If Iran wants nukes they’ll get them, and there ain’t a damn thing the U.S. can do about it. We’ll just have to learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran. That’s the conclusion top U.S. intelligence officials reached at a recent secret meeting, according to the Times of London.
Don’t rush to count this as another defeat for the neocons, who have been pushing Bush to get tough with Iran. Even if the intelligence experts’ common sense prevails in the White House, it won’t necessarily be a setback for the neocon agenda. In fact, the neocons may be down with Iranian nukes. If Iran develops usable nuclear weapons, that could pave the way for years or even decades of cold war with Iran. And that would delight the neocons. Their goal is not, and has never been, to win wars. They’d rather go on fighting wars.
The neocon movement began in the 1960s as an effort to turn back the tide of countercultural change here at home. Here’s what writers like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz said: The “Do your own thing” generation threatened the very fabric of American society. The young radicals didn’t have the inner strength needed to control their dangerous desires. These hippie-type individuals saw no reason to take strong stands on anything; it’s all relative, they said. So they no longer cared about winning the contests of life. In fact, they reveled in their weakness. ‘60s male radicals were, Podhoretz complained, “the kind of men who do not wish to be men.”
The neocon antidote to this plague of softness was a cult of male strength acted out on every front. Fighting communism was just one of many ways to show that strength. Of course they never expected to eliminate communism completely. Indeed, they needed the commies, just as they needed the hippies, to serve as enemies against whom they could go on fighting. If there’s no foe to battle against, how can you show your own strength and resolve? A seemingly endless cold war suited them fine, because it offered an endless array of new fronts on which to prove that America had the will, the resolve, the toughness to keep on fighting forever.
The end of the cold war threw the neocon movement into crisis. Most of them wanted to go back to battling on the domestic front against feminism, multiculturalism, and other social trends growing out of the ‘60s. By the end of the ‘90s, though, the movement had turned it focus abroad once again, especially on the Middle East.
But the new leaders of the movement, William Kristol and Robert Kagan, were still promoting militarism abroad mainly as a way to kick the Vietnam syndrome and restore a tough backbone to our society here at home. By throwing our military weight around unilaterally and showing the world how tough we could be, Americans would regain “a sense of mission … a clear moral purpose,” they wrote in 1996. “The remoralization of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy.” Fighting evil around the world would inspire Americans to “uphold the core elements of the Western tradition” and make them feel grateful to God for giving them “this implacable challenge.”
Since 9/11, the neocons have shown that they want challenge, challenge, and more challenge. Cheney and Rumsfeld said shortly after 9/11 that their war on terrorism would resemble the cold war, a way to go on showing America’s will and resolve forever.
Condi Rice implied the same thing when she said that she now expected “a period akin to 1945 to 1947, when American leadership…[created] a new balance of power that favored freedom.” Though she’s often seen as a counterweight to the neocons, they claim to have converted her after 9/11, and their claim should not be lightly dismissed. Earlier this year she sounded like a full-blooded neocon when she told an audience that on September 11, 2001, “America encountered the darker demons of our new world. … In a world where evil is still very real, democratic principles must be backed with power in all its forms,” including military. “If you're relativist about right and wrong,” she added, “then you can't lead. … You have to speak with a clarity about what is right and what is wrong. … It's only when you lose will or you lose your sense of what is right, that you lose the capacity to have the kind of optimism” that American leaders showed in the early cold war years.
Like cold warriors, the neocons feel strong only when they are fighting demons, monsters who embody absolute evil -- proving, of course, that they and their beloved America are absolutely good. That’s why the successes of the anti-occupation forces in Iraq need not trouble them too much. The Iraq fiasco gives neocons more opportunity to sound the clarion call to stand tough, to show will and resolve. Only ‘60s-style weaklings, they tell us, would even consider the possibility that we might “cut and run.”
Now they have trained their sights on Iran. While they’ve leaked plenty of hints about hot war, perhaps even nuclear war, against Ahmadinejad’s regime, they’ve talked even more about a new cold war, with Iran replacing the defunct Soviet Union. Last spring, Condi Rice’s Undersecretary of State, Nicholas Burns, called the U.S. embassy in Dubai the “21st century equivalent” of the Riga station in Latvia in the 1930s. Burns knows very well that the Riga station was a major incubator for the ideology and fervor of the U.S. cold war effort. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli underscored the point, saying, “We used to have Soviet experts - [now] we've got a cadre of Iran experts.”
State runs a well-funded program to support Iranian dissidents, who are supposed to overthrow the Ahmadinejad regime. It’s based in Dubai. And it is overseen by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, who just happens to be Elizabeth Cheney, the Vice President's daughter.
But we haven’t yet gotten to the really scary part. The intelligence experts who are counseling Bush to live with an Iranian bomb are also saying that all hell would break loose if anyone attacks Iran. That includes the most likely attacker: Israel. If the neocons are indeed down with a nuclear Iran, they have to persuade Israel (which may soon be led by superhawk Benjamin Netanyahu) not to bomb Iran.
The way they’ll do it is frighteningly predictable. They will say that we must promise Israel a deterrent shield. That is, we must promise that if Iran attacks Israel, we will nuke Iran. And, they’ll say, that means we need a more modern and robust nuclear arsenal. After all, you can’t fight a cold war without an omnipotent deterrent. A new cold war needs new nukes.
This, too, is a replay of the neocons’ cold war. Back in the ‘70s, according to the editor of the Journal of American History, Edward T. Linenthal, they used nukes as symbols of will and resolve. They promoted a buildup of the nation’s nuclear arsenal to symbolize “an inner transformation, a revival of the will to sacrifice.” Now they may very well do the same.
The great irony here is that Iran has provided the neocons with a perfect target because its leaders seem to have much the same mentality. They say that Islam forbids using nuclear weapons, and they may very well mean it. But they never say that Islam forbids possessing nukes. Why would they build weapons they don’t plan to use? As symbols of national strength, of course. The neocons can understand their new enemy perfectly well.
They can thank their new enemy, too. It takes two to play at cold war. The North Koreans, even if they test a nuke, can hardly rank as a serious cold war enemy. How convenient that Iran, a huge rich nation in a hugely important geopolitical location, is willing to fill the bill. Now we can go on arming, warring (coldly), and showing our immutable strength forever. And the neoconservatives can see a chance to keep calling the shots in U.S. foreign policy forever, too.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org