Robert Musil’s great novel The Man Without Qualities portrays Austrian aristocrats preparing the emperor’s semicentenary in the months before August 1914, when their world would come to a ghastly end. [1] The reader, of course, knows this, but the protagonists don’t. It is hard to read news from Washington these days without recalling Musil’s work. War will come, even though President George W. Bush wants it as little as did Emperor Franz Josef.

Neither Washington nor Tehran wants military confrontation. Nevertheless it will come, just as many great wars came despite the desire of the belligerents to avoid them. Washington knows that an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would crush its plans for regional stability. It still hopes for a deal behind the back of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, or destabilization of the theocratic regime. Iran hopes to bluff its way into an empire stretching from the southern shore of the Caspian Sea in the north to the oil-rich Shi’ite provinces of Saudi Arabia in the south, and to a Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon in the west.

“Three Reasons Not to Bomb Iran – Yet”, [2] the title of Edward Luttwak’s article in the May edition of Commentary, lays out the Bush administration’s thinking. These reasons are: (1) Iran needs some years to produce a nuclear bomb; (2) Russian imperial designs on the Persian Gulf might revive after a US attack; and (3) Iran’s corrupt and fanatical clerical regime is ripe for destabilization. Luttwak dismisses technical objections, however, adding, “The fact is that the targets would not be buildings as such but rather processes, and, given the aiming information now available, they could indeed be interrupted in lasting ways by a single night of bombing.”

One hears Luttwak’s arguments almost verbatim from sources in the Bush administration. In fact, officials closest to the center of decision-making are the most emphatic that an attack on Iran is out of the question for the foreseeable future. The Pentagon, to be sure, spun out war scenarios to frighten Iran, including the nuclear option reported by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. In their private moments, the members of the Bush inner circle express dismay at the prospect of military action.

Why Iran must aim for empire, and why the West opposes this with armed forced, I have set out elsewhere (Why the West will attack Iran, January 24; Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, September 13, 2005). War with Iran is not the stuff of pulp scenario thrillers, but rather of tragedy. In tragedy, the protagonists neither desire nor anticipate the tragic outcome, although a minor character – a Tiresias or Cassandra – might warn them to no avail.

None of the heads of state among the European powers believed that war was imminent in early July 1914 after the assassination of Austria’s crown prince at Sarajevo. This greatest of all tragedies to befall the West since the fall of Rome itself arrived to the horror of the leaders who would sign declarations of war just a few weeks later, and to the surprise of most of the leading diplomats. The old men of Europe had spent their careers since the 1878 Congress of Berlin preventing the collapse of the Ottoman Empire from provoking a general war. Failure in this mission lay beyond their collective imagination.

Virtually all the secret correspondence among European heads of state and diplomatic cables have been on the public record for decades, most of it available on the Internet. [3] The most private thoughts of the participants reveal incredulity at the idea that Europe’s powers would destroy one another over the murder of the Austrian emperor’s unpopular nephew Franz Ferdinand. I cite only conversations among allies who presumably wished to inform one another accurately, and ignore communications among prospective adversaries that might contain willful disinformation.

For example, the memoirs of the French ambassador to Russia, Count Maurice Paleologue, recount a conversation with Czar Nicholas II as late as July 20 in which Nicholas dismisses the likelihood of war. Paleologue, the descendant of Byzantine emperors, favored war, along with many in the French government who argued that Germany’s burgeoning population would make war unwinnable a generation hence. Raymond Poincare’s bellicose government had already pressed into service four-fifths of France’s draft-age manpower, against only half in Germany. It could not remain so mobilized indefinitely. Paleologue sought without success to convince the czar that war was imminent:

“I’m sure we shall agree on all points … But there’s one question which is very much in my mind – our understanding with England. We must get her to come into our alliance. It would be such a guarantee of peace!” [emphasis added]

“Yes, Sire, the Triple Entente cannot be too strong if it is to keep the peace.”

“I’ve been told that you yourself are uneasy about Germany’s intentions.”

“Uneasy? Yes, Sire, I am uneasy although at the moment I have no particular reason to anticipate a war in the immediate future. But the Emperor William and his Government have let Germany get into a state of mind such that if some dispute arose, in Morocco, the East – anywhere – they could neither give way nor compromise. A success is essential at any price and to obtain it they’ll risk some adventure.”

