National Security & Defense

The Return of Preemption

Obama shows the fallacy of always leaving force as a last resort.

Months after leaving the Pentagon nearly nine years ago, I wrote in NR (“Before They Go Nuclear . . .”) that the Bush administration’s Europe-led sanctions strategy would lead to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Why? Because of the implicit understanding among the U.S. and its European partners that force was off the table as long as further sanctions could be imposed.

The Obama administration has always insisted that force is on the table “if diplomacy fails.” But it has also insisted that strikes would only slow the Iranian program down. That’s of a piece with the rest of the administration’s approach, which appears to reject any notion of “coercive diplomacy.” The president is a faithful believer that diplomacy depends on dialogue and mutual understanding, and that “pressure” is provocative and therefore undermines diplomacy.

That was the standard Democratic-party line in the 1980s, and it was thoroughly refuted by Reagan’s success in rolling back the Soviet Union and its satellites in places like Nicaragua. But the “accommodation” style of diplomacy has deep psychological roots (imperialist guilt perhaps?) and is apparently impervious to falsification.

That’s easy enough for conservatives to understand. Most conservatives grasp that diplomacy needs leverage, and that leverage must sometimes include the threat of force in order to shape the adversary’s cost-benefit analysis.

What conservatives often don’t understand is that force is often most effectively and humanely employed at the start of a dangerous development, precisely in order to preserve stability and the chances for diplomacy. The amount of force required to stabilize a situation that is just starting to slide down a slippery slope is often much less than the force that will be required to reverse the situation later.

Early preemption is often justifiable on grounds of simple proportionality. If two military options will prove equally effective, you should use the one that involves the lesser amount of force, and the lesser risk for collateral damage. The force needed to stop an Iranian program that consisted of a single pilot enrichment facility above ground with only 144 centrifuges inside (i.e., the situation in 2006) was much less than the force required to stop an Iranian program that consists of thousands of centrifuges and a large stockpile of fissile material in reinforced bunkers deep underground.

This analysis is what justified Israel’s strikes on the nuclear reactors in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. Israel struck before the reactors were operational, because waiting any longer would have meant bombing a live nuclear reactor, with the environmental disaster of nuclear fallout.

However unwittingly, the Obama administration implicitly recognized the necessity of early preemption when Secretary of State John Kerry testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently that we have no choice but to accept large-scale uranium enrichment by Iran now because the Bush administration failed to stop Iran’s enrichment program in any way. That analysis may actually be correct. Left unsaid was his own support for the strategy that failed to stop Iran, or just how Iran could have been stopped without force.

Reinforcing diplomacy with the credible threat of force just might have resolved the Iran nuclear crisis without firing a shot. And there were lots of things we could have done militarily without even destroying the pilot facility. Recall that in a coercive-diplomacy mode, the objective of both the threat and use of force is not to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, but to dissuade Iran from pursuing it further. 

In other words, in a strategy of coercive diplomacy, the range of military options runs the gamut of capabilities, including things at the lower end that leave Iran with plenty to lose, and therefore dissuade Iran from retaliating. For example, we could have bombed a refinery or oil-storage facilities. Demonstrating a willingness to use force, and a willingness to cut the regime off from things that it needs immediately, would have dramatically altered the regime’s cost-benefit analysis with respect to the nuclear program.

For example, threatening to constrict Iran’s domestic gasoline supply would have threatened to disrupt the supply chain for basic necessities. That would have meant food riots in Iran’s major cities within weeks, with the potential for revolutionary upheaval. Demonstrating to Iran that pursuing nuclear weapons would not enhance its survival but on the contrary would mean risking suicide for the regime, would have strengthened the hand of the real moderates in the regime and made a policy of accommodation on the nuclear front much more attractive.

Instead, by embracing a strategy that left force as a last resort, we encouraged Iran to continue pursuing nuclear-weapons development. Under the banner of “giving diplomacy a chance” we all but ensured that diplomacy would fail.

By the time Obama got to the White House in 2009, the window for a quick and easy military option — as part of a sound diplomatic strategy — was rapidly closing. That’s because the Iranians had dramatically expanded their enrichment facilities and buried them deep underground, including in a secret facility at Fordow that we didn’t even know about.

Even then, sanctions could have been enough to stop Iran without military strikes. In 2007, former assistant secretary of defense Peter Rodman advocated a robust strategy of containment, consisting of three basic elements: (1) stabilize Iraq as a strong American ally, (2) increase the pressure of sanctions, and (3) support the pro-democracy movement within Iran.

The Obama administration, of course, has pursued the opposite strategy in every particular. Obama threw away any prospect of stabilizing Iraq as an American ally when he recklessly withdrew U.S. forces in 2011. While the supposedly unilateralist Bush administration got five sanctions resolutions through the U.N. Security Council in two years, Obama has managed only one in seven years; and congressional sanctions that finally brought Iran to the negotiating table (the comprehensive Iran sanctions act of 2010) were rammed down his throat against his opposition. And we all know how much support he gave Iran’s Green Movement after the fraudulent elections of 2009 brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets — namely, none.

Having taken all pressure off the table, and relying only on the carrots of sanctions relief to the tune of billions per month, Obama naturally had to cave in to Iran on virtually every element of the nuclear program. The deal stops the major elements of the program right at the threshold of “breakout” to nuclear weapons, and increases the transparency we have on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

The problem is that the further the program is allowed to proceed, the more pervasive the transparency that will be needed to verify its peaceful nature — and the framework agreement’s transparency measures simply aren’t enough. For example, Iran will be let off the hook of having to answer almost any of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s major outstanding questions. The effect is that the IAEA will have to verify Iran’s compliance with a new framework without ever having been able to verify the peaceful nature of the program.

The deal with Iran is precisely what you could predict from a strategy of all carrots and no sticks — a diplomatic debacle for the United States, its allies, and the nuclear nonproliferation regime. But let’s remember — because this is going to come up again — that this debacle began in the Bush administration, with the risky decision to take force off the table, in order to “give diplomacy a chance.”

NR contributing editor Mario Loyola is a former special assistant at the Pentagon and a former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.

Mario Loyola is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program of Florida International University, and a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute of George Mason University. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone.


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