders are so self-destructive as to launch a nuclear strike against Israel in the certain knowledge that Israel could and would counter with a far, far more destructive nuclear retaliation against them. No reason, unless you fantasize them as being "Hitler".

For Juan Cole's recent comments on prospects for attacking Iran, see his Informed Comment posts Obama dismisses Iran War Prospects, overrules Clinton 09/21/2010 and An Israeli Attack on Iran would reduce Barack Obama to a One-Term President 08/15/2010. For Gareth Porter's, see Obama Resists Pressure for Red Line on Iran's Nuclear Capability Inter Press Service 08/26/2010 and The Real Aim of Israel’s Bomb Iran Campaign Firedoglake 07/29/2010.

None of this means that the neocons' campaign for war against Iran is harmless or not to be taken seriously. As Cole puts it, "The Neocons will just have to wait a few years for their war, if they get it at all. If they get it, the rest of us won't like what it does to our country and our lives."


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