George Jonas

A collision course

by George Jonas
National Post

This week Time magazine's Fareed Zakaria wrote words for a popular tune left-leaning policy troubadours have been humming for a while. "We should have a national debate," Zakaria suggested, "before the United States finds itself going to war in the Middle East -- again -- on auto-pilot."

It's easy to see how almost anybody would agree with this statement in the abstract. I would, too, if it weren't for a couple of factors. One, we are having a national debate about going to war with Iran, as it happens. In fact, we're jolly well having an international debate. Calling for a debate in the middle of a debate is kind of absurd. Anyone who can't see that there's a debate going on, isn't likely to contribute anything useful to it.

Two, in order to go to war in the Middle East on autopilot again, as Zakaria puts it, we would have had to go to war on auto-pilot before. We did not. In 1990-91 the United States and its Western allies agonized about going to war, even after such casus belli as Saddam Hussein's annexation of a neighbouring country, and meticulously built a mid-Eastern coalition before removing the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait.

Saddam invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990; the American-led coalition launched its forces to push him out a five-month occupation and about 300,000 Kuwaiti refugees later, in mid-January, 1991. We didn't do so to protect Western interest in natural resources -- we could have bought oil as easily from Saddam as from the Saudi king or the Emir of Kuwait -- but to protect our Arab friends, unfriendly and ungrateful as many turned out to be. We were selective about our rules of engagement and went to great lengths to reduce collateral damage. Although this handicapped us severely throughout the two Gulf wars and Afghanistan, and increased our own casualties, we still won all three wars handily. What we lost, and lost ignominiously, was the "peace" in each case that followed.

A better argument could be made for our getting out of the democracy-export business; stop hanging around in defeated countries trying to build nations for them, and behaving as if victors were under some moral duty to replace hostile regimes they deposed. It's an argument I've made many times before and no doubt will again, but I want to talk about other things right now.

It wasn't until last year that we did something in the Middle East that could be described as going to war on auto-pilot. This was in 2011 when, mesmerized by what we dubbed the "Arab Spring," we lent NATO's air force to an assortment of dubious, indeed downright unsavory, characters in Libya without as much as asking their addresses. This week some of them murdered the U.S. ambassador, along with three other Americans in Benghazi, as a way of saying thanks, I suppose, for helping them to get rid of their tyrant, Muammar Gadaffi.

However, Libya wasn't what Zakaria had in mind. Libya was Barack Obama's war, and what our pundit was critical about were the Bush-wars, Iraq One and Iraq Two, plus Afghanistan. This is interesting. Wise or unwise as the First (1991) or Second (2003) Gulf War against Saddam may have been, neither was fought on anything like automatic pilot. As for describing the younger Bush's 2001 decision to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan that sheltered al-Qaeda as "autopilot," amounts to a failure to comprehend the meaning of the phrase. Since it's unlikely that Zakaria-class pundits don't know the meaning of common expressions, or the history of recent events, if they write gibberish like "let's not get involved in another Middle East war on auto-pilot" they must have something else on their minds.

It seems to me the chorus of public policy bards, Zakaria and colleagues, supporters of the Obama presidency, think of non-proliferation itself as the First World's arrogant attempt to lock in the status quo. Why is the West entitled to nuclear monopoly against the rest? If France can have the bomb, without anybody losing any sleep over it, why can't Iran? As far as they can see, the culprit is Israeli intransigence. The United States commits itself to a bellicose stance, not in its own interest, but to reassure and calm down Israel. Without such assurance, Israel might worry enough about the Ayatollah's nukes to make an attempt to take them out on its own -- and then the world would be in a mess. Not because Iran is building nukes, you understand, but because Israel cannot tolerate them.

"The Obama administration is trying to assure Israel not to act. But in doing so, it will have to be careful not to lock itself onto a path that makes U.S. military action inevitable," cautions Time's policy troubadour.

Zakaria's position is predicated on Iran's theocracy being just a mask of insanity superimposed on a normal government. "[I]nternational sanctions and isolation of Iran are at their highest point ever," he writes. "But Iran has not surrendered, and Israel seems to view any other scenario as unacceptable."

Zakaria can clearly accept other scenarios, and America should. Since there's no scenario between having and not having nuclear weapons, and Iran is not giving up, and a war is unthinkable, those who are betting on the essential normalcy of the Ayatollahs had better be right. Otherwise the world may end with a bang, after all, rather than a whimper.