Review: An Iraq Hawk's Case for Containment in Iran

The most embarrassing moment in Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing as Secretary of Defense came when he misidentified the U.S. policy on Iran as “containment,” and had to correct himself. It is therefore surprising that Kenneth Pollack, one of the most highly esteemed foreign policy analysts of our time and an advocate of war with Iraq, argues for containment in his new book wrestling with the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program.

In Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (Simon & Schuster), Pollack exhausts almost every conceivable policy before deciding that containment is the best of a set of bad options, though he does not rule out war entirely. He makes a very persuasive case--and I say that as someone who believes not only that military action is the best option, but also an inevitable one, given the nature of the Iranian regime.

Pollack argues that “containment” is not the weak, purely defensive strategy that many associate with capitulation or appeasement. On the contrary, he says, it could be--and has been, at times--a muscular strategy that combines diplomatic pressure with military deterrence. Crucially, Pollack argues that containment could include the goal of regime change in Iran, which might offer the best prospect for stability and peace over time.

Pollack acknowledges the risks of containment, but argues that war is even riskier, though the U.S. would prevail. He concludes that we must accept some Iranian nuclear enrichment, i.e. a "breakout" capacity short of weaponization. He concedes that he relies on assumptions that might, if dropped, yield different recommendations. One such is that the Iranian leadership is not as irrational as many--particularly the Israelis--fear. 

The idea that a nuclear Iran would not act irrationally--Pollack puts the risk at 1%--is the weakest part of his argument. Though he points out that U.S. analysts err when they try to put themselves in the place of Iranian leaders, here he has made the same mistake. Certainly Iran’s audacious terrorist plots--such as an attempted attack in the U.S. in 2011 that could have triggered a war--are a sign of a regime prone to irrational action.

Pollack also gives far too much credit to the Obama administration for the sanctions that have been somewhat effective in slowing Iran’s nuclear advance. Though he allows that President Barack Obama was too eager to engage Iran at first, he suggests that Obama switched course at the end of 2009. In fact, the White House continued to resist efforts by Congress to expand sanctions, and seems eager even today to avoid new ones.

One glaring omission in Unthinkable is the lack of any detailed discussion of the failure of Obama administration policy in Syria, and what that means for a containment effort against Iran. Long before the recent crisis, it was clear the President Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons was a failure. The U.S. deterrent has been badly weakened--a serious problem for a containment approach that relies on deterrence.

Yet Pollack makes a formidable case against the military option, warning that air strikes alone will probably not be enough without some form of ground invasion. He is even harsher in his assessment of the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran, pointing out that an Israeli attack faces so many logistical obstacles that the damage it caused to Iran’s nuclear sites might only be short-lived, while the counterattack could be severe.

As evidence, Pollack points to the fact that Israel has been reluctant to launch such an attack--though he relies too heavily, at times, on like-minded Israeli analysts. I am more bullish on the prospects of an Israeli strike--though after reading Pollack’s book I must admit the possibility that I may rely too strongly on the belief that Israel would (as it has done in the past) find a new way of surmounting the practical challenges at hand.

Pollack also notes that Israel has tried, and failed, to encourage the world to enforce a series of “red lines” against Iranian nuclear enrichment. He regards some of Israel’s warnings as alarmist, though he acknowledges that they were necessary to motivate international  action. He omits the fact that the Obama administration has sabotaged Israeli plans for an attack, often by leaking Israeli timetables and proposed flight paths.

Yet Pollack does not spare his criticism of the Obama administration when it comes to the issue of human rights. He says that President Obama’s failure to speak out more strongly in favor of the Green Revolution in 2009 was not only morally “reprehensible,” but also a “terrible mistake” from a strategic point of view, since regime change offers a way to transcend the two bad choices--war or containment--that we now must face.

The problem is that Obama is still eager to grant the regime legitimacy--and over-eager to accept its false overtures, such as a fatwa against nuclear weapons, which Pollack notes probably does not exist. Regardless, the great strength of Unthinkable is that Pollack includes enough evidence for those who disagree with him to make their case. That is what makes his book not only informative, but an essential contribution to the debate.


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