The assumption of the inevitability of a war is allowed to rest exclusively on the fact that “we” and “they” are both preparing so intensively for it. No other reason is needed for the acceptance of its necessity. ~George Kennan, The Fateful Alliance

Paul Pillar has an interesting response to two articles on the unwise use of military force. Pillar describes the second article’s thesis:

The authors ground their explanation in a finding from experimental psychology that people shift from a “deliberative” mind-set before deciding to take an action to an “implemental” mind-set after their decision. The latter frame of mind entails several psychological biases, including closed-mindedness, biased processing of information, cognitive dissonance, self-serving evaluations, an illusion of control, and excessive optimism, all of which add up to overconfidence. Expectations for what can be accomplished through armed force get inflated, and the costs and challenges of the coming war get less attention. The authors apply their concept to pre-war situations, including the months leading up to World War I. They point out that the shift to the biased “implemental” way of thinking occurs whenever war seems inevitable, regardless of whether the decision-makers in question are initiating the war or have it forced on them. The whole dynamic can help to make the prediction of war a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What Kennan’s reconstruction of the diplomatic history behind the Franco-Russian alliance suggests is that the leaders of the major powers in Europe in the decades prior to WWI already had the “implemental” mind-set to one degree or another, and this only became worse over time. Just before he made the concluding remarks quoted above, Kennan wrote:

But in a more general sense this assumption of the inevitability of a German-Russian war, and the concentration of attention in both military establishments on the preparations for such a war, arose simply from the internal compulsions normally engendered by the cultivation of large armed forces–by the mutual anxieties, that is, which such a competition invariably arouses, and by the preoccupation of both the governments and the public with the dangers that it appears to present. So powerful are such compulsions, at all times and in all places, that the absence of any rational motive for a war, or of any constructive purpose that could be served by one, is quite lost sight of behind them.

Obviously, Kennan was writing this with the U.S.-Soviet arms race in mind, so the specific danger he was warning against has receded greatly, but the observation is a sound one. Pillar was discussing the dangers of considering a war with Iran to be in some way “inevitable,” which requires us to adapt Kennan’s observation slightly. What keeps raising the specter of an attack on Iran is not a massive Iranian military build-up. The sort of competition that Kennan described isn’t the issue. There is nonetheless the compulsion “engendered by the cultivation of large armed forces” that leads to an overestimation of what those armed forces can achieve, and it encourages the illusion that military action can solve a complicated policy problem. This illusion will seem more real if there is a mistaken belief that military action has temporarily “solved” similar problems in the past.

While the more honest Iran hawks acknowledge that attacking Iran’s nuclear sites would be much more involved, risky, and less certain than Israel’s attack on Osirak, there is always the underlying assumption that the Osirak bombing “worked” and successfully delayed the development of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. According to the finding of the other article Pillar discusses, this is simply wrong. Pillar explains:

Braut-Hegghammer’s conclusion is that the Israeli attack was counterproductive, for two sets of reasons. One concerned the state of the Iraqi nuclear program at the time of the attack, which was basically drifting and, although providing some of the technological base that possibly could have been used in the future toward acquiring nuclear weapons, was not geared up to produce such weapons. The political momentum to develop a weapons option was “inconsistent at best.” The Osirak reactor itself was not well designed for purposes of supporting a weapons program. The International Atomic Energy Agency later assessed that visual verification and materials accounting would have detected any diversion to a weapons program. On-site French engineers constituted an additional safeguard. Saddam Hussein had not “secured the basic organizational resources or budget.” Iraqi pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was “both directionless and disorganized.”

The other set of reasons involved the Iraqi response to the Israeli attack, which was to establish for the first time a nuclear weapons program that not only had direction and organization but also was clandestine and kept away from international scrutiny.

This should actually come as a surprise to no one, since governments of all kinds are very likely to (over)react to attacks on their territory by trying to find deterrents to future attacks. Following the attack on Osirak, then, Iraq pursued nuclear weapons with much more determination than it had shown before:

The resulting clandestine program to build nuclear weapons using enriched uranium as the fissile material accelerated through the 1980s and brought Iraq much closer to a nuclear weapons capability than could have been projected from anything Iraq was doing prior to the Israeli attack.

Of course, a government’s decision to develop nuclear weapons is no more inevitable than its decision to go to war, but launching an attack on it makes that decision much more likely. A “preventive” strike pushes a government into a corner and makes it believe that it has no other alternative to secure itself from future attack. Whether or not an attack would be successful in temporarily halting Iran’s nuclear program, it would make its later development of a nuclear weapon a virtual certainty.