by Paul Pillar
Sometimes a child is able to drag a parent into doing something the parent might not really want to do—say, taking the kid to an amusement park—through a two-step process. The first step is to nag, repeatedly and insistently, about going to the park. The parent, not wanting to be bothered about such a chore, tries to buy time and assuage the child by saying that they aren’t going to the park now but they will when a suitable day arises. After some time goes by and the trip to the amusement park still has not been taken, the child’s theme becomes, “But you promised.” The issue is framed no longer just in terms of the pros and cons of going to the amusement park but also in terms of the parent’s credibility. The parent, worried about maintaining credibility of both promises and threats on other possible matters, gives in.
A similar process is occurring with some of those who, for whatever ill-conceived reason, would welcome a war with Iran. With some of the same people, it is occurring also with the nearer-term issue of intervening in the civil war in Syria. In each case step one is agitation in favor of threatening the use of military force. Step two is to argue that unless the threat is carried out, U.S. credibility will be damaged. Similar to the child who wants to go to the amusement park, the same persons whose urgings led us to get into an option-reducing box then yammer about the damage that results from being in that box, unless we get out of it in the particular way they want.
On Iran, it is hard to know exactly how President Obama, in his innermost thoughts, views the nuclear activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is a fair guess that he does not subscribe to the repeatedly expressed notion that those activities constitute the Greatest Threat to Mankind in Our Time. He clearly does not want a war with Iran. But he is faced with repeated, insistent nagging about this from the government of Israel, and thus from those in the United States who support that government, and thus with all of the U.S. political implications that implies. Not wanting to have his presidency completely sidelined by such things, he tries to buy time and assuage the naggers by saying that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable and that all options are on the table to prevent that eventuality. His statements are already fodder for lots of warnings about how badly U.S. credibility supposedly would be harmed if he does not make good on the promise he seems to have made. Some of the loudest voices in making those warnings are those whose pestering pressured him into making the promise in the first place.
On Syria, Mr. Obama seems to have allowed himself to be pushed into a similar box, with earlier statements about how President Assad must go and more recent ones about the use of chemical weapons as a “red line.” Some of the pressures to which he has been responding involve the same sort of two-step tactic as is being used on Iran. A glaring example is provided this week by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In an opinion piece titled “How to Make Diplomacy on Syria Succeed,” Singh argues that the United States “must credibly put on the table the option of military intervention,” including direct operations by U.S. forces and not just the arming of Syrian rebels. In a separate piece published on the same day and titled “U.S. Credibility on Iran at Stake in Syria,” Singh talks in the same breath as mentioning the “military option” that “Washington’s failure to push back on Iranian aggression in Syria” is undercutting “the credibility of Western warnings.” He goes on with more ominous language about a “vicious cycle” of lost influence in which “not just for Tehran” but elsewhere in the region “American influence is everywhere diminished.” What a deliciously constructed chain of entrapment: starting with the innocent goal of supporting diplomacy on Syria, we are led to threats of military force, and then to actual use of force, and then to the big prize of confrontation with Iran.
There are many things wrong with this, too numerous to mention them all. What Singh says, for example, about the impact of threats of U.S. military intervention on Syria diplomacy is inconsistent when considering the impact on both the thinking of the Syrian regime and its backers, on one hand, and the rebels and their backers, on the other. The commonly heard assertions about how threats of military force ought to aid the nuclear negotiations with Iran naively overlook how such threats are more likely to have counterproductive effects on Iranian perceptions and incentives, by lending credibility to the belief that Washington only wants regime change and to any arguments within the Iranian regime that it needs a nuclear deterrent. The talk about how actions in one theater are supposed to shape perceptions of U.S. credibility somewhere else also is inconsistent with the actual record of how governments assess the credibility of other governments.
Perhaps the most offensive thing about this approach is the manipulation involved in first pushing us—and our leaders—into a difficult position and then pushing us to do even more harmful things to get out of that same position. In a general way this is related not only to a kid who pesters his parent to go to the amusement park but also to the kid who killed his parents and then called for mercy because he was an orphan.