05/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iran and the Imminent Threat Fallacy

Reflecting on his now infamous appearance before the UN Security Council in 2003, former Secretary of State Colin Powell has referred to his act of WMD drumbeating at the time as a "blot" on his long record of government service. "I'm the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and (it) will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It's painful now," laments the former cabinet member. Given the benefit of hindsight, we now know that Powell's charges against Saddam Hussein were spurious at best, and downright deceitful at their very worst. While holding no vested interest in exonerating the general, I do think it's worthwhile for us to examine the full context of Powell's efforts to convince the global community of immediate bodily harm.

Critics likely scoff today when Iraq's alleged "yellow cake" and mobile bio-weapons labs come up in conversation, but the rush to create an imminent Iraqi threat has less to do with incompetent intelligence gathering, and much more to do with the administration's need to mobilize the country behind a war they had already decided on starting.

Saddam Hussein's regime was a blight on the entire Middle East. He oppressed and persecuted his own people, while instigating two wars that led to regional instability and rampant counter-proliferation. He financed Palestinian terrorism, and repeatedly threatened the security of our Israeli allies. If ever there was a war to be had on terrorism, there had to be a reckoning of sorts with Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime in order for us to conduct it. However, while these may have seemed like reasonable concerns to a few policy wonks and regional experts, such tangential threats and activities would be of much lesser concern to the average American citizen. Thus, the Bush administration was left with the task of convincing the American people -- along with the broader global community -- that deposing Hussein was essential for America's own domestic security.

Some might look back on this deception as a "neoconservative" ploy, but nothing could be further from the truth. An honest, dyed-in-the-wool neoconservative would never need to make a case like the one made by Powell. Their probable argument would rely more on how preemptive engineering would yield more fruitful, albeit less apparent, results for American security down the road. While arguably sharing the same whimsical outlook held by neoconservatives, the Bush administration instead went about convincing the American public that their own personal security was at risk as long as Saddam Hussein was allowed to rule over Iraq. Rather than outlining the same kind of foreign policy prescription as seen in the so-called Bush Doctrine, the administration instead appealed to an American populism that can be galvanized when directly threatened by a foreign adversary. Fermenting regional instability wasn't going to cut it; WMDs became a necessary component to the war narrative.

This narrative -- or rather, exploitation -- of American security dominates foreign policy discourse to this day. As a result, we get this week's kerfuffle over the imminent (or not so imminent) threat posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Referring to Iran's capabilities as "tiny," Senator Barack Obama shook the proverbial beehive that passes as foreign policy dialogue in this country today. As a result, we get rather puerile debates over the size of Iran's economy, or whether or not they've acted in a fashion similar to that of the Soviets or the Nazis. Not only does this litmus blur the legitimately horrible actions of these aforementioned regimes, but it makes dealing with lesser threats far more difficult.

The reality is that Iran has been contributing to regional instability in the Middle East for over 25 years. Attempted coups, assassination plots and terrorist finance are just the tip of an unstable iceberg that is revolutionary Iran. The Islamic republic founded by Ayatollah Khomeini extended what likely would've been a two year border incursion with Iraq into a nearly decade's long war of attrition against what he viewed to be the Arab apostates in the region. The plan, from the Supreme Leader's perspective, wasn't merely to repel the Iraqis, but to also march on Lebanon and Jerusalem "through" Iraq (also known as "Operation Ramadan"). The girth of the regime's economy has never prevented it from exporting their revolution all over the Middle East, nor has it given solace to our allies having to deal with Iran's surrogates on the frontlines.

And it would be a mistake to assume that Iran has become any more rational today than they were twenty years ago. Indeed, the fact that they have exhibited pockets of rational behavior only makes dealing with the republic all the more difficult. Bloated and bureaucratized, Iran suffers more from diplomatic confusion than it does extremism. However, explaining such nuances to the American public (for example, the difference between their president and their various councils, the role of the IRGC and the appellate Supreme Leader, etc.) requires a more grownup conversation about foreign policy. It requires explaining the importance of vital interests overseas, and how the Iranians can threaten those interests if not brought to the negotiating table. It means distinguishing an imminent threat from a regional one, and requires explaining why it's necessary to deal with both rather than treating them as mutually exclusive.

To this point, Senator Obama has done just that. By exposing the "culture of fear" propagated by post-9/11 Republicans, Obama is attempting to talk to the American public as if they were adults, rather than children concerned only for their immediate sphere of safety. This week's "tiny" slip only panders to a foreign policy dynamic that Democrats have never been very good at. It makes the conversation about range, rather than importance.

Iran is not Hitler's Germany, nor is it Stalin's Soviet Union. It is, however, a serious threat to America's regional interests. Explaining the difference between the two will be important if Democrats hope to act globally and snap the imminent threat fallacy that has been promulgated by the Republican Party since the 9/11 attacks.

Kevin Sullivan is an associate editor for RealClearPolitics. He blogs regularly at Independent Liberal.