A lesson in restraint: What China tells us about Iran

How is an American president to handle an ideological, seemingly irrational adversary that may be on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons even as it continues to stir up trouble in a region pivotal to U.S. interests?

One could be forgiven for assuming this conundrum describes only President Obama’s difficulties with Iran. As tonight’s presidential debate on foreign policy will make clear, the question of how to respond to the possibility of an Iranian bomb may be America’s most pressing international challenge.

Obama has declared that a nuclear-armed Iran could not be contained and must be prevented, but he deliberately has been vague about the lengths to which he would go in preempting such a threat or how long he is willing to pursue the negotiation track. The Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, has derided efforts to resolve the dispute through talks, claiming that Israeli concerns have been ignored and insisting that Tehran must be left with no doubt that it will never be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons.

While there has been much recent discussion on whether, and how, the United States should preempt a nuclear-armed Iran, little attention has focused on how previous U.S. decision makers reacted when faced with the prospect of an enemy acquiring nuclear weapons. In fact, President Lyndon B. Johnson confronted the same problem with China.

While the situations are not identical, Johnson’s prudent decision to forgo a preemptive attack against Chinese nuclear installations carries pertinent lessons for today’s standoff with Iran.

As it became clear in 1964 that China was preparing a nuclear test, supporters and opponents of a preemptive strike within the Johnson administration advanced arguments in terms strikingly familiar to those heard today. Declassified papers from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library reveal that the prevailing argument of those calling for restraint — most of whom were in the State Department — was that the relative military insignificance of a Chinese nuclear capability and the unlikelihood of a U.S. strike dealing a decisive blow to the program did not warrant the risks associated with such an option.

Senior officials such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy wondered whether a militant regime that preached revolutionary upheaval throughout Asia might be emboldened by the bomb to carry out its vision, whatever the cost. State Department analysts asserted that China’s belligerent rhetoric belied its strategic caution. China’s leaders, they reasoned, might be tempted to step up support for regional insurgencies, such as the one engulfing South Vietnam, but they would stop short of any reckless action that threatened their own survival and would avoid at all costs a direct clash with the superior U.S. arsenal. Even revolutionaries were susceptible to the logic of deterrence, they argued.

Regarding the widespread fear that a Chinese bomb would trigger a regional arms race — another claim similar to those made by Iran hawks today — these same officials argued that this could be headed off by reassuring Asian allies of the U.S. commitment to its defense guarantees and by increasing conventional assistance. When China tested the bomb on Oct. 16, 1964, the White House strongly reaffirmed its support of regional allies. Obama’s moves in the past year to bolster defenses in the Persian Gulf can be viewed in a similar light.

Some contended that an unprovoked attack on China would merely feed Beijing’s narrative that the United States was an aggressor and undermine U.S. prestige throughout the world. This argument should resonate among those today who fear that unilateral U.S. action might prompt intensified anti-American sentiment among Muslims, potentially strengthening jihadist ideology.

China’s behavior after becoming a nuclear power bears out the wisdom of Johnson’s restraint. During the Vietnam War, the tensest period in Sino-American relations over the past 50 years, Beijing continued to support its communist ally in North Vietnam. As State Department analysts predicted, however, China did so without directly involving itself in hostilities or brandishing nuclear weapons, so as to avoid a confrontation with the Americans. As China’s means for inflicting harm on the United States increased, its willingness to pursue such an option decreased. This restraint played no small part in keeping the Vietnam War limited.

Johnson understood that a preemptive strike against China was likely to spark new conflict in a region already overflowing with flash points, just as opponents of military action against Iran fear such an option could invite retaliation in a highly combustible neighborhood. Nuclear deadlock between the two powers kept tensions contained, leaving LBJ’s successor well positioned to pursue new initiatives toward China.

Strategic concerns and political impediments on both sides make an imminent breakthrough in Iranian-American relations unlikely. Nevertheless, Johnson’s levelheaded response to China’s nuclear program suggests that it’s possible to keep a lid on hostilities and lay the foundation for an eventual reconciliation. This offers a promising precedent for decision makers in Washington to consider before going over the brink with a deterrable Iran, whose leaders are preoccupied with preserving clerical rule at home

Michael Lumbers is the author of Piercing the Bamboo Curtain: Tentative Bridge-Building to China During the Johnson Years.

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