They Got It Right: (3) Barry Posen

The nightmare isn’t half over. Barry Posen and Steve Van Evera, colleagues in security studies at MIT, both see a US military strike coming on Iran — executed and cheered on by the same people who misjudged all the consequences of our war on Iraq.

In conversation with them I am trying to learn why this is happening, how the “party of war” insulated itself from correction, why we citizens, we media, and the chatter along the 2008 campaign trail all sound so helpless, so oblivious about the extended catastrophe.

Five years ago Posen and Van Evera were both among the brave band of 33 academics who wrote and paid for the prophetic New York Times ad that fascinates me so: a crystal vision of the almost exit-proof killer-swamp of American troops, money and reputation. Today Posen and Van Evera say independently that the many bad consequences of attacking Iran could be graver than what we’ve seen so far — from a much bigger, more modern, more cohesive nation than Iraq.


Barry Posen of MIT: an era of restraint?

“There will probably be a series of air raids,” Barry Posen begins, that will leave the mullahs’ regime standing but lethally enraged, and will thicken the air of a universal American confrontation with Islam. And then…?

The missed opportunity will have been to contain and deter Iran (nuclear or not) — as we might have contained Saddam Hussein — with the vastly greater force of American and Israeli arms. “All nuclear war can give [Iran],” Posen says, “is ashes and tragedy,” and even mullahs can understand that. In any imaginable nuclear war, Posen continues, “Iran is going to be no more. This is not rocket science to figure out. It just took me three minutes to explain it.”

As always, Posen is ebullient, accessible, informed; but there sounds like a dark turn in his wider view. “It’s going to take an accumulation of costly mistakes to turn the elite in this country toward a policy of realism and a policy of restraint,” he said to me.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Barry Posen (6 MB MP3)

Barry Posen has put himself at the center of a stunning review of our general direction in an article that became a forum in The American Interest. “Foreign Policy After George W. Bush” should be required reading, and the debate that comes with it, with the likes of Niall Ferguson , Ruth Wedgwood, John Ikenberry and Francis Fukuyama. The gauntlet from Posen goes down like this…

Since the end of the Cold War, the American foreign policy establishment has gradually converged on a grand strategy for the United States. Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts now disagree little about the threats the United States faces and the remedies it should pursue. Despite the present consensus and the very great power of the United States, which mutes the consequences of even Iraq-scale blunders, a reconsideration of U.S. grand strategy seems inevitable as the costs of the current consensus mount—which they will. The current consensus strategy is unsustainable.

If we understand properly the current foreign policy consensus and review the four key forces affecting U.S. grand strategy, the contours of an alternative strategy will emerge. The alternative, a grand strategy of “restraint”, recommends policies dramatically different from those to which we have grown accustomed not just since the end of the Cold War, but since its beginning. The United States needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies. We thus face a choice between habit and sentiment on the one side, realism and rationality on the other…

Barry R. Posen, “The Case for Restraint”, in The American Interest Online,


8 thoughts on “They Got It Right: (3) Barry Posen

  1. The remedy for this gloom and doom is IMPEACHING BUSH AND CHENEY! PLEASE DO A PROGRAM ON IMPEACHMENT! Unless we get rid of those criminals in the White House, nothing progressive we want done can be accomplished and democracy is threatened more and more every day! Please listen to this and have these folks as guests on your show:

  2. Great conversations. I think they [neo-cons] are almost congenitally incompetent for reasons having to do with how they function as a group; they are kind of like a cult … — Steve Van Evera

    Thanks again for doing this series Chris.

    As far as impeachment, I’m not opposed, but I think it’s the wrong target in terms of a long-term nationally healthy nation. IMO, at this time, the general citizenry (the supine electorate … thanks Prof Tribe) is sort of functioning like a being that couldn’t find it’s hind quarters with six bits and a flashlight. I’m part of this, so it’s self-referential as well. One example of the disconnect: I think some large fractional set of the general citizenry expects the media (whatever that monolithic being is?) to play a role in checks-and-balances. This is a form of magical thinking in my estimation.

    Much of the media, present company excluded, play a role in these policy and military efforts that can be plausibly construed as behaving as a military asset (e.g. repetition of vocabulary and meanings engineered by the political and military realm … one example of a long list). Even if the behavior is simply due to intimidation, the behavior is still assisting in military and covert adventures. Until this mindset is dismantled, there will not be serious quasi-objective, realist reporting.

    The op-ed sector has largely become a cartoon-like monkey playing with a revolver; I say that regardless of political viewpoints, right or left. The op-ed sector acts like a brittle, non-thinking, reflexive, cornered animal. The role of the op-ed sector in this game is of particularly genius because the citizenry places a high premium on free speech. So how can one be against free expressions of opinion? It’s looking like a fairly rigged game.

