Evolution of the Will

In late 2013 George Will wrote a disappointing column on the Obama administration’s interim deal with Iran. The problem with Will’s column was its assumption that Iran can be contained/deterred. Will assumed without argument that doctrines of containment and deterrence were viable in the case of Iran; he assumed what was to be proved, i.e., he begged the question. Two fundamental problems undermined his assumptions.

First, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will vastly complicate and exacerbate the problem of containment. On this point, see Bromund & Phillips, “Containing a nuclear Iran: Difficult, costly, and dangerous.”

Second, it is unclear that conventional theories of deterrence apply to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Substantial evidence to the contrary can be adduced. Norman Podhoretz adduced some of it in “Strike Iran now to avert disaster later” (accessible via Google here). Podhoretz recalled, for example:

As Bernard Lewis, the leading contemporary authority on Islam, put it in 2007, to these fanatics “mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement. We know already [from the Iran-Iraq war] that they do not give a damn about killing their own people in great numbers. . . . They are giving them a quick free pass to heaven and all its delights.”

Nor were the rulers of Iran deterred by the fear that their country would be destroyed in a nuclear war. In the words of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who brought the Islamist revolution to Iran in 1979: “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. . . . I say let this land [Iran] go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” (The quote appeared in a 1981 Iranian collection of the ayatollah’s speeches. In later editions, that line and others were deleted as Iran tried to stir up nationalistic fervor amid the war with Iraq.)

And here, speaking in particular of a nuclear exchange with Israel—that “cancer” which the mullahs were and are solemnly pledged to wipe off the map—is the famous “moderate” Hashemi Rafsanjani, in an Al-Quds Day sermon at Tehran University on Dec. 14, 2001: “Application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” Mr. Rafsanjani, an earlier president of Iran, is the sponsor and mentor of its current president, that other celebrated “moderate,” Hasan Rouhani.

I thought Will owed it to his readers to make the case that the mullahs are subject to deterrence as he used the term.

To these old issues Will added a new element last year. On a FOX News Sunday panel Will again expressed his support of diplomacy with Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program. Here was the exchange with Chris Wallace on the subject (transcript here):

WALLACE: All right. We got a little bit of time left and I want to talk about one of the other big developments this week and that is the extension of talks with Iran. I know, George, you have always been skeptical of negotiations with Iran, but I know that you’re also skeptical about any other alternative. Is this a good decision or not, to expand the talks till late November?

WILL: It’s fine to extend the talks, just so long as we’re planning to put in place containment and deterrence of a nuclear Iran. The fact is the United States policy has taught certain regimes the importance of having nuclear weapons. If Gadhafi had had them, he would still be in power. If Saddam Hussein had had them he would still be in power. The regime is in power in North Korea because it’s got them. I’m afraid U.S. policy has indeed given an incentive for people to develop nuclear weapons. And there’s no reason to believe that Iran is not going to get them and no reason to believe that we who deterred the Soviet Union for 45 years cannot contain and deter Iran.

Will implied that we bore some responsibility for Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons: “the United States has taught certain regimes the importance of having nuclear weapons.” Will’s reference to “certain regimes” in this context obviously includes Iran. The implicit point is that, having “taught” Iran the importance of having nuclear weapons, we lack standing to do something (something other than “containment” and “deterrence”) about it.

Will fleshed out his assertion regarding the American teaching by reference to American foreign policy. Iran’s nuclear weapons program — to borrow the trope from Reverend Wright, it’s a case of chickens coming home to roost. If only the United States had treated Saddam Hussein with greater forbearance rather than invading Iraq to unseat him, Iran apparently wouldn’t have learned the lesson of the importance of nuclear weapons.

The mullahs’ pursuit of nuclear weapons, however, dates back to the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein was still in power and North Korea was limited to conventional weapons. (The genesis of the mullahs’ secret nuclear weapons program dates to 1991, as the mullahs concluded that Saddam Hussein would not have been forced out of Kuwait by the United States and its allies if Iraq had possessed nuclear weapons; this illustrates how Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would undermine “containment.”) Did Ronald Reagan teach the mullahs the importance of nuclear weapons? Ronnie, we hardly knew ye, I guess.

The usefulness of nuclear weapons to the preservation of a terrorist and genocidal regime is inarguable and obvious. I’m quite sure that the mullahs did not need the United States to teach them anything on this point. Their usefulness, however, argues for preventing the mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons rather than accepting the prospect with Will’s misdirection.

Given the mullahs’ expressed desire to remove Israel from the face of the earth, the United States may indeed have taught the mullahs the usefulness of nuclear weapons. The teaching, however, would have occurred in August 1945, when we obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I thought this this might have some bearing on Will’s argument, though it tended to belie it rather than to lend it support.

Will now returns to the subject in the context of the arrangement in process with Iran. His current column is “Containing Iran’s nuclear intoxication.” In this column Will presents the possibility of containment/deterrence of the Islamic Republic of Iran as an open question. He therefore leaves the wisdom of the arrangement in a state of suspended animation, to be determined:

Dealing with Iran is disagreeable, but no more so than depending on Stalin’s Soviet Union as a World War II ally more important than all the other allies combined. Deterring a nuclear Iran might be even more problematic than deterring the Soviet Union was, depending on whether Iran’s theological intoxication is more than rhetorical. We are going to find out.

Will’s views seem to have evolved, though he has again arrived at an unsatisfactory conclusion. It seems to me a conclusion that represents complacency masquerading as sophistication.