They Got It Right: (5) Peter Liberman

On the other hand… Peter Liberman forms his own category in this sampling. Let us call him an Optimistic Realist. Meaning: he doesn’t expect the US can or will attack Iran. It’s his observation that the popular American feeling after the Iraq misadventure has turned decisively against the “collective psychosis” involved in attacking countries that had nothing to do with an attack on us. And he believes that Israel has never been in anything like nuclear danger from either Iraq or Iran, and that this wisdom is sinking in here, and there.

Peter Liberman

Peter Liberman of CUNY: Optimistic Realist

Among the signers (five years ago!) of the prescient New York Times ad arguing that “WAR WITH IRAQ IS NOT IN AMERICA’S NATIONAL INTEREST,” Peter Liberman of Queens College at the City University in New York was a relative youngster, ten years out of the Ph.D. program at MIT, but a prolific student even then of the psychology as well as the strategies of war, occupation, conquest and resistance. Signing the ad in September, 2002, he recalls “was really a no-brainer.”

Among the unconventional points in our conversation: Never, in Peter Liberman’s view, should an assault on Iraq, or Iran, have been justified by — or confused with — the Israeli security dimension. “I think of Israel as being quite secure from both Iraq and Iran,” he said. “Israel has probably a few hundred nuclear weapons… and any Iraqi or Iranian government would be crazy to try to attack Israel. They never had any real strategic incentive, or anything more than a PR incentive, to condemn Israel, or attack Israel. And condemning is a lot cheaper than attacking.” Israel, he wanted to remind us, has an absolute regional monopoly on the ultimate weapon. An overt attack by a neighboring nation on Israel, he said, “is not plausible.”

Unlike his main mentor Barry Posen, Peter Liberman sees the great unarticulated middle of American opinion “much closer” to a more restrained, more reflective, more “realist” foreign policy. He senses a “new-found skepticism” in the public and caution in the media after the siege of “collective insanity” in which so many swallowed the Iraq war rationale “hook, line and sinker.” He argues it would take another attack on American soil — something like a full 9.11 sequel — to build anything like the political foundation for war-making against Iran.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Peter Liberman (7 MB MP3)

The touchstone of Peter Liberman’s “realism,” he noted, is Carl von Clausewitz and the understanding of war as an instrument of political interest — not of revenge or abstract principle. Nothing plays more havoc with politics than the warfare of counter-insurgency, or of nation-building, as he said in our conversation. And thus the quicksand of Iraq.

While the Bushies did fall prey to the victory-for-its-own-sake syndrome, a few like Wolfowitz claimed to have far-reaching political objectives–even if hopelessly unrealistic ones, like the political transformation of the Middle East.

Where they really failed miserably was in not looking systematically at past occupations and regime change efforts, or taken the advice of those who had (like the Rand Corp, the CIA, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, etc.). Had the Bushies done so, they might have awoken to the fact that they were about to step into a booby trap. Wolfowitz had a Political Science PhD from Chicago, and [Condoleeza] Rice from Denver, which goes to show either that the owner of a PhD can forget their social science training, or that a lot of international relations PhDs–especially up through the 1970s–did not get rigorous training in the first place.

Peter Liberman of Queens College, CUNY, by email to Chris Lydon.

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  • rc21

    I’m sure all of Israel can rest easier knowing that Lieberman has all but guaranteed their safety

  • Potter

    So who gets it right now? I was going to put this post on the Desch interview because Fareed Zakaria was mentioned with regard to getting it wrong. I need to rehabilitate him. I will put it here:

    Fareed Zakaria was on the Newshour last night debating Norman Podhoretz. The transcript and download are here. Podhoretz advocates a course of action that Paul Krugman decries in his recent column Fearing Fear Itself. It’s been too long waiting for what Krugman is saying here and for it to move to the forefront of our collective attention.

    Zakaria in the Newshour interview goes out on a limb with this unpopular view:

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Fareed Zakaria, the choice, either strike Iran or allow them to go nuclear, are those the only two choices?

    FAREED ZAKARIA, Editor, Newsweek International: Well, there is a third choice, Judy, which is the choice we have used for pretty much every other country that has developed nuclear weapons, and that is deterrence.

    We allowed Mao to get a nuclear weapon and have used deterrence against them, against the Chinese. We allowed the Russians, the Soviet Union to get nuclear weapons and used deterrence against them. We’ve allowed the North Koreans to get nuclear weapons and have used deterrence against them.

