Transplant Forrest Gump into Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 history of the outbreak of World War I, The Guns of August, and you have a rough idea of what is afoot in Washington. America’s slow-witted Everyman traipsed oblivious through great events in the eponymous 1994 film, blessed by marvelous good fortune. President George W. Bush resembles Forrest Gump, but without the lucky streak.
US policy has turned to dust and ashes. Watching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on television, it occurred to me that she had borrowed a makeup artist from Night of the Living Dead. On reflection, it is more likely that she has not slept in a week.
Rather than a stable and democratic Iraq, Bush will leave Iraq a killing field. Oil-supply disruption will derail the world economic recovery. Nonetheless Washington must proceed according to the script of the strategy, which will culminate in US bombing of Iran’s nuclear capability – just as I predicted on January 24 (Why the West will attack Iran) and numerous subsequent occasions. As Will Smith said in I, Robot, “Somehow, ‘I told you so’ doesn’t quite say it.”
In fairness to Bush, not only US policy but the policy of all the leading players lies in ruins. Europe’s attempt to conciliate Islamist opinion has ended in embarrassment, and even France avers that the United Nations Security Council must take action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia’s attempt to bestride the divisions in the Arab world has collapsed, and the monarchy has perforce taken sides against Hezbollah.
Israeli policy has failed miserably. The best that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can hope for is a return to status quo ante 2000, when Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. Israeli ground troops no doubt will chop up Hezbollah badly, and Israel will obtain the same degree of security it had prior to the withdrawal six years ago, minus parts of Haifa and other northern cities.
Iran’s miscalculation is the greatest of all. The United States can destroy Iran’s capacity to make trouble, and will do so with utmost reluctance and at great cost; Europe, Japan, Russia, China and the Sunni Arab world will condone America’s actions, with even greater regret and at even greater cost.
Gumpishness in Washington arose from a fallacy of composition: the belief that if US democracy could be constructed from immigrants of every culture and creed, then it could be exported to countries of every culture and creed. But Americans abandoned their cultures to join a new one. They are self-selected to be Americans. By adverse selection, those who clung to their cultures remained behind.
The cost to the United States of the Shi’ite tragedy cannot be measured in gasoline ration cards, unemployment rates, or even the civilian casualties likely to ensue as Iran and its allies seek vengeance through terror upon the Great Power that stifled their ambitions just when they appeared mirage-like within their grasp.
Until now, history has given Americans a great dispensation to wander Gump-like through the disasters that befall other folk, with bemused curiosity about the filling of the next piece of chocolate in the box. It will be borne in upon Americans that the destiny of most peoples is tragic, and there is no predicting how Americans will react to the rude awakening out of their complacency.
Only a delusion of surpassing consolation could prompt the extremes of denial that Washington has evinced over the past year. If a stupider idea possessed statesmen than the proposition that democracy could thrive in Lebanon in the presence of an Iranian-controlled military organization more powerful than the Lebanese army, I do not know what it was. Bush believed that drawing Hezbollah into democracy would persuade them to abandon terrorism. In a March 16 press conference he said:
Our policy is this: We want there to be a thriving democracy in Lebanon. We believe that there will be a thriving democracy, but only if – but only if – Syria withdraws … her troops completely out of Lebanon … I like the idea of people running for office. There’s a positive effect when you run for office. Maybe some will run for office and say, vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America. I don’t know, I don’t know if that will be their platform or not. But it’s – I don’t think so. I think people who generally run for office say, vote for me, I’m looking forward to fixing your potholes, or making sure you got bread on the table.
The whole matter was so preposterous that I framed it as a Gilbert and Sullivan spoof, The Jihadis of Penzance (March 22, 2005). Hezbollah fixed the potholes, all right, evidently digging the deeper ones out as missile silos. Syrian troops departed, but Hezbollah remains unassailable by that summer camp for six-month conscripts comically named the Lebanese army. By drawing Hezbollah into the Lebanese parliament, US diplomacy made the Shi’ite militia legitimate. Now it cannot be displaced without tearing apart Shi’ite communities in southern Lebanon, at enormous human cost. That is precisely what the Israelis will do when their ground offensive begins early this week; there is no other way but military to stop the missile attacks.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini promised Hezbollah on Sunday that it never would be disarmed. Iran is now in open confrontation with the United States, and its erstwhile appeasers stand watching slack-jawed. Washington has never missed an opportunity to misjudge Iran. No American analyst predicted Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s sweeping election victory in June last year (Iran: The living fossils’ vengeance, June 28, 2005). The US intelligence community insisted that the US could continue to do business with Supreme Leader Khameini and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani despite Ahmadinejad’s Hitlerian posturing. It was all self-delusion, and it all has come to grief.
I have been warning of this for a year, and I am sick at heart watching the final act of the tragedy play out. Six months ago (on February 14), I wrote under the title War with Iran on the worst terms:
Today’s Shi’ites are the Serbs of the Middle East. Emerging from a millennium of oppression into majority power in Mesopotamia and Persia, the Shi’ites have their first and only opportunity to exact compensation for the humiliation of centuries. They have the misfortune to enter modern history at a point of maximum disadvantage for the peoples of the Middle East, who have few means to compete with the economic powers of East Asia. In Iran, as I have shown elsewhere (Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, September 13, 2005), they face a devastating economic and demographic decline one generation from now. That is why these choose leaders such as Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Tehran and Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad.
Washington does not wish to fight but will if necessary. The Europeans, and even the Saudis, will fight rather than allow Iran to become a nuclear power, although they wish to fight much less than Washington.
If Washington were to deliver a military ultimatum to Iran tomorrow, the results would be a painful jump in oil prices, civil violence in Iraq, low-intensity war on Israel’s northern border, and a wave of anti-Americanism in the Arab world – not an inviting picture.
But if Washington waits another year to deliver an ultimatum to Iran, the results will be civil war to the death in Iraq, the direct engagement of Israel in a regional war through Hezbollah and Hamas, and extensive terrorist action throughout the West, with extensive loss of American life [emphasis added]. There are no good outcomes, only less terrible ones. The West will attack Iran, but only when such an attack will do the least good and the most harm.
Islam, and Shi’ite Islam in particular, constitutes a dimension of this crisis. But it is worth emphasizing that Iran’s national aspirations and its presentiment of fragility resemble those of Christian nations in past tragedies. The Iranians are having a Serbian moment.
After throwing off the Turkish yoke by force of arms in 1876, the Serbs were denied their aspirations for national unity by the European powers at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Serbia’s attempt to wrest historic territory out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire provoked World War I, in which Serbia lost more than half of its male population and more than a quarter of its total population, a sacrifice far exceeding that of any other nation in any modern war. Serbs resisted German occupation during World War II with more tenacity and success than any other people. Serbian refusal to abandon the historic heartland of Kosovo prompted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aerial bombardments of 1998-99.
It took more than a century, two World Wars and an attack by NATO against the isolated Serbs to crush their national ambitions. What will it take to suppress Iran and its supporters in Lebanon and Iraq? The West should prepare itself for a war that will be prolonged and merciless. Iran’s national ambitions are in play, but Islam is not a national movement, and Iran’s plight will attract the sympathy and ardor of disaffected Muslims in many places, not least Western Europe. The medium-term consequences of US-Iranian confrontation might include civil unrest in European countries with substantial Muslim populations.