    How to end it? A fairly easy way to change behavior in the private sector, especially where public ownership is a funding vehicle, is to walk away from the product permanently. Until folks refuse to provide monetary rewards for the behavior, there will be little incentive to change in this sector. Information and opinion is not a durable good; you don’t need to run out the clock on a warranty or kick yourself for buyers remorse. It can be stopped without much loss of personal investment regarding time or money or other irretrievable resources. Of course, perhaps it’s not information or opinion at all, perhaps it’s merely an entertainment vehicle. If that’s the case, then it’s probably fanciful to consider an entertainment commodity as the means for playing a role in national checks-and-balances, especially regarding foreign policy matters.

  3. I’m not certain that we, Iran’s neighbors and Isarael should or should not live with a nuclear Iran. My hunch is that they are developing the ultimate weapons of mass destruction.

    Would it be easier to ‘live’ with a nuclear or nuclearizing Iran run by moderates in that country who don’t make threats about wioing Israel off the face of the map?

    What responsibility does BNush and company have in the rise of the current hard-line regime with it’s own irresponsible rhetoric?

    Is Iran developing a nuclear capability because it feels that “The Great Satan” is bent on regime change? Could the answer be in a diplomacy proposed by Chris Dodd in a policy of no regime change in that country (letting it fall from within like the Soviet Union), a policy the mullahs et al can believe and then negotiating with them to drop their nuclear ambitions?

    Or does Iran simply want this big stick at all costs?

  4. Chris Dodd is looking good lately.

    Forgive me this ad is not astonishing to me though I am very glad of it. The interviews make so much sense, even common sense. I remember differently: then, especially starting mid 2002, there was a good lively debate in the “op-ed” sector and opinion journals, including and especially articles available online, and discussions on the blogs, on radio, before we went to war, pro and con. For instance read Barry Posen’s “Bloody Siege in Baghdad” op-ed in the NYTimes of October 13th 2002. He did not exactly foresee correctly though he was rightly warning and against the war. I have gone back to my own heated email discussion of October 2002, which started online with a neo-con supporter, to see where my own head was.

    Without such a survey I could not say whether pro or con weighed more heavily. But all these points were made then. So for those interested and concerned there was plenty put forth, enough, on both sides in the months leading up to the war to inform the public’s opinions for or against. Those too busy, or uninterested, or unconcerned, or trusting of our leadership, were more vulnerable to demagoguery. Some were spoiling to “kick ass”, (including Bush, shamefully).

    So there were many months leading up to the war starting from summer of 2002 or shortly before when this was all in the air.

    But what difference did the ad make? What difference did it make (or does it still) that the people, many if not most, (if you read the polls closely) did not and do not want this war, especially before Colin Powell’s speech at the UN in early 2003, who believed it would be a cakewalk?

    Those who had the power to take a stand that would have been meaningful at the time, who might have changed things, did NOT. They were in a fundamentally different position, contaminated by politics. The signers of this NYTimes ad, those in academia, and all the others, including myself, who were against this war, who were freer, were not so encumbered in making their personal judgments.

    Those of us, the latter, had NO power at all to prevent this. We were all taken in 2003, willingly or unwillingly on this venture in our names and taken again when this course was ratified in 2004 (regardless of the continuing discussion) to “support the troops”.

    Should we thank the insurgents for the roadblock they set up in front of this administration’s larger ambitions?

    I too am with Amy above here. One first step, I hope not gone, would be to insist on holding the Bush administration accountable.

  5. “Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war

    in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic

    fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged

    sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it

    narrows the mind…. And when the drums of war have

    reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate

    and the mind has closed, the leader will have no

    need in seizing the rights of the citizenry.

    Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded

    with patriotism, will offer up all of their rights

    unto the leader, and gladly so. How do I know?

    For this is what I have done. And I am Caesar.”

    – William Shakespeare

  6. It is ironic how the Bush Administration is implementing what the left has always theorized: that the world should be this cushiony place where we all sit around campfires singing folk songs. Not that there is anything “wrong” with folk songs, but can they do this in Russia or China? The Russians do not have the luxury of ignorance like we do, or the freedom to criticize their thug Putin out in the open. The sacrifices some people make to protect our choice to remain ignorant is what this is all about.

    Sure we have our own brand of propaganda that we expound at home and abroad, but there is a much bigger picture here. The reason why America set up shop in the Middle East is to preserve our freedom to dream; our freedom to, as the author Thomas Friedman likes to put it, “Invent solutions to problems”; our freedom to pass on the same quality of life to our children; to preserve and protect our worldwide interests, and to embrace the future with determination.

    What I have not yet seen on this site that is an integral part of this whole debate is a frank discussion on Chinese expansionism, Russian influence in Iran and Syria, and how these two actively work together to destabilize the Middle East. It is as if this REALITY simply does not exist to some people. I find it astonishing.

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