To Bomb Iran or Not to Bomb Iran?

Bomb, says Norman Podhoretz in 2007. Do not bomb, says David Swanson and lists 100 reasons.

Podhoretz argues that Iran is Islamo-fascist and has evil intentions: to build a nuclear bomb, to destroy Israel, to control the Middle East’s oil, and the Islamization of Europe. He argues that deterrence doesn’t work with fanatics, singling out then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a fanatic.

Does Iran actually fit this description? If Iran fits this description to any degree, is a war against her initiated by the U.S. the sole means of bringing her to her senses?

Podhoretz argues that sanctions have been fruitless in either slowing Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons or producing an insurrection within the country.

Podhoretz’s bottom line: “In short, the plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force—any more than there was an alternative to force if Hitler was to be stopped in 1938.”

Was he correct about “no alternative” to war against Iran?

Among Swanson’s 100 will be found rebuttals of Podhoretz’s assertions.

Podhoretz is a proponent of World War IV (III in his reckoning being the Cold War). In this war, the U.S. destroys “militant Islam” wherever it appears:

“The regimes that richly deserve to be overthrown and replaced are not confined to the three singled-out members of the axis of evil. At a minimum, the axis should extend to Syria and Lebanon and Libya, as well as ‘friends’ of America like the Saudi royal family and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, along with the Palestinian Authority, whether headed by Arafat or one of his henchmen.”

He includes Afghanistan and Pakistan. If militant Islam pops up in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Somalia, Yemen or anywhere else, Podhoretz wants the superpower U.S. to be there destroying it.

“There is no denying that the alternative to these regimes could easily turn out to be worse, even (or especially) if it comes into power through democratic elections. After all, by every measure we possess, very large numbers of people in the Muslim world sympathize with Osama bin Laden and would vote for radical Islamic candidates of his stripe if they were given the chance.

“To dismiss this possibility would be the height of naiveté. Nevertheless, there is a policy that can head it off, provided that the United States has the will to fight World War IV—the war against militant Islam—to a successful conclusion, and provided, too, that we then have the stomach to impose a new political culture on the defeated parties. This is what we did directly and unapologetically in Germany and Japan after winning World War II; it is what we have indirectly striven with some success to help achieve in the former Communist countries since winning World War III; and it is George W. Bush’s ultimate aim in World War IV.” [His emphasis on the word impose.]

Has the U.S. succeeded in imposing a new political culture on any other countries than the utterly defeated Japan and Germany, both bombed into near-oblivion, one with nuclear weapons? Did the U.S. succeed in Vietnam? Has it succeeded in Iraq? Has the U.S. succeeded in Afghanistan? Did the U.S. yet succeed in remaking even Haiti? Even with huge destruction, did the U.S. gets its way in North Korea?

Has the U.S. the capability of state-building and nation-building without utterly destroying whole countries and killing off great numbers of their peoples? Can the U.S. impose its will without producing militant movements, religious and other, against it by being seen as occupiers, colonialists and imperialists?

Podhoretz doesn’t recognize the real limitations of the military powers of the U.S., moral and practical. He vastly exaggerates militant Islam as a force equivalent to that held by Hitler. He sees distant threats as nearby probabilities. Everywhere he sees fanaticism untempered by self-interest and hard realities. He sees no middle grounds between U.S. surrender/appeasement and bombing countries with militants in them. He thinks nothing of killing, maiming and displacing millions of innocent people. He thinks that the obstacles to instilling American values in other countries can be overcome with bombs.

Podhoretz is a notoriously bad forecaster. In 2002, he was promoting war against Iraq. He was optimistic:

“In Afghanistan, Bush’s walk matched his superb talk, in that he would settle for nothing less than a change of regime. But that, of course, was only the first step in a very long journey—and one that is still far from over even in Afghanistan. The second step will be a change of regime in Iraq—sooner rather than later, many of us hope and pray. When Saddam Hussein goes, the Iranian domino might also fall, toppled not by American military force but by the internal revolution already brewing there against the rule of the mullahs. To this revolution, Bush (though not his own State Department!) has given his blessing.”

In fact, the Iraq War increased Iran’s influence and spawned a resurgent al-Qaeda and a brand new ISIS.

Norman Podhoretz is 88 years old. He knows how to write and construct his arguments so that they are appealing and sound persuasive. He’s a leading and influential neoconservative. He will pass on, as will we all, but those who live on will still be facing his ideas, now held by a corps of neocons.

Podhoretz recommends that we make World War IV on a large portion of the globe.

What are the threads in the Podhoretz philosophy of war?

He advocates toppling regimes that he designates as irremediably evil. The consequences don’t bother him. He thinks applying more force can solve them. He believes in blood for the sake of American dominance. There is something very Old Testament in this view, because he has replaced the Old Testament Lord with America. He sees Reagan and Bush 2 as having brought the LIGHT:

“But George W. Bush was following in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps in more than just the vivid moral coloration of his rhetoric. In both cases, the colors were heightened by contrast with the drabness of the spiritual and/or ethical background against which they were being painted.”

Podhoretz identifies with “Reagan’s unabashedly reverential attitude toward America…”

Bush 2 said “…either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Podhoretz loved it: “…what gave the speech its greatness, and its power, was the incandescent moral clarity informing it.”

