The Corner

Chess Game

Barry Rubin’s column, “What a nuclear Iran would do,” is a must read.  (Thanks to Mario for linking it.)  This should not be new information to Americans, but it is.  My biggest complaint about the president’s rhetoric is that he says virtually nothing about what I think of as the central dangers we face in the Middle East–the issues raised by Rubin.  The president’s focus is still on democratization.  The State of the Union speech was supposed to take us beyond democratization by detailing the broader regional consequences of failure in Iraq.  Yet, while the president briefly mentioned the danger of a nuclear Iran, most of the new talk was of communal warfare.  The president’s rhetoric was still chiefly humanitarian, as if a clear outline of America’s vital strategic interests in the region, and how they would be damaged by a nuclear Iran, was somehow out of bounds.  I used to think the president’s reluctance to raise these strategic issues was largely a side-effect of the failure to find WMD’s in Iraq.  Now I think something more is going on–a misplaced resistance to a “realist” foreign policy rhetoric.

Realism has somehow become synonymous with dovishness in the Middle East.  I think the hawks are the real realists.  Unfortunately, hawkish rhetoric–and policy–has placed far too much emphasis on quick democratization, and far too little on the strategic stakes in the region.  An Iranian bomb would be a disaster for U.S. power, and for the world order.  A nuclear Iran would put Western control of the world’s oil jugular in doubt.  It would mean terrorism and civil war in many of the Western-leaning Gulf States, quite possibly forcing a global military confrontation far more dangerous than the current one in Iraq.  This time, of course, a nuclear exchange would lurk in the background.  In short, a nuclear Iran would simultaneously intimidate us into concessions in the Gulf, and make a terrible regional war more likely.  It would also spark off a Sunni-Shiite nuclear arms race that would make both regional nuclear war and nuclear terrorism in America far more likely.  (See “Kingdom Come.) 

Yet none of this is discussed or understood by the public–while the administration does little or nothing to educate Americans about it.  Michael Rubin rightly posts Iran-related news links every day.  But I don’t think the public yet understands why this is so important–how the upcoming prospect of a nuclear Iran will transform the world order.  The whole Wesley Clark-Israel-lobby debate strikes me as a deeply misleading distraction–as if the only reason for America to try to stop the Iranian bomb is to save Israel from a second holocaust.  Israel would indeed be foolish not to take Ahmadinejad’s threats seriously.  Certainly an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear capacity would be justified.  Yet on balance, I think Iran is going to hold back from a nuclear strike on Israel.  Whatever we’re told about Iranian willingness to sacrifice lives, the prospect of Israeli retaliation will be too harsh.  (The real danger is an Iran-Israel nuclear confrontation that spins out of control in a way that neither side wants.  Over the long term, that could certainly happen.)

The problem is that Israel is not the only, or even the primary, issue raised by a nuclear Iran.  The immediate problem is strategic disaster in a region on which the world economy depends.  Take a look at what Russia has been doing with its oil. (“At Last, Russia Conquers Europe”)  The Mullah’s have surely been taking notes.  Just wait till they get the bomb and use what they’ve been taught by Putin.  A consortium of Russia, a nuclear Iran, and oil hungry China could cow Europe and put a huge damper on American power.  In “Preview of a Post-U.S. World,” Fareed Zakaria gives only a gentle hint of what we’re heading for.  The left thinks the end of U.S. hegemony means U.N. led world cooperation.  Actually it means world anarchy, and eventually, combinations by nuclear-enabled powers against us.

Iraq will be a tiny annoyance in comparison to what we will soon be facing if we fail there.  Yet we’re still not talking about what’s truly at stake.  The “realists” want to negotiate without leverage, and the hawks have foolishly failed to explain to the public that the real realism is on our side.  This is not by any means an impossible task.  During the Cold War, the general public had a very lively sense of the power “chess game” we were in with the Soviet Union.  The public may not have understood every detail, yet they grasped the core principle.  Well, Iraq is now a major move in a nuclear chess game with Iran, with a loss in Iraq spelling strategic disaster on a world-wide playing field.  The public can grasp this, but first someone’s got to explain it to them.


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