Is it crazy to say we should we bomb Iran?

Published 7:04 pm Monday, July 30, 2007

To many Americans, the question “Should we bomb Iran?” will sound like a proposal that only a raving lunatic would raise. In recent years, as a nation, we have drifted ever closer to pacifism. The invasion of Iraq is regarded by many as simply the latest and most egregious example of what many people, here and abroad, consider America’s deplorable tendency to barge around the world, using our armed forces to intervene in all sorts of foreign controversies that are essentially none of our business.

This view, as I say, is rapidly gaining support in the United States, but it is wildly at variance with our history. From the Marines’ attacks on the pirates of Tripoli early in the 19th century to the toppling of the Spanish colonial regimes in Cuba and the Philippines a century later, this country has seldom hesitated to use its military power to punish foreign misbehavior and topple various despotic regimes we disliked. But in recent years, beginning with the venture in Vietnam, foreign deployments of American power, especially if they involved the loss of American lives, have become sticks with which to beat incumbent presidents of both parties and are fast losing popularity.

That is why the problem of Iran is so acute. Here is a nation in the grip of a bunch of despotic theocrats who all but openly proclaim their intention to acquire the capability to build nuclear weapons, and whose president has casually indicated their intention to wipe Israel off the map. If they attain nuclear capability, there is no doubt whatever that the other midsized nations in the region (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, just for starters) will insist on doing likewise. There is little doubt that they have, or readily can acquire, a similar ability. Thereafter, it will be only a matter of a few years before a dozen other regimes — in Asia, Africa and South America — will follow suit. From then on, we will all be living in a desperately precarious nuclear world. To take just one example, if (in such a world) a nuclear weapon were smuggled into New York or Washington and detonated, against whom would we retaliate?

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That is a scenario that the United States and the other nations currently possessing nuclear weapons have struggled desperately to avoid ever since the end of World War II. By threats and jaw-boning, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, they have thus far managed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons much beyond their own small number. (India and Pakistan are the two glaring exceptions.) When Iraq’s Saddam Hussein managed to build a nuclear reactor near Baghdad, believed capable of producing nuclear weapons, Israeli planes destroyed it in 1981. There was a certain amount of international tsk-tsking, but basically the move was understood and condoned by the world community.

But could, or should, the United States undertake a similar mission today against Iran? There would almost certainly be an enormous uproar, both here and abroad. A president who ordered such a strike might very possibly face impeachment.

It is sometimes argued that Iran’s nuclear-weapon facilities are so widespread and so deeply buried (or otherwise defended) that a series of American air strikes simply couldn’t knock them out, as Israel knocked out Iraq’s a quarter of a century ago. But that, it seems to me, is essentially a deft cop-out. We could certainly do enough damage to cripple them for years, and discourage Iran from trying to rebuild them. Yes, there would be huge diplomatic repercussions, perhaps above all among the Iranians themselves, many of whom truly like the United States. But the alternative — a nuclear-armed world — would be almost unspeakably grim.

I belong to an earlier generation of Americans for whom the answer to the question would (in most cases) be obvious: Yes, bomb Iran, if it won’t stop its quest for nuclear weapons. But is that the consensus in America today? I seriously doubt it. We have shrunk into a nation more virtuous, perhaps, but simply incapable of robust self-defense. We have here another example of Emerson’s priceless formulation: “’What wilt thou have?’ quoth God; ‘pay for it and take it.’”

(William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.)