Brett McGurk’s Dangerous Overconfidence in Military Action

If this is the sort of dangerous and misleading advice Biden is getting from people in his administration, the chances of an unnecessary war with Iran are greater than we thought.

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The top official in the Biden administration working on the Middle East gets something important very wrong. Brett McGurk said this last week:

And when it came to military force for behavior change, that is a pretty fuzzy objective for a military force. When it comes to military force to prevent a country from obtaining a nuclear weapon, that is a very achievable objective.

It’s not clear why McGurk has such confidence in the efficacy of military force to “prevent a country from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” In the two previous cases when the Israeli government used force to attack nuclear facilities, it caused one of the targeted states to intensify its work on acquiring nuclear weapons. The Osirak bombing ended up backfiring badly. It was post-Gulf War inspections that led to the dismantling of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program that the Israeli strike had encouraged.

The 2007 strike on a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor apparently did not have the same effect, but no one seriously thinks that the Iranian nuclear program today is comparable to the Syrian one. Destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would not be a simple undertaking of a few airstrikes. It would involve a major air campaign lasting weeks at least. The human toll from such a bombing campaign has been estimated to run into the tens of thousands, and that number could rise if the conflict escalated. Even if it “worked” in the short term, an attack could set off a major conflict whose costs would exceed any possible benefit. Golnaz Esfandiari reported on this almost a decade ago:

“People talk very callously about the prospect of military strikes, and they frame it in the geopolitical fallout, the geo-economic fallout, what will happen to the oil price and all of these issues. But nobody has ever talked about the humanitarian consequences of a military strike on Iran,” Molavi says. “Those humanitarian consequences are grave, so I think this report fills a very important vacuum. It needs to be read by policy makers at the highest levels in Western governments; it needs to be read in Israel; it needs to be read all over the world.”

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. 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.