Saturday, January 20, 2007

Benny Morris and the "determination" to pre-emptively kill millions of Iranians

Israeli historian Benny Morris paints a deeply disturbing picture of what an Iranian nuclear strike against Israel could look like. Morris is of course right that we need to take Iran's threat to world peace seriously, but it is absurd to think that this is not being done already. Morris, however, seems to believe that the "incompetent leadership in Jerusalem" will ultimately "prove unequal to the task" (which task, exactly?), and that the United States will not act, having been "driven by the debacle in Iraq into a deep isolationism" (all this, when we now know that the U.S. encouraged Israel to expand the Lebanese war to Syria, and that the government has contingency plans for a large-scale war against Iran).

In fact, I find the majority of Morris's article either misleading, mistaken, or both. For example, Morris repeats what I believe to be a serious error: the idea that Ahmadinejad is so "obsessed" that he will forsake the existence of Iran itself in order to destroy Israel.
He is willing to gamble -- the future of Iran or even of the whole Muslim Middle East in exchange for Israel's destruction. No doubt he believes that Allah, somehow, will protect Iran from an Israeli nuclear response or an American counterstrike. [...] Or he may well take into account a counter-strike and simply, irrationally (to our way of thinking), be willing to pay the price. As his mentor, Khomeini, put it in a speech in Qom in 1980: 'We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. I say, let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant.' For these worshipers at the cult of death, even the sacrifice of the homeland is acceptable if the outcome is the demise of Israel.
To me this all smacks of the erroneous judgments (stemming from an article by Bernard Lewis) which predicted that Iran was planning to destroy Israel (with what bombs?) on August 22 of last year. Like Morris, Lewis argued that Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah possess an "apocalyptic worldview" which ensures that they will not follow the rules of Mutually Assured Destruction "rationally." Although argument from precedent will only take you so far, I can think of no case in which a nation-state effectively destroyed itself in order to carry out a "holy" or otherwise irrational mission. The attribution of such irrationality to Ahmadinejad has always appeared to me a smokescreen for stifling debate on Iran's real objectives and encouraging immediate military action.

Furthermore, Morris takes the offensive step of ascribing to "Western intellectuals and media outlets" the "preparation of hearts and minds" for the second Holocaust. Apparently, both the vilest sorts of anti-Semites and Western critics of Israeli policy have been desensitizing all of us to the idea of nuclear annihilation.
As with the first, the second Holocaust will have been preceded by decades of preparation of hearts and minds, by Iranian and Arab leaders, Western intellectuals and media outlets. Different messages have gone out to different audiences -- but all have (objectively) served the same goal, the demonization of Israel. Muslims the world over have been taught: 'The Zionists\the Jews are the embodiment of evil' and 'Israel must be destroyed.' And Westerners, more subtly, were instructed: 'Israel is a racist oppressor state' and 'Israel, in this age of multi-culturalism, is an anachronism and superfluous'. Generations of Muslims and at least a generation of Westerners have been brought up on these catechisms.
In addition to being the crudest sort of ad hominem attack and moral equivalizing (i.e. "any critic of Israel's policies is in actuality in league with anti-Semites"), this passage also implies that critics of oppressive governments automatically accept their destruction by nuclear weapons. For many millions of people opposed to the Iraq War, this sort of thinking obviously does not apply. I will give Morris the benefit of the doubt that some people who categorically oppose the Iraq war would not oppose the destruction of Israel (i.e. these loathsome hypocrites exist), but they are not even remotely close to being in the majority in the West. The general idea that Westerners would mumble "Oh, it's a shame about Israel, isn't it? But really, they had it coming, and they were superfluous" is a very serious distortion.

