Monday, January 16, 2006

Flight into Armageddon

Karl Marx famously said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In connection with Iran, the United States has the opportunity for a third option: tragic farce.

You will recall that, before the Iraq invasion, the U.S. spent a year or more begging for support from other interested parties, very little of which was forthcoming, and humbly petitioning the United Nations to bless action to enforce its own resolutions. As a result, the elements in Iraq that now make up the so-called insurgency had the luxury of being able to prepare their campaign long before the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime that they knew was inevitable. Hence, the dismal record of our now nearly three-year occupation, made all the worse by President Bush's infatuation with his advisers' schemes for hand-holding of the new Iraqi leaders until some unforeseeable date.

Instead of doing a necessary but limited job, we have now spent a huge portion of our human and military capital on installing democracy in a part of the world where the idea is meaningless to most people. As a result, we are in a weak position to encounter the next threat, a gold-plated loony named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, who announced the other day that he has ordered Iran's nuclear development program to be renewed.

Ahmadinejad is some piece of work. The Independent reports:
The bearded 49-year-old's election as Iran's president last summer took millions of Iranians, as well as the rest of the world, by surprise. Since then he has caused outrage by demanding that Israel be "wiped off the map", questioning the historical authenticity of the Holocaust, and saying that if Europe and America wanted to atone by giving the Jews a homeland, it should be on their territory: "Why should the innocent nation of Palestine pay for this crime?"
But wait, there's more:
The most extreme zealots [among Shia Muslims in Iran], a group called the Hojjatieh, say total chaos should be created to hasten the coming of the Mahdi, and there have been claims that Ahmadinejad, if not a member, sympathises with them. This explains his reckless attitude, say his critics. If the final triumph of Islam can be brought closer by provoking a nuclear war with Israel or America, why hold back?

It might be possible to dismiss this as scaremongering if it were not for a DVD circulating in Iran which shows the president in conversation with a conservative ayatollah. Ahmadinejad is speaking about his defiant address to the UN General Assembly last autumn, in which he refused to back down on Iran's nuclear programme.

"One of our group told me that when I started to say 'Bismillah Muhammad', he saw a green light come from around me, and I was placed inside this aura," he says. "I felt it myself. I felt the atmosphere change, and for those 27 or 28 minutes, all the leaders of the world did not blink. When I say they didn't move an eyelid, I'm not exaggerating. They were looking as if a hand was holding them there."

I think Israel's prime minister Ariel Sharon -- now disabled by a stroke -- knew exactly what he was doing in setting up a defensive fence and pulling Israeli settlers and military forces out of Gaza. He knew that the last battle, Armageddon, was in the works, with the most psychopathic leader among a religion with quite a few psychopaths to its name looking forward to the Final Solution to the Israel problem. Sharon wanted to ensure that Israel would be in a defensible position.

Can there be any defense, though, against a nuclear-armed Iran? In a saner insane world, Israel's capability of launching its own nukes would be a Cold War-style deterrent; but for Muslim fanatics, the loss of 10 or 20 million of their fellow religionists would be a small price for taking down Israel. Undoubtedly the Mossad, Israel's secret security agency, is studying the situation or planning operations to sabotage Iranian nuclear capability. But Iranians are obviously aware of such a possibility, and taking extra security precautions against it. The Mossad is brilliant at what it does, but it can't work miracles.

It may be that there is nothing left to prevent Armageddon but a straight-out military attack against the Iranian regime by the United States. But after years of bungling in Iraq, that is exactly what the American people -- not to mention the rest of the world -- will have no part of. Tragic farce?

Niall Ferguson, in The Telegraph, puts himself in the place of an imaginary historian looking back at "the origins of the Great War of 2007" -- a tough, perceptive piece that I recommend you read in its entirety.

Under different circumstances, it would not have been difficult to thwart Ahmadinejad's ambitions. The Israelis had shown themselves capable of pre-emptive air strikes against Iraq's nuclear facilities in 1981. Similar strikes against Iran's were urged on President Bush by neo-conservative commentators throughout 2006. The United States, they argued, was perfectly placed to carry out such strikes. It had the bases in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan. It had the intelligence proving Iran's contravention of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But the President was advised by his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to opt instead for diplomacy. Not just European opinion but American opinion was strongly opposed to an attack on Iran. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 had been discredited by the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein had supposedly possessed and by the failure of the US-led coalition to quell a bloody insurgency.

No one wanted to face the reality. Even if Iran had exploded a nuclear bomb and broadcast it on CNN, some people would have dismissed it as a CIA trick, says Ferguson's future "historian."
So history repeated itself. As in the 1930s, an anti-Semitic demagogue broke his country's treaty obligations and armed for war. Having first tried appeasement, offering the Iranians economic incentives to desist, the West appealed to international agencies - the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council. Thanks to China's veto, however, the UN produced nothing but empty resolutions and ineffectual sanctions, like the exclusion of Iran from the 2006 World Cup finals. ...

As in the 1930s, too, the West fell back on wishful thinking. Perhaps, some said, Ahmadinejad was only sabre-rattling because his domestic position was so weak. Perhaps his political rivals in the Iranian clergy were on the point of getting rid of him. In that case, the last thing the West should do was to take a tough line; that would only bolster Ahmadinejad by inflaming Iranian popular feeling. So in Washington and in London people crossed their fingers, hoping for the deus ex machina of a home-grown regime change in Teheran.

This gave the Iranians all the time they needed to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium at Natanz.
This would be a Cuban Missile Crisis replay in which neither side blinked, even when they were eyeball-to-eyeball.
The devastating nuclear exchange of August 2007 represented not only the failure of diplomacy, it marked the end of the oil age. Some even said it marked the twilight of the West. Certainly, that was one way of interpreting the subsequent spread of the conflict as Iraq's Shi'ite population overran the remaining American bases in their country and the Chinese threatened to intervene on the side of Teheran.

Yet the historian is bound to ask whether or not the true significance of the 2007-2011 war was to vindicate the Bush administration's original principle of pre-emption. For, if that principle had been adhered to in 2006, Iran's nuclear bid might have been thwarted at minimal cost. And the Great Gulf War might never have happened.

Something to think about next time Bush bangs on about staying the course in Iraq and spreading democracy throughout the Middle East like applying butter to toast, and Condi Rice flies off for another round of diplomacy at the site of tomorrow's Armageddon.

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