Robert Farley Responds to Spencer Ackerman and Michael Cohen

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The responses from Spencer Ackerman and Michael Cohen both boil down to the same point.  Many people in the Middle East say that an Iranian nuclear weapon will tip the regional balance of power in alarming ways, and since there is “nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” the balance will be tipped.  There is certainly something to be said for this argument: what people believe is, very often, more important than what actually is.  Unfortunately, both Cohen and Ackerman fall prey to the same error.  They take the claims of people in the Middle East far, far more seriously than they ought.

The first lesson of nuclear diplomacy is that everyone lies.  The proliferating state lies to the world about the extent of its program, and to its people about the return they’ll earn on their sacrifice of blood and treasure.  Client states lie to their patrons about the degree of threat that they feel, and warn ominously of how “a change in the balance of power” might force “a strategic realignment.”  Non-proliferation agencies warn of the dire consequences of widespread proliferation.  American diplomats explain than a nuclear weapon is “unacceptable” because they do not want anyone to wonder whether the consequences of proliferation might be tolerable.  This pattern is repeated over, and over, and over, throughout the history of nuclear proliferation.  The practitioners of nuclear diplomacy ply an honorable trade, but their duty is to lie, and they do so quite well.

Ackerman and Cohen accept many of these lies at face value.  Ackerman apparently believes that the autocrats in Bahrain would not have suppressed demonstrators, but for the specter of Iran.  Dead protestors in dozens of states not threatened by Iran might wonder whether the Bahraini government is telling the truth about its motivations.  He and Cohen believe that the Israelis will act irrationally, mostly because the Israelis insist that they will act irrationally.  To my mind, the Israeli response to the Iranian nuclear program has been quite rational; they have pursued low cost, relatively low impact ways of disrupting the Iranian nuclear program, all while repeatedly insisting to their patron state that they are extremely concerned, and will very soon be launching a disruptive attack that could destabilize the whole region, and wouldn’t it be better if the Americans solved the problem?  There is nothing even mildly irrational about this strategy, and there is no reason whatsoever to suspect that the Israelis will become more irrational, or the Bahrainis less autocratic, after an Iranian nuclear test.

In addition to this basic ontological problem, Cohen’s piece in particular is riddled with errors and unfounded speculation.  Israeli military policy towards its neighbors has not changed notably since developing nuclear weapons (it invaded its neighbors before, it invaded them after), and he gives little in terms of convincing evidence that Israeli behavior will change after an Iranian nuclear test.  He misunderstands the end of the Korean War (nuclear threats played a relatively small role in truce negotiations), misinterprets the Cuban Missile Crisis (the US held overwhelming nuclear superiority at the time), and essentially argues that if nuclear weapons have mattered in any relationship, they must matter in the Israeli-Iranian relationship.  He fails to acknowledge that many states have “gotten off scot-free” after sponsoring terrorist attacks against nuclear powers; the Mumbai attacks are not particularly notable or special in this regard.  It’s also worth noting that the Indian Army has developed a conventional doctrine designed to devastate Pakistan without triggering the use of nuclear weapons.  Cohen falls victim to the extraordinarily common error of assuming that nuclear weapons must have brought about an outcome simply because they are so powerful and so terrifying.  It is fair to say that the tendency of policymakers to lie relentlessly about the relevance of nuclear weapons feeds this misperception.  Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the analyst to look past what amount to propaganda efforts, and to assess the hard realities of the situation.  I guarantee that policymakers in Jerusalem and Tehran are doing so right now.


Dr. Robert M. Farley
is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.  He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination, and is available on Twitter.

 

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5 thoughts on “Robert Farley Responds to Spencer Ackerman and Michael Cohen

  1. Michael Cohen says:

    Robert Farley accuses me of making several errors in my response to him and relying on unfounded speculation. He certainly has the right to argue the latter, but the former criticism appears to be based on a fairly egregious mis-reading of what I’ve written:

    “Israeli military policy towards its neighbors has not changed notably since developing nuclear weapons (it invaded its neighbors before, it invaded them after)”

    I have never claimed that it does. Indeed, as I note in my article Israel can do what it wants in the region, “because of a vast military superiority that includes nuclear weapons.” And Farley refuses to engage with the argument that an Iranian bomb – and a potential military rival that could do grave damage to Israel – could shift Israeli thinking about its role as a regional hegemon.

    “He misunderstands the end of the Korean War (nuclear threats played a relatively small role in truce negotiations).”

    Again, I never argued it played a major role, rather that it was a tool the United States used to try and force China to the negotiating table (of course it would not be the only time that the US would seek to use nuclear blackmail against China). Is it so far-fetched to believe that Iran would do the same?

    “misinterprets the Cuban Missile Crisis (the US held overwhelming nuclear superiority at the time)”

    Apparently Farley believes that a low-level nuclear conflict would have been sustainable for the United States!

    “He fails to acknowledge that many states have “gotten off scot-free” after sponsoring terrorist attacks against nuclear powers the Mumbai attacks are not particularly notable or special in this regard.”

    Yes many countries have gotten off scot free for sponsoring terrorist attacks against nuclear powers, but it’s irrelevant to my argument, which was a response to Farley’s assertion that “nuclear weapons cannot ensure the safety and security of client terrorist groups.” Surely, nuclear weapons is one of several military factors that have helped to ensure the safety of anti-Indian terrorist groups that reside in Pakistan. Farley seems to think that the threat of potential nuclear conflict – between nuclear powers – has zero influence over the decision-making of policy-makers. The entire experience of the US-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War would appear to undermine that notion.

    “Cohen falls victim to the extraordinarily common error of assuming that nuclear weapons must have brought about an outcome simply because they are so powerful and so terrifying.”

    I don’t argue that at all; rather that nuclear weapons are an important factor in shifting how countries calibrate the use of force. Does Farley believe for example that the Soviet Union’s agreement to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba had absolutely nothing to do with the powerful and terrifying possibility of nuclear conflict with the United States? History is replete with examples of countries stumbling into wars they couldn’t win out of a mixture of miscalculation and national pride (Belgium 1914, Poland 1939, Iraq 1991 and 2003, Afghanistan 2002, Jordan 1967, Ethiopia and Eritrea in the 00s, Serbia 1914, and I could go on). Surely the possibility of national annihilation – i.e. the powerful and terrifying impact of nuclear conflict – has an impact on decision-making.

    Granted this isn’t always true. I don’t argue for example that the failure of South Korea to respond to North Korean provocation is a result of them having nukes.Clearly it is much more influenced by North Korea’s strong conventional capabilities.

    But as I noted in my article (and Farley did too) Iran doesn’t have a strong conventional capability which is why getting a nuclear bomb has the potential to shift the military balance of power, if even subtly, in the Middle East.

    In the end, the impact of Iranian nuke is probably overstated, but Dr. Farley is starting from the position that it will have no impact. For a host of reasons this seems like a dubious proposition.

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