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Did Tony Blair Endorse Preventive War on Iran?

By Stephen M. Walt

September 20, 2010 "
Foreign Policy" -- Political leaders often draw negative inferences from an adversary's conduct, without realizing that their own behavior is not really that different. In particular, an opponent's past actions is frequently invoked to demonstrate how aggressive/dangerous/hostile/unstable they are, but when one's own country (or a close ally) acts in the very same way, we are quick to find ways to rationalize or justify it and we would never conclude that we might be equally aggressive or irrational.

Case in point: in an interview with Charlie Rose on Sept. 7, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair came close to endorsing the use of force against Iran, on the grounds that it would be too dangerous if Iran were some day to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. He explicitly rejected the idea that deterrence could work against a nuclear Iran in the same way that it worked against the Soviet Union, saying that "this regime is qualitatively different in their makeup. I see them now exporting terrorism, instability around the Middle East." (Blair also threw in an incorrect reference to one of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's offensive statements about Israel, based on the usual mistranslation, though what Ahmadinejad actually did say is still pretty objectionable).

But the main point is that Blair's reasoning here is faulty. For one thing, the Soviet Union exported a lot of terrorism and instability in its day (while murdering its own citizens in large numbers), yet containment and deterrence worked well for some forty years. Iran's past conduct, while far from perfect, isn't remotely in the same league with Stalin's or Brezhnev's.

Second, the United States has been a far greater source of "instability" in the Middle East in recent years than Iran (aided in no small part by tame puppets like Blair). Yet surely the former PM doesn't think that the U.S. and British "regimes" are "qualitatively different" (i.e., irrational or aggressive) and therefore cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons either.  

Third, countries like Iran rely on low-level strategies like covert support for terrorist organizations precisely because they don't want to take serious risks and don't have any other ways to try to protect their own interests. Far from indicating some sort of dangerous irrationality, therefore, this behavior might be evidence of fairly rational (if from our perspective, undesirable) behavior. 

In short, Blair's tacit support for military force in this case is without foundation.

Political psychologists sometimes attribute this sort of faulty reasoning to the "fundamental attribution theorem." The term refers to the tendency of people to attribute another actor's behavior almost entirely to that actor's dispositions or attributes, while ignoring the circumstances that might be forcing the actor in question to behave in a particular way. At the same time, we tend to see our own behavior as forced upon us by the situation we are in. In other words, my actions are forced upon me by my situation, but others are freer to do what they want and so their actions tell me a lot about their character and motives.

Something of the sort may be at work here, but I think it mostly tells you that Blair is not a very careful thinker. And like most politicians, he tends to see his conduct as virtuous and principled and the behavior of potential adversaries as a reflection of bad character. Even when the behavior is essentially identical, or arguably worse on our side.

And please: I'm not defending Iran's support for terrorist groups, justifying Ahmadinejad's hateful rhetoric, or playing down the oppressive nature of the clerical regime. Nor do I think it would be a good thing if Tehran got nuclear weapons. My only point is that if we are going to justify preventive war against Iran by using its past behavior to draw inferences about the nature of their future decision-making, we ought to pause for a second and consider what inferences others might reasonably draw from ours.



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