NYTimes Floats the Case for Attacking Iran

There are so many substantive reasons why Thursday’s op-ed in the New York Times by Alan Kuperman was just awful that one hardly knows where to begin. Fortunately, Marc Lynch and Helena Cobban, among others, have covered most of the ground (except, for example, the environmental and health impacts of an attack on the Bushehr facility, as noted by a recent study by Anthony Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan).

To me, a key question, one that should be addressed to the Public Editor at the Times, is why the newspaper, which has opposed military action against Iran, is devoting such an unusually large amount of space (1500 words) to this argument by this particular author at this time. I would certainly expect something like this on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal (which runs John Bolton’s fulminations against Iran on a regular basis) or in the Washington Post (which prefers Gen. Chuck Wald, and former Sens. Chuck Robb and Dan Coats), albeit not at such length.

Kuperman, who served at one time as Sen. Chuck Schumer’s Legislative Director, has recently focused his work almost exclusively on the issue of humanitarian intervention. Among his many scholarly publications, one can discern no discernible expertise on Iran or on the Gulf region in general. (He did publish a letter to the Washington Post in February, 2007, in which he also argued that there was no reason to expect Iran’s reaction to a strike against its nuclear facilities would be any more hard to handle than Iraq’s reaction to the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor or to the 1998 U.S. air strikes against military targets in Operation Desert Fox.) The Times notes that he directs the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin (where he was given tenure last year), there doesn’t seem to be much of content to that program, at least judging by the Center’s website and the lack of one for his program. (He also coordinates the Center’s International Security Film Series.) He is currently a fellow at the Wilson Center where his project is to complete a book on “the moral hazard of humanitarian intervention.”

It’s no secret that there has been a major campaign by AIPAC and other groups associated with the so-called “Israel Lobby” to ramp up pressure on Iran, but the focus of the mainstream debate until now has been on the desirability and effectiveness of unilateral and multilateral economic sanctions. All of a sudden, the Times accepts a 1,500-word piece that argues for a U.S. military attack “the sooner ….the better” by someone who has some expertise on nuclear proliferation but none at all on Iran and the Gulf. How does that happen?

UPDATE: The NYT op-ed by Kuperman seems increasingly bizarre given Kuperman’s opposition to a pre-emptive attack on Iraq which he wrote for USA Today Nov 12, 2002. It begs the question of what made him change his views about pre-emptive attacks. It follows

Pre-emption: Should USA punch first? No

By Alan J. Kuperman


Imagine: National security officials tell the president that our adversary possesses rudimentary weapons of mass destruction and is fast developing more sophisticated ones. The enemy already has used military force to occupy neighboring countries. Moreover, he has ruthlessly killed millions of his own people to wipe out domestic opposition.

Hawkish advisers say the only way to stop him from becoming an even greater threat is to attack now — preventively.

I hate to ruin the suspense, but the outcome is already known. The case does not involve Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush. Rather, the adversary was the Soviet Union of the late 1940s. The dictator was Josef Stalin, who occupied Eastern Europe, perpetrated massive purges and ethnic cleansing and was on the verge of adding nuclear weapons. The president contemplating a first strike was Harry Truman.

Fortunately, by rejecting that option, Truman averted World War III. Instead, the USA pursued containment and deterrence policies that protected us until the Soviet’s flawed government imploded.

Perhaps a preventive attack could have averted the Cold War. But the costs would have been so high and the prospects so uncertain that almost no one would advocate such a policy, in retrospect.

President Bush needs to explain what is so different this time around. Last week, after the United Nations ordered a new inspection regime for Iraq, he declared, “If Iraq fails to fully comply, the United States and other nations will disarm Saddam Hussein” by force.

Bush defends his new first-strike policy as a response to the threat that some terrorists aim to attack us with weapons of mass destruction. In this regard, however, Bush’s policy is neither controversial nor novel. When confronting terrorists who cannot be deterred or appeased, and who seek to inflict death and destruction, there is no alternative to pre-emption. Bill Clinton acknowledged this when he pre-emptively tried to assassinate Osama bin Laden and his inner circle in August 1998.

What is new and reckless in the Bush policy is applying this doctrine not only to global terrorists but to a state that has no record of materially supporting them, on the sole ground that the state seeks weapons of mass destruction.

While preventing proliferation is laudable, a first-strike strategy is likely to backfire by:

* Causing the wars it ostensibly seeks to prevent.

* Undermining efforts to prevent state-sponsored terrorists.

* Encouraging other states to launch similar first strikes, with potentially disastrous results.

* Undermining global alliances necessary to ensure U.S. interests, including non-proliferation.

A first-strike posture runs the risk of triggering the very wars it intends to avert. In the 1960s, Harvard’s Thomas Schelling warned that if both sides adopt pre-emption policies, “the reciprocal fear of surprise attack” could cause war even if neither side actually has aggressive intention.