    It used to be that one had to explain deterrence to the left; it has now become something the right does not understand. You know, Mao Zedong was a much more revolutionary figure than Ahmadinejad is. China was actively helping insurgencies all over the world that were anti-American, killing Americans in Vietnam, in Korea.

    Mao spoke actively about his great desire to overturn the international system. He even talked about destroying half the world to allow communism to triumph. And yet, you know what? The desire for self-preservation meant that Mao Zedong was deterred. The Soviet Union was deterred. North Korea is being deterred.

    We have a policy that we understand, which is containment plus deterrence. We’re using sanctions. We’re using a kind of anti-Iranian alliance mechanism in the Middle East, which has become quite successful, by the way. We have isolated Iran.

    Time is not on their side; time is on our side. I think that the onus surely must be on the other side to explain to us why, because Iran might gain the knowledge to make nuclear weapons in the next three to five to eight years, we should launch a unilateral American invasion.

    This would be the third invasion of a Muslim country that the United States would have undertaken in the last five years; that seems to me a pretty serious business. And we’ve seen deterrence work against all these other countries.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask…

    FAREED ZAKARIA: Let us even assume that Iran gets the bomb, and it’s not clear that it will. Why are they more crazy than Kim Jong Il, a man who let two million of his own people starve in the last decade?

    As Podhoretz quotes the worst of Ayatollah Khomeini and compares Ahmadinejad to Mao

    and Hitler, Zakaria responds:

    You know, I had a feeling Norman would bring up that one quotation that he’s used before, so I have one from now. “If the worst came to worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain, while imperialism would be razed from the ground.” This is what Mao said.

    And it wasn’t just his words. It was his actions. He was actively aiding revolutionary movements and killing Americans all over the world.

    So the question about Iran’s rationality rests on this: They’ve been in power for 30 years. What have they done? Iran has followed a pretty rational, national interest-oriented foreign policy.

    If you look at the way in which they opposed al-Qaida and the Taliban, this was another Islamic revolutionary movement. You’d think that they would find them sympathetic, but, no, they were the sworn enemies of al-Qaida and they helped the United States depose the Taliban…

    ….they’ve been fairly calculating, they have followed their national interest. When it has bumped up against the United States, they have worked against us. When they have thought that our interests were in common, as in Afghanistan, they’ve worked with us….

    ….Look, if you look at the way in which the mullahs have run Iran, by and large they have been incredibly savvy. They’re building up bank accounts in Dubai and in Switzerland. This does not strike me as the kind of ravings of, you know, an end of days millenarian.

    The Iranians are trying to capture the core political high ground of the Middle East, and they’re trying to become the dominant power in the region. We should be working against

    them; we should building an alliance against them.

    But the idea that they are not going to be deterred by Israel’s 200 nuclear weapons, including a second strike capacity on submarines, is just fantasy. It’s based on plucking a few quotes here and there from a president who is not constitutionally or operationally in charge of the nuclear program.


    FAREED ZAKARIA…When the Iranians elected a moderate, a man called Khatami, as the president, conservatives kept telling us the president has no powers.


    FAREED ZAKARIA: Now they elect Ahmadinejad, and they say he’s got his finger on the button.

  • Potter

    Amos Oz, the Israeli writer and peace activist, after receiving Spain’s 2007 Prince of Asturias Award for Letters,

    expressed reservations about the threats to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and suggested instituting a policy of mutual deterrence. He pointed out that no one was suggesting an attack on Pakistan, a problematic Islamic state that already has nuclear weapons.

    “In another 15 years everyone will have nuclear arms, and the balance of terror will remove the threat of nuclear attack,” ( Haaretz)

  • hurley

    This might fit into the conversation somewhere:

  • Potter

    Hurley- I agree. In fact I posted this link the other day here and asked for an interview with Flynt Leverett..

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Once again, nice work Chris. The ghost of The ROS conversation with Lawrence Wilkerson, , keeps running through my head in these conversations. Hand wringing and pained regrets aside, he made it clear that this administration’s position on matters of weapons proliferation is ultimately nothing short of of boots on the ground. This is Trust-But-Verify for the hyper-paranoid class I guess.

    Given that the general position by this administration, and an obvious lack of trust for Iraq regime and the Iran regime since they make up two thirds of the axis-of-banality, I conclude that boots on the ground is the way to verify and quash weapons proliferation from this administration’s POV. This is not mere air sorties as a solution, regarding Iran. Of course, no one should expect consistency for such weighty matters, Libya and North Korea (third spoke in the axis-of-banality) are perhaps exceptions that prove the rule.

