Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

05 March 2012

Should Crazy People Have Nuclear Weapons?


[This post is, I hope, my last on the subjects raised by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit. In a few days I’ll be back on the topic most dear to my heart: energy.]

The title of this post sounds like the topic for an off-the-wall high-school debate. Yet it’s the very question the international community now must wrestle with, especially Russia and China.

That’s essentially what the President told us in his sober but brilliant interview in The Atlantic Magazine this week. That’s why he later described our policy not as containing Iran, but as preventing it from getting a nuclear weapon. And that’s why, after flirting with containment myself, I’m now with him.

To be sure, the President phrased his objections politely, in standard diplomatic-speak. He decried the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

But let’s be frank. We’ve long had a nuclear arms race among major powers, and even between India and Pakistan. No one has let fly yet. So what, if anything, is different about the Middle East?

Part of the answer lies in religion. Would anyone care to refight the last three centuries of religious wars in Europe, this time with nuclear weapons? Those wars ended with even greater wars of secular imperialism. But now, finally, Europe is at peace, and the peace seems durable. Ditto Asia.

What makes the Middle East scary is more than just religion. With only limited irony, you can say that people in the region are crazy. Or maybe just their leaders are; sometimes it’s hard to see which.

Whoever’s at fault, the so-called “nations” in that region just don’t seem to meet the same standards of reason, prudence and humanity that prevail throughout the rest of the world today, including most of Africa and Latin America. They don’t even seem to have the same level of common sense—let alone human empathy.

Maybe that’s because nearly all of them are not really nations. They are constructs of the British Foreign Office or (in Israel’s case) the United Nations. They didn’t grow up through millennia of painful social and ethnic evolution, as did Europe and Asia. They were made, and quite recently in historical terms.

Let’s start with the worst, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Suppose that, as little as two years ago, someone from the future had shown you a magic video. The tape portrayed Assad prancing among his sycophants, smiling and giving high signs, while his primitive but still dangerous military butchered his own unarmed people with modern artillery. Would you have believed the video?

I wouldn’t. I would have pointed out that Assad is an educated man, a medical doctor, with a reputation for “conservatism.” (Didn’t that word once mean something good? Is butchering people “conservative”?) I would have said that anyone with half a brain, especially today, knows that sort of behavior is (to use Obamanian understatement) “not sustainable.” Even the Russians, in their brief spasm of civil violence in 1993, directed artillery mostly at their Parliament building, and fewer than 200 people died.

But in disbelieving, I would have been wrong.

Next take Assad’s best friends: the so-called “Islamic Republic” of Iran. According to our own CIA, it has the world’s fourth largest proven oil reserves. With rational leadership, it could (and should) be doing exactly what Russia is doing today. It should be selling and exploiting those reserves to pull its economy up by the bootstraps, into the twenty-first century, and give its people a better life.

If you’d asked me right after the Islamic Revolution (and I knew what I know today), that’s exactly what I would have predicted. But again I would have been wrong.

What has Iran has done instead? It has wasted extraordinary resources and effort in making itself the world’s biggest troublemaker, second only to the teenage mutant tyrant of North Korea.

It started by supporting and radicalizing Lebanese and Palestinian movements against Israel. These movements specialize in assassinating opposition leaders in Lebanon and Gaza, encouraging Palestinian youth to make themselves human bombs, and rocketing Israeli civilians and schoolchildren. And one of them calls itself the “Party of God.”

Why Israel? God knows. Did Israel ever do anything to Iran? Not that I know of, and certainly nothing important. We Yanks did plenty. We installed a nasty puppet dictator in Iran for 25 years. Later we incited Saddam to attack Iran, with disastrous effects, including over a million deaths on both sides.

So Iran has every reason to be angry at us. But the only plausible reason for targeting Israel, it seems, is to get back at us because Israel is our best friend in the region. Sympathy for Palestinians and their legitimate grievances is not enough to justify perpetual belligerence, far less the sort of belligerence that keeps Palestinians themselves in a perpetual state of war and poverty.

We Yanks have plenty of sympathy for South Koreans. We put more money, blood and intelligence into making their society work than ever Iran put into Greater Palestine, and with infinitely greater success. But when the North’s imbecile Kims threaten to wipe South Korea off the map, as they have done so many times, do we threaten the North the same way? No. With infinite patience, we talk with it and give it food and hope it will come to its senses. Despite all our warts and decline, we still can recognize that perpetual belligerence and grinding conflict are just “not sustainable.”

