It worked for years. School kids ducked under their desks to avoid atomic attack while the Soviet Union and America stood toe to toe staring into each others’ eyes. Each may have been tempted from time to time to launch the one massive rocket attack, the overwhelming bombardment that would knock the other out of the fight. But each knew that for all the nuclear throw-weight he tossed at his sworn adversary that he would get it back, in spades, before his missiles did their awful work. You can kill me, one said to the other, but you will surely die in the attempt. This seemingly lunatic notion – two nations standing with atomic pistols pointed at their enemy’s head – was actual policy. In an acronym that seemed to capture the atmospherics of the age it was called MAD - Mutual Assured Destruction.
While many, particularly in the pro-Soviet, hard-left, peacenik community in America did indeed consider it an insane policy and preferred appeasement and conciliation regardless of the price (“better Red than dead”), time proved that for all of its surface craziness MAD worked. For decades two nations had sweaty fingers on the nuclear trigger and even though one evenually collapsed economically and politically into history’s ashcan, it did so without ever pulling the trigger. Sure there were brutal, often senseless, costly wars through surrogates, but the Big Ones stayed in their dark silos, in the stygian depths aboard submarines, or secured aloft in always-flying bomber units. When the Berlin Wall came down followed shortly thereafter by liberation of Eastern Europe and fall of the USSR, the free world exhaled. It had held its breath for a long, long time.
But we relaxed too soon. Given the complexity and expense of the Manhattan Project we had no idea that building nuclear weapons is relatively easy technologically. Despite best efforts – and some egregious missteps – proliferation has been on a slow but steady pace since the heady days of August 1945 when America alone had the ultimate weapon. Despite some odd members joining the Nuclear Club MAD still works. Neither India nor Pakistan is willing to risk turning its major cities into radioactive parking lots despite levels of hatred and distrust of the other party. Japan, protected by the US nuclear umbrella, balances an atomic China. For all his bluster, Kim Jong Il would rather leverage nuclear weapons to extend his regime than use one and abruptly end it.
But MADness, ironically, ends at a place which by Western standards is truly deranged – Iran. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated rants to destroy Israel and the West are almost clichés now, having been replayed so often that the sheer audacity and horror of the threat has been diluted. Following the ideology of the brand of Shia Islam that he believes, the Iranian president actually seeks an apocalyptic, world-altering confrontation on a scale of the Book of Revelation. Such a notion flies squarely in the face of a MAD strategy for containment. So we’re faced with a quandary: if threat of utter destruction does not deter an ideologue like Ahmadinejad and his theocrat leaders, what might?
To listen to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who must be speaking for the president, further multilateral negotiations involving Europe, the UN, and other participants will do the job. But their statements do not inspire confidence. Perhaps reacting to fierce internal criticism two years ago the Bush administration decided to take a back seat in Iran, choosing instead for the EU to do the heavy lifting. What we saw was disappointing. While diplomats dithered, Ahmadinejad’s engineers ably assisted by North Koreans pressed forward with accelerated missile and nuclear development. Pakistani engineers from the AQ Khan group participated as did scientists from China and possibly the former Soviet Union. Intelligence information gathered by the Iranian dissident group MEK showed extensive underground R&D facilities under construction in dispersed locations around the country.
Meanwhile, the American intelligence community, which had become openly politicized post-911, cooked its estimates, finally arriving at a highly unrealistic estimate of 5-10 years before the Iranians would have a genuine nuclear capability. These rather optimistic estimates were challenged by many in the dissident Iranian community especially who argued persuasively that the devices would be ready in months rather than years.
Everything coming out of Ahmadinejad’s public statements, including those made in remote locations to all-Iranian audiences seemed to indicate that some cataclysmic event is drawing near. There was much speculation based on his boasting that perhaps the date 27 Rajab (August 22) would have been a strike date. It passed quietly. Now other times and threats are being processed. But one wonders if Ahmadinejad is playing with our heads. Raise expectations then lower them. Cause alarms here while acting there. Appropriate moves for a culture that invented chess.
But we still draw no closer to a solution. With MAD discarded international diplomats flail noisily but ineffectually trying to craft some sort of solution. One wonders watching the internal gamesmanship, how many of the Security Council members may be working covertly with the Iranian regime while professing concern over atomics in New York. Certainly Russia and China must be counted in that number. China in order to secure energy supplies; Russia to sell things. And both to tweak the US in the process.
In what has to be a textbook case of unrealistic expectations Rice, the president, the Democrats, and the Europeans all speak of imposing “stern economic sanctions” on Iran with the object of forcing them to cease nuclear development. If MAD and all its furor does not deter what makes otherwise rational people think that cutting off supplies to the country will do anything? It is yet another case of lazy strategic thinking and an unwillingness to accept the fact that in order to bend Iran to our will we will have to do something messy: hit the lab facilities with military strikes.
That alternative is not even seriously discussed, rather the hope is that if the Iranian people get sufficiently upset at having their economy disintegrate around them that they will overthrow the regime. Israel made the same flawed judgment call when they punished Lebanon hoping to sway the people against Hezbollah. It didn’t work then and won’t work with Iran. The regime will blame America and Israel for all their problems, the innocents will suffer, the regime will retaliate against the West by jacking up oil prices, it will repress dissention, and the rulers will have their atomic weapons to use as they wish.
Iran has become yet another in what seem to be endless sequential tests of American will. Does this country possess the strength to accept the dirty, unwelcome, but highly important task that has fallen upon it? Or will we roll to the mullahs, accept the prospect of Iran armed with nuclear weapons and threatening us and Israel, all the while pretending that they won’t hurt us?
President Bush seems to be distracted and vacillating. Rice appears to have been completely co-opted by the Arabists in her Department. The Democrats gleefully risk Israel and American destruction in order to win hollow political victories. The time for action is upon us. But who will rise to the challenge? The old strategies for deterrence are proven ineffective but there seems to be no action to derive alternatives.
When faced with a similar situation almost seven decades ago we waited almost too long. Only the oceans protected us sufficiently to provide time and space for us to react. Still, by the time we prevailed millions had died. In this world we no longer have the time and space to wait. Nor will we be protected geographically. Waiting for a provocation may be necessary politically but could come at enormous potential cost in lost lives.
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