Wednesday, April 05, 2006

VDH on the Iranian bomb

I am still officially on hiatus for a couple of more weeks, but a short post seems in order. This evening I attended a lecture by Victor Davis Hanson, the classicist and historian who also writes about current affairs. I've been reading articles and books by Hanson for three or four years now, and he has become one of my favorite writers on national security, war, and politics. He's both an idealist and a realist, which means he can be both inspirational and intellectually bracing. (I found him to be as interesting and worthwhile in person as he is in print.)

This evening his realist side was much in evidence. He was talking about preemptive war and whether such a thing can ever be justified to protect a free society. Much of the evening was spent discussing Iran. From the Iranian side, pursuing nuclear weapons has lots of advantages, if they can avoid getting the stuffing bombed out of them by the US and/or Israel (the only folks who can in fact do anything about it). The Europeans and the Arab League -- people who could actually be threatened by Iranian nukes on intermediate-range missiles -- would love to have the Iranian nuclear program stopped, but are unable to make any credible threat of force on their own. So they privately hope the Americans and the Israelis will take care of things, after which they will dutifully condemn yet another example of disgraceful Yankee/Zionist warmongering. Because of this and a lot of other foreseeable fallout, the costs of bombing Iran to cripple or destroy the nuclear program would be extremely high. The Iranians know this, and so they think they can play the game (intimidate now, concilliate now, delay and confuse, all the time telling the scientists to hurry it up) until Bush is out of office and the Iranian bomb is a fait accompli. And once that happens the rules change, and Iran is in a much more favorable position in a hundred ways.

Here's Hanson's forecast, as I heard him: Maybe the whole multilateral / EU / Russia / China / UN / talk-talk approach might work, or an internal peaceful political change could take place in Iran, but don't bet on it. Eventually, it will probably be necessary to bomb the Iranians to prevent them from going nuclear. But the political costs of that would be very, very high. (Some of these costs would be imposed by people who would privately be delighted by an attack. Life is not fair.) In the end, the US and Israel may not be able to muster the political will to proceed. (Hanson said the Bush probably had the will to do it, but not the ability to articulate and persuade that would be necessary.) So Iran will in the end likely get the Bomb. People will say, "Dang. Now we'll have to deal with Iran like we deal with Pakistan." Only it will turn out that Iran is not Pakistan, and the situation will be very bad indeed.

It was a depressing picture, in part because I found it very plausible.

Afterward I was chatting with a political scientist I know. I said that in some ways, Pakistan is more of a worry to me than Iran. I made an analogy (which I am sure is not original with me, though I've forgotten where I heard it). When I was a kid, I read science fiction books like the Barsoombooks by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which portrayed societies that had shining cities of super-science, with hordes of barbarians with swords roaming outside the gates. In other words, you had the weird combination of advanced technology and primitive barbarism, cheek-by-jowl. Pakistan is like that -- a country with missiles and nukes, yet which has large districts that are essentially lawless, not at all under the control of the central government. I find that combination particularly scary.

And my poli-sci friend said, "Well, in Iran the barbarians with swords are actually running the cities. Now that's scary."


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