I just happened to be browsing through Alternet looking for material to write about and came upon a piece by Evan Derkacz, Netanyahu Cries: “Hitler! Hitler! Hitler!” in which he analyzes Bibi Netanyahu’s long history of demonizing opponents of Israel by playing the Hitler-Munich card. There Derkacz, in turn, linked to earlier post he’d written for Alternet, Israeli Military Expert on Bombing Iran, about an amazing Forward column by Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld regarding the foolhardiness of attempting to end Iran’s nuclear ambitions by force. Van Creveld’s rather awkwardly and inaptly titled piece, Knowing Why Not to Bomb Iran is Half the Battle, though written in April and directed at a possible U.S. attack on Iran, holds just as much relevance today. Though it appears now it is more likely Israel would attack Iran (Bush and Olmert are encouraging a form of studied ambiguity on this issue, which in turn is meant as a form of psychological warfare against the Iranians–much like what the Bush Administration tried against Saddam before the invasion).
Van Creveld’s arguments seem unassailable to me and certainly worth considering no matter on which side of the argument you stand. First, he asks that we place Iran’s current campaign against a historical backdrop of all other nations which’ve joined the nuclear club:
…Each time a country was about to go nuclear Washington went out of its way to sound the alarm, warning of the dire consequences that would surely follow. From 1945 to 1949 it was the Soviet Union which, once it had succeeded in building nuclear weapons, was supposed to make an attempt at world conquest.
In the 1950s it was America’s own clients, Britain and France, who were regarded as the offenders and put under pressure. Between 1960 and 1993, first China, then Israel (albeit [pressured] to a limited extent) and finally India and Pakistan were presented as the black sheep, lectured, put under pressure and occasionally subjected to sanctions. Since then, the main victim of America’s peculiar belief that it alone is sufficiently good and sufficiently responsible to possess nuclear weapons has been North Korea.
As the record shows, in none of these cases did the pessimists’ visions come true. Neither Stalin, Mao nor any of the rest set out to conquer the world. It is true that, as one country after another joined the nuclear club, Washington’s ability to threaten them or coerce them declined.
In fact, going farther than I would with his argument, he posits that the introductions of WMD into these regions has created a form of mutually assured destruction (MAD) which has kept the worst forces of darkness in check:
…Nuclear proliferation did not make the world into a noticeably worse place than it had always been — and if anything, to the contrary. As Europe, the Middle East and South Asia demonstrate quite well, in one region after another the introduction of nuclear weapons led, if not to brotherhood and peace, then at any rate to the demise of large-scale warfare between states.
If you think of the mass devastation of World War II that raged through Europe, Asia and the Middle East, then Van Creveld’s claim is true. But nuclear weapons haven’t come close to having an impact on smaller-scale, but still quite violent, warfare between states in places like Bosnia, Serbia-Kosovo, Israel-Palestine, U.S.-Vietnam. And then there is civil conflict WITHIN societies like Lebanon and Cambodia, etc. where such weaponry has had little impact. One thing I think we can say is true though, is that conflict AMONG the nuclear powers themselves (notably Russia, China, the U.S. and possibly India-Pakistan, though it’s too early to tell) has probably been held in check by the MAD effect.
Van Creveld then demolishes the cherished neocon argument that Israel or the U.S. should feel existentially threatened by Iranian nukes (are you listening Bibi?):
Given the balance of forces, it cannot be argued that a nuclear Iran will threaten the United States. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fulminations to the contrary, the Islamic Republic will not even be a threat to Israel. The latter has long had what it needs to deter an Iranian attack.
Should deterrence fail, Jerusalem can quickly turn Tehran into a radioactive desert — a fact of which Iranians are fully aware. Iran’s other neighbors, such as Russia, Pakistan and India, can look after themselves. As it is, they seem much less alarmed by developments in Iran than they do by those thousands of miles away in Washington.
Next, the distinguished military historian asks the critical question whether a military attack against Iranian facilities can succeed. The answer is nowhere near clear:
As the world’s sole superpower, the United States has at its disposal forces and weapons far superior to anything that existed a quarter century ago [when Israel successfully destroyed an Iraqi nuclear facility]. On the other side of the coin, the Iranian nuclear program is much larger, more dispersed, better protected and better camouflaged than Iraq’s program was.
Most important of all, the vital element of surprise will be absent. The Israeli strike owed much of its success to the fact that it came like a bolt from the blue. By contrast, Washington has been publicizing its intentions for months, if not years. A precision-guided surgical air strike may take out some vital installations and set back the program — or it may not.
Perhaps more troubling than either of these outcomes is the possibility that the attackers, trying to hit camouflaged targets said to be buried deep underground, will not know whether or not they have succeeded. As a result, they may have to go on bombing for much longer than the few days Pentagon sources say the operation might last.
The longer it lasts, the more likely it is that there will be losses in the form of aircraft downed, pilots killed or captured (and, of course, displayed on television) and the like. Remember, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were not supposed to last years either.
The third question for Washington to consider is what Iran can do in response to the bombing of its nuclear installations. In essence, there are three possibilities: Tehran can step up aid to the Iraqi insurgents, strike out at the Gulf States and Israel, or send terrorists to commit acts of sabotage around the world.
In closing, Van Creveld raises another critical question–can U.S. (or Israeli for that matter) intelligence be relied on in guiding military forces to their Iranian targets? And here he is at his most devastating in evaluating past and present intelligence capabilities:
…Before deciding to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations the Bush administration must seriously question whether the intelligence on which its decision is based is reliable. Those of us who have followed reports on the development of Iran’s nuclear program know that the warnings from American and other intelligence agencies about Tehran building a bomb in three and five years have been made again and again — for more than 15 years.
For 15 years, the intelligence agencies have been proven dead wrong. And to this gross exaggeration of Iran’s true intentions and capabilities must be added the fairy tales the same intelligence agencies have been feeding the world regarding Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
The Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and the rest of the American intelligence community may know where Iran’s nuclear installations are located. Or they may not. They may know how those installations are inter-connected, which ones are the most important, and how they can be hit and destroyed. Or they may not.
If their past record is any indication, the intelligence agencies may not even know how to tell whether they know enough about Iran’s nuclear installations — or whether or not they are lying to their superiors, or to themselves. Anybody who believes one word they are saying — let alone uses the “information” they provide as a basis for decision-making — must be out of his or her mind.
Coming from one of the word’s stellar military historians and intelligence analysts, these words are sobering indeed.