Belmont Club

Happy trails

Lee Smith in Slate paints a dark picture of America’s future in the Middle East. He notes the administration’s language towards Iran, which started with brave assertions to “‘do everything that’s required to prevent’ Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons  … has given way to new catchwords, like deterrence and containment”.  Containment? Oh well, one can live with that. But Smith argues the use of the word “containment” is to mischaracterize the situation. The problem he says is that current American policy towards the Islamic Revolution is already one of containment. And that containment is what is failing. The prospective condition the administration is describing as containment is really something else: a breakout. Once Iran gets the bomb, he argues, all the rest would follow suit. Having watched America impotently striving to keep Teheran from arming, the other powers would draw their own conclusion. Every man for himself. In short order the region would become a tinderbox. And what would despotisms in the region do with nuclear weapons? Smith offers up a number of ideas. Traditionally the despots have used force against their own people and ethnic minorities. Saddam used gas. Would other dictators stint at nukes?

If Iran gets the bomb, other regional powers will pursue nuclear programs—if they are not already doing so. Inevitably in a region as volatile as this, there will be a few small-scale nuclear catastrophes, probably rulers targeting their own people. Saddam gassed the Kurds and slaughtered the Shiites, Hafez Assad massacred the Sunnis of Hama, and mass graves throughout the region testify to the willingness of Arab rulers to kill their own people—in their hands, a nuclear weapon is merely an upgrade in repressive technology. Still, it’s extremely unlikely the regimes will use these weapons against their regional rivals. Remember, the main reason these states support nonstate terror groups is to deter one another and thus avoid all-out war.


But there is cold comfort in the fact that states in the region are habituated to using proxies instead of armies to war against each. It raises the possibility of a lethal combination: proxies + nukes. And Smith argues this operation equals Nightmare.  The prospect of a combination of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction is one which America fears the most. Witness South Asia. If the US is already having fits worrying about whether the Pakistanis can keep their nukes from being misused to the extent that it is willing to directly help the manage the Taliban, then Lee argues that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  If Iran and possibly Syria get the bomb there won’t be enough armies in the West to fight all the insurgencies that might get their hooks on a nuke.

However, the prospect of states transferring nukes to so-called nonstate actors is a nightmare for the United States, which does not fare well against such tactics. Consider that our response to 9/11 was to use our armed forces to democratize the Middle East. Also, consider that the most convoluted reason for making war against the Taliban is to keep the nukes of a neighboring country out of the hands of its intelligence service’s dangerous elements. That is to say, we cannot even deter Pakistan, our ally.

If that’s not enough to cheer you up, the third possible use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is against Israel. Despite the suggestive historical fact that Armageddon is actually a place in Israel, this possibility has ironically raised hopes in certain circles that Israel may be pushed into doing things the West cannot nerve itself to do. If things really get bad, why the desperate Israelis will take the risk without Washington having to bother. But Lee Smith argues it won’t be enough. With the “American-backed regional system” switched off or perceived to be impotent, the canary in the coalmine can never realistically bear the burden of the Great Eagle.

Many were surprised when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the other Sunni powers quietly cheered on Israel in its battles against Hezbollah and later Hamas. But this was extraordinary only to those inclined to see the region in terms of 300 million Arabs pitted against 6 million Jews. Instead, conceive of it rather like this: There is an American-backed regional system, and then there are those—from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Soviet Union to Bin Laden and the Islamists and now Iran and its regional assets Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas—who are eager to create a new Middle East of their own design.

It’s such a dark prognosis that  Smith himself cannot believe any rational administration would go down that dark road. But it has the air of whistling past the graveyard. “No sane person believes that the United States is suicidal, but if a nation will not or cannot defend its way of life, it has taken the first step toward its inevitable decline, which is tantamount to suicide.” Lee Smith’s article is what one would call a “worst case scenario” for the coming decade. Things may not necessarily work out that way. But then again they might; and if it seems odd that policy makers obsessed with the Global Warming “precautionary principle” aren’t more worried about what might go wrong if Iran gets the bomb, it’s a matter of judgment.  They’ve figured things out and weighed the risks havent’ they? Haven’t they? The problem is that the authorities in Washington are fallible and sometimes gets obvious things spectacularly wrong. Like the Olympics. So what could go wrong with Iran? Let’s hope that nothing does.

Anyway, as you all know from On the Beach, Australia is furthest downwind. The last glimpse for the Sunfish as she sails home and where the final glass will be raised to a once great time.

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