Saturday, April 12, 2008

Krauthammer, His Detractors, and Nuclear Deterrence

Charles Krauthammer has now espoused a position that I have long held:
How to create deterrence? The way John Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis. President Bush's greatest contribution to nuclear peace would be to issue the following declaration, adopting Kennedy's language while changing the names of the miscreants:
"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear attack upon Israel by Iran, or originating in Iran, as an attack by Iran on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon Iran."
This should be followed with a simple explanation: "As a beacon of tolerance and as leader of the free world, the United States will not permit a second Holocaust to be perpetrated upon the Jewish people."
Predictably, a popular line of attack on Krauthammer is to accuse him of inconsistency and maybe even (gasp!) hypocrisy:
Now of course no one knows for sure whether the mullahs are rational actors or "millenarian fanatics," though lately their grasp of Middle East power politics has sure looked pretty rational. But the point is, if Krauthammer really believed a nuclear Iran to be the apocalyptic nightmare he's constantly portrayed it as, shouldn't he be even more strident now, instead of so coolly willing to embrace a "feeble gamble"?
This is obtuse, at best, especially considering that Krauthammer, in the opening paragraph of his column, says:
It is time to admit the truth: The Bush administration's attempt to halt Iran's nuclear program has failed. Utterly. The latest round of U.N. Security Council sanctions, which took a year to achieve, is comically weak. It represents the end of the sanctions road.

The president is going to hand over to his successor an Iran on the verge of going nuclear. This will deeply destabilize the Middle East, threaten the moderate Arabs with Iranian hegemony and leave Israel on hair-trigger alert.
Joe Klein makes a little more sense:
Who says Iran has any intention of nuking Israel? If the mullahs dropped the big one, they would likely wipe out as many Muslims--including their Hizballah allies in southern Lebanon--as Jews. They would also wipe out the third most sacred Islamic shrine in the word, the al-Aksa mosque. The main reason why Iran wants the bomb is as a deterrent--against Israel, which already has one, and against the United States, which seems more aggressive against countries that don't have bombs (Iraq) than against countries that do (North Korea). A secondary reason is national pride (the Indians and Pakistanis have one) in a country always embarrassed by its inability to live up to its historic grandeur.
There are a several problems with this. First, the whole martyrdom narrative will allow Iran to kill as many Muslims as they need to in order to cleanse the holy land of the Jews. Second, the vast majority of the Muslims inside Israel are Sunni, which makes them only slightly more palatable than the Jews. Finally, Klein's point about Hezbollah in Lebanon is just wrong: Nuclear weapons aren't infinitely powerful. Even if Iran were to nuke all major Israeli population centers, Lebanon will not be extinguished. Israeli cities are soft targets, requiring air-bursts. Air-bursts simply don't generate nearly the amount of fallout as ground-bursts, which are used for hardened targets.

The real questions have to do with whether Iran, with a rudimentary nuclear arsenal, can actually extinguish Israel, which has a land area of 22,072 km2 and only 14 cities with a population over 100,000, and whether Israel, with a considerbly larger and more sophisticated arsenal, can similarly extinguish Iran, a country 10 times Israel's population, 75 times Israel's land area, and 86 cities with a population over 100,000. Right now, I'd say that the answer to both those questions is "no." But in the long term, it's clear that Iran, with sufficient progress, will indeed be able to annihilate Israel. Whether Israel will be able to do the same to Iran is an open question.

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