CFR liberals (again) pushing for another Middle East war?

Despite some questionable choices of scholars — like neocons Elliott Abrams and Max Boot — the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an enduring institution in Washington foreign policy circles. The New York- and Washington-based think tank has long been seen as representing mainstream, establishment dialogue matters of U.S. relations with the rest of the world.

But the close contact, and cross-pollination of ideas between the CFR and the powers-that-be is  troubling in light of the CFR‘s increasingly hawkish direction — especially on Iran. Just like during the run-up to the Iraq war, liberals and realists at the Council seem to be abandoning their traditional allies and sidling up to neoconservatives and their view of the U.S.’s fraught relationship with the Islamic Republic. And just like the run-up to Iraq, they are getting their opinions uncritically published in mainstream outlets that are widely read in Washington.

This week, we have yet another pair of ostensible liberals, CFR fellows Ray Takeyh and former Clinton NSC aide Steve Simon, using rather alarmist language to ask if President Barack Obama would strike Iran if faced with the as-yet-hypothetical scenario of Iran getting close to acquiring nuclear weapons. In the Sunday opinion section of the Washington Post, they list some of the top factors the administration would need to consider should it choose to bomb Iranian nuclear sites, including international outrage, domestic public support, cooperation of Arab Gulf states (the likely staging grounds would also need protection after a bombing run), whether to warn Iran, and “make sure a confrontation [does] not escalate out of control.”

The last point is particularly laughable. Analyst Tony Karon — who, on his blog, derided the WaPo piece as “a ‘how-to-bomb Iran’ manual” — called an attempt of an aggressor to control the level of a hot conflict amid tense relations “quite simply bizarre”:

Of course Iran is going to retaliate, painfully, over years and even decades. Bombing will, as sober heads have warned, almost certainly spark a protracted war with potentially devastating consequences for Iran (its government and people, including its opposition), Israel, the United States (which has hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in Iran’s immediate neighborhood and the wider Middle East. And it’s more likely to make Iran acquire nuclear weapons than to deter it from doing so.

Takeyh and Simon also got the facts wrong by re-hashing a misinterpretation of something said last weekend by former CIA and National Security Agency chief Michael Hayden. Hayden raised eyebrows when he appeared to say, on a CNN talk show, that a U.S. strike on Iran “seems inexorable.” But a spokesperson for Hayden later walked back the statement, asserting that the word “inexorable” referred to the Iranian nuclear program’s advancement, not a U.S. military strike. The AP, whose story is picked up in the above link from the Washington Post, issued a clarification just one day after the comments — that is, last Monday (h/t Robert Naiman). I’m not sure how that got by Takeyh, Simon, and editors at the Post‘s opinion section, where the comment appeared in specific reference to a “U.S. military strike against Iranian facilities.”

The mistake is troubling, but not as troubling as the shift towards hawkish rhetoric coming from this  bellwether of Washington conventional wisdom. Leave aside, for a moment, that CFR puts a roof over the heads of arch-neocons like Abrams and Boot. Even realists at CFR seem to be joining their neocon and liberal colleagues in the march to war with Iran!

Take CFR president Richard Haass’s shift to support ever-escalating measures against Iran (chronicled here at the time by Eli). Haass made a February call in Newsweek for regime change as the only way to stop Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, a program which hasn’t yet been proven to exist. That piece was followed closely by an appearance on CNN where he said that the U.S. should not “hide behind Israel’s skirts” — i.e., the U.S. should take the lead in bombing Iran, an argument based on U.S. “capacities” that echoed neocon Bret Stephens from several months earlier.

One might think the Council would have learned its lessons after the Iraq invasion, where liberals and moderates swung toward supporting war, enabling then-President George W. Bush to carry out an invasion — based on shoddy and manipulated intelligence — that neocons in his administration had been publicly calling for since the 1990s. But if hiring Elliot Abrams didn’t dispel the notion of CFR‘s ability to learn from mistakes, the group’s commentary on Iran seems to be setting it in stone.

Harvard international relations professor Stephen Walt made this connection explicit when he went after Takeyh and James Lindsay for a pair of articles they wrote in March for the Council’s journal, Foreign Affairs, and a shorter op-ed for — sound familiar? — the Washington Post. Walt wrote, at the time, that:

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, a critical moment came when moderates and liberals joined forces with the neoconservatives who had been pushing for war since the late 1990s. The poster child for this process was Kenneth Pollack, whose pro-war book The Threatening Storm (written under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations) gave reluctant hawks a respectable fig-leaf for backing the invasion.

Is a similar process occurring today with respect to Iran?

Walt went on to write a lengthy post criticizing not necessarily the facts and arguments made by Takeyh and Lindsay, but rather the certainty with which they stated hypothetical scenarios (Iran’s, again, as-yet-proven nuclear weapons program, etc.) and the alarmist language they used (the FA article is headlined: “After Iran Gets the Bomb”). Indeed, on the first score, Takeyh and Lindsay over-played their hand from the get-go in the WaPo op-ed (again, poor editing?). The article opens with this line: “As Iran relentlessly moves toward acquiring a nuclear weapons capability […].” That link is embedded in the original online version of the piece. But when you click it, it takes you to a WaPo news article from February 19 headlined: “Iran might be seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability, inspectors say.” “Might be seeking”? That’s the same as “relentlessly mov[ing] toward”? The lede of the news story continues with conditional and restrained language: “U.N. nuclear inspectors, citing evidence of an apparently ongoing effort by Iran to obtain new technologies, publicly suggested for the first time Thursday that the country is actively seeking to develop a weapons capability.”

