Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Nuclear Pandering

Our government has a tendency to inflate petty despots into insane megalomaniacs who pose an immediate threat to the United States. This phenomenon isn't unique to the U.S.. When the facts are finally known, the "dangerous madmen" depicted in Congressional hearings and the media usually turn out to be far less fearsome.

One of our current "madmen" is Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom we pretend is in full control of the country and itching to attack Israel. We're supposedly not sure that the Iranians are rational or deterrable1 - never mind that the nation has no contemporary history of aggressive war against its neighbors. Their actual contribution to regional instability? They fund terrorist organizations and seek to expand Shia Islam in the Arab world.

But they have a nuclear weapons program, and they desire nuclear weapons. Is that, of itself, "insane"? Hardly. It's entirely rational to want nuclear weapons when your global and regional adversaries have nuclear weapons. It's entirely rational to want nuclear weapons when you are being threatened with attack or invasion. It's entirely rational to want nuclear weapons when they will elevate your status as a regional power. From our standpoint, to put it mildly, the outcome is undesirable, but can you truly pretend that you don't understand why Iran would view a nuclear arsenal as a very good thing to possess?2

What benefits would nuclear weapons offer to Iran in an aggressive war? Let's look at Iran's neighbors. Turkey? Even if we were to dream up some sort of benefit in their trying, they're not going to invade a NATO member state. Iraq? Right now, "that's us" - they're not going to attack U.S. occupied Iraq, and it appears that by the time we leave (assuming we ever do) they will by all appearances enjoy a friendly, Shiite government in Baghdad. Pakistan? Again, to what end. And Pakistan's already a nuclear power, so getting nukes doesn't give Iran any special advantage. Afghanistan? As with Iraq, "that's us." Well, gee... I guess that leaves the oh-so-desirable targets of Turkmenistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan? Or will anti-Iranian hawks soon be dreaming up "the Iranian Armada", comprised of thousands of ships ready to set sail for Saudi Arabia?

But we live in an age of pandering, and that's not advanced by defeating the idea that Iranians are not wholly irrational beings, bent on self-destruction, and intending to launch a nuclear attack on Israel the moment they have their first low-yield nuclear bomb. That image of Iran also provides candidates with the opportunity for a bit of chest-thumping, "I'm so ready to 'push the button'" machismo. Case in point? Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s remarks, made in an interview on MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” clarified a statement she made last week in a Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia. In that debate, Clinton, D-N.Y., said an Iranian attack on Israel would bring “massive retaliation,” without defining what the phrase meant.

In the interview Monday, Clinton affirmed that she would warn Iran’s leaders that “their use of nuclear weapons against Israel would provoke a nuclear response from the United States.”
I recognize that there are people who lap this sort of stuff up, and I apologize in advance to you if you're one of them. This is reckless, shameful pandering. First, its idiotic to presuppose that Israel needs the U.S. to provide nuclear deterrence. Israel has been a nuclear power for decades, and is generally regarded as having about two hundred high yield nuclear weapons. There aren't even two hundred viable nuclear targets in Iran. While nuclear nutters like to giggle about "turning the desert to glass", once you hit Iran's thirty or so population centers (and that includes some cities barely above 100,000 people) that's pretty much all that's left to do.

So, following the fanciful, suicidal attack by Iran we have two scenarios - Israel demonstrates nuclear restraint in response to an attack, perhaps focusing on military targets and infrastructure while avoiding civilian centers, and Clinton nonetheless cries, "Let loose the missiles!" Or Israel destroys every population center in Iran and Clinton cries, "Everybody's dead, but some of that desert isn't glass yet! Let the missiles fly!" Which of those images does Clinton believe makes her look good?

Oh, I know, we're not actually supposed to think it through.

The funny part? (And I mean "funny sad" not "funny ha ha".) She didn't even stop there. Now we're also threatening Iran with attack if it attacks another nation in the region. Now she may correct me, but I'm not aware of an actual Iranian armada, so as discussed above it's a bit hard to imagine what nation Iran might suddenly decide to invade. Or is it nuke? "It's been such a boring week - let's nuke somebody... Hey, what about Jordan?"
Clinton said it was vital that the United States create a new “security umbrella” to reassure Israel and its other allies in the region that they would not be threatened by Iran. She said she would tell them that “if you were the subject of an unprovoked nuclear attack by Iran, the United States, and hopefully our NATO allies, would respond to that.”
That's a more sensible policy than Clinton gave for an attack on Israel. If Iran were to attack one of our allies, Iran could expect a broad military response with "all options" implicitly on the table. Yet it further highlights the absurdity of her position in relation to Israel - we'll threaten Iran with nuclear annihilation if it attacks a country that has at least a generational lead on Iran's military, and that can presently turn Iran into a smear? But we're going to be more circumspect if Iran launches a nuclear attack against one of our other regional allies? Without asking if Iran might do that, exploring why Iran might do that, or whether getting involved in the conflict would serve our strategic interests?

With due respect to Clinton's nominal goal of assuring other states in the region that they don't need their own nuclear weapons programs, we can persuade our allies in the region of that by continuing arms sales and threatening to stop those sales or cut back on aid money if they initiate nuclear weapons programs. The other nations in the Middle East probably won't be listening to us.

1. On the question, Hillary Clinton notes that some believe Iran is "not deterrable, that they somehow have a different mindset and a worldview that might very well lead the leadership to be willing to become martyrs. I don't buy that, but I think we have to test it." I'll give her credit for her qualified rejection of that belief, although it makes you wonder why she finds it necessary to articulate her "nuke 'em 'till they glow" policy.

2. I am giving due consideration to the NIE assessment suggesting that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program. But they nonetheless have an expanding nuclear program and by all appearances aspire to possess nuclear weapons.


  1. Have you seen the truly stupid commentary on this at TalkLeft? Are they barking mad?

    First they falsely accuse Matt Yglesias of a "flip-flop" because he first says that he has no strong objection to including Iran in a "nuclear umbrella" but doesn't see the need, then questioning why Clinton's campaign is denying that she was talking about nukes and that he still doesn't understand "why Israel's own nuclear deterrent isn't looming larger in these conversations" - two consistent thoughts.

    Then there's the argument that pointing out how stupid Clinton's idea is will make the Dems seem "weak on national security", coupled with the insinuation that the only other group that thinks deterrence won't work are the neocons. So that means advocating sensible foreign policy makes the Dems look weak on defense like the neocons?

    I recognize that the TalkLefters will say pretty much anything, no matter how stupid, insane or hypocritical, in defense of Hillary. But have they no shame at all?

  2. I think it's more accurate to say that Democrats who do not agree with Clinton accept that deterrence will work. But more to the point, if it doesn't work - if Iran is truly beyond being deterred as some suggest - Clinton's proposal won't work because (you guessed it) it is entirely based on deterrence.

    To the extent that deterrence works, Iran has no need for additional disincentive toward attacking Israel. As for other nations, as I tried to point out, even if Iran had a modern history of territorial aggression toward its neighbors, it has no attractive targets. And I believe that before we intervene in this fanciful war (Iran-Turkmenistan, or whatever), we should examine our own national security interests.


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