Monday, April 17, 2006

Kunstler on Ahmadinejad

So it would appear that the practical question is not so much what America might do but what Israel might do first. And that question puts everybody in the West in an uncomfortable position -- since a strike by Israel could 1.) ignite a major regional conflagration leading to even wider war, and 2.) shut down Middle East oil production (or even permanently cripple it). Baer seems to think that this is exactly what President A-jad wants. I think so, too. Crazy as it might seem, it is not crazier than waging war by suicide bombers. It's just kicking it up a notch, in the immortal words of Emeril Lagasse. It's jihad x-treme. And the reward, in Mr. A-jad's thinking might be that a large part of the Islamic world would survive, while Israel would be ganged up on and eliminated -- and the Shiites would get credit for it! (not to mention first-class tickets to heaven and all those waiting virgins).

Therefore one of the more remarkable elements of the story is Israel's restraint so far. By historical measure, the extremely belligerent remarks by Iran's president would have already invited an armed response by any sane nation. You wonder how many more times Mr. A-jad will spell it out before something has to happen.
I don't agree or at least I think there are good reasons to disagree. The remarks about Israel coming from Ahmadinejad are indeed worrisome and complicate how we think about the rationality of Iranian policy. But there's good reason, and certainly precedent, for considering the comments as a populist rallying cry more than a call for mass suicide. Kunstler is adopting the Ahmadinejad-is-crazy line. There are pretty good reasons to consider this line of thinking wrong. See this earlier post, for instance.

And I don't think Israel's "restraint" is all that surprising. A conflagration is in no one's interests. A nuclear attack anywhere in the region will cause nuclear fallout across borders (the UCSUSA link refers to the "bunker buster," but the effect is similar whether an attack on Israel by Iran or an attack on Iran by Israel or the US). The nuclear standoff here involves much more than the relatively isolated geography of the Cold War allowed (the US and Russia being both isolated enough from other countries and large enough that nuclear fallout was less of an issue). Nuclear fallout could very likely extend as far as India. It is a mistake to think of the dynamics of deterrence, aggression, and rhetoric in terms analogous to the Cold War. Kunstler gets this right in one sense - the rhetoric is more frightening because the players involved (Iran, Israel, the US, etc.) have all shown themselves capable of heinous acts against enemies, perceived enemies, manufactured enemies, and their own citizens.

But Kunstler is wrong in assuming (rather, omitting this question) that the fallout problem (among other things), as a variation of deterrence, is trumped by fanaticism from whichever angle. An attack on Israel by Iran would be relatively low-tech at this point given the state of the Iranian nuclear program. Israel is thought to have 100 to 200 nuclear warheads. That very success in developing a nuclear arsenal brings various forms of deterrence logic into play, regardless of the possession of warheads by other states in the region.

As for Iran, the elimination of Israel - if technologically possible in the future - would likely also mean the elimination of Palestine. Given that hatred of Israel is inextricably tied to the fate of Palestinians, a nuclear attack makes little sense.

Of course, we can all say that everyone involved is nuts, and this is the frightening part. But I think what we really have here is a complex and interwoven set of two-level games with the domestic rabble-rousing by Iran, the US, and Israel as significant, if not more so, as international threats. The Bush administration has painted itself into a corner where there's little leverage and so it rabble-rouses. Israel cannot fight a nuclear battle, even with so-called precision tactical strikes. Iran is free to play the kook card, but has shown that they're perfectly capable of using it in highly rational ways.

1 comment:

Jonathan Versen said...

in my experience Helmut, it almost always makes more sense to adopt an assuption of rationality on the part of other people you don't understand. If, in an amoral world you see that agression and posturing are more likely to accomplish what you want, then you will rationally choose agression and posturing.