The Blog

Think Tank Aligned With Obama Gets Ready for a Nuclear Iran

1:28 PM, May 15, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

If the White House shares these concerns, the president has never seen fit to voice them publicly. And that’s because professing them aloud would render his Iran policy absurd on the face of it. If the Iranians did not have to consider the combined military weight that Obama has at its disposal, and the prospect of a blow against the Islamic Republic that would obliterate the nuclear program and likely topple the regime, they would simply disregard American warnings. As for Israel, if Jerusalem was entirely bereft of hope that Obama if required would make good on his promise and stop the program with a successful military campaign, it would simply ignore the administration’s many stop signs. The fulcrum of Obama’s policy, holding off Iran with one hand and Israel with another, is America’s ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. If, as Kahl posits, the United States might not be able to do the job, then Obama is bluffing.

The Kahl report is useful insofar as it shows plainly the model that advocates of containing Iran have in mind. They say it’s patterned after containment of the Soviets, but it’s not. American Cold War strategy, the report argues, “aimed to deter the Soviet Union from launching a nuclear or conventional war on the West, to defend allies against invasion and subversion, to check the expansion of Soviet influence.” Containment of the Soviet Union was successful only because the Soviets understood that the United States was capable of delivering a knockout blow. Had Washington not been confident that, like Moscow, it could bring the other side to its knees, then any policy concerning the Soviets and their nuclear arsenal would have necessarily been conducted from a position of weakness. There would have been no need to talk, consult, or negotiate with Moscow except to work out the terms of an American surrender of Western Europe. Containment, in the view of its Cold War architects, is a function of power.

Iran, as the CNAS paper notes, “is a much weaker state, with or without nuclear weapons” than the U.S.S.R. was. And yet the thesis of the report ignores this fact. If the U.S. nuclear arsenal could turn the Soviet Union to ashes, as the Soviets were equally capable of leveling the United States, then there is no obvious reason why the United States cannot attack the Iranian nuclear program with nearly absolute certainty of destroying it. But Kahl’s premise is that maybe we can’t. Unless, we are to intuit that the United States is considerably less formidable now than it was during the Cold War, the CNAS report fails to explain why the United States cannot tackle the nuclear program of a much weaker state than the one with whom American policymakers wished to avoid a direct confrontation, including a nuclear exchange, that might have killed millions. CNAS’s containment then is just another term for appeasement.

Accordingly, the paper’s specific policy recommendations are largely irrelevant.  If the White House’s containment policy is a consequence of the failures of the American intelligence community and the U.S. armed forces, why would regional partners, as the report recommends, make “commitments not to pursue independent nuclear capabilities” in exchange for protection under a “U.S. nuclear umbrella”? What kind of “U.S. nuclear guarantee” would convince Israel that the administration really intended to keep its word this time around? In short, why would allies entrust their national security to a president whose policy represents an accommodation with failure?

Containing Iran, the paper explains, “would integrate five key components: deterrence, defense, disruption, de-escalation and denuclearization.” A few examples of how specific policies would work to downgrade the Islamic Republic’s regional profile show instead that containment is not a serious option.

—Increase “aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces as a long-term check on Hezbollah,” the report suggests, apparently unaware that, under a Hezbollah-led government, Lebanon’s army, especially military intelligence, has essentially become a wing of Hezbollah.

—“Assist Palestinian security forces and institution building while promoting an Israeli-Palestinian accord,” the paper says, presumably in the belief that Israeli-Palestinian peace will isolate Iran, an assumption that even the administration seems to have abandoned, for the time being

—Promote “evolutionary political reform in the Gulf,” which is a useful goal, but one not likely to appeal to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies distrustful of a White House that has permitted a hostile power on their doorstep to build a nuclear weapon.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers