The Israeli Army has re-occupied Gaza, once again destroying many of the artifacts representing the Palestinian authority and arresting many of its elected leaders. The kidnapping of an Israeli soldier triggered the move, but most of what the Israelis are doing obviously has nothing directly to do with getting him back, a task that would require intelligence and subtlety, not a sledgehammer. Having left Gaza—a sensible decision-Ehud Olmert has decided that he needs to show that he can still punish it. Certainly his predicament is real. The Palestinians, especially the Hamas government, do not accept Israel and endorse violence against it, and it is not clear that Olmert and his countrymen could do anything that would change that. But I cannot imagine that the current incursion will appear to have accomplished anything twelve months from now.
What is much more distressing is Seymour Hersh’s piece in the current New Yorker, arguing, based on several well-placed and informative sources, that the Bush Administration leadership is very serious about mounting an aerial attack on Iran, and that Rumsfeld, Cheney and President Bush were talked out of using a nuclear weapon against underground facilities only with the greatest difficulty. Hersh indicates that the Administration opened negotiations—albeit with the proviso that Iran must, in effect, surrender in advance by pledging to halt uranium enrichment—only to shore up public and international opinion preparatory to war. Bush, he says, thinks of himself as Winston Churchill, refusing to appease despite public and international apathy. This is a terrible analogy—only after the extent of the Nazi threat had become unmistakably clear because of Nazi aggression did Churchill ever get into power—but it undoubtedly represents the neoconservative self-image.
In fact, it seems to me, the United States, should it attack Iran, will have created for itself a dilemma very similar to that of Israel, but on a much larger scale. We will have begun an endless struggle with much of the Muslim world, one in which we can inflict punishment without ever reaching any kind of political solution. That is what has happened in Iraq, where there is clearly very little political basis for what we are trying to do. It is foolish to believe that Iran could be any different. Meanwhile, as Hersh’s sources point out, Iran has many ways of doing harm to the United States, including suicide attacks (or, he might have added, submarine attacks) on American carriers and political and military threats against oil rich Gulf states, some of which, like Bahrain, have large Shi’ite populations and are already very worried about the possible spread of the Iraqi civil war. Every analysis that I have seen confirms that an attack on Iran will unify most of the Iranian people behind their government. Iran has a lot of intelligence assets around the world and a substantial terrorist capability. It is also far too large, mountainous, and poor for the United States to mount another sustained military operation (and the Army and Marines are fully stretched and occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan already.) Should we attack Iran, every American asset in the Middle East, I suspect, will be at risk.
I also believe that many leading nations will formally renounce our world leadership.
This potential crisis, in my opinion, is an almost totally self-inflicted wound, parallel, as I suggested two weeks ago, to Germany’s disastrous gamble in 1914, even if it does not involve a huge conventional war. Lacking conventional enemies to worry about since 1990, we have now focused upon an insane project—the political transformation of an alien culture which already views us as a major threat to its way of life. This is a peculiarly American fantasy—certainly the Germans during the two world wars did not believe the peoples they were conquering welcomed their rule, much less that they were conquering them for their own good. It draws on very simplistic thinking which is, at bottom, an excuse for the unlimited exercise of American power. Once again the Churchill analogy should actually provide some food for thought. Yes, Churchill held the British people together, heroically, in 1940-1, and played a key role in winning the war. But the Soviets and the United States provided the bulk of the resources to do so, and Britain lost its Empire anyway. Churchill also killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians in a bombing campaign he undertook in the mistaken belief that it might win the war. And that is another main point of Hersh’s article—that the Air Force leadership is telling the Administration that it can solve the problem in Iran almost all by itself, just as Curtis LeMay told John F. Kennedy about Laos, Cuba, and Vietnam.
The possibility of fundamentalist control of the Middle East is not really more serious than Soviet control of Eastern Europe in 1945—it is much less so. The danger it presents is more similar, perhaps, to the triumph of Chinese Communism in 1949, which also occasioned a lot of hand-wringing and, in the early 1960s, talk of a pre-emptive strike against China’s nuclear capability. We can live with it, and even with a nuclear-armed Iran. If we really want other nations to renounce nuclear weapons, as I have said here many times, we have to be willing, at least in principle, to renounce them ourselves. The rest of the world simply will not accept the idea that we shall make the key decisions for everyone and enforce them with military power. Nor, in my opinion, should it. No nation can ever be trusted with that kind of power.
The United States has exerted a far better influence on the world stage, it seems to me, when we could measure ourselves against other forms of government. The North’s victory in the civil war did a great deal to bring about democracy in Western Europe. Wilson was not very successful in promoting democracy in the First World War, but beginning in 1940 Roosevelt began to claim that American values represented the alternative to those of the Axis. It was easy, after the war, to take up the same kind of stance towards the Soviet Union—a hostile and dangerous nation with which we had to co-exist. But the collapse of Communism has had a dreadful effect on our foreign policy elite, convincing them that nothing should any longer stand in our way.
According to Hersh, senior military officers are now stressing the negative political consequences of an attack on Iran. That, in my opinion, should be part of their job. As Clausewitz wrote many times, military and political issues cannot be separated, and woe betide any political or military leader who believes that they can be. The military has, in fact, provided an important check on civilian hubris at various times in the last 60 years. In 1954 General Matthew Ridgway reportedly threatened to resign of the United States went to war in Indochina, and the war did not take place. After Vietnam—which military leaders had done nothing to prevent—military leaders argued against any similar interventions for nearly thirty years because they had seen their catastrophic effect on the military itself. Something similar, I have heard, may be happening now—the Army and Marines want a withdrawal from Iraq because they simply cannot sustain the current level of involvement. The President has a duty to consider the views of his military advisers, but in the end, the decision will rest with him.
Hersh’s article can be read at http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060710fa_fact.
To my new readers
Juan Cole's generous decision to link the last post has resulted in an absolutely unprecedented number of visits, about which I am both grateful and delighted. Let me take this opportunity to invite all of you to subscribe simply by clicking the feedblitz icon at right, just below my profile. As you will see if you begin scrolling down, I usually post once a week, occasionally twice, and nearly always on weekends. Thanks to all for your generous comments, and I hope this will be the start of something much bigger. Those who enjoyed last Sunday's post will almost surely enjoy the one from June 24, as well. And let your friends know!