Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Our Enemies Are Crazy... Our Allies?

One of the pretty constant lines of rhetorical attack you see, often from people who would prefer to shift from words to military action, is that the enemy state is "crazy". Its leaders are irrational, cannot be reasoned with, and will do terrible, apocalyptic things if we don't take dramatic action. Within this context, "crazy" often means "Behaves in pretty much the same manner as other despots and tyrants, but isn't on our team." The Shah of Iran treated his people terribly, reminiscent of Saddam Hussein, and lusted for western military weapons including nuclear weapons, and that was fine with us. Then Iran had a revolution, its new government was overtly hostile to the U.S., and Saddam Hussein seemed like somebody we could work with. Then the war he started with Iran came to an end, he invaded Kuwait, and... nutty as a fruitcake. Moammar Gadhafi was a terrible man, sponsoring terrorism, hostile to western interests, then he became a supposed "victory" in the "war on terror" by renouncing his "WMD programs", but after a few years of posing for pictures with world leaders who, no doubt, now regret the documentary evidence of their claims that he had reformed, he once again became a crazy enemy.

The point isn't that these tyrants aren't, to one extent or another, crazy. It's that "crazy" is rarely considered to be a significant issue until our nations' leaders decide it's a problem, and all of the quirks and bad acts that aren't worthy of notice or mention suddenly become evidence of irredeemable insanity. (Sort of irredeemable - as previously mentioned, Gadahfi, one of the nuttier despots of our time, did enjoy a few years of "redemption".)

One of the better aspects of democracy is that when elected leaders do prove to be nutty, they typically either don't rise to the highest offices or don't stay there for line. We may treat our Presidents and Prime Ministers as if they're monarchs, granting them mansions, gourmet personal chefs, personal jets, huge staffs... but we require an element of humility, the willingness for a peaceful transition at the end of the elected official's term of office. Some of our leaders do engage in over-the-top rhetoric about foreign states and leaders, but the leaders of "enemy states" generally take their anti-western rhetoric to a much higher level - volume, frequency and intensity all turned up to 11.

One of the over-the-top claims about Iran is that, if they are able to develop a nuclear weapon, they will immediately be itching to use it against another state. We're told that, unlike any other nuclear state in the world, Iran's leadership is so crazy that they won't be deterred by the fact that any nuclear attack that can be laid at their feet would trigger the annihilation of their nation. We don't talk that way about our allies. At least, most people don't.

Former Bush Administration official Bennett Ramberg is actually using an "Israel is nuts" argument to support... who knows? Invading Iran to stop it from developing nuclear weapons?
If Jerusalem really believes that a nuclear-armed Tehran poses an existential threat — and cannot be contained by a conventional military attack, sanctions, deterrence or regime change — there remains one option to end the threat that people fear to talk about: Israel’s use of nuclear weapons.
At any level, Ramberg's analysis would place Israel's government somewhere between "irrational" and "insane". I'll give him enough credit to assume that he's imagining a future in which Iran is not invaded, develops nuclear weapons, and can use small arsenal to deter any land-based invasion. Does Ramberg believe that Iran would keep all of its weapons and production facilities in one nice, consolidated, non-fortified location, far away from its civilian population such that Israel could swoop in with a nuke or two and eliminate the entire program? He couldn't possibly be that ignorant. So really, what he's proposing is that if Iran has any nuclear capacity, Israel will perceive as its only option a massive nuclear attack against Iran, devastating its urban centers and murdering tens of millions of civilians. There's an ugly word for that type of military action. And you know what? If Iran did have a few small nukes it could be counted on to try to launch them against Israel. So Ramberg is literally telling us that Israel's leadership is irrational, genocidal and willing to risk the annihilation of its own people in order to wipe an enemy off of the map. Which is pretty much exactly what other people in the "we must invade Iran" camp say about a nuclear Iran.

I disagree with Ramberg's analysis. They're at least as self-serving and prone to demagoguery as the leaders of any other nation and, yes, Israel's form of democracy results in some pretty extreme members within the Knesset. And like every other military power they tend to overestimate what they can accomplish through force and underestimate the benefits of resolving conflicts through negotiation - a peril of democracy: when times are good, voters don't want to change anything, and when times are bad, voters don't want to give anything to "the enemy". But they're not insane, they're not genocidal, and they're not going to kill tens of millions of people and send a cloud of radioactive fallout around the globe if Iran successfully tests a nuclear weapon, even if they believe the losses on their own side would be "acceptable".

I don't think Ramberg believes his own argument. If he actually believed that Israel, a nation that has shown past restraint with its nuclear weapons when faced with an actual land invasion, has joined the ranks of nations with "insane" leaders who can't be trusted with nuclear weapons, he should be advocating for the west to join Iran's proposal for a completely nuclear-free Middle East, backed up with thorough inspections of both Iran and Israel to ensure compliance. The most charitable explanation I can offer is that he's tossing this scenario out either as one more reason the west "has to" invade Iran and remove its leadership, or in the hope that over-the-top rhetoric about "crazy Israel" will somehow lead to a cowed and pliant Iran, and thus doesn't care that his argument is detached from reality.

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