In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides the Athenian showed how wars break out from a confluence of immediate and long-term causes. Sparta and Athens in 431 B.C. had at least three minor points of disagreement between them, but "what made war inevitable," he wrote, "was the growth of Athenian power and the fear that that occasioned in Sparta." The same analysis can be applied to any war, because nations never actually fight over trivial matters. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 was part of Serbian intelligence officers' long-term effort to disrupt Austria-Hungary, and Germany's assent to an Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia was an attempt to break, or defeat, the Franco-Russian alliance against Germany. What Thucydides did not say was that the failure of certain wars to occur--at least for the time being--represents a similar mix of long- and short-term causes. That is illustrated by a remarkable piece of journalism in today's New York Times, the account of Israel's failed attempt to get American approval for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities during the last year. The essentials of the story are simple: the Bush Administration refused sometime during 2008 to agree to an Israeli strike but instead undertook a broader covert effort to sabotage Iran's nuclear weapons program. But the details introduce a series of much larger issues, issues which I have been treating intermittently here for the last four years.
Since the states of the Middle East secured their full independence since the Second World War the United States has cherished various fantasies of turning some or all of them into friendly clients. Ironically it scored its first major "success" in Iran itself in 1953 when it orchestrated the overthrow of an elected but nationalist government in favor of the Shah of Iran. Meanwhile the sale of oil allowed us to develop a long-term relationship with Saudi Arabia. Jordan, where colonial British interest had been strongest, remained relatively pro-western, as did Lebanon, with its largely Christian population, until the mid-1970s. But the new nationalist regimes in Egypt, Syria, and eventually Iraq became violently anti-western, anti-American, and anti-Israel. In 1967 Egypt and Syria managed to pull Jordan along with them into a confrontation with Israel that resulted in an Israeli pre-emptive attack. Recently released documents show an Israeli envoy in Washington telling American officials, on the eve of the war, that they should diplomatically support Israel in a pre-emptive attack not because Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran--the ostensible cause of the war--but because of Nasser's intention of dominating the Middle East. Nasser indeed lost the war and resigned, but returned 24 hours later to popular acclaim. Meanwhile the 1967 war re-ignited the Palestinian issue and put the PLO on the world political map.
During the next decade a spectacular change took place, as Nasser's successor Anwar Sadat re-established Egyptian prestige with his 1973 attack on Israel and eventually made peace with the Jewish state. That turned out to be a false dawn. Peace with the Palestinians did not follow, Sadat was assassinated two years after the peace treaty, and meanwhile, Shi'ite fundamentalism overthrew the Shah of Iran. Iranian-sponsored terrorists took over a good deal of Lebanon. Saddam Hussein tried to replace Nasser as the leader of militant Sunni Islam. In 1990 he overreached himself by occupying Kuwait. The resulting war enhanced American and moderate prestige again, and restarted the Arab-Israeli peace process, but that collapsed again around 2000.
After 9/11 the Bush Administration decided that it was going to redraw the political map of the Middle East by force, beginning with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. (There is plenty of evidence that they wanted to move on to Iran and Syria after taking care of Iraq, but things did not turn out to be so simple.) The Administration also decided to discredit and remove what turned out to be relatively moderate Palestinian leadership under Yassir Arafat. This was a Boomer-led policy based upon absolute truths--the idea that democracy and free markets would solve any problem anywhere, any time. It has had further negative effects. Two militant, broad-based, well-organized political parties, Hezbollah and Hamas, control much of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, largely because of elections the US demanded. Israel has taken a variety of steps (now including the Gaza invasion) that will probably make peace impossible for a long time to come. The government of Egypt would undoubtedly lose a free Egyptian election and give way to a radical regime. Jordanian youth are increasingly drawn to fundamentalism. And Iran now has enormous influence over Iraq and has been working hard on increasing its capacity to enrich uranium.
Now as President Bush and Vice President Cheney made clear many times, the logic of their policy seemed not only to favor but to demand an attack on Iran. Having invaded Iraq based upon false claims that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons, they surely could have been expected to attack Iran to stop a real program, or to allow Israel to do so when the Israelis asked permission. Why they did not, however, turns out to reflect both contradictions within the American government, and a recognition of the contradictory effects of their own policies.
To begin with, as I pointed out about a year ago, the American intelligence community, in its Iran NIE, struck a blow for sanity. Today's Times story says something that I do not remember from reports at the time. That estimate based its key conclusion--that Iran had stopped working to develop a nuclear weapon--on evidence, good evidence, that Iranian scientists had stopped working on the design of a nuclear warhead. They had not, however, stopped enriching uranium--that program, which could indeed be designed for peaceful purposes as the Iranians claim, has been going on at full speed ahead. The intelligence community was probably doing two things at once: raising justified doubts about how close Iran was to getting nuclear weapons on the one hand, and trying to head off an attack that would set the rest of the Middle East aflame and vastly increase the chances of mass terror in the US on the other. President Bush, who relies famously on his "instincts," didn't really accept the conclusion, but it did make it impossible for the United States itself to launch an attack.
The Israeli request for permission and assistance to make an attack on Iranian facilities themselves put the US in exactly the same position as the government of imperial Germany in 1914, when the Austro-Hungarians asked for permission to attack Serbia. The Germans, as I showed many years ago, told them to go ahead because they had decided that this was an opportune moment for a trial of strength with France, Russia, and, if necessary, Britain. But Austria-Hungary was actually more of an independent actor then than Israel, apparently, is now. It needed only permission, while the Israelis needed both bunker-busting bombs that only the US could supply, and more specific permission to overfly American-occupied Iraq. The American rejection of the latter request illustrated the dilemma into which we have been thrown.
By now even President Bush has had in effect to abandon the fantasy of a truly democratic and pro-American Iraq, and has had to content himself--like Lyndon Johnson in South Vietnam in 1965--with a much lesser objective: an Iraqi government that will not throw the United States out. In the lengthy negotiations that led to the Status of Forces agreement the Iraqis insisted that the United States could not use Iraq as a base for an attack on another country. The new government, moreover, is determinedly anti-Israel (at one time, Ahmed Chalabi had promised the Bush Administration to fix even that problem, but he proved a false hope). The Times reports bluntly that the Administration thought the Iraqis would throw us out if we allowed Israeli aircraft to overfly Iraqi territory to attack Iran. The President was not about to sacrifice what he still hopes will be his most enduring contribution to history.
That, however, was not all. In late 2006 the President had to make what now looms as a rather bizarre compromise. Donald Rumsfeld, as I have pointed out, was not removed because of the Democratic victory in the Congressional elections or because he was too warlike: he was removed to make the surge possible. But to replace him the President was induced to pick a man from the Silent generation, Robert Gates, who had been a member of the Baker-Hamilton Commission and who was probably recommended by President Bush's father. (Bob Woodward, in State of Denial, seems to indicate this at one point, partly with the help of a conversation in which the President told him that Gates had been recommended by a prominent Texan whose name he could not remember.) Gates evidently understands that attacking Iran would create a regional catastrophe. Admiral Fallon was sacrificed partly for stating publicly that the US would not attack Iran, but the policy he favored has prevailed. Meanwhile, Gates will stay in office.
As matters stand now Iran may well get a nuclear weapon within five years or so, even if Israel does attack Iran on its own. There is in my opinion only one way to prevent it, and that is a long shot: a serious proposal from the Obama Administration to de-nuclearize the entire region, including Israel. Meanwhile, the anti-western political trends in the Arab world seem likely to continue. Israel, whatever it does, is unlikely to have genuine peace with its neighbors. It would do best, in my opinion, to ask what kind of co-existence it wants, and how it can help keep violence between it and its neighbors (including Hamas and Hezbollah) at a minimum. That violence has turned out to be the price of the decision to create and maintain Israel, and nothing that Israel or the US can do can stop it. They can, however, make decisions that will either increase or lessen it.
Germany in 1914 did not need to assure the survival of Austria-Hungary by telling it to go ahead and attack Serbia--a move which as it turned out did not even achieve its objectives for Austria-Hungary. In the same way, the existence of the United States is simply not at stake in the Middle East, unless we put it at risk by endless, useless involvement. Ironically, because the Bush Administration was as irresponsible at home as it has been abroad, our economic situation will provide another reason to reverse course in that region. But what the new Administration will do remains entirely unclear.