Ron Paul Is Wrong about Iran

I watched Ron Paul's "town hall" meeting in New Hampshire a couple of days ago, and I found it pretty interesting.

There's a lot I like about Ron Paul.  I like the fact that he's anti-abortion.  I like the fact that he's for small government and a balanced budget.  I like the fact that he's for free markets.  I like the fact that he is concerned about the loss of civil liberties in the post-9/11 era.  I like the fact that he's against "nation-building" in the third world.  I like the fact that he chuckled wryly and said, "They think I'm dangerous because I believe in the Constitution!"

But Paul got his greatest applause from the audience not because of his positions on abortion or on government spending.  He got his most vocal reception when he denounced U.S. military intervention, and when he warned against using military force against Iran.

But Ron Paul's Iran policy is dead wrong.

Paul argued that our foreign policy ought to be governed by the "Just War" doctrine that originated with St. Augustine: war should be fought only in self-defense, and the means should be proportional to the ends.  Generally speaking, I don't have a problem with that.

Paul also argued that we should be able to rely on classical nuclear deterrence theory to deal with a nuclear Iran, just as we did with the Soviet Union.  Paul claimed that during the Cold War, the Soviets had thousands of nuclear warheads, and we deterred them; if Iran gets a couple, it shouldn't be a big enough deal to warrant intervention.

Paul went on to say that we should practice the "Golden Rule" in foreign policy: we wouldn't like it very much if Iranians interfered in our elections the way the U.S. interfered in Iran in 1953, and we wouldn't like it if they stationed forces in the Gulf of Mexico.  So, understandably, they're unhappy about our forces in the Persian Gulf.

Let's examine each of these positions closely.

The biggest problem with the Iranians possessing nuclear weapons is the (likely) possibility that classical deterrence wouldn't work.  The Soviets were communists, and communists are atheists.  The last thing an atheist wants to do is die in a mushroom cloud, because there's no afterlife for him.  Iran, on the other hand, has been the Islamic Revolutionary State for over 30 years.  Iran sent "martyr" brigades on suicidal attacks against Saddam's forces in the 1980s.  It has made preparations for the coming of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam of Shi'ite lore, which has emphasized martyrdom since the 7th century.  It's entirely possible that the Iranian leadership might decide that it is preferable to die as martyrs than share the world with the Great Satan, the United States.

Even if we assume that the Iranians would rather live than die as martyrs, there are other problems with applying classical deterrence theory to them.

It's often believed that if the Iranians obtained nuclear weapons capability, they'd nuke Israel.  I'm not so sure of that.  An Iran-Israel nuclear war would be a textbook example of Mutual Assured Destruction.  The doctrine of MAD requires a credible second-strike capability by the target country, and Israel would be certain to retaliate.

But the Iranians would have many options to maximize their leverage without resorting to an all-out nuclear exchange.  The greater concern should be that the Iranians would use nuclear blackmail to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and embargo 40% of the world's oil supply.  Oil could spike to $400 or $500 per barrel overnight, crippling the global economy and turning the West into scene from a Mad Max movie.

If the Iranians were to create a nuclear blockade by threatening to use nuclear arms against any American vessel attempting to transit the Strait, would the threat of American nuclear retaliation be credible?  Of course not.  The U.S. did not use nuclear weapons in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.  Numerous presidents have publicly stated the desire for nuclear disarmament and ultimately a nuclear-free world.  President Obama even declassified the number of nuclear warheads the U.S. now possesses.  If the Iranians can be 100% certain of anything, it is that the U.S. will not use its nuclear arsenal against them, especially if they threaten to detonate, but do not actually detonate, a nuclear weapon in the Strait.  Since deterrence theory requires a credible threat of retaliation, and U.S. threats are hollow, deterrence will not work, and the Iranians will have a free hand to strangle the world's oil supply.

The other problem with Paul's foreign policy is his assumption that we oughtn't "interfere" around the globe, especially without congressional declarations of war.  But we've been doing exactly that to protect American interests since the country was founded.  President Jefferson, the paradigmatic states'-rights, small-government, libertarian president, prosecuted the First Barbary War against -- no surprise -- Islamic pirates in the Mediterranean, and did so without a formal declaration of war by Congress.  (According to Paul's theory of foreign policy, maybe American ships shouldn't have been sailing in the Mediterranean in the first place.)

Paul is a libertarian who believes in the power of free markets.  But he must be naïve to think that a nuclear Iran would want a global free market for oil.  If the Iranians had nuclear weapons, they'd surely succeed in cornering the global market by closing the Strait.  So, oddly enough, a preemptive intervention to prevent Iran from getting The Bomb would enhance free-market libertarian principles, not violate them. 

I agree that we should not invade Iran and that the idea of "nation-building" is folly.  I'm not in favor of another ill-conceived Middle Eastern war.  But a surgical strike against Iran's nuclear facilities is a necessity.  Right now, we've left ourselves defenseless against a mighty Iranian sucker-punch, and we ought to assume that they'll take it the first chance they get. 

Paul's theory of foreign policy places far too much emphasis on perceived American "sins" and not enough on the character of the enemy.  Frankly, there isn't much daylight between Ron Paul's theory of foreign policy and that of the radical left.  As much as I agree with Paul on other issues, he's wrong on this one.

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