The Corner

21st Century Deterrence CTD

I enjoyed your piece, Mario (“Where to Stand and Fight“). And I certainly agree with you that, without a credible threat of force, there’s little we can do about Iran. Yet this is a truth the country doesn’t want to hear right now. So what to do? I say we need to draw out the contradictions of the “grand bargain” strategy the world is about to adopt. Only when the public has seen through the limitations of the new strategy will they accept the need for a credible threat of force. In short, we ought to take the grand bargain folks seriously on their own terms, because that is the best way of showing how flawed those terms actually are.

Serious proponents of a grand bargain know that success depends on big fat sticks, not just carrots. And for grand bargainers, financial sanctions are the club of choice. So anyone arguing for the grand bargain option needs to show where the sanctions are going to come from, how severe they will be, how long they will take to work, how long we can endure imposing them, and above all, what will happen if sanctions fail to force the Iranians to cave.

It’s one thing to talk about the military option. As we’ve seen, it’s another thing to execute a successful military occupation. Well, in the coming months, we’re going to be putting the grand bargain strategy to a similar real-world test. It’s one thing to say we need a comprehensive settlement with Iran. It’s another thing to actually force a settlement through the disciplined and collective imposition of serious, costly (to the powers pushing on Iran), long-term, co-ordinated, world-wide economic sanctions.

After the Baker commission recommends a grand bargain, after the president accepts the idea, and after the Europeans voice approval, the temptation will be to focus on a long drawn out negotiations process. The Iranians will simply use negotiations as a delaying tactic to perfect their nuclear weapons. At best, they will stop at the point where they can turn their nuclear energy program into a full fledged weapons production plant at the drop of a hat.

To prevent this, folks like us need to focus the world’s attention on the need for a severe and collective regime of economic sanctions as the minimum necessary condition for even the (questionable) grand bargain strategy to have a chance of success. Failure to impose sanctions will prove that the bargainers are nothing but appeasers. On the other hand, the imposition of serious sanctions will initiate a genuine struggle with Iran, which could itself lead to war–either because Iran will strike back, or because the failure of sanctions would implicitly point to the need for military force.

So now that the doves of the world are in charge, they are also in a bit of a trap. If the world’s doves cannot bring themselves to impose serious economic sanctions on Iran, their strategy is exposed as hollow posturing–a fig leaf for defeat and a free ticket to an Iranian nuclear future. On the other hand, if Europe, Russia, and China do impose serious sanctions, they implicitly put themselves back on a track to possible war, if the sanctions don’t actually work. Those of us who are skeptical of the grand bargain approach need to highlight this contradiction as it plays itself out over the coming months.

I’d prefer to be playing a different game. Like you, I’d rather go back to the first principles of good defense and argue from there for a military option. But politically, that will no longer fly. Grand bargains are the new game in town and, ultimately, the best route back to where you want to be is to engage with the grand bargainers and expose the flaws of their plan for what they are. So I say, give peace a chance–then watch it fall apart of its own internal contradictions.

The world is about to discover is that there is no painless solution to the problem of nuclear proliferation in an era of Islamist terror. War? It stinks. Peace? Ditto. Iran’s quest for nukes has put the world on a collision course. The only question is how long will it take before the spit hits the fan, and who gets hit first and hardest.