Among Iran hawks, present Beltway-speak for a war is “the kinetic option.” I first heard this phrase a couple of years ago at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and thought it was just a neocon thing. Jeffrey Goldberg, I believe, deployed it, along with another one—“depriving Iran of the labor of its nuclear scientists” by which he meant (hee, hee) Israel’s policy of assassinating them in the street. Yesterday the term was pushed around at the more centrist Center for the National Interest (formerly the Nixon Center) in a interesting discussion about the consequences of starting a war with Iran.
Kinetic, according to my dictionary, means “related to the motion of material bodies and the forces and energy associated therewith.” In other words, it’s a physics term whose meaning could include massive bombardment. Hiroshima was very kinetic. Less so, but also kinetic, was this year’s Boston Marathon. But “kinetic” as a euphemism for war is not only fairly bloodless and technical, it also has a kind of wink-wink ironic ring to it. Some dictionary synonyms are “active, airy, animated, bouncing, brisk, energetic, gay, and frisky.” This is the way Beltway insiders talk about preemptive war now. It’s not awkward and plodding like other Washington euphemisms “collateral damage” or “enhanced interrogation.” It sounds almost hip. It’s a phrase used by those supremely confident they and their families will never be on the receiving end of bombs themselves.
The serious foreign-policy types at the Nixon Center were discussing the useful new book War With Iran, by Geoffrey Kemp and John Allen Gay. The authors sift carefully through the many military options and try to game out the consequences. I shouldn’t try to summarize, but their bottom line is that they can’t foresee the consequences of a war, though they conclude that the U.S. and probably even Israel could do very substantial short- and medium-term damage to Iran’s nuclear reactors. They don’t try to address larger political or moral questions, such as very good one one raised at the seminar by Marvin Weinbaum, who asked what would be the broader psychological effect on our position in the Muslim world if the United States or Israel bombed Iran and killed a lot of Iranians simply because their government was enriching uranium. The authors conclude that after the strike, the problem of a Iran with nuclear aspirations would still be with us.
The word kinetic, with its aura of ironic distancing, seems designed to suppress these kind of questions, to render them as somehow unserious. I didn’t like hearing it the first time at FDD, still less now that it has migrated to the Center for the National Interest.