Are we fools? Yes, if we repeat the “who lost China” madness.

America’s combination of hubris and paranoia produces many strange things — which we baffle our descendents — but the repeating debates in the form of “who lost China” must take the booby-prize.

The Coming Failure On Iran“, Jackson Diehl (a deputy editor), Washington Post, 4 October 2009 — The title says it all.  If Iran gets nukes, it’s our failure.  Perhaps Obama’s failure (given the WaPo’s hawkishness, we can expect to read this soon).


  1. History
  2. Examples from today:  Afghanistan is ours
  3. Imperial temptations (update)
  4. FM’s forecast and recommendations 
  5. For More Information, and Afterword

(1)  History

We’ve been down this path before.  Such reasoning did terrible damage to us then, and might again today.

The first assault on the {State} Department came early in 1950, and it came in the Republican Saturday Evening Post in a series of articles which provided that material for the ensuing Republican attacks upon the Department and the Democrats. Rather than trying to hold the line for sane and thoughtful assessments, an important organ like the Post was looking for conspiratorial answers, and it had exactly the right author, former Captain Joseph Alsop, now back in America, bitter over our failure to support Chiang and the full Chiang line, anxious to get even.

The title of the three-part series was “Why We Lost China,” and it was not a serious bit of journalism, a view of a decaying feudal society, but rather a re-creation of the Chennault-Chiang line. It set the tone, though slightly loftier than some successors, for the conspiracy view of the fall of China: the blame was placed on the State Department.

The title is worth remembering: “Why We Lost China.”  China was ours, and it was something to lose; it was an assumption which was to haunt foreign policy makers for years to come. Countries were ours, we could lose them; a President was faced with the blackmail of losing a country.

— From David Halberstan’s The Best and the Brightest

This sparked off the witch hunts for communists in the government, arts, and elsewhere.  While there were Soviet agents and sympathizers, the mania quickly spread beyond rational limits.  The State Department was the major victim, with its experienced China experts purged — and the lasting lesson taught to our FSO’s that accurate reporting  risked destruction of one’s career.  Parroting the party line of whoever occupied the White House meant security and success. That scars from that era remain today (as we saw in the lies leading to the Iraq War), as no Secretary of State has taken the time and energy to rebuild the Department.

It is hubris (pride on a scale risking destruction) to think that the United States can determine the path taken by major nations.  That’s the insanity implicit in Diehl’s op-ed.  India, Pakistan, and Israel got the bomb — but it’s our fault if Iran gets one too.

America will be a far stronger nation when we laugh at such writing.  Such thinking is flawed both morally and geopolitically.

(2)  Examples from today:  Afghanistan is ours

These authors must have a tin ear not to hear the historical echos, saying that nations are “ours.”

  • Still Ours to Lose: Afghanistan on the Brink “, Council on Foreign Relations”, Barnett R. Rubin (New York U),21 September 2006
  • Lose Afghanistan, Lose Pakistan, Lose Iran, Lose It All“, James Lewis, The American Thinker, 6 September 2009 — “That is why Afghanistan and its neighbor Pakistan, AfPak, is a historic watershed moment. If we lose in Afghanistan and the Taliban win, and they can combine with their brethren in Pakistan to get control over a nuclear weapon, and we will see an Al Qaeda look-alike with nukes.
  • If We Lose Afghanistan“, Washington Post editorial, 6 October 2009 — “Yes, al-Qaeda would return. But that’s just the beginning.”

(3)  Imperial temptations

Jack Snyder explained this well in “Imperial temptations“, The National Interest, Spring 2003.  I strongly recommend reading it.  Here is a brief excerpt:

Every major historical instance of imperial overstretch has been propelled by arguments that security could best be achieved through further expansion — “myths of empire” I have called them. …

Falling Dominoes

Another common myth of empire is the famous domino theory. According to this conception, small setbacks at the periphery of the empire will tend to snowball into an unstoppable chain of defeats that will ultimately threaten the imperial core. Consequently, empires must fight hard to prevent even the most trivial setbacks. Various causal mechanisms are imagined that might trigger such cascades.

  • The opponent will seize ever more strategic resources from these victories, tipping the balance of forces and making further conquests easier.
  • Vulnerable defenders will lose heart.
  • Allies and enemies alike will come to doubt the empire’s resolve to fight for its commitments.
  • An empire’s domestic political support will be undermined.
  • Above all, lost credibility is the ultimate domino.

Such reasoning has been nearly universal among overstretched empires. For example…

(4)  FM’s forecast and recommendations

(a)  About Afghanistan

From a long-term perspective, it makes little difference what we do in Afghanistan  (as our efforts after the invasion made little difference in Iraq).  It will remain a weak state for the foreseeable future, but not substantially destabilize its neighbors.

(b)  About Pakistan

The Taliban will not nuke anyone.  They will neither concquor Pakistan nor get any nukes.  They might obtain formal local control in some regions, and perhaps become formal players in the national government.  No India-Pakistan atomic war, or even serious conventional war.

