George Will has recently written two columns touting containment as the best option for dealing with Iran, using arguments from Kenneth Pollack’s new book, “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy.” Pollack’s book is the scrupulously balanced work of a moderately hawkish defense intellectual: Pollack clearly dislikes the Iranian regime (I would argue it’s no worse than China, where we have long had correct if difficult relations) and is a somewhat chastened supporter of the Iraq war. But he goes through the military options (Israeli and American air strikes) in careful and well-informed detail, concluding in the end that in all likelihood no American military option against Iran would work short of occupying the country, which is of course much larger and more populous than Iraq. If we don’t want to pay a much larger cost than the Iraq war imposed on us, we had best look at other possibilities.
Containment is the best of these, and even if Iran developed nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence has its own logic; there is no indication whatsoever that Iran’s leadership would act irrationally if indeed they acquired the bomb. (Pollack’s book was written before the recent agreement between Tehran and the P5+1, but its arguments are highly relevant to how American decision-makers view the Tehran negotiations.) In claiming that Iran—even an Iran with nuclear weapons, and more so an Iran paused at a pre-nuclear weapon threshold—could be contained without war and would not act irrationally, Pollack is challenging the conventional wisdom of both beltway Republicans and Democrats, which holds that an Iran with a nuclear weapon is “unthinkable.” Pollack finds no evidence of the claim frequently made by neocons, that Iran’s leaders are irrational and in fact would welcome a nuclear holocaust “because that’s what their religion says.” A variant on this scabrously racist formulation was put forth most recently in a Norman Podhoretz column in the Wall Street Journal, where he channels Bernard Lewis (the aging Mideast “expert” who was one of the main intellectual promoters of the Iraq war) to argue that Iran’s leaders would welcome nuclear incineration. To say the least, this is not a view shared by anyone knowledgeable about contemporary Iran, but this does not prevent the neocon propaganda machine from promoting the ugly line again and again.
But the important figure here is Will. The famous columnist, author, Washington talking head, and designated wise Republican was an early supporter of the Iraq war, who then turned against it, letting slip wry remarks about the absurdity of trying to bring democracy to Iraq. He ended up deeming the war an extremely costly mistake. He is also the rare conservative who straddles the worlds of mass media and serious intellectual endeavor. The Iran columns linked above display some of Will’s rhetorical ambiguity: he favors containment (a position to the left of Obama’s stated position) while going overboard in attacking the Iranian regime. It’s all wrapped in a weary, human folly is inescapable, tone.
We should be grateful that Kenneth Pollack has reconsidered his views and is making a tough minded case that any policies leading to war will be extremely damaging to the United States, and that George Will is amplifying them. But is it possible also to hope that Will will continue this battle with a little more force, a little less studied “on the one hand” artfulness? If there are conservatives in Congress skeptical about whether we need to treat Iran as an eternal enemy (and I believe there are) they could use some ammunition and prominent conservatives to point to; so too their constituents could use some rhetoric showing the sheer self-destructiveness of America embarking on another, Israel-encouraged, Mideast War. Podhoretz and Bernard Lewis may have turned into little more than old fogey bigots, whose primary and transparent concern is the maintenance of Israel’s regional nuclear dominance, but at least they are using every ounce of their abilities to fight for their convictions. Wouldn’t it be nice to to see Will absorb something of their example, recognize that whether we have war or peace with Iran is of historic consequence for America and the world, and really join the battle?