Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 2, 2006
WAR: Talking To The Iranian Wall
There are many good reasons why war with Iran should be an absolute last resort, and a ghastly one at that (more here from an advocate of invasion); while I continue to believe that the Iranian regime is a serious and multifaceted threat (Andy McCarthy at NRO notes that talk of the Iranian nuclear threat gives short shrift to the longstanding menace of Iranian sponsorship of terrorism), I really would prefer to see some answer to this crisis that doesn't require us to go to war. And while an internal revolution that topples the mullahcracy and installs a democracy along the lines of those in Turkey or Iraq or Lebanon would be the ideal resolution - since the problem with Iran, as with Saddam's Iraq, is the regime itself rather than the tools at its disposal - there's no way of predicting when or whether such a revolution might ignite, no security in relying on one developing, and no short-term prospect of fomenting one through American assistance. For now, in other words, we can't hide behind the hope that the threat will go away on its own.
We do not, yet, appear to be at an impasse that requires us to choose whether to fight, although the precise amount of time we have depends upon the imponderables of Iran's nuclear timeline (more here), and unfortunately the record of our intelligence agencies over the past 60 years or so in accurately estimating foreign WMD capacity is abysmal, giving the entire debate over when to act the flavor of Russian roulette. Still, for the moment the debate is to negotiate or not negotiate directly with the Iranians. The U.S. announced this week it is moving for the first time in the direction of joining talks with Iran, though insisting that such talks involve the entire permanent membership of the UN Security Council (Britain, France, Russia and China) plus Germany.
David Frum makes the case against negotiating, although Frum focuses mainly on the case against direct bilateral rather than multilateral talks. (Via Barone). I will add here two points to Frum's analysis. First of all, let's recall that negotiating directly with the Iranians gives them, free of charge and as a reward for their bad behavior, something of value they have lacked since 1979: diplomatic relations with the United States. That's not a good start to any negotiation, for us to reward the opposing party without demanding in exchange some face-saving compensation, at a minimum an apology for the 1979 hostage-taking and a promise not to kidnap our diplomats in future face-to-face dealings.
Second, a point I have been making for some time now, see here and here and here and here: we should never treat negotiations, or treaties, as ends in themselves, and never operate under the illusion that negotiations and treaties are a substitute for fighting. To the contrary, if war (as Clausewitz famously said) is politics by other means, the negotiation of treaties is war by other means, and should never be regarded as anything but. As Justice Scalia, quoting Justice Holmes, explained in the context of commercial contracts:
Virtually every contract operates, not as a guarantee of particular future conduct, but as an assumption of liability in the event of nonperformance: "The duty to keep a contract at common law means a prediction that you must pay damages if you do not keep it, - and nothing else."
If there's a common lesson of Versailles (where we agreed to stop fighting Germany in World War I, an agreement violated without consequence by Germany leading to World War II), and of Vietnam (where we agreed to stop fighting North Vietnam by treaty preserving an independent South Vietnam, but hostilities were then resumed - again, without consequence from us - on more favorable terms by the North), and of the first Gulf War (where we agreed to stop fighting with Saddam but then let him get away for more than a decade, with minimal consequence, with violating the terms of the agreement) and of North Korea (where we entered into an agreement in the mid-1990s that was violated without consequence almost from the outset) it is that negotiating treaties only weakens us if we are not willing to keep ready to enforce them by military force.
Negotiations - unless entered into in bad faith solely for purposes of delay and/or public relations - are of value only if they have a chance of leading to a workable agreement. Workable agreements require that we get something of verifiable value, and that we make the consequences of violation both clear and credible. As of now, count me skeptical that talking to the Iranians gets us either. We will eventually need to decide if we are willing to go to war to stop the present Iranian regime from getting nuclear weapons. Whether we negotiate with them or not will have little effect except to cede what little control we now have over the timing and circumstances in which we make that decision.