(c)  About Iran

A prediction (aka guess):  Neither the US nor Israel will attack Iran.  We may levy sanctions, but they will be even less effective than those against South Africa.  Esp if still in place when the global economy recovers and oil prices scream higher.

FM’s recommendations:

  • Make  a maximus effort to get better intelligence about Iran.
  • Attempt to develop links to factions inside Iran.
  • Keep the public dialog cool; constant waving of the big stick makes us look weak.
  • Use diplomatic tools to encourage and discourage Iran (to join the nonproliferation club and end its nuke program, respectively)

What if Iran builds nukes?  Probably nothing.  There is no evidence that its generals and senior leaders are crazy (or religious fanatics on the necessary scale).  And only crazy people would use nukes, as the result is certain destruction of their nation.  Note that no one person can employ a nation’s nukes.  They’re not kept in the President’s desk drawer, either in the US or Iran.

(5a)  For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Some of the posts on the FM website about our hubris, and its effects:

  1. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy, 1 March 2006
  2. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past, 30 June 2008
  3. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles, 2 July 2008
  4. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 7 July 2008
  5. The world has changed, but many Americans retain their dreams of hegemony, 28 August 2008
  6. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008

(5b)  Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

10 thoughts on “Are we fools? Yes, if we repeat the “who lost China” madness.”

  1. a maximus effort

    So they should send you ? :-)

    But your suggestions don’t change much and it raises the issue of the objective. It’s obvious to the Iranians that the objective is ultimately to topple their regime. It’s a position that is critically undermining any attempt to negotiate.

    Despite all the rhetoric about Iranians having to prove to the world that they are sincere a bigger problem is that the US is obviously not and hasn’t been for a long time.

    A better suggestion would be confidence building measures – and not just Obama saying that he’ll postpone the hostility this week. A good first symbolic step would be to take war off the table.
    Stopping the covert war going on inside Iran might be a good second one.

    The problem is that the confidence building measures that are most effective – the ones that are difficult to reverse are exactly the ones that goes against the grain in the US. Even those that profess that they don’t see any use for the hammer are loath to throw it away.
    Fabius Maximus replies: In a sense they have sent me.

  2. The risk of Iran getting nukes is not that they’ll fire them off in a blast of religious mutual annihilation with Israel. The risk is that they will use the threat of them to attempt to gain power in the region and elsewhere. Iran may not be crazy enough to fire off a nuke out of religious fervor, but it’s already shown a great willingness to risk war, sanctions, or targeted strikes against it, and not just in hiding its nuclear program. For decades, going back to the Reagan administration, Iran has supplied weapons to terrorists, assisted in major attacks against Americans and others (Khobar Towers, for example), and has been got trying to ferry shiploads of weapons to the Palestinians.

    Any of these actions could have resulted in a military conflict. Therefore, Iran has shown a willingness to risk conflict to attain its goals. Such behavior would seem to indicate that it will be perfectly willing to engage in nuclear brinksmanship in forcing others to submit to its demands. That would be a very dangerous world.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You mean that Iran might act as we have? We have done the equivalent to all of those things, and more. Great powers do those sort of things, although folks relying on the US TV for information remain in blissful ignorance of them.

  3. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in the New York Review of Books article, Digging for Moles contrasts the relatively casual attitude the British gave to their actual moles, such as the Cambridge Five, with the McCarthyist attitude the United States has often exhibited against its real and alleged moles.

    This contrast provides food for thought as to what factors may cause the United States so often to engage in these McCarthyist episodes. English society, under similar circumstances, appears to have responded quite differently.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It’s a powerful article. The NY Review of Books and London R of B are both valuable sources of information!

  4. >it’s already shown a great willingness to risk war, sanctions, or targeted strikes against it, and not just in hiding its nuclear program. For decades, going back to the Reagan administration, Iran has supplied weapons to terrorists, assisted in major attacks against Americans and others (Khobar Towers, for example), and has been got trying to ferry shiploads of weapons to the Palestinians.

    And indeed a nuclear Iran would mean that these problems couldn’t be solved by the US overthrowing the Iranian regime. The Israelis think that that is a real bummer.

    >Such behavior would seem to indicate that it will be perfectly willing to engage in nuclear brinksmanship in forcing others to submit to its demands.

    One wonders why this doesn’t work anywhere else.

    History clearly shows that nuclear deterrence has a stabilizing effect and reduces large scale conflict. A non-nuclear Iran knows that whatever it does it will never be attacked by anything but conventional forces but a nuclear Iran faced with nuclear deterrence would have to be much more careful to ensure that wars don’t escalate.

