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,

Related Content