Big Questions

Originally published 12:00 p.m., September 7, 2006
Updated 11:15 a.m., October 23, 2006

James Fallows Tackles the Dilemmas Posed by Iran and Iraq

Five years after September 11, the United States is engaged in a war most Americans now feel was unnecessary and most military experts now acknowledge cannot be “won” in any traditional sense of the word. But just as we confront the difficulties and problems associated with the war in Iraq, we cannot escape the looming specter of a nuclear-armed Iran. Where do we go from here?

In his new book, Blind Into Baghdad: America’s War in Iraq, Atlantic Monthly writer James Fallows stops short of supplying a straightforward answer to this question. But he does sort through the issues surrounding it with a minimum of cant and a maximum of insight and common sense. The book is a collection of essays culled from the pages of the Atlantic in the order in which they were published. The most remarkable of these, “The Fifty-First State,” went to print in November 2002 and earned Fallows a National Magazine Award. Reading it is an eerie experience: It predicts, with pinpoint accuracy, most of what has occurred in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003. The rest of the essays in Blind Into Baghdad are distinguished by the same searching intelligence, breadth of sources, and foresight. Recently, Fallows corresponded with me by email from Shanghai.

There is a growing call for partition in Iraq, with Kurdistan in the north, some sort of Sunni state in the middle, and Shiastan (as former U.S. ambassador Peter Galbraith calls it) in the south. What do you think about that?

Regardless of its theoretical desirability, that seems to be where things are headed. One can think of lots of arguments against a partition of the country: the oil isn’t evenly distributed, so there would be obvious economic problems; much of the center of the country previously had mixed Sunni-Shiite populations, so it wouldn’t lend itself to a neat division without moving a lot of people around; apart from the Kurds, many Iraqis seem to have valued the idea of one unified country; and so on.

But the logic of events seems to be moving the other way. The Kurds have maintained de facto separation. Ethnically based militias have greatly intensified divisions and hatred among the Arab Iraqis. Very few truly national institutions seem to have emerged. The military and diplomatic cost of holding the country together may simply make that prospect moot.

Will Turkey intervene to discourage its own Kurdish population from seeking independence? Will we see a massive bloodbath over control of oil and water?

It’s impossible to be sure about this. But if the last four years in and around Iraq have illustrated anything, it’s dangerous to roll the dice and assume that everything will be okay. Certainly, the Turks have indicated that they view it as a matter of first priority that the Iraqi Kurds not be allowed to establish an officially independent state. Whether that Turkish stance is a negotiating ploy or a genuine statement of their intentions we can’t be sure. But it would be reckless simply to assume that they don’t mean it.

Do we stay in Iraq, or do we leave? Do we stay in some limited capacity? Do we increase the number of troops?

This has become the classic “there’s no good answer” question. The good answer, in my view, would have been not to invade in the first place—and I try to argue in my book why that would have been a plausible option. Or, if we felt we had to invade, to wait and line up enough international (especially Islamic and Arabic-speaking) support to make the post-war prospects better than they have turned out to be.

Here is the argument for leaving right now: If you’re convinced that the presence of American forces is necessarily making things worse than they would be otherwise, and that the difficulties of leaving will only get worse with passing time, then it is better to face that reality now. My understanding is that it’s not yet at that point. To put it differently, things could become worse enough, fast enough with a sudden U.S. withdrawal to compound American responsibility for what it has undertaken. Also, as a matter of basic negotiating tactics, you don’t announce a constraint on what you will do. Therefore, I think the U.S. should operate as if its goal is to reduce its presence (and exposure) in Iraq as quickly as possible, but not to publicly announce this.

You write that it is impossible to know whether things would have turned out better in Iraq had the occupation been better managed. What lesson do we draw from that? Do we assume that ideological wars are still possible, provided they are undertaken with sober care and intelligence? Or do we decide that Iraq has taught us once and for all that wars not purely defensive in nature are to be avoided?

International relations, including their military aspects, have similarities through time. But they’re also different enough that I’m wary of learning any lesson “once and for all.” Each problem the country faces is always a little different from the previous one, and a mechanical application of the “lesson” of one episode may be deeply misleading in the next one. For instance, many assessments of Lyndon Johnson’s escalation during Vietnam point out that he had over-learned the “lesson” of Munich: that if you ever compromise, you’ll look like Neville Chamberlain, and if you don’t, you’ll look like Winston Churchill.

