Congress Attempts to Legislate Away Containment of Iran and Replace It With War

At Foreign Policy in Focus Stephen Zunes reports on a resolution (HR 568) that the House passed in a show of bipartisanship (401-11) that couldn’t have come at a worse possible time (as is usually the case with bipartisanship these days). He explains that HR 568 calls for “the president to oppose any policy toward Iran ‘that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.’”

… Congress has essentially told the president that nothing short of war or the threat of war is an acceptable policy. Indeed, the rush to pass this bill appears to have been designed to undermine the ongoing international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

Even Colin Powell, as quoted by Dennis Kucinich, “has stated that this resolution ‘reads like the same sheet of music that got us into the Iraq war.’”

First, the vote shows yet again that Democratic congress-persons would rather pander to their donors (in this case, lobbying groups such as AIPAC) rather than represent their constituents. Sure, talk tough on defense, especially with respect to Iran, plays well with most American voters. But many of those voters don’t understand, as congress-persons do — or would if the psyches of many of them weren’t as compartmentalized as they are — the extent to which such talk can pave the way to catastrophic war. Besides, though best left to legal scholars, HR 578 smells either illegal or unconstitutional.

What escapes most observers — Professor Zunes conspicuously excepted — is that as apocalyptic as war with Iran would be, the implications of HR 568 are even more sweeping. He writes:

The language of this resolution, however, significantly lowers the bar [for taking military action against Iran] by declaring it unacceptable for Iran simply to have “nuclear weapons capability” — not necessarily any actual weapons or an active nuclear weapons program.

Nuclear weapons capability, which isn’t technically illegal under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is also known as “virtual deterrence,” because the program has yet to become “bricks and mortar.” One can’t help but wish that the missiles and bombs with which we threaten Iran were also virtual and it were all a videogame.

More to the point, writes Professor Zunes:

There is enormous significance to the resolution’s insistence that containment, which has been the basis of U.S. defense policy for decades, should no longer be U.S. policy in dealing with potential threats. Although deterrence may have been an acceptable policy in response to the thousands of powerful Soviet nuclear weapons mounted on intercontinental ballistic missile systems aimed at the United States, the view today is that deterrence is somehow inadequate for dealing with a developing country capable of developing small and crude nuclear devices but lacking long-range delivery systems.

Indeed, this broad bipartisan consensus against deterrence marks the triumph of the neoconservative first-strike policy, once considered on the extreme fringes when first articulated in the 1980s.

According to this line of thinking, no need to rely on deterrence alone with non-nuclear weapon states: we’re free to mount an offensive attack, as well. Meanwhile, with nuclear-weapons states, first strikes are almost entirely out of the question — not only nuclear strikes, but conventional. Thus do states that aspire to nuclear weapons draw the inevitable conclusion that they need to develop a nuclear-weapons program to avoid offensive attacks and “qualify” to be handled with a deterrence policy by the United States.

In a similar vein, Martin Hellman, arguably the world’s clearest quantifier of nuclear risk and proprietor of the site Defusing the Nuclear Threat, recently wrote:

The logical inconsistency – and danger – of nuclear deterrence should be obvious, but it still forms the foundation of our national security strategy. Yet, for nuclear deterrence to work:

• we must be irrational enough for our adversary’s threats not to deter us, yet
• our adversary must be rational enough that our threats will deter them.

As I commented at Defusing the Nuclear Threat in response:

I think I’ve got it: The rational us are supposed to act irrational in hopes the irrational them acts rational. Makes perfect sense!