By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
I have a weakness for wars with colorful names. My favorite, mentioned twice by me this year alone, is the War of Jenkins' Ear, which occupied Britain and Spain from 1739-41 and ended in a stalemate. This brings me to the coming war with Iran that Rudolph Giuliani has solemnly vowed he would launch should, God forbid, Iran get nuclear weapons and he become president. It will be called the War of Rudy's Mouth.
Rudy's mouth, as anyone in New York can tell you, is a formidable weapon that, when turned on a target, can vaporize the person, leaving just a small mound of dust and maybe a false tooth or two. An oft-cited example is the poor fellow who called the then-New York mayor's radio show and asked why the law prohibited the keeping of ferrets as pets. "There is something deranged about you," the mayor said.
Not surprisingly, the Republican front-runner -- an astounding phrase -- is treating Iran as a nation of ferret owners. He has vowed to strike the Islamic republic militarily should it develop a nuclear weapon -- not a mere threat, he has added, but "a promise." This, of course, is both a cliche and the kind of rhetoric of the "bring 'em on" variety that suggests Giuliani has learned nothing from the Iraq fiasco. Since making that remark, Giuliani has sounded this theme often, including during a GOP presidential debate Sunday. The other Republican candidates do not, for the most part, disagree.
Similar statements have come in recent days from the White House. President Bush, an exceedingly slow learner, has suggested that a nuclear Iran could result in "World War III" and Dick Cheney, chastened not a bit by a record of heroic mistakes and misleading statements, promised Iran "serious consequences" if it proceeds with its nuclear program. By now, I think, Tehran has gotten the message.
Sadly, it is simply not possible to dismiss the Iranian threat. Not only is Iran proceeding with a nuclear program, but it projects a pugnacious, somewhat nutty, profile to the world. Various intelligence agencies assure us that Iran is a sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere, and its president is the voluble and bizarre Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, come to think of it, looks a bit like a ferret. The time may indeed come when the only way to deal with Iran is with force. In the meantime, it might not hurt to lower our voices and try some old-fashioned diplomacy.
War with Iran would be ugly. An airstrike would undoubtedly cause Iran to unleash Hezbollah, Hamas and other extremist groups, causing no end of trouble in the Middle East. It could close the Persian Gulf to shipping, producing an oil shock. It could foment serious trouble in Saudi Arabia's oil-producing region, which has a significant Shiite population.
Giuliani ought to recognize that he is no longer the big-mouthed mayor of New York but a serious contender for the White House. All that his talk can accomplish is to make Iranian moderates rally around Ahmadinejad. That's a pity. Iran's economy is weak, and even many Iranians know their president needs his meds. His agnosticism regarding the Holocaust -- maybe it happened, maybe it didn't -- has to strike educated Iranians as deeply embarrassing. But Ahmadinejad does not actually rule the country. The mullahs do.
Rather than enhance Ahmadinejad's standing in his own country, rather than put Iran up against a wall and dare it to back down, rather than make Iran the hero of anti-American Islamists everywhere, why not attempt to engage in direct talks and treat the country not as a pariah -- one-third of the ludicrous and illogical "axis of evil" -- but as a fellow state? Why not, as it were, treat Iran as we once did the Soviet Union or we now do China? We talked to the former; we talk to the latter.
The next president is going to have to use his noodle. Iran may be trying to go nuclear, but Pakistan already is -- and it's so unstable the present government may not last long. The United States cannot make war all over the globe, leading the West in a resumption of the crusades against the Islamic East. War should be the last resort, spoken of with the respect it deserves and in terms that acknowledge the dizzying chaos, widespread terrorism and grievances that would haunt us long into the future. War with Iran will not turn out to be the applause line it is in the campaign. That, Mr. Giuliani, is not a threat. It is a promise.