The New York Times had a front-page story last week about how, exactly, Israel would carry out a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Reporter Elizabeth Bumiller interviewed all sorts of military experts about the logistical challenges of such a strike, even including a map of three possible air routes that Israeli fighter planes could use to reach Iran.
This felt surreal. Such a strike would be a a de facto act of war. Normally it would be planned in deepest secrecy with a goal of utter surprise. But here we were — millions of New York Times readers, to say nothing of the diplomats and pundits — discussing it as casually as we would discuss Jeremy Lin’s basketball prowess or Mitt Romney’s strategy for winning Michigan or Florida.
What kind of “surprise attack” is this when the entire diplomatic world has been debating it for months, and the New York Times has printed maps of the flight routes on its front page?
Even with all the public discussion, no one knows what the outcome will be:
- Maybe it would be a quick surgical strike that slows down (doesn’t stop) Iran’s nuclear production. There would be an explosion of news stories, lots of denunciations and finger-pointing, and then life in the Middle East will go on as usual.
- On the other hand, maybe this is the equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a “surgical strike” that in fact launched World War I. Maybe Iran retaliates and wipes out half of Tel Aviv. Maybe other countries like Syria or Pakistan decide to intervene on behalf of Iran. Maybe things escalate further and we end up with some kind of huge international conflagration….
When we read the history leading up to World War I these days, it’s easy to scratch our heads and feel, “What were they thinking with all those alliances? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”
Fifty years from now, will history students scratch their heads and say, “How could the world just have let this confrontation between Israel and Iran happen? Didn’t people see a catastrophic bloodbath in the making?”
I feel conflicted about this whole scenario. I believe strongly in the rule of law, international diplomacy and trying to work things out non-violently. Thirty years ago, I would probably have come down squarely against an Israeli attack.
But thirty years ago, the “enemies” that America and Israel were dealing with were different. We hadn’t seen the emergence of the totalitarian, anti-Semitic, fundamentalist Islamic state that is Iran.
I don’t doubt that Iran’s current government would be willing to use a nuclear weapon against Israel if it had one. Unlike Latin American leftist movements, for instance, the Iranian mullahs don’t differentiate between governments and people — they’d be willing to kill a million civilian Israelis to punish the Israeli government.
So one question is — is Iran in fact close to having nuclear weapons? I have no good way to evaluate this. Most experts seem to think so; but then there are some who disagree. We rushed to judgment on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and later found out we were wrong, so there is good reason to be skeptical. Yet people tend to fight the last battle rather than the current one. Just because Iraq didn’t have WMD doesn’t mean that Iran doesn’t have nuclear capability.
So then there is the second question: Is there a non-violent way to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons?
So far, non-violent approaches like economic sanctions don’t seem to be working. If the pessimists among the experts are right, we don’t have the luxury of five or ten years to wait for sanctions to bear fruit. I see only two non-violent approaches that could defuse an Iranian nuclear threat:
- A revolution within Iran that brings to power a more moderate government that wants to ally with the West.
- Complete resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so there is no longer any pretext for Iran to attack Israel.
Neither of those are what you might, in the short run, call “likely.”
So where does that leave me? Conflicted.
I hate the idea of Israel acting outside the law, attacking another country, assigning itself the role of international vigilante, and killing civilians as will inevitably happen in any large-scale military action. It’s so completely counter to the idea of Israel as a light unto the nations, a country built on Jewish ethics.
At the same time, I don’t see an effective alternative.
And so I sit here, reading stories like that Feb. 20 New York Times piece with a combination of surreal fascination and angst. I feel like we are watching two trains head toward each other in slow motion. Everyone sees it; no one can stop it.
Is this how people felt in the run-up to the Franz Ferdinand assassination?