Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Learning from History: The Iran Deal and the Iraq War

I have said previously that I wasn't interested in blogging about the agreement negotiated between Iran and the coalition of international powers regarding Iran's nuclear program. I still think that what I said then was largely true - we're not having a debate or a discussion about the agreement, we're simply seeing a lot of tribal flag-waving and fear-mongering by people who, consciously or otherwise, have an identity stake in the game. Dispassionate analysis is hard to come by.

Which is why we should be paying special attention in this case to those people for whom dispassionate analysis is their stock in trade. Some members of Congress may not like it, but there really is scientific work done around issues of international relations and conflict between nations. A lot of very smart people have spent the past several decades building a real base of knowledge about how conflict, power, and arms control work. They have done so, to a large degree, under the rules of science, including falsifiability and replicability of hypotheses and peer review. These are not political hacks, nor are they paid large sums of money for their conclusions.

So what are these people saying? Increasingly, the voices of scholars of international conflict are repeating the same points, to whit: the "Iran nuclear deal" is the best that can be achieved and is better than all of the alternatives. David Lake of UCSD has chimed in on this, as has Steve Saideman. Pete Trumbore found and helped broadcast an excellent piece by one of the deans of the field, Graham Allison. A number of prominent scholars have weighed in on Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog.

All of this work, of course, is being dismissed by those who have an ideological, political, or identity reason to reject the deal. Most of it, in fact, isn't even being read by critics, despite being readily accessible.

Where have we seen this story before? Shortly after the start of the Iraq war, 850 experts signed an open letter predicting that the war would be a disaster, one of the worst mistakes of American foreign policy in decades. That list included many of the most prominent names in the field, including David Lake, David Laitin, Charles Kupchan, Louis Kriesberg, John Mueller, and many more. Many of these had said the same thing before the war started.

We now know, of course, that they were right. The whole thing was a disaster, ill-conceived from the start and horrendously executed. It is no stretch at all to draw a straight line from that decision to the creation and rise of the Islamic State phenomenon we see today. The Bush Administration broke the Middle East, and we will be dealing with the consequences of that decision for decades to come.

So perhaps, before we rush to a new war with Iran (which is clearly what some of the negotiated agreement's critics want), we should stop and think for a moment. We've seen this tune before. We don't have to blunder into yet another crisis blindly. There is real expertise we can turn to. I have no expectation that the blowhards on TV and Capitol Hill will do so. But maybe some of us ordinary Americans might.

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