  5. Dan,

    Therefore, Iran has shown a willingness to risk conflict to attain its goals

    This raises the question of what Iran’s goals are. Not sure what plans, if any, they have for the long term, but so far they seem to be following a defensive grand strategy. Understandably, since the current regime was forged in a revolution against a U.S.-backed client regime installed after the overthrow of Mossadeq by the U.S., followed immediately by an invasion by U.S.-backed Iraq in which they suffered huge losses, followed by years of open hostility and military threats against it by the U.S. and much of the West. It’s Arab neighbor states are quietly hostile, they have a large U.S. military presence over the border in Iraq, and Israel, with the most powerful military and only nuclear aresenal in the region, is hostile as well. Given all that, seems to me they are just trying to save their own asses, and the nuclear option is the only true guarantee of safety. I don’t see them aggressively marching from strength to strength in a bid for regional domination.

    Much like Soviet moves to guarantee their own safety in a (primarily) defensive grand strategy (understandable given Russian history of suffering horribly at the hands of invaders, particularly from the West) were misconstrued by the West as offensive moves toward world domination (a conclusion that suited U.S. policymakers, of course, since it justified their own projects).

    None of this implies that the Iranian leadership are saints, or even legitimate, only that in order to prevail in any kind of conflict it is good to see things through the eyes of your opponent. And regimes, like animals, are most dangerous and liable to lash out when they feel cornered. If we treated the Iranians like any other two-bit power and stopped trying to turn them back into the compliant puppets they were under the Shah (those days are over), we’d get a lot farther, IMO. The mark of a good police officer is that they are always trying to de-escalate the situation, not turn it into a ego-driven pissing contest.

  6. I would ad one recommendation, if we can’t get Iran to abandon it’s nuke program encourage them to live up to their commitment under the non-proliferation treaty and allow full IAEA access to all their nuclear installations. At the least that would slow any progress to weaponizing their nuclear industry.

    A Iran with nuclear power can be a good thing as every barrel of oil not used to generate domestic power is a barrel that exported.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Iran is close to compliance with the IAEA.
    * IAEA report on Iran, 28 August 2009
    * “Communication dated 4 September 2009 received from the Resident Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Agency regarding the implementation of safeguards in Iran
    * “Transcript of the IAEA Director General’s Remarks at the Joint Press Conference with
    the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran
    “, 4 October 2009

  7. It would be nice to believe that Iran’s aggressive behavior is simply a means of defense, and that once they attain nukes they’ll calm down and be good citizens. Personally, I think that’s a crazy hope to base policy on. If Iran’s moves are all defensive, why did it try to sneak the Karine-A past the Israelis? Why does it routinely announce that it will destroy Israel? It’s hard to assign a defensive motive to insane threats against a nation that has no capability to invade it and has made no threatening moves against it. Why is Iran allying itself with Hugo Chavez and the North Koreans, when it has to know that such moves put it squarely in the U.S.’s crosshairs?

    One of the prime mistakes of diplomacy is to assume that your adversary is motivated by the same goals and aspirations you are. Information asymmetries mean you can often only guess at what really drives the behavior of other countries, and this is especially true of dictatorships where the power struggles are hidden and the people do not give off signals as to the regime’s intent. The fact remains that Iran has NOT behaved defensively in the Middle East. It has been stirring up trouble for a long time.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Why do you apply special standards to Iran?

    Why does Israel intervene in Lebanon, West Bank, and Gaza? It’s low-grade conflict, of the sort endemic to the world since Cain. That doesn’t mean Isael will nuke anybody, nor that Iran will nuke anybody. India and Pakistan have been fighting low-grade wars since they got nukes, and have not nuked each other. We’ve been fighting multiple low-grade wars (far more than Iran) almost constantly since WWII and have not nuked anybody since … since we last nuked two cities.

  8. Nicholas Weaver

    Natasha Yar-Routh:And the IAEA is about the ONLY thing that can keep Iran from getting a bomb short of a massive airstrike.

    This is a fortunate consequence of their dual-use strategy.
    * A uranium bomb is much easier to design and manufacture: plutonium is pyrophoric, and can only be used in an implosion bomb (Wikipedia).
    * Uranium is not, and can be used in a “gun type” (wikipedia) bomb.
    * Designing a two-point implosion bomb is SERIOUS work. Even a crude 32 point implosion bomb like the WWII “fat Man” design is a huge amount of work. Designing a gun-type bomb is a good graduate student physics homework assignment.

    Yet it takes a lot of effort to go from LEU to HEU. A LOT of effort. As long as the IAEA knows about and monitors all enrichment facilities, Iran won’t be able to make a bomb, because they won’t be able to produce the fissile material for it.

    Dan H: Much of the analysis is NOT based on Iran having the same goals we do. Rather it is an analysis based on the goals and positions they have articulated and what a rational actor would do in their position. (If anything, our goals are decidedly non-rational. What rational reason did we have for invading Iraq?)

    If anything, the pro-war crowd makes the opposite mistake, a complete lack of empathy for Iran, an unwillingness to acknowledge Iran’s explicit and implied fears and motivations, or to concede that they are behaving rationally given their position and goals.

  9. We might lose a land that was never ours? We might have to live with the risk that terrorists will continue to do what they have always done? How tragic.

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