01 November 2007

Podhoretz v. Zakaria on Iran

Time to join the bandwagon of bloggers who've posted this video. One does get the sense that Prodhoretz is fighting the last, last, last war (I mean, come on, how long is appeasement going to keep getting the bad rap it does?) Zakaria gives a pretty boilerplate Realist deterrence spiel. Throughout, Prodhoretz seems to miss the point; deterrence and appeasement are simply not the same thing. Of course, Zakaria sort of misses a point as well: what the Americans are doing in North Korea is not (just) deterrence, but also (a bit of) appeasement in the form of (a lot of) fuel oil.

Dan Drezner, while going nowhere near endorsing the idea of attacking Iran, worries that we're not dealing with a situation as simple as deterring Iran, but avoiding spillover into an all-out Mideast arms race and the uncontrolled proliferation that might result.

True enough, the situation with Iran is not Cold War bipolarity - or even a regional bipolarity like India-Pakistan (where, I would be happy to argue while my Realist hat is still on, I think we indeed see higher stability because of nuclearization). Israel's - and the United States' - deterrent threats would prevent Iran from using its potential nuclear capability, but that would not necessarily dissuade Iran's other neighbors from going nuclear as well. And deterrence may not actually prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities, because pre-emption might not be a credible existential threat. Especially if (admittedly reasonable) positions like Zakaria's are overtly taken by decision-makers.

But does any of this matter? Keeping the Realist hat on for a few moments, even if the whole Middle East goes nuclear, I don't think the world would be necessarily more unstable or that any of these weapons would actually be used, unless the United States or Israel first lose their cool and break the nuclear taboo (Realist hat off, momentarily for rhetoric's sake).

This is true even if Ahmadinejad is actually evil or, in better IR Theoretical terms, a revisionist. If Iran is a revisionist or revolutionary state, whether it or any other non-nuclear Middle Eastern country acquired nukes or not, it will still be deterred from using them, by the assurance of destruction by the United States. Iran can probably revise Middle East politics in important ways, but can't pose an existential threat to anybody. Now, if Ahmadinejad is actually crazy (doesn't value his own existence, political position, his fatherland, or his coreligionists) we have far greater problems on our hands.

So even though, as Drezner says, there's a possibility that some Middle Eastern countries will transform their nuclear energy desires into nuclear weapons desires, nothing seems to say that this is a problem for the world. (Oh, and in case anybody was worried about nuclear terrorism, read this working paper by John Mueller of OSU.) The real policy prescription in all of this - especially if we choose to maintain our (healthy?) level of fear about a nuclear Iran - would be controlled nuclear proliferation. But that's stretching out my Realist hat a bit too much.

Anyhow, in light of all of this, I find this BBC article pretty interesting, all the more so if the initiative had any hope of getting off the ground.

[Edit: It looks like Obama's making more sense on foreign policy, according to this NY Times article. Not talking to leaders has never been a smart foreign policy move. Ever.]

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