The Only Option Is to Win
Yesterday on this page, in a serious and thoughtful survey of a world in crisis, Richard Holbrooke listed 13 countries that could be involved in violence in the near future: Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, Somalia. And in addition, of course, the United States.
With those 14 nations Holbrooke could make the case for what I describe as "an emerging third world war" -- a long-running conflict whose latest manifestation was brought home to Americans yesterday with the disclosure in London of yet another ghastly terrorist plot -- this one intended to destroy a number of airliners en route to America.
But while Holbrooke lists the geography accurately, he then asserts an analysis and a goal that do not fit the current threats.
First, he asserts that the Iranian nuclear threat is far less dangerous than violence in southern Lebanon. Speaking of the Iranian-American negotiations, Holbrooke asks, "And why has that dialogue been restricted to the nuclear issue -- vitally important to be sure, but not as urgent at this moment as Iran's sponsorship and arming of Hezbollah and its support of actions against U.S. forces in Iraq?"
In fact an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is a mortal threat to American, Israeli and European cities. If a nonnuclear Iran is prepared to finance, arm and train Hezbollah, sustain a war against Israel from southern Lebanon and, in Holbrooke's own words, "support actions against U.S. forces in Iraq," then what would a nuclear Iran be likely to do? Remember, Iranian officials were present at North Korea's missile launches on our Fourth of July, and it is noteworthy that Venezuela's anti-American dictator, Hugo Chávez, has visited Iran five times.
It is because the Bush administration has failed to win this argument over the direct threat of Iranian and North Korean nuclear and biological weapons that Americans are divided and uncertain about our national security interests.
Nevertheless, Holbrooke has set the stage for an important national debate that goes well beyond such awful possibilities as Sept. 11-style airliner plots. It's a debate about whether we are in danger of losing one or more U.S. cities, whether the world faces the possibility of a second Holocaust should Iran use nuclear or biological weapons against Israel, and whether a nuclear Iran would dominate the Persian Gulf and the world's energy supplies. This is the most important debate of our time. It rivals both Winston Churchill's argument in the 1930s over the nature of Hitler and the Nazis and Harry Truman's argument in the 1940s about the emerging Soviet empire.
Yet Holbrooke indicates that he would take the wrong path on American national security. He asserts that "containing the violence must be Washington's first priority."
As a goal this is precisely wrong. Defeating the terrorists and thwarting efforts by Iran and North Korea to gain nuclear and biological weapons must be the first goal of American policy. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, if violence is necessary to defeat the terrorists, the Iranians and the North Koreans, then it is regrettably necessary. If they can be disarmed with less violence, then that is desirable. But a nonviolent solution that allows the terrorists to become better trained, better organized, more numerous and better armed is a defeat. A nonviolent solution that leads to North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons threatening us across the planet is a defeat.
This failure to understand the nature of the threat is captured in Holbrooke's assertion that diplomacy can lead to "finding a stable and secure solution that protects Israel." If Iran gets nuclear weapons, there will be no diplomacy capable of protecting Israel. If Iran continues to fund and equip Hezbollah, there will be no stability or security for Israel. Diplomacy cannot substitute for victory against an opponent who openly states that he wants to eliminate you from the face of the earth.
Our enemies are quite public and repetitive in saying what they want. Not since Adolf Hitler has any group been as bloodthirsty and as open. If Holbrooke really wants a "stable and secure" Israel he will not find it by trying to appease Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.
This issue of national security goals will be at the heart of the American dialogue for some time. If our enemies are truly our enemies (and their words and deeds are certainly those of enemies) then victory should be our goal. If nuclear and biological threats are real, then aggressive strategies to disarm them if possible and defeat them if necessary will be required.
Holbrooke represents the diplomacy first-diplomacy always school. We saw its workings throughout the 1990s, as Syria was visited again and again by secretaries of state who achieved absolutely nothing. Even a secretary of state dancing with Kim Jong Il (arguably a low point in American diplomatic efforts) produced no results; such niceties never do in dealing with vicious dictators.
The democracies have been talking while the dictators and the terrorists gain strength and move closer to having the weapons necessary for a terrifying assault on America and its allies. The arrests yesterday of British citizens allegedly plotting to blow up American airliners over the Atlantic Ocean are only the latest example of the determination of our enemies. This makes the dialogue on our national security even more important.
Richard Holbrooke has established a framework for a clear debate. The Bush administration should take up his challenge.
The writer, a former speaker of the House, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America."