On Monday, Ken Waltz published an interesting piece in USA Today arguing that a nuclear Iran might well help bring a stable regime of nuclear deterrence to Middle East. Waltz is no marginal figure: he has taught at Columbia for decades, and his Man, The State and War was an IR classic.  A longer version of the piece will be out shortly in Foreign Affairs.

I first learned of it through the Commentary blog, which was not slow to recognize the danger Waltz poses to the regnant ideology that Israel can only be secure by maintaining complete military dominance over every state within, like, a thousand miles.  Ira Stoll was dismissive, but worried:

Anyway, consider the USA Today article the latest proof that some ideas are so far out there that only Columbia professors believe them. Let’s hope it stays that way, because if Europe or the United Nations or the Obama administration are looking for an argument to justify standing by while Iran gets the bomb, the Waltz argument may prove too readily available to resist.

One  benefit of being a former neoconservative is rather like what Irving Kristol once described as the plus side of  being a former Trotskyite: one has gotten versed in serious political argument, has probably read a lot, learned about political polemics or can at least appreciate them. The reading is invaluable. Ira Stoll’s blog post recalled to me an older argument about potential benefits of nuclear deterrence in the Middle East made by a major foreign-policy scholar.  It was back in 1975, when Robert W. Tucker was making the case that Israel’s military and diplomatic dependence on the United States was bad for both Israel and Washington.  The way out was for Israel to make explicit its nuclear doctrine, which would both lessen Israel’s dependence and free up Washington.  The piece is involved, and behind a pay wall, but here are some excerpts highly relevant to today’s Iran debate:

The point is commonly made that an Israeli nuclear deterrent must prompt the major Arab states to follow Israel’s path. But these states are altogether likely to do so, sooner or later, in any event. An Israeli nuclear deterrent would surely sharpen their incentive to do so. That incentive has already been created, however, by the Israeli nuclear option. Given the growing wealth and power of the Arabs as well as the ever increasing availability of nuclear technology, the acquisition of a nuclear capability cannot be indefinitely denied them. Then, too, the very distrust that is held to make a balance of terror inherently unstable in the Middle East provides a further reason for concluding it will be next to impossible to prevent these states from obtaining nuclear weapons.


We have no persuasive reason for believing that, in a nuclear environment, the major Arab countries would behave irrationally. We do have reason for believing they will have every inducement to behave with marked circumspection, just as they will have every inducement to bend their efforts to insure that others in the region do so. A Qaddafi may be willing to take foolish risks—though even this can be seriously questioned—but the major states that are exposed will not. In a nuclear environment, the less responsible activists would be seen as posing enormous dangers to all parties and the need to control them would soon be expressed in policy. Far from proving destabilizing, a nuclear balance between Israel and the major Arab states would have a stabilizing effect. On the Arab side, there would no longer be reason to fear that Israel might be tempted to use its nuclear deterrent for expansionist purposes. On the Israeli side, the present preoccupation with secure borders could markedly diminish. On both sides, the will to resort to a military solution of differences would decline and, in time, disappear.5


On the other side, nuclear power can serve in large measure as a substitute for the territorial security that is presently expressed in Israeli policy. A nuclear deterrent would transform Israel’s security problem and enable the relinquishment of the occupied territories without the need to insist upon concessions the Arabs will almost surely not make (and will not make during the period in which Israel is the sole Middle East nuclear power). With the decline in significance of “secure borders,” not only would the justification for holding on to the territorial buffers be stripped away but also thesecurity arguments for opposing the creation of a Palestinian state (the security arguments being the only ones that deserve a hearing).

Far out? Well perhaps, but  the piece appeared in Commentary during what was probably  the heyday of Norman Podhoretz’s editorship.  Not everyone agreed with Tucker, but I think it demonstrates pretty conclusively how the range of serious debate has been narrowed in the past forty years, among the neocons and in the country at large.