Another Empty Neocon Case For War

It comes as no surprise that the Iran hawks are turning up the volume.

The Republican Party primaries are in full swing, but it is quickly becoming clear that Mitt Romney is going to win the nomination. Thus the Neoconservatives can focus on the November election and increase their pressure on Obama, accusing him of looking weak on a perceived grave threat to national security if he doesn’t attack Iran.

Today’s entry is brought to you by the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. That he even held that position, given his contempt for diplomacy, tells you all you need to know about Neoconservative influence on the Bush Administration in which he served.

Bolton does make one very good point–that crippling sanctions against Iran are an ineffective way to get Iran to halt its nuclear program. Recent moves in Congress toward intensified sanctions and legal red-lines bring the US closer to confrontation with Iran and only increase Iran’s reluctance to engage on this issue. Tehran is also given more reason to believe it needs a nuclear weapon to reduce its vulnerability in the face of US hostility.

Bolton puts forward the same tired attack-Iran argument:

The only … option is to take pre-emptive military action to break Iran’s program, and the odds of doing so successfully are deteriorating daily, as it hardens and deeply buries new facilities.

His entire case is based on why current tactics won’t work. He dismisses the idea of containing a nuclear Iran:

The mullahs do not buy our theories of deterrence. Even if they did, the nuclear threat doesn’t stop in Tehran. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, among others, will seek nuclear weapons if Iran succeeds, and a multipolar nuclear Middle East simply awaits the first match.

Now there’s an interesting argument. Containment won’t work because the first country in the region to get a nuclear weapon will trigger a nuclear arms race. In fact, an Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon is unlikely to have that effect, especially since the countries Bolton cites all have a powerful nuclear ally already, one with a bigger investment than any of them in containing Iran–the United States.

Moreover if one country could trigger an arms race, wouldn’t it be Israel? The Israelis already have nuclear weapons, a fact Bolton does not want to mention. Why doesn’t he mention it? Quite simply because the clearest route out of this mess is eliminating all nuclear weapons in the region (a move, incidentally, most Israelis prefer), and depriving Israel of its nuclear weapons–something that is apparently inconceivable to Bolton.

Bolton simply dismisses talks with Iran, and he’s not entirely wrong to do so. Iran has good reason to pursue, at least, a nuclear capability if not an actual weapon. Even the Israelis have acknowledged this.

So what could we offer Iran to back away from further weaponization? Not much if a nuclear-free zone is off the table. Moreover, if the Obama Administration did find some other carrot to dangle in front of Iran, his GOP rivals would almost certainly call him an appeaser.

Bolton thinks the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear program have had virtually no effect. That’s obviously debatable and leads to an equally obvious question: why take on what everyone agrees will be an immensely difficult and potentially catastrophic military endeavor when everyone also agrees that the best strikes could accomplish would be a mere delaying of alleged nuclear weapons development by a few years?

Once again we’re being presented with a case that plays on fear but lacks substance and logical solutions. Bolton does not address his desire to go to war directly, perhaps because he doesn’t have a strong case for it. Instead we’re presented with “I can’t think of anything else that’s going to stop Iran” reasoning–hardly a compelling argument for war.

The timing of the piece is also interesting. In recent days we have seen more and more evidence of both the Netanyahu government in Israel and the Neoconservatives in the US ramping up their program of pressure on the Obama administration to take military action against Iran.

At the same time, the new US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is making his first visit to Israel today. Martin Dempsey received an Israeli intelligence assessment that confirms that Iran has not yet decided to build a nuclear weapon. His boss, President Obama, has also voiced displeasure with the recent assassination of another Iranian nuclear scientist and has finally received a statement from the Israeli Defense Minister agreeing that Israel will not be attacking Iran on its own in the near future.

In that context, Bolton’s op-ed appears to be part of a program aimed at pressuring a President who is painted as weak on foreign policy and nervous about pursuing a another military misadventure to prove his manhood and, by extension, his electability. If a US attack was initiated during this time and was a success, the Neoconservatives would be “proven right” and would have a greater say in foreign policy even if Obama was re-elected. If it failed, Obama could suffer a fatal blow and the much more Neocon-friendly Mitt Romney would come in.

Obama is increasingly being pushing into a political corner by a growing chorus of war drums. He must hope that the talks being proposed by Turkey provide the US with a way out of the hawks’ trap.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.