As the Bush administration ratchets up its military threat to Iran, the leadership of the Democratic party is providing a free pass to continue on that potentially disastrous course. Congressional leaders have tacitly or explicitly accepted the necessity of keeping the “military option”—meaning a massive, unprovoked air attack on Iran—“on the table,” as have all three of the leading candidates for the party’s presidential nomination.
The Democratic leadership in Congress has defined the Iran issue only in terms of c ongressional prerogatives to declare war; none have seen fit to say that threatening Iran with an unprovoked attack is an unacceptable option.
Leading Democrats refuse to reject the option of aggressive war against Iran because they have bought into one of the central myths of the U.S. national security elite: that the U.S. must use its unchallenged military dominance to coerce Iran on uranium enrichment.
The three leading candidates in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination have all stated their support for continuing to consider the option of military attack. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., told the AIPAC annual convention at the end of January, “In dealing with this threat ... no option can be taken off the table.” Former senator John Edwards was even more vehement in a speech on Iran last month at the Herzliya Conference in Israel. “To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep all options on the table,” he said, and then repeated the point for emphasis. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., appearing on “60 Minutes” recently, declared, “I think we should keep all options on the table.”
These Democrats act as though their support for keeping the military option alive—as opposed to supporting an actual attack on Iran—carries no risk, but that notion represents a profound misunderstanding of what it means to threaten aggressive war against Iran. In fact, keeping that threat “on the table” carries three very serious risks.
A war with Iran could be triggered by accidental or deliberate U.S. military provocation. To make the threat to Iran credible, the administration is deploying carrier task forces to the Persian Gulf, which inherently increases the likelihood that some U.S. naval commander will fire unnecessarily on an Iranian ship or plane. That is exactly what happened in 1988 when the cruiser USS Vincennes—apparently thanks to the aggressive tactics of its commander—shot down Iran Air Flight 655. That danger is especially acute given the provocative nature of the Bush administration's policy toward Iran.
Alternately, the administration may pursue a carefully calibrated strategy of combining a military buildup with increasingly warlike rhetoric, only to find that it has made Iran less, not more, willing to compromise. Even assuming that the White House has made no decision to attack Iran now, such a decision becomes far more likely once coercive diplomacy has been pursued and has failed.
Even if we are fortunate enough to dodge both of those bullets, coercive diplomacy carries the risk of tilting the political balance within Iran toward the actual manufacture of nuclear weapons. Contrary to the official Bush administration line, U.S. intelligence has long held that Iran’s policy toward the pursuit of nuclear weapons is significantly influenced by the U.S.'s policy toward Iran’s security concerns.
There are many indications of disagreement within the Iranian regime regarding whether to simply keep the nuclear option open or to move to production of nuclear weapons. The more imminent an attack by the U.S. appears, the more advocates of weapons production are likely to prevail.
The belief, in the face of all these risks, that keeping the military option open is sacrosanct is no political accident. It is one of the effects of U.S. military dominance over the rest of the world. The national debate is sharply tilted in the direction of those who want to exploit that advantage. Anyone calling for the renunciation of aggressive war can be accused of giving up the advantage of Iranian uncertainty.
Policymakers and political leaders tend to be seduced by the allure of dominance into believing that they can force weaker uncooperative states to do U.S. bidding. That was the fatal error of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who believed U.S. military dominance over the Soviet Union and China could be used to successfully coerce North Vietnam regarding the guerrilla war in the South.
Similarly, the Bush administration expected that, once it had removed Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and established its regional military dominance, it would be able to coerce Iran and Syria. The debacle in Iraq set back its project in coercive diplomacy seriously, but has not shaken its belief that the Iranians will ultimately buckle under to the threat of war with the United States, combined with economic pressure from European and Japanese banks refusal to deal with Iranian clients.
Efforts to use U.S. military power as a coercive instrument have failed time and again and have had disastrous consequences, yet the notion that this strategy is advantageous remains a dominant political myth. The Democratic leadership has joined the Bush administration in succumbing to that myth. They need a crash course in the realities beneath the shiny allure of coercive diplomacy before it is too late.
Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.
© 2007 TomPaine.com (A Project of The Institute for America's Future)