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

17 March 2010

What Is Bibi Up To?


Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Israel’s right-wing prime minister, has given the phrase “plausible deniability” a whole new meaning. He says he was not aware that even-farther-right-wing Shas Party officials would announce a new phase of Israeli settlements in Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem just as Joe Biden landed to help make peace.

For two reasons, it’s hard to believe that Bibi didn’t know. First, ignorance of such a slap in the America’s face would reflect a surprising level of ineptitude. Second, the probable consequences of that slap and the new settlements are easy to predict. And they suggest a motive fully consistent with Bibi’s history and world view.

Netanyahu’s folly has alienated just about everyone but Orthodox true believers in Israel. Of course he’s alienated Joe Biden, the best Catholic friend Israel has in high places in the United States. He’s also alienated our President, who planned to spend lots of energy and political capital trying to make peace and now appears to have concluded that that energy and capital would be wasted. In the process, Netanyahu has alienated a lot of thinking Americans, including Jews, who are getting tired of paying for and supporting an extreme and intransigent religious vision for Israel that, if the truth be told, is not always easy to distinguish from the Taliban’s vision for Islam.

Further consequences of all this alienation are also not hard to see. As Israel’s friends recoil, Israel’s people feel more isolated. In a nation where paranoia is understandable, if not justified, that feeling of isolation pulls Israel toward the right. At the same time, Bibi has pulled the rug out from under cooperation and compromise throughout the Muslim world―in Palestine, in Hamas, in Hezbollah, and of course in Iran. Ahmadinejad can now tell his people, with greater credibility, that Israel is hell bent on displacing the Palestinian people and that talk of peace is a charade. Support inside Iran for Ahmmadinejad’s nuclear brinksmanship grows.

The end result: Iran makes more noise and maybe some more movement toward nuclear power and possibly nuclear weapons. Israel makes a pre-emptive strike, and we and the rest of the world have to pick up the pieces.

Thus, the most rational interpretation of Bibi’s “mistake” is the first step in a complex diplomatic dance designed to “justify” a coming pre-emptive aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Mareen Dowd’s column today, suggesting the Bibi put “zoning and earmarks” above peace, was incredibly naive. No thinking politician would do that, let alone one who is so far right that the Israeli right wing has no where else to run.

So what should we and other outsiders do? There may be no stopping Israel, and many Americans won’t want to try. If “we” can pummel Iran’s nuclear research and uranium-enrichment facilities with others doing the work, the fighting and the dying, why not let them?

The problem is twofold. First, the “pummeling” is not guaranteed. Iran’s recently-discovered nascent uranium plant at Qom showed us that Iran has the technology and means to dig deep. It may be that Iran wanted us to find the site at Qom, to convince us that there may be other such sites and that aerial strikes would therefore be futile. In other words, Iran may be bluffing, and Natanz and the other known nuclear sites may be the only ones it has.

If so, a pre-emptive strike might be successful, for a while. But Iran is not going anywhere, and a pre-emptive strike would only embolden Ahmadinejad and the Basij and lead them to crush Iran’s domestic opposition. So unless we and/or Israel are ready to commit ground troops to force “regime change” as we did in Iraq, a pre-emptive strike would extinguish the best and easiest chance for “regime change” with minimal bloodshed: letting Iran’s own people accomplish it.

Not only that. Iran is not Iraq or Syria―the sites of Israel’s earlier, successful pre-emptive strikes. Iran has 70 million people, not too far from twice as many as Iraq and Syria combined. Unlike either Iraq or Syria, Iran is a modern industrial nation with a strong, relatively modern air force and an army that held off Saddam’s for eight years. Outside of Israel, it probably has the best-trained military with the largest contingent of hardened veterans in the entire Middle East.

Whether Iran decides to retaliate by air, by sea, or (less likely) by land, a pre-emptive strike may give Ahmadinejad just the war he needs to consolidate his dictatorship, increase Iran’s influence and, in the process, wreak havoc in the Middle East. If Iran retaliates, what follows will be no picnic for Israel (with about a tenth of Iran’s population) or for the region. Iran has the missiles and ordinance to make Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s most recent bombardments seem like a light rain. And who would bet on Iran failing to retaliate?

Perhaps the only thing preventing an Iranian ground invasion of Israel is geography: Iran and Israel are not contiguous. But Syria might be persuaded to allow Iranian troops to pass through, as it did in the Iraq war, making the war a ground war for Israel’s survival against formidable odds. The chance that Israel might then have to resort to its nuclear arsenal is far from zero.

Bibi has signaled Israel’s near-term intentions to anyone who can read the signs. The dangers to Israel of inaction while Iran purifies uranium are clear. The dangers of a pre-emptive strike are less so. No matter how thorough and crushing Israel’s pre-emptive strike, Israel will never know whether it has stopped Iran’s nuclear program completely, or for how long. What follows will likely be war, the extent of which is impossible to predict. What is possible to predict is that Ahamdinejad and Iran’s hard-line clerics will have the excuse they need to consolidate their iron rule, that any chance of indigenous reform within Iran will be put off for a decade, if not a generation, and that hatred of Israel among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims will flare to new heights.

These are not pretty choices, and no one can envy Bibi’s dilemma. But one might hope that, in this extremity, a man less sure than Bibi of God’s favor had the reins. A realist would not rely on God to insure a short-term win, or to keep an ambiguous, pyrrhic short-term victory from becoming an horrendous long-term mistake. Only a great leader can do that. Unfortunately Bibi, despite his flawless English, has shown few signs of rising to the occasion.

