Of War, Iran, and Israel

March 10, 2012

March 10, 2012


This week, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel has been in the United States rallying every available ally to pressure President Obama to attack Iran.

Netanyahu is an ideologue of military strength, a master of the attack, but he is not a good economist.  The United States cannot afford to yet again hemorrhage dollars for bombs and rockets that, once used, buy no more bread, finance no more schools, cure no more disease.  Producing a bomb is not like producing a computer or a car or a house.  Once used, a bomb is done.  There is, quite simply, only a limited economic multiplier.  That’s why the Iraq war produced huge debt but not prosperity.  Add to that debt Iran’s ability to block the Straits of Hormuz, and oil prices are likely to skyrocket.  America’s recovery would then be doomed.  That means more people out of work, more homes foreclosed, more unrest in the streets.  In light of such probable consequences, and in the absence of an imminent military danger, an American attack would be foolhardy.

Nor does an attack make sense militarily.  There is no certain objective; no likelihood that underground targets can even be penetrated, and surely no stomach for an urban, house-to-house war against the Iranian people.  What does bombing do, if we don’t take the ground?  And what do we do with the ground, if we take it?  Do we occupy, as in Iraq, for eight more years, or for decades, as in Afghanistan?  None of that makes us more secure.  We could, by contrast, give Islamic terrorists no greater gift than to attack Iran, provoking retaliation from them all over the world, and that makes us less, not more, secure.

Morally, and legally, to bomb or invade Iran would be to re-establish the US as the world’s most dangerous country. There was a reason Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize; it was because, by contrast to his predecessor, he appeared not to be morally and legally blind.  The world breathed a sigh of relief and the Nobel committee gave him the prize.  But if Obama he attacks Iran, he joins the blind club leaving morality and law behind.

If one cites the violations of UN resolutions by Iran as justification for this attack, any fair observer must ask: “Why is the violation of UN resolutions by Iran so egregious as to justify our preemptive attack if Israel’s own repeated violations of UN resolutions do not justify the same by Iran?” Israel is a nuclear power, too, and is definitely threatening its neighbors, too, and says that it feels free to act unilaterally, too.  Is Israel not as dangerous for Iran as Iran is dangerous for Israel?  We say Iran’s leaders talk of bombing Israel. That is true.  But it is less often true than even this one week of Netanyahu’s threats to bomb Iran.  In this game of chicken we look in vain for a less egregious actor. Both are acting as if peace were weakness and restraint immature when the exact opposite is true.

The United States is clearly not in “imminent danger” which is the standard in international law for a preemptive strike.  Netanyahu and several American proponents of both the Iraq war and this one, claim that the dangerous modern world makes old international law obsolete.  To be modern we have to be ready to attack any potential terrorist regime at any time.

But that is not the modern reality.  That is ancient reality. That is the politics of the Caesars, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and 20thcentury dictators, Hitler and Stalin.  That is the politics of raw power, unbridled by law. That is retrogression not progress toward civilization.  Americans ought not lose sight of our unique potential in world history. That potential is to lead out of feudalism toward civil society, toward a more decent, more compassionate politics.  Just acting strong, waving the sword, pronouncing threats and uttering slogans, takes us back to Kaiser Wilhelm, or Mussolini or Louis XIV.  Netanyahu should know better than to take tyrants as teachers and so should we.