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Jan

By Stephen M. Walt

Background:  Matthew Kroenig has written a provocative article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, advocating a preventive war against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  I criticized his arguments in a previous post, and Kroenig offered this defense in response.  Here is my rejoinder.

Matthew Kroenig’s defense of his Foreign Affairs article calling for launching a preventive war against Iran does little to strengthen his case.  He provides no additional evidence to explain why war is necessary; nor does he remedy the gaps and inconsistencies in his original analysis.  Given that he’s now had two swings at the same pitch, one may safely conclude that there is no good case for attacking Iran.

It is clear from the beginning of Kroenig’s response that he misunderstood the central point of my critique.  I accused him of employing the “classic blueprint” for justifying a preventive war, whereby one exaggerates the dangers of inaction, overstates the benefits of war, and understates the costs and risks of employing force.  Kroenig responds by pointing out that “any decision to use force rests on the judgment that the costs of not using force outweigh the costs of using force,” and he seems to think that this was the feature of his analysis to which I objected.  Not so: my objection was to the one-sided way in which he conducted his assessment. 

As I noted in my original post, Kroenig assumes that Iran’s leaders are firmly committed to obtaining a nuclear weapon (as opposed to a latent capability), even though U.S. intelligence agencies still reject this conclusion.  He provides no hard evidence demonstrating that the 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates on Iran are wrong.  Furthermore, he assumes that a nuclear-armed Iran would unleash a series of fearsome consequences, even though we have no theory that explains how Iran could use its nuclear weapons for offensive purposes, and no examples of other nuclear-armed states doing so successfully in the past.  He also assumes that rejecting the war option will force the United States to maintain a costly and dangerous “containment and deterrence regime” for decades.  In short, when considering the “no-war” scenario, he consistently employs worst-case analysis. 

When making the case for how a war against Iran will succeed, however, he switches to “best-case” assumptions about the short-term consequences, the dangers of escalation, and the long-term benefits, even though each of his forecasts is wide open to challenge.  My point was not that Kroenig failed to discuss the costs and benefits of using or not using force; it was that if he had adopted a similar standard on both sides of the equation, his conclusion that war was the “least bad” option would fall apart. Read more…

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on December 27, 2011.

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