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The Cult of “Resolve” and Iran

Matt Duss warns against the dangerous appeal of Iran hawks’ simplistic arguments:

You might think that, especially in the light of recent history, preparing for any and all eventualities might be the most prudent course, right? Wrong: Preparing for an Iranian nuclear weapon is simply evidence of a lack of national willpower. “If prevention fails,” Smith wrote, in possibly the best one-sentence distillation of the neoconservative view of foreign policy I’ve ever read, “it is not because Obama is not able to stop Iran, it is because the commander-in-chief has chosen not to.” That’s right, friends: If we fail, it’s only because we didn’t want it badly enough.

It’s easy to mock this sort of thinking. Indeed, we should. But we should also recognize how dangerously attractive the idea that we can create specific outcomes simply through the application of military force remains for many in Washington, especially against an enemy as easily condemned and caricatured as the Islamic Republic of Iran [bold mine-DL].

The main reason that this idea remains so attractive is that it affirms illusions of American omnipotence. Iran hawks assume that prevention will be successful because they can’t or won’t admit that there are things that are not within the control of the U.S. They similarly don’t want to accept that there are things that happen in other countries that the U.S. cannot stop by the use of force or, as they would have it, through sheer force of will. The fixation on willpower and resolve is matched only by a lack of concern for consequences. According to this view, so long as politicians and officials are sufficiently tough-minded in their determination to change Iranian regime behavior, it doesn’t matter what an Iran policy of prevention costs or what adverse effects it may have on the U.S. or the world. This appeals to policymakers and pundits alike for two reasons. First, it flatters the U.S. and those that advocate for an aggressive U.S. role in the world. It also leaves out how a policy of prevention might backfire or go horribly wrong, which makes it much easier to favor “action” (i.e., starting a war) over “doing nothing” (i.e., anything other than starting a war). As Duss notes at the end, the purpose of these appeals to willpower is to rule out everything except a military option. As long as Iran hawks can get away with pretending that this option can “solve” the nuclear issue, there will be far more support for war than there otherwise would be.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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