Politics & Policy

Nuke Talk

Whatever happens in Iraq, Iran will not be less visible.

It isn’t to disavow our Iraqi venture to ponder what is to be done if it fails. It would not have been disloyal to the Vietnamese enterprise to have asked, in 1973, what we would do if we failed to arrest the Vietcong. We begin by asking: What critical event, or consolidation of events, would tell us that we had failed in Iraq?

#ad# The question needs to be asked with reasonable perspectives in mind. The best way to solve the poverty of Brazil, someone commented a dozen years ago, would be to transport five million Swiss to live and work there. One way to solve the Iraq problem is to evacuate Iraqis and import Germans: such-scale solutions, mutatis mutandis, occurred to Adolf Hitler when he pondered the elimination of world Jewry.

No, the road signs will be different, more modest, even ambiguous. But they are there directly ahead. Most prominently, the Iraqi elections. Thought on that subject can be placed on a democratic blackboard more or less as follows:

–90 percent of eligible Iraqis vote for non-Baathist parties.

Score: A.

–50 per cent vote for democratically oriented parties pledging the separation of church and state.

Score B if the non-voters are acquiescent. Score D if the non-voters resist.

An A vote for democracy in Iraq would be a great event; but the exercise today is to consider U.S. action in case it does not work out with the elections. One alternative is to try to think of Iraq as a kind of outpost of U.S. strategic concern, as India was for the British for a hundred years, so that a parent might point to a third son, age 10, and say, “Reginald, here, will go to India, and perhaps return after forty years’ service.”

That is only a conceptual alternative, because the world is too fast-paced to proceed to such a drumbeat of historical rhythms, and the American temperament does not accommodate resident colonialism. We can fight hard for Cuba or the Philippines, but we want then to get out, and that inclination grows firmer as the years go by.

If the election in Iraq fails to bring on organic democratic reorientation, we will need to find words to describe the tergiversation. They’ll boil down to: We tried and we failed. This is not an argument against trying. We will be trying through the life of the republic to promote peace and liberty.

But the hard target will not be less visible whatever happens in the Iraqi elections. It is of course the problem of what is happening, or might be happening, in Iran. There are in this world myriad weapons of mass destruction, but one of them is unique, the nuclear weapon. And that weapon is fondled in the apocalyptic imagination of men who seem to have the liberty to proceed. The actual development of a nuclear bomb is by no means masturbatory arms talk. The things exist; and whereas one might feel an itchy confidence that they will never get out of the hands of reliable people in India, Pakistan, and Israel, it is by no means safe to assume that such weaponry, merchandised by profit-seekers and terrorists, will not one day, the curtains dramatically parted, make known its presence in Iran, as it has all but made its presence known in North Korea.

That is a concern that shoves Iraq to one side, because nuclear weapons close off alternatives, and trade in a million deaths.

That challenge has to occupy the American strategic imagination, which must not be hobbled by equivocations traceable to the Iraqi enterprise. It is one thing to endorse and encourage ongoing military efforts in Iraq, another to permit, based on what happens there, an impotent fatalism about the nuclear question, a fatalism already visible in our half-dealings with North Korea and Iran.

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