September 20, 2019

Gambling on not attacking Iran

In an article that was widely discussed and cited in Israel, novelist David Grossman suggested a few days ago that the Israeli government lacks the moral authority to launch an attack on Iran.

Grossman asked, “in order to block a possible disaster in the future, will Israel be driven to initiate a certain disaster in the present?” and his answer was quite clear: “And because there is no way to ascertain that Iran would indeed attack Israel if it had nuclear weapons at its disposal, Israel must not attack Iran.” And more: An Israeli attack “would be a rash, wild bet, likely to disfigure our future in ways I dare not even imagine. No, I can imagine it, but my hand refuses to write it.” 

Grossman might be a great novelist, but his skill as foreign policy sage is questionable. Two days after he published his article (which appeared in Hebrew in Haaretz), Prof Yehezkel Dror, one of Israel’s most distinguished strategic thinkers, answered Grossman with an article that was really a policy 101 lesson.

“I do not have the knowledge with which to judge if attacking Iran is the right course to pursue,” Dror explained. This is not the time for him to serve his readers with this cup of humility. Last year, Dror wrote that the debate over Iran “is actually a ritualized and pointless endeavor,” and that “it’s impossible to take a serious position on the matter without full knowledge of the facts… Thus the only conclusion that can be drawn from public opinion polls asking whether people would support or oppose an Israeli attack is that the Israeli public discourse on the issue is a superficial one.”

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But going back to Grossman’s main point, Dror had an even more damning observation to make: It is indeed the role of a government to make exactly the kind of decisions that the novelists would want it to avoid.

“It is a morally tragic necessity”, Dror wrote, but one that can’t be avoided. Governments – not just the Israeli government – have to make assessments and act accordingly. If a government believes that great danger awaits the country, it has to preempt the danger. That the danger is future one – hence uncertain – while the price to be paid for preempting it is all but certain, doesn’t exempt the government from making the right decision. And the right decision would be: Act now and pay the (even heavy) price, if you really believe that the future danger is much graver.

All this should be pretty simple to understand, but I was reminded of this exchange of views as I was reading Fareed Zakaria’s Washington Post article this morning on containing Iran. “Anguish over the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon is understandable”, Zakaria writes, but then adds: “But were Tehran to persist, were its regime to accept the global isolation and crippling costs that would come from its decision, a robust policy of containment and deterrence would work toward Iran as it did against Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and the Pakistani military.”

Zakaria’s article puts Iran in the same group as Russia, China and Pakistan. But these are different stories, and adopting a one-size-fits-all theory to accommodate them doesn’t withstand careful scrutiny of the circumstances of each case. Not too long ago, Zakaria himself explained why American intervention in Syria should not be the obvious choice. Even though Zakaria tended to inflate the importance of the Libya intervention – he argued that this operation signaled “a new era in US foreign policy” no less – he still understood that Syria is more complicated than Libya. Namely, that you can’t use the specific success in Libya as template against which all other Middle East problems can be measured.

But for some reason, when it comes to containment of Iran, Zakaria does pick the template model. And that’s an obvious mistake: Choosing deterrence over war with the Soviet Union is nothing like making the same choice with Iran. North Korea is China’s close neighbor, and a preemptive attack would have been very complicated in that neighborhood. Pakistan had a clandestine nuclear program, and the US never made a real attempt to dissuade it from taking the nuclear path; obviously, attacking any of these countries after they’ve already acquired nuclear weapons is nothing like attacking Iran before it achieves such capability.

While both Grossman and Zakaria seemingly make the same argument – don’t gamble on war now, work to contain Iran later – they come to this conclusion from very different directions. For Grossman the point is: Since we don’t know what will happen in the future, we should not be going to war now. For Zakaria it is the opposite point: Since we do know containment will work in the future, we should not be going to war now.

Both are guilty of self-delusion. Zakaria wants to take a huge gamble based on mostly irrelevant past experiences with containment; Grossman wants to take a huge gamble based on an irrelevant moral theory. Dror is obviously right: Most people do not have the knowledge with which to form a serious opinion on the validity and the necessity of war with Iran. But most people do have enough common sense with which to reject the arguments made both by Grossman and Zakaria.