Addendum: Whither Israel in Crisis?

Careful readers of this blog will note a change in position. Over three years ago, I recommended unmanned aerial pre-emptive strikes against Iran as a last resort, if diplomacy and democracy (in Iran) failed. Now I think that pre-emptive strikes, manned or unmanned, would be unwise.

Why the change? The answer is simple: changed circumstances. Much in the world has changed in the three-plus years since December 2006, when I wrote the post entitled “Avoiding World War III.”

First, Iran’s nuclear development has gone much more slowly than I expected. When I wrote that post, I thought Iran would have a bomb by now, or at very least a working nuclear reactor of its own design.

I can think of only three possible reasons for the delay. First, Iran’s scientists and engineers may be more inept than those in either Pakistan or North Korea.

As someone who had occasional contact with some of Iran’s many students here when we were friendly with Iran, in the 1960s and 1970s, I doubt that. Those students seemed just as bright as anyone else and more intellectually curious (perhaps because their home, under the Shah, was a totalitarian intellectual wasteland.) But it’s possible that I was deceived, or that Iran’s youth today is not as bright.

Second―and more probable―Iran may be telling the truth about its goals and motives. It may simply resent the West and Russia telling it, “you can’t have nuclear technology,” but not have any present plans for developing nuclear weapons, let alone a nuclear first strike.

Ahmadinejad is a little man, in every sense of those words. Above all, little men crave respect. He may personify the cultural inferiority complex of an ancient society that the West ran like a puppet for most of the twentieth century and that now has suffered for over three decades under a failed Islamic revolution.

What gives this theory additional credence is the predilection for bluffing in that part of the world. Scholars now understand, for example, that Ramses I of ancient Egypt was a far better propagandist than a general. By what today we would call “public relations,” he convinced foreign enemies that an indecisive battle had been a great victory for Egypt and that Egypt’s armies were invincible. His clever propaganda, which included building impressive monuments on Egypt’s borders, combined with effective diplomacy to expand Egypt’s borders a bit and to expand lucrative trade a lot, without much war.

Ramses probably deserves his reputation for greatness, but not because he was a great warrior. He deserves it because he brought his people prosperity without unnecessary loss of life.

After tremendous investment, effort and loss of life, we learned recently that Saddam had been bluffing about WMD. How many more times do we have to learn the lesson that cultures in that part of the world have been known to bluff?

A final reason for Iran’s delay in developing nuclear technology might be more sinister. Iran may be trying to bury it, as it apparently had intended to do at Qom. Digging deep underground caverns for centrifuges―and for the massive electric generators they require―takes time. But this, too, may be a bluff. Iran may have let us stumble upon Qom just to convince us, like Ramses, that Iran’s nuclear program is underground and unstoppable.

Only American and Israeli intelligence services can determine with any accuracy whether Iran is building a massive nuclear development complex underground, in locations as yet uncharted. I have no field agents and won’t speculate on that issue. But my instincts tell me Iran is conflicted: its people and leadership are undecided, and its nuclear program is consequently proceeding far more slowly than everyone feared. Religion also may be playing a part. It’s hard to square the massive, indiscriminate slaughter wrought by nuclear weapons with any religion, let alone real Islam. There are no doubt Islamic scholars inside Iran who are just as opposed to its developing nuclear weapons as we are.

The second and most important changed circumstance underlying my change in position is last year’s abortive “Green Revolution,” which followed Iran’s leaders’ obvious attempt to steal the elections. Three years ago, the so-called “Islamic Republic” seemed impregnable and immutable, just like the old Soviet Union.

In the early eighties, a succession of aging and inept tyrants governed what is now (again) Mother Russia. (Does this scenario sound familiar?) No one predicted the early fall of their crazy economic system. But fall it did, and with astonishing suddenness and rapidity.

Can the same thing happen in Iran? I think so. The Iranian people are not stupid, and they have far better access to global media than ordinary Russians did in the old Soviet Union. We Americans waited nearly half a century, under real threat of mutual annihilation, for the Russian people and their leaders to come to their senses. And they did. The fearsome Soviet Union vanished as suddenly as it had been born, but without all the blood. Sometimes the best “regime change” comes from within.

A pre-emptive strike may have made sense when there were no cracks in the mullahs’ wall. Now there are many. The “Green Revolution” may take a decade to mature, but mature it will, if we give it time.

In the meantime, we Americans can send a message to the mullahs. We can let them know that we have several nuclear submarines perpetually circling Iran, against which Iran has no defense. We can inform them that each has several 50-megaton thermonuclear warheads (which actually work!) targeted on Tehran and Qom in case of any nuclear first strike by Iran against Israel or anyone else. Iran’s leaders are not stupid; they are just inept. They won’t risk letting their leading cities become toast.

So an uneasy stalemate will prevail, allowing democracy and common sense to develop inside Iran at their own pace, just as they did in the old Soviet Union. We Americans waited 44 years after the end of World War II for that to happen. The Israelis can wait a few more, arming and preparing themselves as they may feel necessary for the war that we all hope will never come.

If it continues, Bibi’s apparent current strategy would upset the applecart, and soon. It would trigger a war that no one needs (which might fail to achieve even its short-term ends), and that would almost certainly arrest the slow democratization process now under way in Iran. Sometimes the hardest but most effective strategy in the face of threats is patience.

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