The Tsar reflected a moment:

“I can’t believe the Emperor wants war … If you knew him as I do! If you knew how much theatricality there is in his posing! …

“Perhaps I am doing the Emperor William too much honor in thinking him capable of willing, or simply accepting the consequences of his acts. But if war threatened would he, and could he prevent it? No, Sire, I don’t think so, honestly I don’t.”

The Tsar sat silent and puffed at his cigarette. Then he said in a resolute voice:

“It’s all the more important for us to be able to count on England in an emergency. Unless she has gone out of her mind altogether Germany will never attack Russia, France and England combined.”

On July 8, the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, cabled his ambassador at the Court of St. Petersburg, Sir George Buchanan:

Count Benckendorff [Russian ambassador to England] confirmed emphatically that, since the question of the German military command in Constantinople had been settled, he had had no indication whatever from St. Petersburg of ill-will towards Germany [emphasis added]. But he added that the increase in the Russian army and the greater Russian preparedness for war were undoubted facts which might possibly make some spirits in Germany think that it would be better to have a conflict now, before the situation was more to the German disadvantage. He could not, however, believe that the German Emperor and the German Government would really take this line.

Nothing was further from the mind of Emperor Franz Josef, meanwhile, than a European war. His most pressing concerns in early July 1914 were Rumania and the Balkan balance of power. A handwritten letter of July 2 to German Kaiser Wilhelm II asks for his help in bringing Bulgaria into the Triple Alliance to forestall the defection of Romania. Austria’s concern was to isolate Serbia and cover its eastern frontier; there is not a word in his communication about England or France. To quote:

I am concerned about the danger that Rumania has become quite friendly with Serbia despite the standing alliance with us, and tolerates a hateful agitation against us, just as does Serbia … Rumania can be kept in the Triple Alliance if, on the one hand, we make it impossible for a Balkan Union to arise under Russian patronage by including Bulgaria in the Triple Alliance, and we make it clear to Bucharest that friends of Serbia can be no friends of ours … The efforts of my government must be directed in the future to the isolation and diminution of Serbia.

Two weeks later, England’s ambassador to Vienna, Maurice de Bunsen, cabled Grey that Austria was quietly happy that the obnoxious Franz Ferdinand was out of the way:

Now that the first feeling of horror evoked by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His Consort has passed away, the general impression would seem to be one of relief that so dangerous a personality should have been removed from the succession to the Throne. It is thought that the rest of Europe will sympathize with Austria-Hungary in demanding that Serbia shall adopt in future a more submissive attitude.

None of these were stupid men. On the contrary, they were men of deep education and experience, multilingual and possessed of a cultural depth impossible to find anywhere in today’s diplomatic corps. But they could not untangle the twist skein of interests that impelled the European powers to war:
1. With a stagnant population, France could not hope to win back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine it had lost to Germany in 1870 unless it fought immediately.
2. Germany could not concentrate its army on a crushing blow against France if it waited for Russia to build out its internal railway network.
3. Austria could not keep its fractious ethnicities within the empire if it did not castigate Serbia.
4. Russia could not maintain control over the industrialized western part of its empire – Poland, the Baltic states and Finland – if Austria humiliated its Serbian ally, and Russia depended on these provinces for the bulk of its tax revenues.
5. England could not maintain the balance of power in Europe if Germany crushed France.

None of them wanted war, none of them expected war, yet all of them found war preferable to the consequences of avoiding war. If an Aeschylus were alive today to dramatize the outbreak of World War I, he could lift the chorus’ every line from the private dispatches of European leaders in July 1914. Like the old men of Mycenae observing Agamemnon’s return to the home where his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra would murder him, the old men of Europe watched in horror as peace slipped out of their hands.

If Kaiser Wilhelm II had had the presence of mind to attack France during the First Morocco Crisis of 1906 – while Russia was busy with Japan and England was uncommitted – the horrors of World War I never would have occurred (In praise of premature war, October 19, 2004). By the same token, if Washington waits too long to disarm Iran, the consequence will be a Thirty Years’ War in the Middle East quite as terrible as World War I. Harsh as it might seem, preemption – an aerial attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities – is the most humane solution.

[1] The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (Sophie Wilkins, translator). Random House: New York 1996 (paperbound).
[2] Three Reasons Not to Bomb Iran – Yet, May 2006
[3] See for example Brigham Young University’s World War I Document Archive

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