An “ideological” war is another name for what the war’s supporters would call an “idealistic” war. In either case, it’s a war in which the country’s vital interests are not immediately affected. If the country learns once and for all never to enter such wars, then it will never intervene in, say, Bosnia or Darfur—and it will wait too long to oppose Hitler. Wars of all kinds are always to be avoided. But each situation that might lead to war needs to be viewed with a combination of idealistic and practical perspectives.

The New York Times reported that the death toll in Iraq for July was more than 3,400. This is roughly the same proportional rate as was the case during the U.S. Civil War, but even higher when you consider that the violence is almost wholly lacking in the Kurdish areas. At what point will it be bad enough? What specific signs will be adequate?

“Bad enough” for what? Bad enough to throw into question the basic assumptions behind the invasion? Probably. Bad enough to condemn the political, military, and economic management of Iraq after Baghdad fell? Certainly. Bad enough to prove, in itself, that a breakup of Iraq is inevitable? Not necessarily, and the comparison with the U.S. Civil War proves the point. The United States endured horrific casualties on that scale for four years, but that did not prove that the effort to hold the Union together was doomed.

Does the current level of carnage, on its own, prove that things could not be any worse, so the United States might as well withdraw our troops?

I fear that our tragic imagination is falling short if we think it couldn’t get any worse than this. To be clear: I opposed the original idea of this war and deplore the arrogance, incompetence, and wastefulness with which the idea was carried out. But as of the moment I write, it seems that, at least in the short run, the U.S. would make things even worse, rather than better, by a rapid withdrawal, leaving essentially no one in control.

In your book you state that much of what has come to pass was predicted in advance in a host of government reports. Is there any reason to believe Bush ever saw these reports? If so, why did he go in?

I’m not aware of any indication that the President himself ever considered these cautionary reports. The two crucial failures are these: the failure of his assistants to make sure he was aware of them—and here the blame falls mainly on Condoleezza Rice, who has been an effective Secretary of State but was the worst National Security Advisor in the history of that job—and the failure of the President to show any curiosity about extra information, dissenting views, supplementary information, etc. that might affect his decision.

What do you think about the terms “Islamo-facist” and “appeasers,” which Rumsfeld used to describe critics of the war?

A basic tenet of warfare, or any kind of competition, is “divide and conquer.” Rhetoric like the President’s, when he talks about “Islamo-fascism,” has just the opposite effect, in creating artificial unity among Islamic groups that otherwise would be riven by dissent. Rhetoric like Secretary Rumsfeld’s is simply deplorable, and it violates the guideline the President announced just days before, saying that he was not challenging the patriotism or honor of those who disagreed with his policies.

In your book, you talk about how much the world has changed since 9-11 and today, that in the beginning we had a vast reservoir of world sympathy and could have mobilized it in a meaningful war on terror. What do you think could be done to regain some of that lost and squandered sympathy? Do you have any idea of what opportunities we lost by squandering all that good will?

There’s no short answer to this question. The answer to start with: Stop doing things that make our problems worse (and contemplating military action against Iran would be first on that list).

What do you think a meaningful, realistic strategy to combat terror would entail, given what’s going on now?

This is what my very long cover story in the current Atlantic concerns. Essentially, it involves (a) a recognition that in the long term, the greatest threat posed by terrorism is the self-defeating reactions it can provoke in the “target” country; (b) encouraging the slow, unglamorous work of police efforts, surveilliance, recruitment, penetration, etc. that led to the British success in breaking the recent bombing plot; and (c) recognizing that, again in the long run, the crucial advantage America has is seeming to stand on the right side of history.

Virtually no one in the Islamic world embraces the “positive vision” of Al Qaeda. There is no more than fringe support for the idea of returning to a medieval Islamic life. The main fuel for al Qaeda’s “copy-cat” groups is resentment of the United States and the West, and we’re less likely to fuel that resentment if we shift away from all-or-nothing, West-versus-Islam wartime rhetoric. One crucial data point: home-ground Muslim organizations have been so far a much greater threat in Europe than the United States, precisely because America has been so much more open to true assimilation by Muslims here. These “soft” virtues have huge practical importance.

Is there any indication of an imminent threat from Iran, either nuclear or conventional?

It depends on what you mean by imminent, and by threat. With conventional means, the main thing Iran could do is make life even harder for the U.S. in Iraq than it already is—or, disrupt the world’s oil economy, although with a lot of side damage to Iran itself. Obviously Iran’s leaders would like to develop a nuclear capability. In their place, anyone would. And obviously the world will become more complicated and, if not imminently, ultimately more dangerous if there is yet another nuclear power. So the test for the U.S., and most other countries as well, is to see what combinations of incentives and penalties can persuade the Iranians not to take this step.

