Oh, the Fun Walt and Mearsheimer Will Have

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published November 14, 2007, issue of November 16, 2007.
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Perhaps Iran does not intend to develop a nuclear weapons capability. That’s what they’ve said, but who knows what to believe? Perhaps even if they do intend to develop such a capability, they will not succeed; that’s what some experts say, but others tell us it’s imminent.

How can we be sure? It is likely that if they do succeed, the bomb will serve “merely” as a deterrent, much as the Soviet and American bombs did during the Cold War — but that presumes a rational Iran, and the world may be forgiven for wondering whether a nation with a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as its principal public face can be depended upon to behave rationally.

And suppose it does: The Cold War was not simply a story of deterrence via mutually assured destruction. Mutually assured destruction may well be the reason nuclear weapons were not used after 1945, but for half a century both superpowers vigorously sought to extend their influence worldwide. It requires no gift of clairvoyance to imagine what Iranian projection of power would mean in its region and beyond.

That is how those who would have us bomb Iran today, before the sun rises on a nuclear Iran, see the current situation. So, for example, we have John Bolton, erstwhile American ambassador to the United Nations. Speaking in England at the end of September, he said, “I don’t think the use of military force is an attractive option, but I would tell you I don’t know what the alternative is. Because life is about choices, I think we have to consider the use of military force. I think we have to look at a limited strike against their nuclear facilities.”

By last week, he’d abandoned his earlier equivocation: “The choice is not between the world as it is today and the use of force. The choice is between the use of force and Iran with nuclear weapons.” As straightforward as that.

By introducing Bolton into the argument, I may be seen to be loading the deck. He is the Curtis LeMay of diplomacy, a man of curdled mind and reckless tongue. If he is for attacking Iran, then attacking Iran must be a very bad idea.

But wrong-headedness by association will not do. Better to play out the scenario: Iran gets the bomb. It does not use it for fear of massive retaliation by America or Israel or both. Nor does it hand it off to its terrorist surrogates, for much the same reason.

Instead, during the next war, two or three years from now, by which time it has a supply of adequately sophisticated missiles, it attacks downtown Tel Aviv, thereby achieving its goal of placing Israel in an unbearable quandary. If Israel responds with nuclear weapons, it invites nuclear retaliation.

No matter the provocation, Israel’s use of nuclear weapons will neither be forgotten nor forgiven. If its response is conventional, it is lost; its deterrent has proved hollow.

Grim. But note, please, that this scenario does not in fact depend on Iran having nuclear weapons. It can as readily unfold as a delayed response (if its missiles are not up to the task just yet) to an American or Israeli conventional strike against Iran, the very preemptive action that Bolton and others now urge — unless the United States is prepared for constant surveillance and repeated bombing runs for years to come.

The issue is critically important just now, since rumors of a planned attack on Iran swirl around Washington these days. There’s no point in arguing that the Bush administration would not dare risk another fiasco; it has no reputation left to lose.

Nothing to lose, everything to win: Why not, as the 2008 election draws near, take the anti-war wind out of the Democrats’ sails, and replace it with a bracing wind of pride and patriotism that a successful assault would surely occasion? The world made safe, America vindicated; exit George Bush and Dick Cheney not as failed predators but as the men who did not blink. True believers, now at last with a legacy to cherish.

The risks that would be run may seem to most of us insane: massive retaliation against Israel, hastening thereby Armageddon; totally destabilizing the world’s oil supply; placing America on the wrong side of history. But these are the men (and woman) who thought that bringing democracy to Iraq could be accomplished without breaking a sweat.

By now, we all know better. Even they know better; they are sweating. How tempting, then, the cooling towel of a successful surgical strike against Iran. Munich reversed: Now, war at any price.

The road to hell is paved with such temptations. It is a smooth road, inviting breakneck speed notwithstanding the warning signs: “Danger: Faulty Intelligence.” The diplomatic road, by contrast, is potholed with ambiguity, with tension, with tedium, with niggling negotiation, with small victories and small defeats. The mission is only sometimes accomplished, and very rarely completely.

Plus: Are the Iranians wrong to think that we, who together with England ousted their first freely elected prime minister back in 1953, have in the interim learned restraint? Are they wrong to think of us as meddlesome? Are they wrong to fear us? Might not their military preparations thus be quite rational?

Maybe diplomacy can work, maybe not. But the diplomatic road is not a cowardly detour; it is the way of responsible adults. It is a way the Bush administration has rejected and on which a disappointingly feckless Democratic Congress has failed to insist.

Shockingly, while major Jewish organizations have weighed in heavily in favor of increased sanctions, they have been lukewarm and sometimes hostile to comprehensive and intensive negotiations, silent on military assault. Oh, what fun John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt will have in their next book.


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