Iran: What Barak Doesn't Know

"Our only hope...lies in making our own choice of operations, not in waiting passively for whatever the enemy chooses for us." Ehud Barak warning about Iran? Amos Yadlin in today's Times? Actually, Field Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen warning about France.

THE THING ABOUT generals is that we pay them to imagine the worst. We want them to agonize over it, prepare for it. Inevitably, we invite them to promote the added value of preemption. When they say things like "our only hope" is to strike first we feel a vague shudder of apocalyptic ecstasy and tribal gratitude. (Well, if our only hope is attack the enemy before he annihilates us, then, hell, what do we have to lose?)

But we read von Schlieffen's words today because he was a kind of imbecile. Yes, he knew that attacking (and, presumably, quickly neutralizing) France in a great flanking maneuver--his dying words in 1913, "keep the right flank strong"--might well allow Germany to avoid a two-front war, what amounted then to an existential threat. Nor could he imagine France not eventually attacking, since Germany occupied Alsace-Lorraine, and could it be manly to leave things there?

What von Schlieffen did not know--everything from the power of machine guns to the sense of duty in the British working classes--helped precipitate a war that continued until 15 million were dead and 20 million wounded (also a generational madness that would lead to an even more deadly war and, among other catastrophes, the flattening of Berlin). He did not know, moreover, that the German occupation of Alsace-Lorraine would seem quaint just 50 years after his death, with Strasbourg the home of the Council of Europe--the European Union another product of the horrible war perhaps, but probably inevitable in some form for economic reasons von Schlieffen could hardly anticipate. Could anyone?

"THERE IS NO way to prevent some damage..." Barak told Israeli radio. "It will not be pleasant. There is no scenario for 50,000 dead, or 5,000 killed – and if everyone stays in their homes, maybe not even 500 dead." Really. No scenario. As if he knows what thousands of missiles might mean if a dozen get lucky, or, say, the response of the public if a Scud hits a school.

Barak actually has no idea if an attack will bring regional war, though it is plausible that the unpopular regime in Iran would seize on an attack to try to mobilize an alienated population. He has no idea if war will lead to an all-out escalation, missiles vs. bombs, or what it means to confront a country of nearly 80 million people, one with a growing influence in Iraq, and the ability to disrupt navigation in a Gulf named after itself. He has no idea what Egypt will do if, responding to missiles from Gaza, the IDF tries to start bombing Gazans again.

Barak has no idea what the Syrian regime will do to try to save itself by whipping up hatred for Israel. He has no idea what will happen in the West Bank, and Umm El Fahm, for that matter, if an apocalyptic moment seems at hand. He has no idea what the near term losses to the economy will be when global corporations start concluding that Israelis--with the settlements and self-serving complaints about the world--are too much trouble. He has no idea if Israel's economy will implode, or what relations will be like with Europe or Russia if Israel is branded an aggressor in a war that leads to a severe spike in fuel prices.

Barak, in short, knows only that he is prepared for sacrifice and that the agonal Israel is his own. ("If I were a Palestinian at the right age, I would have joined one of the terrorist organizations," he once told an Israeli journalist.) He proposes that we throw the dice and enter a world of chaos in which, just by the way, he and his officers become the center of our attention, trust, order and gratitude.

BARAK IS NOT alone, of course. Netanyahu would have us look back to the 1930s. But look back to just three years ago. The attack on Gaza in 2009 achieved virtually nothing; but it poisoned the attitudes of even Palestinian moderates toward Israel for a generation and helped discredit the Mubarak regime. It precipitated unprecedented diplomatic isolation. Men make history, Marx once wrote, but they do not do so "as they please."

For God's sake, the Munich Agreement did not teach us that violent preemption is forever a more responsible course than pursuing a non-violent alternative. Common sense, if not history, teaches that Iran's regime is not going to risk incineration of Iranian cities for the (arguably considerable) pleasure of incinerating Tel Aviv--no more than the USSR risked nuclear war, or Pakistan, or North Korea. Barak himself once conceded that Iran had reasons to acquire the bomb that had more to do with the reason Israel acquired one--to prevent invasion--than with threatening "the Zionist entity." If Americans can live with nuclear stalemate for two generations, then Israelis can, too.

Yadlin, a pilot who bombed Osirak, writes that a nuclear Iran could lead to something far worse that regional war, what he calls, sweetly, "destabilization," as if the current Middle East is stable, and an attack is just the reassuring movement of a world-historical gyroscope. He writes: "a regional nuclear arms race without a red phone to defuse an escalating crisis, Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf, more confident Iranian surrogates like Hezbollah and the threat of nuclear materials’ being transferred to terrorist organizations."

But why would Hezbollah be more "confident" (read, reckless) with a nuclear Iran any more than the East German regime was with a nuclear Soviet Union? Nor did we have a hotline between Washington and Moscow until after the sides stepped away from the brink. If nuclear materials are the issue, why not attack Pakistan? This is all being thought through the way Israeli drivers think through passing on the right. Does anybody think it would have been a good idea to attack the Soviets in 1949 as General Curtis LeMay, an inarguable hero-pilot of WWII, proposed?

I don't mean to imply that Israel's military is some obvious villain. Ironically, the military engineers and strategists who've given Israel a second strike nuclear capability make it possible for citizens like myself to say that living with a nuclear Iran will be, on the whole, far better than living with the war to prevent a nuclear Iran.

My point is that Barak's attack and counter-attack scenarios are sane only in the precincts of IDF war-games. They are otherwise insane. Okay, insane talk has its uses as the US tries to seduce or cajole Iran into an inspection agreement. But there is something about Barak's talk that doesn't sound merely instrumental to Nixon's old "madman" strategy of negotiation anymore. Given the war rhetoric pumped up by the Republican primaries, and the upcoming AIPAC conference, one gets the impression that Barak's views are being circulated and amplified to a dangerous degree.

This is school-yard positioning parading as foreign policy guile--what Israelis call psychologia b'grush, "penny psychology"--a high-school game of chicken with potentially catastrophic consequences. It is dangerous not to know that big things cannot be known, the more dangerous to imply that only sissies refuse the dare. Who, if not citizens, will put a stop this?