Finally, Morris describes a hypothetical situation in which the Israeli government is forced to use its nuclear arsenal against Iran:
In short order, therefore, the incompetent leadership in Jerusalem would soon confront a doomsday scenario, either after launching their marginally effective conventional offensive or in its stead, of launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Iranian nuclear program, some of whose components were in or near major cities. Would they have the stomach for this? Would their determination to save Israel extend to pre-emptively killing millions of Iranians and, in effect, destroying Iran?
I'm not going to deny for a second that Mutually Assured Destruction is a very real, very frightening concept, and that a nuclear-powered nation could one day find itself in the position of having to use its arsenal in the face of an impending attack. However, I take offense at the idea that a nuclear attack on innocent Iranians would be any less of an act of genocide. Is the difference that Iran would be attacking on the basis of sheer hatred, while an Israeli nuclear strike would be one of (preventive) defense? But Iran already has defensive excuses for the same sort of strike (while not saying so explicitly). Indeed, even before Iran's announcement of nuclear development the United States encouraged regime change in Tehran. Since the beginning of the nuclear program the outlining of possible attacks against Iran has only increased. Iran has indeed employed bellicose and threatening rhetoric, but everyone points to the fact that the completion of a nuclear weapon would take almost 10 years. To nuke a country now for an act which it is not even capable of achieving flies in the face of all sensibility, both pragmatic and moral. It's not that Israel is stuck in the position of not being able to use their nuclear weapons for fear of international outrage, as Morris says, but that they shouldn't do it.

The story as I've laid it out sounds particularly bleak if you believe that as soon as Iran acquires nuclear weapons (if they do), they will use them. In such a case I would then be an "appeaser," sitting on my hands until it's too late. However, I do not believe (uninformed as I am) that they will use them. You can scream that Ahmadinejad is irrational and suicidal until you're blue in the face, but I stand by my conviction that nation-state leaders will not sacrifice their existence for holy missions. That being said, it's not like I deny that Ahmadinejad and many others would like to see Israel destroyed if there could be no consequences involved. It's just that there are consequences, and Ahmadinejad understands them. Other things being equal, if Iran develops a nuclear weapon some series of demands and counter-demands will ensue, as was the case during the Cold War. This is by no means a welcome scenario, but it's better than the apocalyptic one.

However, there's no way of knowing right now whether this will happen. Just today, the Ayatollah showed signs of altering his policy because of international pressure, much to the chagrin of the Iranian President. I hope these developments continue and that cooler heads prevail. It's not set in stone that Iran will have nuclear weapons by 2015, nor does it have to be even likely. I've just noticed that Matt Yglesias has a similar, though much briefer, post on Iran here. Furthermore, the United States just can't just approach the brink of a nuclear strike on Iran while encouraging the "peaceful" nuclear program of Jordan, which recently announced its intention to start development. As I've said before, the world community is made up of states of both good and bad governments, but more than anything it is bound by rules. It's my (probably hopelessly naive) cosmopolitan hope that abiding by the rules will encourage such actions in others. Morris's article is either an expression of total pessimism or a tacit call for a "determined" nuclear strike. I don't see the need for either.

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Blogger Sebonde said...

Benny Morris should be the last person to be alarmist about another country's alleged courtship of the apocalypse. Morris is a passionate Zionist who had this to say about the Zionist project:

"The whole Zionist project is apocalyptic. It exists within hostile surroundings and in a certain sense its existence is unreasonable. It wasn't reasonable for it to succeed in 1881 and it wasn't reasonable for it to succeed in 1948 and it's not reasonable that it will succeed now. Nevertheless, it has come this far. In a certain way it is miraculous. I live the events of 1948, and 1948 projects itself on what could happen here. Yes, I think of Armageddon. It's possible. Within the next 20 years there could be an atomic war here."
--from an interview with Ha'aretz, January 4(?), 2004

Read the entire interview at

Benny Morris is a fucking asshole and a lunatic as well.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

I agree there's a lot to be disturbed about here, although Benny Morris is the least of my worries. Contingency plans are a close second to last. Don't we have contingency plans for most things? Isn't that why they're called contingency plans? and isn't that why we have defense strategists? Someone else recently made this point, but it seems reasonable to me.

Nonetheless, as I say, you're right about just how much we're forcing Iran's hand here into aggression (which I suppose is the point). As you write, we already broke the rules when we allowed India to pursue its nuclear arms arsenal, so we whatever impartial moral standard we have on the issue is long gone.

It certainly seems, meanwhile, that Israel is taking the MAD game theory approach, or at least the, "We're just as crazy as you fuckers, so don't even try to step in our direction" approach.

In the end, of course, it's just another week's events in the ongoing America-Israel-we-do-
violence routine.

11:28 AM  

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