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.