James Fallows Tackles the Dilemmas Posed by Iran and
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
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
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
What do you think about the terms “Islamo-facist” and
“appeasers,” which Rumsfeld used to describe critics of the
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
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
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
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
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
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