The word “incandescent” refers to LIGHT and he fuses it with “moral clarity”. Podhoretz thinks that when a president “knows” or thinks he knows a moral truth, that he is entitled to go forth and slay the evil dragons, wherever they may be, even in other countries. He praises Bush 2’s moral fervor: “The first pillar of the Bush Doctrine, then, was built on a rejection of moral relativism.”

The words “spiritual”, “reverential” and “moral” reveal the way in which Podhoretz regards Bush and Reagan’s adoption of a power mystique, of which Podhoretz approves. He speaks of Bush 2’s “personal revelation” and “mission”, more religious terms. In addition, “…George W. Bush now knew that the God to whom, as a born-again Christian, he had earlier committed himself had put him in the Oval Office for a purpose.”

Podhoretz adulates and virtually worships American power inordinately:

“In a nutshell, America now commanded a degree of power greater than anything recorded in all of human history. No one doubted this; nor did anyone imagine that any other country or group of countries currently existed with the capacity, or the will, to challenge American power. In the past, when a single nation had achieved predominance, alliances would invariably be formed to balance it, but no such possibility could be discerned on the horizon at present or was likely to swim into view in the foreseeable future.”

He sees the end of history residing in American hands, facing no challenges from combinations of foreign states. He fails to see that Russia and China might join forces, or that other groups were possible. American smart bombs and drones would become the new forces of nature unleashed by the new God.

In the mind of Norman Podhoretz, there is nothing wrong with a state’s applying force to those whom he identifies or a president identifies as intending evil, threatening evil, aiding evil or actually carrying out evil. In fact, he sees it virtually as a duty. When we combine this moral position with the belief that American power is godly and cannot be defeated when applied wholly and fully with maximum will power and righteousness of spirit, we have a core neoconservative philosophy of war and remaking the world, in disregard of the blood to be spilled in doing it.

Podhoretz thinks that good and evil are clearly distinguishable. They are not, even in the most heinous cases, because the chains of causation of human action invariably mix evil and good. Evil sometimes produces good, and good sometimes produces evil. The quests for good and evil often have the opposite results. Good and evil come into existence simultaneously. They exist together in the human heart. We cannot think of one without thinking of the other. We are not “beyond” good and evil. We are on “this side” of them.

It is an error of moral philosophy to think that any state is purely good or evil. It is a mistake of moral philosophy to think that crusades can eliminate evil. It has been a mistake to think that an evil like terrorism was pure evil, and to think that, whatever evil was in terrorism, it could be eliminated on the planet. It’s a mistake on the moral and other levels to have launched a crusade to exterminate terrorism. Neither it nor evil can be exterminated.

Beyond errors of moral philosophy that pervade the thought of Norman Podhoretz (and George W. Bush), there are errors of practice, down-to-earth considerations that, in their own way, shed light on what of a state’s behavior might be considered as morally right and wrong:

John Quincy Adams, the 6th U.S. president, had something to say about these in 1821:

“And now, friends and countrymen, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind? Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….

“[America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.”

Adams says that the moral (and good) position endorsing liberty changes to the immoral (and evil) position endorsing force when the state goes abroad in search of evils to destroy. This is a counter-intuitive but understandable process that Podhoretz doesn’t understand or believe occurs.

Podhoretz comes down to bombing Iran for very tenuous reasons that he expresses. He sees monsters to destroy and he’s ready to destroy them, thinking himself on the side of the angels.

Bombing Iran is by no means called for at this time. This should be obvious but in the mind of Podhoretz and unfortunately others, it is not. Bombing Iran is an option, but when should such an option be exercised by Americans? Only when all the other options have been tried, and only as a last resort, and only when the threat of destruction being unleashed by Iran to break the peace with us in America is clear, evident and of substance. We are nowhere near that last resort. Podhoretz imagines Islamo-fascism, power grabs for Saudi oil, destruction of Israel, and a nuclear arsenal placed upon ballistic missiles in Iran. These are not realities. Even if in some forms or other, they become conditions to be dealt with, it is not all clear or essential that the U.S. start a war with Iran.

The nuclear deal with Iran is a great start to means other than warfare. Is this not obvious? Trump and Pompeo in their rhetoric are calling for Iran to make concessions without indicating commensurate benefits. They seem willing to jettison an agreement that avoids war and still gets the U.S. much of what it wants. The baneful influence of Norman Podhoretz hovers over their demanding posture toward Iran. His moral and practical ideas are far from sound. There is every reason why Trump and Pompeo should reject them. Even more does this apply to our Congress.

Footnote. I used the term Islamo-fascism in discussing Podhoretz because he used it. However, I think it’s not a proper term to describe the jihadist rebels in various countries. It doesn’t describe their important features. It misleads. The term was not in wide use until George W. Bush and Eliot Cohen made it popular and known. The idea was to make everyone think of the rebels as akin to the Nazis, the one intent on ridding the world of Israel, the other intent on ridding the world of Jews. This view doesn’t get at the fundamentals of the different rebel groups. For example, the attacks of ISIS (Daesh) have been mostly directed elsewhere than Israel and at many sects other than Jews. This is partly tactical and partly because of Israel’s security measures, but it still differs from the Nazi preoccupation with Jews in particular. Israel and its association with the U.S. are political concerns too, involving state forces.


10:25 am on May 5, 2018