Put me down, first and foremost, as a Charles Krauthammer fan. But his latest column in my opinion is lacking in the unsparing analytic rigor that typically characterizes his work, and it is for this reason that I take a harsher view of the piece than does Gordon. Krauthammer writes that when Iran goes nuclear,
we shall have to rely on deterrence to prevent the mullahs, some of whom are apocalyptic and messianic, from using nuclear weapons. …
How to create deterrence? The way John Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis. President Bush should issue the following declaration, adopting Kennedy’s language while changing the names of the miscreants:
It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear attack upon Israel by Iran, or originating in Iran, as an attack by Iran on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon Iran.
This should be followed with a simple explanation: “As a beacon of tolerance and as leader of the free world, the United States will not permit a second Holocaust to be perpetrated upon the Jewish people.”
But the italicized declaration above would do very little to guarantee the promise that follows it — that the U.S. “will not permit a second Holocaust.” To state the obvious, a U.S. second strike would not prevent an Iranian first strike — only react to it once it has happened. What are the chances that Iran would attempt to nuke Israel? Well, who knows: the Soviet Union, however rapacious and barbaric, at least tended to act in favor of national self-preservation, whereas the mullahs — it is something they brag about — have no such conception of self-preservation. As Bernard Lewis has said about the regime, “mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent factor, but rather an inducement.” Krauthammer hints at the messianic and apocalyptic nature of the prevailing Iranian ideology, but gives the unpredictable — or suicidally predictable — nature of Iranian behavior very little weight in his analysis.
Two other major objections: it is very well for the United States to place Israel under its nuclear umbrella, but it will also be true that Iran will place its allies under its nuclear umbrella. During the Cold War, mutually-assured destruction did not prevent Soviet adventurism in many corners of the world, and likewise during a U.S.-Iran Cold War, an American second-strike pledge would not prevent a similar adventurism on the part of Iran’s many allies.
In other words, the recent wars we have witnessed would continue, except that Hezbollah and Hamas would be backed by a nuclear patron. What if Iran instructs Hezbollah to send rockets raining down on northern Israel and then threatens nuclear retaliation should Israel respond with a ground war in Lebanon? Will the Holocaust Declaration have any relevance to such a scenario? Of course not. It only becomes relevant after Tel Aviv is in smoldering ruins. Some comfort.
Which leads to the final point. This is the question of whether Iran, upon acquiring a nuclear weapon, would need to actually launch an ICBM at Israel to destroy the country, or whether it could attempt to pick it apart through a relentless campaign of terror wars launched by its “non-state actor” proxies. Please pardon me for quoting something on this subject that I wrote previously:
The Jewish state already has a problem in the number of its citizens who tire of the warfare, terrorism, and Arab hatred that are regular features of life in Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live abroad, many permanently, because they seek a “normal life,” and many Jews will never immigrate to Israel exactly because of the absence of such a life. All of this is only in the face of Palestinian and Hezbollah terrorists who kill with crude weapons. Now imagine those groups with the support of a nuclear patron. Imagine daily life in Israel conducted under the constant threat — the Iranians would surely take every opportunity to remind Israelis — of nuclear annihilation.
The Iranians are probably smart enough to know that if they’re patient, nothing so dramatic as nuclear war will be necessary. Simply by possessing a nuclear capability and regularly threatening to use it or supply it to its proxies, Iran will accomplish the psychological and economic attrition of Israel. This goal will be achieved without firing a shot — or at least without full-scale war.
Krauthammer’s column is intended as an attempt at envisioning a U.S. security strategy that would protect Israel in an Iranian nuclear era. Its failure to present a plausible scenario for doing so should underscore the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place.