Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Drum-Beat Toward Tehran

Amid the increasingly hysterical declarations by neo-cons that today is 1938 in relation to Iran, and that failure to stop the Iranian bomb by any means necessary (possibly even genocide), Fareed Zakaria takes a moment to burst the ridiculous hot air war-balloon hastily being inflated by Podhoretz, Krystol, Kurtz & Co.

To review a bit of history: in 1938, Adolf Hitler launched what became a world war not merely because he was evil but because he was in complete control of the strongest country on the planet. At the time, Germany had the world's second largest industrial base and its mightiest army. (The American economy was bigger, but in 1938 its army was smaller than that of Finland.) This is not remotely comparable with the situation today.

Iran does not even rank among the top 20 economies in the world. The Pentagon's budget this year is more than double Iran's total gross domestic product ($181 billion, in official exchange-rate terms). America's annual defense outlay is more than 100 times Iran's. Tehran's nuclear ambitions are real and dangerous, but its program is not nearly as advanced as is often implied. Most serious estimates suggest that Iran would need between five and 10 years to achieve even a modest, North Korea-type, nuclear capacity.

Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall—and crazy. During the cold war, many hawks argued that the Soviet Union could not be deterred because the Kremlin was evil and irrational. The great debate in the 1970s was between the CIA's wimpy estimate of Soviet military power and the neoconservatives' more nightmarish scenario. The reality turned out to be that even the CIA's lowest estimates of Soviet power were a gross exaggeration. During the 1990s, influential commentators and politicians—most prominently the Cox Commission—doubled the estimates of China's military spending, using largely bogus calculations. And then there was the case of Saddam Hussein's capabilities. Saddam, we were assured in 2003, had nuclear weapons—and because he was a madman, he would use them.

Overestimating - or overhyping - one's enemies isn't always a mistake. Kruschev's threat notwithstanding, it was the US that buried the USSR, not the other way around. And to a large extent that was made possible by the overwhelming US military spending promoted by the CIA's erroneous assessment of Soviet capabilities. (The Soviets always had a pretty good idea of just how capable the US was of annihilating them.) But the USSR really did present a threat to the US, particularly in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The USSR manufactured tanks, planes, ships, nuclear weapons and ICBMs - all in massive numbers. Iran does nothing of the sort. It manufactures virtually nothing. It's army is incapable of projecting force much beyond its borders (and possibly not completely effectively within). Spinning the gleefully-repugnant Ahmadinejad into Hitler's equal only elevates his status in the Muslim world. Hey, if America thinks he's a serious threat, well then, he must be pretty important.

One man who is greatly enjoying being the subject of this outsize portraiture is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has gone from being an obscure and not-so-powerful politician—Iran is a theocracy, remember, so the mullahs are ultimately in control—to a central player in the Middle East simply by goading the United States and watching Washington take the bait. By turning him into enemy No. 1, by reacting to every outlandish statement he makes, the Bush administration has given him far more attention than he deserves. And so now he writes letters to Bush, offers to debate him and prances about in the global spotlight provided by American attention.

Iran's ambitions were very nicely checked by Saddam's Iraq for more than thirty years. The US eliminated that bulwark against Tehran's hegemonic desires by deposing Saddam and attempting to replace him with a "democracy." Tehran has taken full advantage of that mistake by infiltrating the nascent Iraqi government and flooding Iraq with its agents. Make no mistake, a Shiite-run Iraq will be a Iranian client state.

Neo-con hysterica regarding Iran is a symptom of the movement's death throes. The worsening mess in Baghdad has exposed the multiple fallacies upon which the neo-con worldview is constructed. The public is turning on the administration and the neo-cons see the polls numbers turning deeply against their ambitions. Sensing their inevitable political demise, they are becoming desperate to hold on to power. Hence the Hitler card - played successfully before, and now tossed frantically, like a life preserver in the growing political storm.


At 4:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the main thrust of this argument regarding Iran, but I don't know how accurate some of these historical statements you are citing regarding Germany in 1938 really are.

My understanding is that Germany's military force prior to the annexation of the Sudentenland was so paltry that it is questionable that Germany could have even defeated the well-defended nation of Czechoslovakia in a one-on-one fight. Germany had nothing like the military of France or Russia at the time. The Munich Agreement, resulting in the annexation of the Sudentenland, left the rest of Czechoslovakia poorly defended and the subsequent conquest of all of Czechoslovakia provided Germany with substantial industrial resources.

In fact, I recall reading that France and Czechoslovakia had a defense pact and that together the Czechs and French outnumbered the Germans 2 to 1 (in Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I believe). The French were so anxious to avoid the possibility of another war that they were willing to surrender to Hitler's demands on the Sudetenland: a fatal mistake.

At 8:04 AM , Blogger Pytheas said...

Whether Germany's military firepower in 1938 was equal to France's or not, is a question I will leave to better versed historians. Clearly, however, the Germans were able to mobilize a nearly-invincible military machine within just three years of that date, brushing aside the French military, humiliating Britain, sweeping through Poland and Czechoslovakia and nearly crushing the Soviets. They succeeded in this because Germany, in 1938, was the second largest industrial economy on Earth (after the US), the technical knowledge and industrial capacity to create the Nazi war machine was already there. Similarly, the US military in 1938 was, with the exception of the US Navy, virtualy non-existant. Yet, in just two or three years after December 1941, the US had assembled the most powerful military force in history, capable of waging war on both sides of the world simultaneously. This was made possible by the enormous industrial infrastructure that had existed in the US for decades before 1941. Iran simply possesses nothing like this. Not even close. They are not even remotely capable of the sort of military build-ups Germany or the US was capable of in the late 30's. They are not even capable of the sort of military build up present day France or Germany would be capable of, if pressed. WWIII (or IV), this is not.

At 8:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that the Germans were quite prepared to expand their military rapidly as soon as they got the opportunity, though a review of the facts since yesterday does indeed reveal that Germany could have been handily defeated if its enemies had acted swiftly instead of resorting to appeasement prior to the Munich Agreement.

You are right in saying that Iran isn't a significant industrial power. However, if Germany hadn't been a substantial industrial power back in the late 1930s but rather possessed nuclear weapons, they would have been quite dangerous nonetheless. Of course, today's world isn't the same as the 1930s, and we must act as wisely as we can considering our circumstances.

While I agree that containing Iran is probably the best option, I think suggesting that a nuclear-armed Iran is essentially no different than a conventionally-armed Iran, and can be sized up in those terms, is a little naive. I believe all the tough talk from Iran is probably just sabre-rattling, but if there is any truth to their leadership's talk about it being an "acceptable loss" to have half of Iran destroyed (or all of Iran) if they can eliminate Israel, then I think the West may be in for serious trouble. I believe Iran can be contained but, at this point, I'm only perhaps 75-80% certain I'm correct. I hope I'm not wrong.

I think the whole issue basically has less to do with industrial capabilities than it does psychology. Do you believe the Iranian leadership is apocalyptic (or ever will be) or not? If not, we can contain them. On the other hand, if we underestimate how religiously motivated they are then we will likely witness a nuclear war in our time.

At 10:27 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree that the Neo-Cons are in their death-throes. If the Soviet Union had CNN or FoxNews to broadcast its ideology, it would still exist!

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