Insanity, it is said, consists of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. How then to explain the serious consideration being accorded in the American political debate to the possibility of launching a pre-emptive attack upon yet another large hostile Middle Eastern state on the basis of intelligence suggesting that that country may, at some time in the future, become a serious threat.
The existence of a debate at least represents some progress, given the lack of serious examination accorded to the Iraq enterprise.
Unfortunately, the discord in the United States is not primarily between one camp that thinks a pre-emptive attack on Iran may prove necessary, and another opposed. Rather, the debate is between those who think the U.S. should talk to the Iranian regime first and bomb the country only after it fails to agree to dismantle its nuclear program, and those who think these preliminary talks are unnecessary.
The debate, in other words, is not about the morality or even the expediency of pre-emptive attack, but rather the utility of preventive diplomacy.
The Iranian regime shows no sign of abandoning its nuclear program under threat of attack, whether we Americans talk to them or not.
Opponents of war with Iran who take their stand on the grounds that Washington should talk to Tehran first are therefore in danger of finding themselves trapped within a broadening national consensus that could lead to an unwinnable war.
Those who doubt the utility of military action to deal with the Iranian nuclear program should, therefore, question the case for preventive war, as well as arguing that for preventive diplomacy.
Consideration of how best to deal with the challenge posed by Iran logically depends on where one places that country on the spectrum of potential adversaries.
Is Iran a country like Grenada or Panama, one that can do America no serious harm, and that the United States can therefore safely afford to ignore, or overrun, at its discretion?
Or is Iran more akin to the former Soviet Union or China, an adversary that can do American great harm, and that Washington cannot afford to ignore, or overrun?
If one concludes that Iran is closer to the Soviet Union than Grenada on this spectrum, then the military option is probably not an expedient response to anything the Iranians might do short of overt aggression.
After all, the United States never threatened to use force to take out Soviet or Chinese nuclear facilities. It did not bomb China when that country sent a million men to battle American troops in Korea. It did not even attack Soviet or Chinese ships supplying North Vietnam during the war in Indochina. Washington found a myriad of ways to discipline, punish, contain, contend with and, in the case of the Soviet Union, eventually defeat its Cold War adversaries. But pre-emptive attack was never one of them.
There are instances of diplomacy backed by force succeeding. There are far more examples of it failing. Saddam Hussein, after all, could not even be coerced into demonstrating persuasively that he had no WMD.
Taking the military option off the table might come at some cost if there were good reason to believe that Iran could be coerced into giving up its nuclear program.
There is, however, better reason to believe that the threat of attack is a prime motivation for the Iranian program. As long as the United States maintains a military establishment, the military option remains available. Taking this threat off the table, and putting it in a readily available drawer, would improve the prospects for negotiation while avoiding the most likely result of the current approach, which is that in the end America either has its bluff called or finds itself launching a war it cannot win.
Negotiation does not always lead to accommodation, but it does always yield more insights. Talking to Iran will not necessarily produce agreement. It will provide more information, which will in turn lead to more options, better choices and wiser policy.
The case for preventive diplomacy is open and shut. The case for pre-emptive war needs much greater scrutiny.
James Dobbins, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on June 30, 2008.