Iran: What Would Winston Do?

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reports this week of rising optimism among Israel’s strategists that an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations is not only doable, but would succeed, and moreover that Iran’s retaliatory capabilities are overestimated.  It gets better: to the contrary of the view that an attack would unify the Iranian people behind their crackpot regime, Israel thinks it might well have the opposite effect, and give a boost to the internal opposition against the regime.  A win-win situation!

Is Goldberg’s report accurate, or true?  Not necessarily the same thing.  I can well imagine that playing out such a line to a respected foreign correspondent could be part of deliberate disinformation, or a kind of public psy-op against Iran.  It is impossible for observers not privy to classified information or the actual meetings in the White House to know what is going on behind the scenes.  Sometimes we don’t know until years after the fact, when the documents are declassified and the principals are debriefed by journalists and historians, what actually took place.  At the same time Goldberg reports Israeli optimism, he notes a recent U.S. war game of the situation that came to the opposite conclusion.  Certainly plausible, but again—could this be deliberate disinformation designed to keep Iran off balance?

You can approach certain general conclusions based on the character of governments and leaders.  No one doubts Netanyahu’s resolve to defend Israel to the utmost if they believe Iran’s nuke point of no return is at hand.  And I don’t think anyone doubts that Obama and his peeps are hand-wringing about the whole matter, paralyzed both by the genuine perils and uncertainty of the situation as well as Obama’s hostility to Israel.  Contemplating this scene brought to mind the applicability of Churchill’s reflections on the derelictions of the British government in the Munich crisis.  It’s one of Churchill’s greatest passages, from The Gathering Storm, and it doesn’t take too much work to connect the principle he lays out to Obama’s duty in the Iranian crisis:

It may be well here to set down some principles of morals and action which may be a guide in the future.  No case of this kind can be judged apart from its circumstances.  The facts may be unknown at the time, and estimates of them must be largely guesswork, coloured by the general feelings and aims of whoever is trying to pronounce.  Those who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear-cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems, who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign Power, have not always been right.  On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong.  On the contrary, in the majority of instances they may be right, not only morally but from a practical standpoint.  How many wars have been averted by patience and persisting good will!  Religion and virtue alike lend their sanctions to meekness and humility, not only between men but between nations.  How many wars have been precipitated by firebrands!  How many misunderstandings which led to wars could have been avoided by temporizing!  How often have countries fought cruel wars and then after a few years of peace found themselves not only friends but allies!

The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics.  Everyone respects the Quakers.  Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states.  Their duty is first so to deal with other nations as to avoid strife and war and to eschew aggression in all its forms, whether for nationalistic or ideological objects.  But the safety of the State, the lives and freedom of their own fellow countrymen, to whom they owe their position, make it right and imperative in the last resort, or when a final and definitive conviction has been reached, that the use of force should not be excluded.  If the circumstances are such as to warrant it, force may be used.  And if this be so, it should be used under the conditions which are most favourable.  There is no merit in putting off a war for a year if, when it comes, it is a far worse war or one much harder to win.  These are the tormenting dilemmas upon which mankind has throughout history been so frequently impaled.  Final judgment upon them can only be recorded by history in relation to the facts of the case as known to the parties at the time, and also as subsequently proved.

There is, however, one helpful guide, namely, for a nation to keep its word and to act in accordance with its treaty obligations to allies.  The guide is called honor.  It is baffling to reflect that what men call honor does not correspond always to Christian ethics.  Honor is often influenced by that element of pride which plays so large a part in its inspiration.  An exaggerated code of honor leading to the performance of utterly vain and unreasonable deeds could not be defended, however fine it might look.  Here, however, the moment came when Honor pointed to the path of Duty, and when also the right judgment of the facts at that time would have reinforced its dictates.

For the French Government to leave her faithful ally, Czechoslovakia, to her fate was a melancholy lapse from which flowed terrible consequences.  Not only wise and fair policy, but chivalry, honor, and sympathy for a small threatened people made an overwhelming concentration.

Czechoslovakia then; Israel today?  All eyes will be on Obama soon to decide this question.

Special smackdown bonus: If you have the time, check out Goldberg’s hit on the egregious Andrew Sullivan.  Quick summary: “. . . he lied about what I have written, what I think, what I believe, and what I’ve reported, and shows no understanding, by the way, of reporting itself—but, hey, what are friends for?”

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