History also teaches that “rogue” leaders can be reined in without risky invasions. In the 1980s, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi earned a reputation much like that of Saddam today. An international strategy of sanctions, deterrence and interdiction eventually persuaded the Libyan leader to cut loose the terrorists and offer restitution.

Other states also might copy the dangerous American example. The Indian government long has considered attacking Pakistan’s small nuclear force pre-emptively, but has been dissuaded at least in part by U.S. exhortations and fear of international condemnation. Bush’s new policy would undercut both of these incentives.

History’s most fundamental lesson is that military force usually spawns opposition, not compliance. Bush imagines that by smashing Iraq the USA will coerce other aspirants to regional power to abandon their ambitions. Rome had similar visions, as has every momentary hegemony. Nearly all undermined their power by abusing it in that manner.

Even if an attack on Iraq proves a short-term success, it likely would compel other states to band together diplomatically against us. Indeed, it even could encourage some to acquire weapons of mass destruction as their best guarantee against a U.S. attack.

Unfortunately, the only thing Bush’s new pre-emption policy is likely to pre-empt is peace.

Alan Kuperman is assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy.

Kuperman wrote something similar in December 2001, also for USA Today, entitled “Iraq Next Target: Beware of Unintended Costs”:

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. I was hoping you would weigh in on this. Indeed, this is why I peeked at the site on Christmas Day.

    Like you, I was shocked by the piece. How indeed does something like this happen, or perhaps we should ask: “Why?” The length of the piece, the author (who as you say has no real credentials on Iran) and the imprimatur of the Times, added together make it profoundly disturbing. Is the Times trying to have it both ways? Is it shifting to a hawkish stand? (Pretty bad timing if the latter, given that the regime in Iran has never been so unpopular with the mass of the people.) I was both shaken and outraged to read the thing.

    Does anyone have an opinion on whether the Times is doing a good cop/bad cop thing at the behest of someone in government? The piece really came out of left field for me. Does anyone have a theory on what’s behind it?

  2. The article dh cites is an interesting summary, but doesn’t really tell us anything new. Will Iran withdraw from the NPT? If it does, I believe that will be the green light for an Israeli attack on the nuclear facilities.

    One would like to have some real inside information on the internal conflict in Iran, both people vs. regime and within the regime itself. I wonder how clear the situation is to people in the U.S. government; if anyone does know, they seem to be keeping it under wraps.

    I’m sure it was a coincidence and not timed to coincide with the Kuperman op ed in the Times, but did everyone see Jimmy Carter’s reversal of opinion on Palestine? He now repudiates and apologizes for his equating of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians with apartheid. The man’s view couldn’t have been more clear; he even wrote a book on the subject, for which he was savagely criticized in pro-Israeli circles (the Israeli ambassador called Carter an anti-semite). And why did Jimmy boy pull a 180? Why, his son or grandson is running for a state senate seat in Georgia, and the district in question has a high percentage of Jewish voters. What a hypocrite! A return to his true self — the gutless wonder — that we suffered through when he was president. I can’t find a strong enough word for this; craven is too mild.

    These developments may signal a trend . . . . The game seems to be turning the neocons’ way. Unless something big supervenes — the collapse of the theocracy in Iran, for example (not holding my breath on that), I see the possibility of bombs (Israeli, not American) on Iran looming large. This will probably set off all sorts of fires currently lying dormant in the region and around the world. An Israeli-Palestinian settlement will recede even further from the realm of possibility, setting up a grim reaping for the next generation of Israelis, and perhaps even for Diaspora Jews as well. Are Obama-Gates-Mullen capable of staving off the worst? I doubt it.
    I believe we are now completely at the mercy of events.

  3. Re your update: “increasingly bizarre” indeed. Perhaps Kuperman sees the supposed Iranian nuclear threat to Israel as a game-changer? Offhand I can think of nothing else. Any chance someone in your organization could persuade him to go on the record with an explanation of his change of view?

    An historical note: a preemptive strike on the U.S.S.R. in the later forties would not have precipitated WWIII, as Kuperman avers. Soviet power would have been wiped out, pure and simple, and the Russian hold over Eastern Europe would have collapsed as completely as happened forty years later. A similar result was possible as late as the early 1960s — on this see the fascinating article by Galbraith, “Did the U.S. Miltary Plan a First Strike in 1963?” (I think I have the title right), published a few years ago in the Boston Review.

    I am not saying that a preemptive strike would have been justified. Morally, how could one justify killing millions of Russians (“collateral damage” as we now say) in a preemptive attack? General Marshal, when the idea of a preemptive war was voiced in his presence, asked how one could justify the destruction of the Hermitage and its priceless art treasures. And he was right.

  4. actually i payed attention that russia is fine about million deaths -the population there is about 150 millions so million more million less-they dont care. i can adjust one case that happened during second world war. russian army got the oder to cros the river. they had no bouts, the flow was fast and danger, most of solders did not know to sweam. but oder is oder-noone can break it so commander of this part of army contacted his boss just when five solders left. what about now-russians sells weapons and bombs to arabs and they they get terracts in different parts of country.

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