Why Must We Be the Loudest Drum-Beaters?

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published November 07, 2007, issue of November 09, 2007.
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It may be going too far to call Norman Podhoretz, the venerable editor at-large of Commentary, a “warmonger.” After all, his repeated call for the United States to bomb Iran would not, as he sees it, begin a new war; he has been arguing for some time now that we are already engaged in World War IV — World War III was, he says, the Cold War — and it is not clear that one can monger an ongoing war. (The current war, says Podhoretz, is against “Islamofascism,” and it began on September 11, 2001.)

Podhoretz is hardly alone in his call for an assault against Iran. He is supported by Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been beating the drum persistently for several years and who, just weeks ago, cautioned that “Our country, and the entire international community, cannot stand by as a terror-supporting state fulfills its grandest ambitions,” that if Iran continues on its current course, the United States and other nations are “prepared to impose serious consequences.” President Bush, just three days earlier, proposed that “if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Both Bush and Cheney insist that their preferred resolution of the problem is via diplomacy, but to be blunt about it, there is no reason to believe them, since that is exactly what they said during the run-up to Iraq, while they were cooking the books and preparing for the invasion. When they say that “we must keep all options on the table” — a statement echoed these days by much of the let’s-not-sound-wimpy political elite — we are not wrong to infer the nature of the main course being prepared in the kitchen while we munch on diversionary hors d’oeuvres.

As to Podhoretz, now a senior foreign policy adviser to Rudy Giuliani, he doesn’t set much store in diplomatic efforts, nor, for that matter, in sanctions. These, he says, merely give Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad more time to achieve nuclear capability.

In a remarkable article in the Wall Street Journal this past May, remarkable almost as much for its more than 5,000 words as for its substance, Podhoretz wrote that “[T]he plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force — any more than there was an alternative to force if Hitler was to be stopped in 1938.”

The Hitler motif runs through the whole of Podhoretz’s essay. As he sees it, no one took Hitler seriously, even though he’d stated his aims explicitly in “Mein Kampf.” Instead, people — Neville Chamberlain most notoriously, hence “1938” — thought “we can do business with him.” That business turned out to be appeasement, and you dare not appease revolutionaries who have unlimited aims — read, Ahmadinejad.

And yes, Podhoretz acknowledges, the downside risks of armed intervention are very real: Iran might “attack Israel with missiles armed with non-nuclear warheads but possibly containing biological or chemical weapons.” There might “be a vast increase in the price of oil, with catastrophic consequences for every economy in the world, very much including our own.” And “The worldwide outcry against the inevitable civilian casualties would make the anti-Americanism of today look like a love-fest.”

Yet it would be worse still to allow Iran to have the bomb. And since that may happen sooner rather than later, we must “strike… as soon as it is logistically possible.”

Podhoretz, who has directly explained his views to Bush, “guesses” that the president intends, while still in office, “to order air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities from the three U.S. aircraft carriers already sitting nearby.” Bush, he says, is “a man who knows evil when he sees it and who has demonstrated an unfailingly courageous willingness to endure vilification and contumely in setting his face against it. It now remains to be seen whether this president, battered more mercilessly and with less justification than any other in living memory… will find it possible to take the only action that can stop Iran from following through on its evil intentions both toward us and toward Israel. As an American and as a Jew, I pray with all my heart that he will.”

How much heart Podhoretz has is a matter of speculation. After all, he says that when Iran seized 15 British sailors, Britain “should have threatened to bomb the Iranians into smithereens if the sailors weren’t returned immediately. They should have threatened it. Whether they would have had to carry out the threat, I doubt; maybe they would have.”

And in any case, if we’re right to fret about Iran, why not agonize over Pakistan, clearly the more imminent nuclear threat?

Podhoretz wants to use force now. Others, including a disturbing number of major Jewish organizations, endorse “merely” the threat of force, loudly proclaiming that “all options” must be on the table. Is such a threat a useful deterrent, or does it instead increase Iran’s very real sense of vulnerability, thereby encouraging precisely the behavior it is meant to deter?

And is not such talk a way of creeping toward war? Another real war just now? Madness. Yet that is the risk being pressed upon us.

Why must Jewish organizations be and be seen as the loudest drum-beaters of all? Why can we not bring ourselves to say that military intervention is not on the table at all? Why not stash it under the table, out of sight, and mount instead a diplomatic assault?

Germany, 1938? The more relevant and equally cautionary precedent is Iraq, 2003 — and counting.

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