Is it beyond hope that something serious may yet emerge from the portentously trembling mountain of U.S. rumination about Iran? Whatever may be said about George W. Bush, and he certainly had his infelicities, he identified Iraq as an international outlaw in violation of 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions and the Iraq War ceasefire agreement, and he told the U.N. General Assembly that he wished the U.N. to avoid the fate of the League of Nations as an ineffectual talking shop. The number of U.S. forces in Iraq has now declined below 100,000 military personnel for the first time in seven years, and although many dangers and challenges remain, a satisfactory — if unnecessarily delayed and expensive — end to that conflict, a result of which the current Democratic leadership noisily despaired for years, appears to be in sight.
In 2007, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared the war to be “lost.” Candidate Barack Obama wanted to cut and run until he became commander in chief. And then-senator Joe Biden proposed to divide Iraq into three countries and flee the theater. This was a warm-up to his inspired suggestion, which caused Newsweek to declare him the second most important vice president in history (after Dick Cheney), that the war against the Taliban be conducted by firing cruise missiles at the caves of Waziristan from offshore. This was an equivalent level of Napoleonic strategic insight to that which caused Bill Clinton to respond to escalating terrorist outrages by using missiles to rearrange rubble at an abandoned campsite in Afghanistan and kill a night watchman and a camel by lifting the roof off an aspirin factory in the Sudan, an under-response that effectively encouraged the 9/11 attacks.
A couple of weeks ago, Joe Biden told Larry King — who, with David Letterman, seems to be this administration’s replacement forum for the Council on Foreign Relations — that Iraq would be “one of the great achievements of this administration.” This cagey attention to national-security interests and scrupulous fidelity to historical fact incited me to a different conclusion from Newsweek’s about the VP. I wondered if it was just a coincidence that no one seemed to have lamented the 40 years in American history when the vice presidency was vacant, and especially the twelve years of good government in the 20th century when there was no V.P.: the best presidential years of the newly elevated Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. I suppose a coincidence, but Joe Biden’s great service to the nation and the world is to stand foursquare and lay down his life every day between the incumbent and the toe-curling nightmare of a Pelosi presidency.
The Clinton administration bequeathed to the country the unmitigated strategic disaster of its quadruple boycott of the two main powers of the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Iran, and the two main powers of South Asia, India and Pakistan. This diplomatic quadrifecta ensured immaculate U.S. impotence across a broad arc from Saudi Arabia to Thailand. The world’s only superpower faced a Bahrain-to-Bangkok Bermuda Triangle, a U.S. no-influence area in the midst of which al-Qaeda busily planned and trained for its ever more ambitious outrages.
Despite many mistakes, the Bush and Obama administrations have largely filled that void. Saddam Hussein was probably the most horrible national leader in the world, and the Afghan Taliban the most retrograde regime, though both had rivals. Pakistan was playing footsie with the most odious Islamic terrorists, and India was flirting with Hindu exclusivism and discrimination against its 150 million Muslims, the world’s second-largest national Muslim population.
The Saddam outlawry was ended and a regime of some power-sharing is emerging. (On this one point, Joe Biden’s enthusiasm is a positive indicator.) The Taliban are being hunted down like rodents and Osama bin Laden is reduced to issuing videos from his cave to al-Jazeera crabbing about carbon emissions. India, the world’s next great power, and its largest democracy, with the largest English-speaking population, is now an American ally against Islamic extremism and, if needed, against Chinese and Russian misconduct as well.
The tireless efforts of Condoleezza Rice, in particular, assisted vitally in reducing tensions between India and Pakistan and bringing their relations to the most civil state they have enjoyed in the six decades since the dissolution of the British Indian empire and the death of Gandhi. Democracy has been precariously established in Afghanistan and reestablished in Pakistan, an ally of slowly increasing reliability. The frantic efforts of Islamic extremists to disrupt improving Indo-Pakistani relations, as in the spectacular terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, have failed.
The progress of these benign events has been so gradual, syncopated, apparently uncoordinated, and punctuated by miscues and fiascos, that its scale and importance have been widely overlooked. U.S. relations with all of these countries, and theirs with one another, are steadily strengthening, despite many ancient and intractable problems. The missing piece of this puzzle is Iran. It need hardly be said that nuclear weapons in the hands of the dementedly belligerent Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime would be intolerable. The dangers of such a development are too obvious to require elaboration.
There is now an industry of talk-show, official-deliberative, and anonymous-expert comment dismissing force as an option. We are endlessly told that the Tehran regime would be strengthened by an attack on its nuclear facilities; that an attack would fail militarily and unite all Iranians behind their government. The famous “Arab street,” now extending throughout Islam and doubtless on, via Peoria, to Antarctica, would erupt. We should let Iran’s dismal theo-thugocracy stew in its own juice, and we must not be rattled by Iranian nuclear weapons. It is all a little like the arguments that before invading Iraq in 2003, we had to capture bin Laden, end the Israel-Palestine conflict, and try “smart sanctions” (which meant smart for France and porous for Iraq) for at least five years.
There are always a thousand reasons not to do anything. As Woodrow Wilson said of the anti-submarine war in 1917, “Nothing was ever done so systematically as nothing is being done now.” Iran has made a total mockery of attempts at good-faith negotiations, has played peek-a-boo about its nuclear ambitions (just as Saddam did), is being indulged for mischievous reasons by China and Russia, is the world’s leading terrorist-supporting country, and has constantly espoused and threatened the destruction of Israel.
If China and Russia join in comprehensive sanctions — which have never worked, but have rarely been tried and have acceded to some legitimacy as an intermediate step — they should be given an opportunity to produce a change of nuclear course in Iran. If Russia and China do not join, or if they do and the sanctions don’t work as Iran approaches a nuclear capability, then the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K., and any responsible country that wishes to join (though perhaps not Israel) should attack Iran’s nuclear facilities as firmly and repeatedly as necessary, and, of course, as antiseptically as possible in terms of avoidance of collateral damage.
The problems of the Tehran government would multiply, the U.S. would cease to be seen as a paper tiger, the Western alliance would come back to life, the Arab powers could be persuaded to take a stronger line against Iranian incursions in their region (especially by Hamas and Hezbollah), and the derelict peace process with the Palestinians might even be invigorated. Iran would lose its ability to meddle successfully in Iraq, including through the egregious former protégé of the Pentagon and of Richard Perle, Ahmad Chalabi. The streets of the world would be as calm as they were after the anti-nuclear strikes on Iraq and Syria, and The New York Review of Books might even cease to represent the Khomeini revolution as a great democratic breakthrough with some resemblance to 1776.
The excruciating series of humbling acts that the Obama administration has called “engagement” could yet turn to account, as stern measures from Obama will be much harder to portray as naked aggression than the armed virility of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, the magnificently mustachioed John Bolton, et al. Bush’s promotion of democracy, which was fine as long as it didn’t unsettle America’s undemocratic allies, would be a clear success if plausible elections are regularly held across the quadrifecta of former hostile states and Afghanistan. Those formerly closed gates would be portals of opportunity, an immense international geopolitical success, and hailed bipartisanly within the U.S., as militant Islam is decisively defeated and moderate Islam enhanced.
Surely, someone in the bowels of the national-security apparat is thinking in these terms; perhaps Mrs. Clinton, who has spoken of “obliterating” Iran if it attacks Israel, or Robert Gates, or even the president himself, if only silently at 3 a.m. while waiting for the proverbial red telephone to ring. We retain the entitlement to hope.