How likely is a preemptive strike on Iran by (a) the U.S., (b) Israel, or (c) a joint operation?

I don’t think this has ever been likely, at least on the U.S. side. The American military is all too clearly aware of how many problems would be created by a preemptive strike, and how few problems would be solved. I know that groups within Israel’s government have urged Israel to take this step itself, but the practical limitations would be even greater than for the U.S. As a negotiating reality, it might even be useful for both Israel and the U.S. to act as if they were considering this step. But I don’t think they have fooled themselves into thinking it is doable.

The conclusion of your December 2004 article “Will Iran Be Next?” was that any and all military strikes against Iran are essentially non-viable. Has anything changed between then and now to alter that conclusion?

I did a follow-up article two or three months ago on this very question. [It is now on the Atlantic’s Web site.] The main conclusion was that it would be even more difficult for the U.S. to pull that off now. My understanding about the U.S. military is that it is a voice of restraint and caution about Iran. It has enough to deal with now.

What are the possible problems with a military strike on Iran from a political perspective—that is, how will it impact perceptions of the U.S. in the Middle East? Will it strengthen Iranian support for the Iranian government rather than weaken it? And how would it affect the influence of the Iranian state within the region?

Everything that’s a problem now would become worse. A central strategic problem for the U.S. is that rather than dividing its opponents—emphasizing the ways the various branches of Al Qaeda and its offspring differ from each other—it has lumped them together. This has given them a unity they would otherwise lack. An invasion of Iran would intensify the perception that it’s the U.S. versus Islam in a knockdown war to the end.

You write that whether a nuclear-armed Iran poses an unacceptable risk—or whether it’s more like Pakistan, India, or even North Korea—is a huge, limitless question. Yet in view of your pessimism about our military options, it seems that may be the crux of the issue. How do we approach it?

As I mentioned before, everything in world affairs is a combination of the idealistic/theoretical and the practical. There are some threats so dire that you have to fight against them, even if you think you are doomed—thus, England defending itself against the Nazis. But in all other cases, you weigh what you would like to do against what you think is possible to do. In my view, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons would be bad for us and bad for the world. Would it be worse for us than the complications of preemptive war with Iran? In my view, no; we have found ways to contain nuclear powers in the past, and are doing so now with the likes of Pakistan and China. To be clear, we should make every effort to dissuade Iran. But balancing the practical choices open to us, in my view going to war with them would be worse, long-term, than containing them.

How credible is Seymour Hersh’s recent New Yorkerpiece accusing the Bush administration of colluding with Israel to attack Hizbullah as a precursor to a possible preemptive U.S. attack on Iran?

I don’t know. I like and respect Seymour Hersh, but I did not agree with his earlier article that an attack on Iran was imminent. To put it differently, my own reporting suggested something closer to his later article on the same subject—that the U.S. military was firmly against it.

In view of our laxity with respect to the nuclear programs of Israel and India, do we have the moral foundation to condemn Iran’s nuclear program? How relevant/significant is that question from the “realist” perspective?

From the “realist” perspective, things aren’t always logically consistent. With Israel, it is important that no one has officially endorsed its possession of nuclear weapons or even acknowledged that Israel has them. Everyone assumes it to be true, but the U.S. officially would oppose such a development. India is, like Pakistan or China, in the “spilt milk” category. Part of the logic of nonproliferation efforts is that each country that gets the bomb makes it more likely that others will, so you always are trying to hold the line, even if that effort is by definition “unfair.”

What are the prospects of a negotiated diplomatic settlement with Iran, specifically as it relates to the nuclear question? What makes such a settlement difficult to achieve?

I don’t know the real prospects. I suspect no one will know until it works, or doesn’t. Many Europeans make convincing arguments about the desirability of a “grand compromise,” which would have to include U.S. guarantees not to push for regime change. I don’t know enough about the internal Iranian situation to know what would work or not. The real challenge is that, for Iran, it can seem highly desirable to get a nuclear weapon. Therefore, the alternative has to seem more desirable still.

411 As part of the Walter H. Capps Center’s ongoing speaker series, James Fallows will deliver a free lecture and sign copies of Blind Into Baghdad on Sunday, September 17, at 3 p.m. in Victoria Hall in downtown Santa Barbara.

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