    Anyway, regardless, whatever the Iraq debacle is about, it is clear that one component was weapons proliferation. Going forward, it would be great to hear some of these guest’s views on non-proliferation going forward. Would any of your previous guests do follow ups on this issue? Something other than boots on the ground, but constructive and feasible would be great to hear about. Historical evidence in this area may be of little value, so I’d like to hear some novel approaches. I’m not a big boots on the ground kinda person, so I’d like to hear some tangible words about this area. From my POV, non-proliferation is a serious issue and one of the strategic errors about Iraq is that the military campaign trumped a means of finding non-military, non-covert solutions to this problem.

    In the short run, and perhaps in the long run too, military-based solutions, especially ones that fail, tend to remove options and become counter-productive. With the corollary that newly created options must be quashed or neutralized as they have negative tactical value in the strategic vision (e.g. the options created called insurgency, sectarian strife, mass refugees, bolstering a neighboring country’s status, incursion from neighboring countries, loss of general goodwill among allies, torture usage as SOP, weapons proliferation due to rising chronic paranoia, reducing military elasticity, and other unintended consequences).

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    Criticizing the Bush Administration for being in Iraq is the same as criticizing any leader for being in any war. It is not matter of “right or wrong” – it is a matter of ‘perception’ – and different people perceive reality differently.

    Hindsight is always 20/20 and it has not yet been established that the war in Iraq is “lost”, or “won” for that matter. The reason for this is because this new 21st century “war” is not an open and shut case like the wars of the past. The advancement of Communications and military Technology; the availability of 15 year old [composite] military technology has enabled rouge criminal elements and terrorists to force America and its NATO allies to play a more active role in defending the life nerve of Western Civilization, oil.

    This new kind of rogue access to technology has created a necessary and continual preponderance of American military forces in the Middle East in what Henry Kissinger has referred to as “A lawless world”. Actually, it’s not even that. It’s more like Iraq is the new Ok Corral, and Central Asia is the new playground for 21st century spies and covert sabotage. Many retired military brass and veteran journalists have come forward with the realization that the current conflict in the Middle East is a protracted one, and that it is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Again … there is no “right” or “wrong” here. We simply need to redefine the way we look at things, and possibly invent some new terminology. Hilary Clinton seems to be catching on. She’s no dope.

  • Arjen Kamphuis

    Sent this as a mail to Chris ans Mary earlier. Chris wrote me back and suggested I post it here to add to he debate.


    Dear radio opensource,

    From the moment I started listening to radio opensource podcasts I enjoyed them immensely. So this is hard to say and not meant to you personally in any way. But is has to be said.

    It just finished listening to your 6-part series ‘they got it right’ on a group of people that foresaw some of the disastrous effects of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. As is most often the case the interviewees were smart, thoughtful and reasonably well-informed. But something as bugging me all the time and now that I have discovered what is is I feel I have to share.


    Shame on the interviewer and the interviewees.

    Not a word. Not one word in 6 talks about the 1.2 million Iraqi citizens (30+% of them children) that are dead. Not apology, no regret. Not even a word of sympathy. How can this be? Has even the top 1% of US intellectuals gone utterly insane? They did nothing to you. They were innocent. And you complain about the fact you’ve been lied to by your government? You think you have a problem? Every day you allow your government to stay in power you a condoning genocide.

    Why should the rest of the world care what happens to the US if its citizens are unable to take basic responsibility for what has been done (and is being done) in their name? Ask ‘Why do they hate us?’ This is one of your answers.

    Why are you sitting behind your computer? Why are you not in the streets by the millions taking back what is left of your country?

    The dollar is falling apart, your military is unable to even occupy a single city in a third world country. You’re so far in debt the rest of the planet will soon have no choice but to pull the plug on your $800 billion trade deficit and your $3 trillion housing bubble. Your problem is not about the messed-up 2 party system or your messed-up media system it’s how you will import enough fuel to survive next winter after the dollar goes down the tube. You will need friends and navel gazing and intellectualizing about your internal politics quite frankly does not cut it anymore if your government is overseeing the largest genocide since Pol Pot.

    Are you still here? Get up! Get out! Do something! Show the rest of the world that you are willing to take personal risks to end genocide financed by your taxes!

    Saddened and flabbergasted but still a subscriber.


    Amsterdam, the Netherlands