Apparently Glenn Greenwald of Salon – you know him for his legendarily even-tempered demeanor and the consistently soft-spoken, understated tone of his writing – is about to take issue with me.
In 2008, President Obama said, while discussing the Iranians and other hostile nations, “They don’t pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us, and yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the time when they were saying, ‘We’re going to wipe you off the planet.’”
I wrote in response:
Geographic size and population size are not the first measure of whether a nation or organization is dangerous . . . In an era of asymmetrical warfare, a group’s budget and spending do not necessarily reflect the scope or danger of the threat. The 9/11 Commission report stated the attacks cost somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute, plus the cost of training the 19 hijackers in Afghanistan; the short-term costs alone to the U.S. from the attacks are estimated at $27.2 billion.
Now, Newt Gingrich has told NRO:
The Soviet Union was vastly bigger and more dangerous than Iran. If we could adopt non-violent strategies of coercion to break the Soviet empire, we should be able to help the millions of dissidents in Iran who want to replace the dictatorship.
Ah-ha! a Greenwald reader is expressing with glee. Now Gingrich is making size comparisons with Soviet Union! Why won’t they denounce him?
I stick by what I said; the Soviet Union then and Iran now are different threats, and the size of a country is a minor factor in assessing how dangerous a country is. What a nation is inclined or willing to do with their resources is a bigger factor. India has a billion people and an army of about 1.4 million, but we’re not too worried about a threat from the Indian military. And again, you don’t need large forces to do enormous damage if you have the will.
Iran’s leaders have plenty of will: they’re willing to shoot women dead in the streets, sponsor Hamas, Hezbollah, and other groups, etc. They may not have the arsenal of the Soviets, but that doesn’t mean they don’t represent “a serious threat.” When you consider Ahmadinejad’s beliefs about the 12th Imam, his comments about green auras and world leaders not blinking for an hour, and the fact that during the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian mullahs were willing to use children to clear minefields, we see a threat much less inclined to be deterred by mutual assured destruction.
So Gingrich’s off-the-cuff “size” reference was a bit off-base, but his comments were overall smart (and arguably obvious). If we don’t want a war with the Iranians, we need a way to nudge that regime towards the dustbin of history, since negotiations are going nowhere. (Greenwald assures me that “negotiations — including the most successful ones — are often protracted and involve stagnation, threats, and pretenses of walking away – that’s hardly unusual and hardly a sign that they have failed.” So it’s not that the Iranian mullahs have no intention of ever giving up their nuclear program; they’re just stalling.)
By the way, two months after Obama’s “tiny” statement, a prominent Democratic foreign policy thinker rebuked that view by declaring that ”a nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat.”
That prominent Democratic foreign policy thinker . . . was Barack Obama.