History and the Drumbeat of War

If you Google "war Iran," you will come up with more than 90 million results. The blogosphere is full of alarms about US intentions toward Iran. Newsweek said last week that Vice President Cheney has been looking to provoke an Israeli assault against Iranian nuclear facilities that would draw Iranian reactions, sparking a "justifiable" American attack. At the United Nations, meanwhile, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France seemed to second his foreign minister's recent warning that an unchecked Iranian nuclear program will lead to war.

But this "constant drumbeat of conflict" concerning Iran, said Admiral William Fallon, head of the US Central Command, is "not helpful and not useful." Fallon wants to head off such talk. "There will be no war," he told Al-Jazeera, a denial that keeps the specter looming.

It is hard to imagine that President Bush would actually order an attack against Iran, despite the drumbeat, since the assault would instantly turn 160,000 US troops in Iraq into Shi'ite hostages. But it also seems clear that Bush, even content to leave Iraq a shambles, does not want to depart Washington with Tehran's nuclear provocations unresolved.

The surprisingly hawkish Sarkozy, warning of Iran, told the United Nations last week that "weakness and renunciation do not lead to peace. They lead to war." That was a dangerous conflation of two distinct ideas, since renunciation can be more a signal of strength than weakness.

Indeed, the lesson of the last half of the 20th century is that nations define their greatness as much by what they refrain from doing as by what they do. The United States long ago confronted the dilemma posed by a nuclear-determined Iran - in the far deadlier contest with the Soviet Union. The lesson of that experience seems forgotten, yet renunciation was at its core.

In 1945, General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, bluntly declared, "If we were truly realistic instead of idealistic, as we appear to be, we would not permit any foreign power with which we are not firmly allied, and in which we do not have substantial confidence, to make or possess atomic weapons. If such a country started to make atomic weapons, we would destroy its capacity to make them before it has progressed far enough to threaten us."

Even when, in subsequent years, more dovish figures like Bertrand Russell and J. Robert Oppenheimer supported the idea of a preemptive strike against nascent Soviet nuclear facilities, President Harry Truman renounced the idea.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded Truman, that renunciation defined his "massive retaliation" doctrine, an official commitment to refrain from first strikes on Soviet nuclear targets. In 1954, Ike approved a National Security Policy paper that made it formal; "The United States and its allies must reject the concept of preventive war or acts intended to provoke war."

By the time John F. Kennedy became president, all-out nuclear war seemed imminent. But when, in summer 1961, the new technology of satellite surveillance showed that the Soviet nuclear force was far smaller and more vulnerable than ever imagined, the Pentagon brass saw a God-given opportunity to head off Armageddon simply by blowing up Moscow's nuclear weapons on the ground. Defying the generals, and their civilian acolytes, Kennedy said no.

Because of Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, such renunciation became a pillar of American political morality, but history unfolded to show that, despite Groves's contrast between realism and idealism, this consistent refusal to launch antinuclear attacks was profoundly practical, too.

A further succession of US presidents went on to demonstrate the wisdom of this off-limits threshold. The nonviolent resolution of the American-Soviet nuclear high noon offers transcendent instruction, the past's most important message to the present. The trigger-happy gunslingers turned out to be wrong - "crackpot realists," as C. Wright Mills dubbed them. "In the name of realism," he wrote in 1956, "they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own." Is it happening again?

Pentagon "global dominance" doctrine now prohibits the emergence of any military rival to the United States, which means preemptive attack must replace stabilizing deterrence as the ready exercise of American power. Fortunately, though, the Bush administration's generic embrace of "preventive war" is discredited by Iraq, which is the main reason to hope no preemptive attack on Iran is coming. But that hope must be reinforced by a sense of history. America has already answered this question, and the answer remains no.

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