Two absolutely brilliant columns from the New York Times (keep in mind the second is from one who often leans right):
September 12, 2006
Starting Another War
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
It is quite possible that President Bush will bomb Iran’s nuclear installations over the next couple of years.
Let’s hope he looks at how Israel shot itself in the foot in Lebanon this summer and resists the siren calls of neocons who claim that a few air raids would make the Iranian nuclear menace disappear.
The argument Mr. Bush is hearing in favor of an airstrike is pretty simple: Iran is a terrorist regime that has sponsored attacks on Americans and on Jews (as far away as Argentina). The president of Iran is a hard-liner who has used language that, while subject to debate among Farsi speakers, may mean that his aim is to wipe Israel off the map.
A nuclear Iran would also have a devastating ripple effect around the region: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey might go nuclear as well. And considering how reckless Iran’s foreign policy has already been, imagine if it felt emboldened with a nuclear weapon.
Moreover, if Mr. Bush doesn’t strike Iran, there’s a good chance that Israel will — and the U.S. would still get blamed (partly because the Israeli planes would fly through American-controlled airspace over Iraq).
So if the U.S. is going to get the blame either way, why not do it right, with a combination of American bombers and cruise missiles destroying Iranian nuclear sites in Natanz, Isfahan, Arak and perhaps Bushehr? A successful strike would have to destroy not only buildings but also kill the scientists involved; this is one military strike that would surely occur during working hours.
That’s the argument. But Iran’s leaders are probably praying for such a strike; it may be the only way that they can stay in power for more than another decade.
I’ve never been in a country where the government is so unpopular as in Iran, with the possible exception of Burma. The government is so corrupt, tyrannical and incompetent that it will eventually collapse — unless we attack its nuclear sites and trigger a nationalistic surge of support for the regime.
We Americans are still paying the price for our involvement in the 1953 overthrow of the elected Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh; if we bomb Iran, we may cement the mullahs in power for another 50 years.
Moreover, the military options are wretched, partly because Iran is probably doing much of its work at sites we can’t destroy because we don’t know where they are. The Natanz site for now is an empty room. We might kill Russian technicians at Bushehr or elsewhere, and Iran might retaliate with terror attacks aimed at us (counterterrorism experts suspect that Iran has sleeper agents in the U.S. whom it could activate).
A military strike would also do nothing more than buy time. Ashton Carter, a former senior Pentagon official who has studied the possibility of a strike and considers it feasible (but unwise at this time), estimates that a one-time strike would delay Iran’s nuclear weapon at most three or four years. The U.S. could then go back and hit the sites again, but Iran presumably would hide the locations, so later strikes would be less effective.
Dov Zakheim, who was under secretary of defense in Mr. Bush’s first term, recalls that fears of Pakistan’s “Islamic bomb” proved exaggerated and notes that Iran doesn’t treat its 20,000 Jews as wretchedly as its rhetoric would suggest (Iran continues to be home to more Jews than any Middle Eastern country save Israel). Mr. Zakheim argues that the best way to protect Israel is to give Israel improved missile defense capabilities on the understanding that it not launch a first strike against Iran.
As for alternatives to bombs, the best option is more of the carrot-and-stick diplomacy that the West is already engaging in (including direct Iran-U.S. talks) — and keeping International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in Iran to uncover the hidden sites. Few experts expect Iran to give up its nuclear program altogether, but it’s likely that Iran could be persuaded to adopt a Japanese model: develop its capacity to the point that a bomb could be completed in weeks or months, but without testing or stockpiling weapons.
Granted, expert reassurances are easier to accept if you live in New York than in Tel Aviv, and the consequences of being wrong would be horrific. But however one judges the risks, the one thing we should have learned from Iraq and Lebanon is that military “solutions” can leave us worse off than before.
September 12, 2006
Osama’s Spin Lessons
By JOHN TIERNEY
Somewhere, Osama bin Laden must be smiling. Or at least he will be whenever his couriers deliver the next batch of press clippings.
Once again he has beaten America at an American game: public relations. He may be sitting powerlessly in a cave, but his image is as scary as ever. He doesn’t even have to cut a new video. He released an old one last week, the equivalent of a fading musician putting out a greatest-hits album, only this one’s getting played every hour.
Last night, President Bush paid him homage by quoting his warning that America will face “defeat and disgrace forever” it if loses in Iraq. Bush himself called the war on terror a “struggle for civilization,” and said it was essential to ”maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations.”
It was just the kind of apocalyptic language favored by bin Laden, except that, for all his delusions, he might realize that American civilization is not really in jeopardy. Americans can try to copy him, but they don’t understand his rhetorical technique.
They continually misinterpret his equine theory of international relations: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” This is supposedly a reason America was attacked on Sept. 11 — it was perceived as weak for failing to respond to Al Qaeda’s earlier attacks — and why it can’t leave Iraq.
If we falter in Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney explained to Tim Russert on Sunday, the war on terror will falter because people will say: “My gosh, the United States hasn’t got the stomach for the fight. Bin Laden’s right, Al Qaeda’s right, the United States has lost its will and will not complete the mission.”
But bin Laden knows something else the Bush administration hasn’t figured out: You don’t actually have to be the strong horse. You just have to look stronger. You can be weak, you can be pummeled in a fight, but as long as your opponent looks more scared than you, you can save face by simply declaring victory.
As an act of war, the attack on Sept. 11 was a blunder by Al Qaeda, and not merely because of the counterattack that destroyed Al Qaeda’s training camps and ousted the Taliban. It also alienated former jihadist allies in the Arab world, and caused a rift within Al Qaeda.
One of its senior members, Abu al-Walid al-Masri, broke with bin Laden and accused him of having an “extreme infatuation” with international publicity. The attack, as Fawaz Gerges notes in Foreign Policy magazine, demonstrated that “bin Laden was prepared to sacrifice Afghanistan and Mullah Omar at the altar of his public relations campaign.”
But at least bin Laden knew his P.R. Al Qaeda wasn’t a serious military threat to America, but it could play one on television. As Al Qaeda’s losses mounted and America recovered from the attack, bin Laden and his cohorts didn’t let the facts get in the way of their campaign to promote fear (and themselves). They hid in caves and proclaimed themselves champions.
America, meanwhile, accentuated the negative. Instead of declaring victory against terrorists after routing the Taliban and sending bin Laden into hiding, it invaded Iraq, reinvigorating Al Qaeda with a new tool for recruiting. Instead of putting the terrorist risk in perspective, Bush (with the full cooperation of Democrats and the press) set an impossible standard for making America safe.
“We’re on the offense against the terrorists on every battlefront,” Bush said last week, “and we’ll accept nothing less than complete victory.”
When you define victory that way, when you treat one attack from a disorganized band of fanatics as a menace to civilization, you’ve doomed yourself to defeat and caused more damage than they could. You can’t completely stop terrorism, but you can scare people into giving up liberties, wasting huge sums of money and sacrificing more lives than would be lost in a terrorist attack.
Take it from bin Laden, who bragged in 2004 that it was “easy to provoke and bait this administration.”
“All that we have to do,” he said, “is to send two mujahedeen to the farthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written Al Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.” And then Al Qaeda, no matter what losses it has suffered, will come off once again looking like the strong horse.
Copyright New York Times Corp.