George Will and the narcissistic view of American foreign policy

Scott did an excellent job of responding to George Will’s defense of diplomacy as the proper response to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Scott is particularly persuasive in answering Will’s claim that “United States policy has taught certain regimes the importance of having nuclear weapons.” It would be interesting to know just how pacific U.S. policy would have to be in order to unteach the importance of having nukes.

Will has fallen, quite uncharacteristically, into the narcissistic view of American foreign relations. This approach deems the perfectly normal actions and desires of other countries to be a reflection of American conduct.

Worse yet, in the case of Iran, Will has gotten the effect, if any, of the American conduct he alludes to exactly wrong.

Other things being equal, any foreign power with aggressive territorial and/or ideological ambitions would like to have nuclear weapons. And any such foreign power with substantial resources and firm control over its population will be strongly tempted to pursue their acquisition.

Having nuclear weapons serves many purposes other than dissuading America from imposing regime change. For example, as Scott points out, obtaining nuclear weapons would help preserve the rule of the mullahs in Iran quite apart from anything the U.S. might do to bring about regime change. (There has been plenty of regime change in the Middle East lately; the U.S. has had little to do with almost all of it). In addition, nukes would enhance Iran’s regional dominance and enable the mullahs to threaten, if not attack, Israel.

What could teach Iran the importance of not having nukes? Probably nothing at this juncture.

But there is evidence that a decade ago, U.S. policy may well have made Iran think twice about obtaining them. In a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the CIA concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 (when the U.S. invaded Iraq), and that program remained frozen.

The second conclusion, that Iran’s nuclear program was frozen as of 2007, is highly dubious. But the finding that the program was halted for a time in 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is plausible. And we know that Qaddafi halted his nuclear program at that time in response to our action in Iraq.

In sum, adversaries like Iran have compelling reasons to develop nuclear weapons that have nothing to do with “United States policy.” But our policy — that is, our military action, not our diplomacy — can help persuade our adversaries not to proceed down that road.

This doesn’t mean that the U.S. should start wars for that purpose. It does mean that the credible threat of military action against Iran’s nuclear capacity (whether by Israel, the U.S., or both) is the only policy tool that might deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And military action itself is the only policy tool that might prevent them from doing so if they aren’t deterred.

Whether the U.S. should be willing to take military action — willingness being the prerequisite for a credible threat — or should instead be content to rely on a policy of “containment and deterrence” is a difficult question. Specious claims that the U.S. has “taught” certain regimes the value of having nuclear weapons are the enemy of clear thinking about that question.

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