In their latest piece, Takeyh and Simon dispensed with stating hypothetical as certainty and instead posited a fantasy world, asking readers in their lede to:

Imagine a moment when President Obama has only two alternatives: prepare to live with a nuclear-armed Iran or embark on the perilous path of military action to stop it.

Imagine that diplomacy has run its course, after prolonged and inconclusive negotiations; that surging international oil prices have undercut the power of economic sanctions against Tehran; and that reliable intelligence says the Islamic republic’s weapons program is very close to reaching its goal.

When you’re writing a massive 1,800 word op-ed, I suppose you have time to use your imagination — but with all that space, it shouldn’t come at the expense of expressing what current realities are:

1) Today, in the now, Obama has many alternatives. They are. however, sharply being reduced not by Obama’s own apparent initiative (see number 2 below), but by pressure from hawkish corners of Washington — especially, given the upcoming congressional elections, the right wing Israel Lobby — exploiting fear of an allegedly apocalyptic Iran.

2) Diplomacy has not run its course. Negotiations have not been prolonged and inclusive, but rather have barely been conducted at all. Karon writes that, “As Gary Sick and others with some understanding of U.S. diplomacy with Iran have noted, no serious and comprehensive attempt to engage Iran in a dialogue on the full gamut of conflicts between the two powers has yet occurred.” One of the complicating factors, of course, was the disputed June 2008 election in Iran, which ended in a brutal crack-down on the opposition movement. For their part, Takeyh and Simon only reference Iran’s domestic politics to note that the regime there would be perfectly happy not to retaliate (see above) because the opposition would be weakened when U.S. or Israeli bombs on their heads cause the Greens to come out of the cold and into a nationalist fervor (which doesn’t engender the regime’s need to retaliate because…???).

CFR is supposed to be an institution of scholars, so a little hypothetical reasoning might be in order. But that thinking in major newspapers should be accompanied by realistic interpretations of what is actually happening in the world. When it doesn’t–and the potential result is to boost an overstated and innaccurate case for war–Karon writes, it’s “criminally insane.” And then he hits the problem with this latest CFR/WaPo piece on the head: It’s “insanity enabled by supposedly sober people falsely presenting yet another war of choice as some kind of necessity.”

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. Well, you know I stand side by side with you on this issue, but must you say that it has yet to be proven that Iran is seeking a nuclear capability? Anyone out of short pants knows Iran wants a nuclear capabilty — either a bomb or the ability to go nuclear swiftly. Maintaining the foolishness that it’s “yet to be proven” just detracts from your other arguments, which are important and should receive serious attention. Fight the real battle instead trying to defend a technicality.

    By the way, the Rogers piece you linked to, though interesting, veers off track when it says one result of an attack on Iran would be the closing of the Strait of Hormuz. It’s unlikely Iran would do such a thing, but if it tried it wouldn’t succeed. The U.S. military is perfectly capable of keeping the Strait open.

    Ray Takeyh is an interesting case. He was pretty sound until he started working for certain people. Since then one no longer knows him.

    Obama’s options are narrowing (if they are) not through the actions of others, but as a result of his own timidity. War is not coming because a necon-CFR alliance is propagandizing for it. If war comes (and it won’t happen before the election), it will be because Obama missed the bus — not with the Iranians, but with the American people, whom he could’ve educated on this subject had he really tried. But he prefers to kowtow to Bibi.

    CFR is an institution of scholars, but what are scholars today? Any “scholar” belonging to an institution of this sort is concerned above all with his or her earning power and standing within the peer group. Such a person, no matter how knowledgeable, has ceased to be a scholar and is simply a hack. Name anyone on the CFR today and the word hack springs to mind.

    Thank God we are going bankrupt. For neither the people nor their elected leaders seem able to overcome the hacks. But when we go broke foreign adventures should finally cease.

  2. The CFR is a notorious pillar of the permanent government in America, and of Empire-based foreign policy ‘thinking’. So this statement …

    “One might think the Council would have learned its lessons after the Iraq invasion, where liberals and moderates swung toward supporting war, enabling then-President George W. Bush to carry out an invasion — based on shoddy and manipulated intelligence — that neocons in his administration had been publicly calling for since the 1990s. ”

    … is simply ludicrous. From a CFR point of view, generally speaking, the Iraq war was a massive success. It demonstrated to the world the overwhelming power of the US military, and gave the US a permanent base of operations in Eurasia.

  3. The article by Ray Takeyh and former Clinton NSC aide Steve Simon about the “strategy” of massively bombing Iran is more than insane.

    I’m afraid that Tony Karon is, if anything, a bit too soft on what this article in fact portends. The authors are making war against Iran more thinkable, more do-able, more likely to end in our inevitable and morally justified triumph. Listen to exactly what they say:

    “But to avoid the grim future postulated here, Iran would have to leave behind its peek-a-boo negotiating tactics and sign up for intrusive inspections and tight limits on its uranium enrichment activities. The record on this score is not encouraging, with decades of sanctions impeding but not blocking Iran’s progress to nuclear weapons capability. Thus, the world imagined here may not constitute destiny — but it will be hard to escape.”

    We can tell them what they must do if they want to avoid the “grim future” (they “would have to leave behind…”), but what we decide to do is always right, proper, meet and just.

    The insanity of the USA going to war against Iran can be justified on only two grounds: we are insane, or it is destined to happen. The authors choose the second option. Note how every contingency advanced in the article is met with a “but ” – but it would be to our advantage, but it would be disastrous yet necessary, etc., etc. The argument based on “destiny” – whether imagined (which is a human choice) or known (by which time it is too late) – is almost always a false and ultimately self-serving argument.

    The obvious fact about the article: the authors fail to exercise any analysis on an option that needs to be considered: Iranians have a bomb, but there are ways to induce them not to ever use it. Which would make them just like us – right?

    Charles Molesworth

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