If you think I’ve exhausted the craziness with Syria and Iran, think again. I’m just getting started.

Next is Saudi Arabia. Here’s a medieval monarchy—one of a bare handful still left on our harried planet. It’s got the same resources as Russia and Iran, even better. In fact it has the biggest oil reserves of any nation in the world, by far. It could use its oil revenue to create a golden oasis not only in its own deserts, but, with trade and beneficence, throughout the Middle East.

But what does it do? It uses its wealth to maintain its medieval monarchy and the royal family’s obscene privileges. When its people get restive, it uses some to buy them off. And all the while it funds madrassas throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, which teach nothing useful, only Wahhabi extremist religion and hate.

Never once, apparently, did the Saudis’ brilliant oil manipulators consider the possibility that these acts, too, might not be sustainable. And now that the dark ravens of their hateful visions are circling back toward home, they begin to talk about nuclear armament.

We’re still not done yet. Consider Iraq. It’s probably a better place now that Saddam is gone. But it took a vicious civil war to get Iraqis to sit down and reason with each other. Right now, that reasoning process appears to be stuck.

Maybe some day—maybe even soon—Iraqis will conclude that perpetual enmity towards one’s neighbors and countrymen is not sustainable. But would you bet a city or two, maybe a radioactive genocide, on their learning that lesson before acquiring nuclear weapons? That’s what you’d be doing if you let them have them.

Last but not least, we come to Israel. A lot has been said about its noisy but effective democracy, its free press, and its thriving universities and high-tech communities. All those things are true and admirable.

But still, doesn’t it seem a little crazy that Israel’s highest leader keeps referring to modern territory (which also happens to belong partly to neighbors now) using terms that haven’t been heard in politics or diplomacy for about two millennia? Doesn’t it seem even crazier when his purpose in doing so appears to be to justify land grabs whose only real justification is the same rule the Nazis once used: “Macht macht Recht”?

If it were up to me—and I’m Jewish—I wouldn’t give any of these people nuclear weapons. They simply don’t have the maturity of societies in Europe and most of Asia. They haven’t yet been so exhausted by hideous and decades-long conflicts with non-nuclear weapons (including religious wars), to figure out that even those conflicts are neither desirable nor sustainable. They haven’t yet learned to live like adults, so we want them to have nuclear weapons?

Unfortunately, Israel already has nuclear weapons. And maybe their vast power has helped sober Israelis up. Israel has never admitted their possession. Far from bragging about them or blustering with them, it seems embarrassed to have them—a reaction entirely appropriate for victims of the Holocaust. And never, ever has Israel threatened their use, at least in public. (But neither has Russia, China, nor any other country that has them, even Pakistan. Sobriety seems to come from knowing what they can do.)

That’s all to the good. Yet I still can’t get by the constant references to “Judea and Samaria” and the constantly expanding “settlements.” Neither of those things squares with a twenty-first century country living in a complex region where every neighbor has grievances of its own, and at least some of them are legitimate. And I can’t forget that a Jewish extremist killed Yitzhak Rabin, whose survival might have written an entirely different regional history.

I don’t know what causes this craziness. Maybe it’s something in the air. Maybe the entire region is too focused on history and fixed scripture ever to forget, move on, and eventually forgive or let live.

But whatever the cause, I know one thing. When the President, in his usually impressive understatement, says he doesn’t want to see a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, I hear him saying something else. I hear him saying we don’t want crazy people to have nuclear weapons. And I fully agree.

Except for the Kims’ North Korea and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the nations of the Middle East are among the least civilized, least restrained and most likely to explode on our planet. It’s bad enough that Israel has nuclear weapons; at least it seems to be handling them sensibly. But we certainly don’t want nuclear arms to spread in that region.

If it takes a few air strikes to prevent that from happening, so be it. But please let them be American, not Israeli. America is sufficiently far away and powerful, and has meddled enough there already, as to cause not much more than the usual grumbling. Israeli strikes would only inflame the whole region and make things much worse.

And I don’t know about you, but I also have a special aversion. I never want to see modern weapons—the product of four hundred years of reason and science—used to resurrect Judea or Samaria.

Let the dead stay dead and the living go on living. If young people want something to fight and possibly die for, let them fight for their own future, not a biblical past. That’s what Arab youth are dying for, right now, by the thousands, in the Arab Spring. And especially let no one have the power to turn a land holy to three religions into a radioactive Hell that not even Moses, in his worst apocalyptic visions, ever could have imagined.

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