When the Straw Men Take Over

The false binary of war or diplomacy is eroding national discussions about foreign policy

Ben Rhodes, right / Getty
June 26, 2019

Earlier this month, the Israeli Air Force struck several military targets in Syria and killed 10 fighters, seven of whom were either Iranian troops or members of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terrorist organization. Israel acted in response to two missiles fired toward the Jewish state from Syrian territory—missiles no doubt launched by Iranian forces or their allies. Such Israeli strikes are routine at this point. Indeed, as of September, Israel carried out more than 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, killing large numbers of soldiers—including high-ranking officers—and causing God knows how many dollars' worth of damage to equipment and facilities. And that was just over the past year and a half! Since then, the Jewish state has continued its airstrikes when provoked, as Iran has tried to entrench itself in Syria, both directly and through proxies, to open up another military front against Israel.

And yet, Iran and Israel are not formally at war, nor have they been at war at any point during their recent clashes. In fact, Israel's military strikes have, if anything, pushed tensions the opposite way. Earlier this year, Iran moved the bulk of its soldiers and bases in Syria away from the Israeli border, redeploying most of its assets to the eastern part of the country and to Iraq. Moreover, Tehran has barely responded to any of Jerusalem's barrages—just an occasional missile launch here and there, but even those do not cause any casualties.

Someone should tell American journalists and commentators, who have been warning that the Trump administration is hell-bent on starting a war with Iran, and that any military action will provoke a harsh Iranian response, triggering a calamitous escalation. The scaremongering has been something to behold. With every provocation or show of strength, whether Iranian or American, countless pundits and analysts, not to mention reporters, immediately decry the coming storm of war, compare the situation to the months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and blame current tensions on the Trump administration's "belligerence." They also provide a binary: The only alternative to war is diplomacy, but not just any diplomacy. These voices, led by former officials in the Obama administration, want the United States to return to the nuclear deal with Iran, the first step toward rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. They describe a zero-sum situation: There is either full-scale war or no war at all, military action or diplomacy. In other words, the United States can only avoid large-scale violence by eschewing military power and relying exclusively on diplomatic agreements.

This narrative has seeped into the American bloodstream, intoxicating national discussions about Iran to the point of madness. But the problem extends beyond Iran. Indeed, the false choice of all-out war or diplomacy is eroding national debates about other critical security challenges, especially in the Middle East.

Apparently those voices pushing this binary are unaware of the situation in Syria, where Israel is, to repeat, literally killing Iranian soldiers and destroying Iranian military bases, without any war erupting. And Israel is much smaller than the United States, making the Jewish state a more appealing target to the Islamist theocrats in Tehran. Yet Iran has not lashed out, and neither side has declared war. How is this possible? Iran knows that if it retaliates forcefully, Israel will respond much more harshly and is prepared, if necessary, to go to war. Iran's leaders do not want a war and fear Israeli power, and since they find Israel's threats credible, they do not risk escalation. Israel understands one of the world's harsh truths: that to prevent war, a country must be prepared and willing to go to war, and must signal that readiness to the enemy. But signaling to the enemy that one's goal is to avoid war at all costs, as the media and the Obamaites are doing now, only makes conflict more likely. There is a name for this dynamic: deterrence, or the absence of it. Israel has shown in Syria that there is an ocean of space in between total war and appeasement, a space where one can take military action that does not trigger war.

One could be excused for not knowing about these other options given the binary dominating public debate in the United States, which is nothing but a straw man. No serious person advocating stronger action against Iran is calling for an American invasion or a large-scale war. But the Obama administration pushed the very opposite narrative not only with the nuclear deal—portraying, with the help of the media, those who opposed the deal as warmongers—but also with the ongoing Syrian conflict, which began in 2011. The key reason Barack Obama did nothing of consequence in Syria—beyond not wanting to anger the Iranians—is that he wanted to avoid a repeat of the Iraq war. Just listen to the words of Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser with whom Obama shared a "mind meld." "I profoundly do not believe that the United States could make things better in Syria by being there," Rhodes told the writer David Samuels. "And we have an evidentiary record of what happens when we're there—nearly a decade in Iraq." Never mind that literally no one in Washington who favored a more robust American intervention wanted anything like the occupation of Iraq; the choice was still, somehow, between no American military action and full-scale war, all other kinetic options be damned. As Samuels explained, "Iraq" was Rhodes's "one-word answer to any and all criticism." Under Obama, this binary defined American policy toward the Middle East.

The extensive "echo chamber" of experts and journalists that Rhodes created to drown out criticism of the nuclear deal, which like-minded allies in Congress bolstered, is still perpetuating this antiwar narrative about the Middle East, misleading many Americans into thinking that war is on the horizon, that any exertion of American military power will bring about war, and that non-coercive diplomacy is the only way to avoid such a fate. Over the weekend I was chatting with someone who follows international affairs casually through the news. When I told her that I write analysis and commentary about foreign policy, she asked me quite seriously whether the United States is about to go to war, presumably because of current tensions with Iran. Scaremongering works.

This false narrative is making national discussions about foreign policy, certainly toward the Middle East, dangerously simplistic and, frankly, stupid. Indeed, the binary between all-out war and diplomacy is corroding important debates about critical security challenges. American leaders and the American people are becoming focused on simply avoiding war rather than pursuing strategies to advance national interests. This difference has the effect of removing any serious discussion about how to respond to adversaries' belligerence, thereby degrading the power of deterrence. If the media's narrative is that any military action, no matter how small or limited, is off limits against Iran because it will trigger war, and that sanctions provoke the Iranians to lash out justifiably, then what is the United States to do? Roll over and appease Iran's aggression? Perhaps most important, this binary completely separates military power from diplomacy when, in reality, the two work best in tandem. Of course the United States should prefer diplomatic outcomes to war, but diplomacy is useless—indeed, destined to fail—without leverage. And one gains leverage through the ability to influence the geopolitical situation on the ground. Just look at the Obama administration's impotent attempts at diplomacy in Syria—they failed because the United States had no ability to dictate terms when its counterparts had troops on the ground, changing the status quo in their favor. The U.S. must use all aspects of its power in a comprehensive fashion to advance its interests, not portray those aspects as contradictory. In other words, the straw men and false binaries that dominate discussions of Iran and the Middle East today corrode clear, strategic thinking in the United States.

Critically, these deleterious effects may extend beyond the Middle East. There have already been signs with the crisis in Venezuela. Once reports indicated that the Trump administration was considering deploying troops to Venezuela, some Democrats in Congress and like-minded figures in the media portrayed any serious efforts to oppose Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro as a road toward large-scale military intervention. The United States, both its leaders and its people, need to be more intellectually serious and able to consider uses of American power that fall between basic diplomacy and full-on invasion. To start, maybe the media can take a deep breath about war with Iran and learn from Israel, which has shown that the ayatollah has no interest in escalation with a country that is always willing to go one step further.