By William Kristol
Sunday, March 28, 2010; A15
In March 1936, Hitler occupied the Rhineland. The French prime minister, Leon Blum, denounced the act as "unacceptable." But France, Britain and the rest of the world accepted it. Years later, the French political thinker Raymond Aron commented, "To say that something is unacceptable was to say that one accepted it."
In March 2010, as Iran moved ahead with its nuclear weapons program, the American secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, speaking at the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last week, said no fewer than four times in one paragraph that a nuclear-armed Iran would be "unacceptable." It would be unacceptable simply, "unacceptable to the United States," "unacceptable to Israel" and "unacceptable to the region and the international community."
Then, perhaps sensing the ghost of Raymond Aron at her shoulder, Clinton hastened to add: "So let me be very clear: The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."
But this attempt at reassurance merely conjured up (at least for me) another ghost: that of Richard Nixon. Didn't Nixon always say, at moments of utmost insincerity, that he wanted to make something very clear?
What is becoming increasingly clear, from the Clinton speech and from the overall behavior of her administration -- and for that matter from the action or, rather, inaction of the "international community" -- is that we are all moving toward accepting an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Consider Clinton's speech.
The secretary of state devoted six paragraphs out of 52 to Iran.
She began by acknowledging that "for Israel, there is no greater strategic threat" than the prospect of the current Iranian regime with nuclear arms.
She explained how threatening such a prospect would be to Israel, the region and the world, culminating in the cascade of "unacceptables."
She then briefly defended the Obama administration's decision to try engagement, acknowledged (basically) that engagement had failed, but claimed that at least "[t]he world has seen that it is Iran, not the United States, responsible for the impasse." She noted that "with its secret nuclear facilities, increasing violations of its obligations under the nonproliferation regime and an unjustified expansion of its enrichment activities, more and more nations are finally expressing deep concerns about Iran's intentions."
And what are the newly perceptive and ever more deeply concerned nations of the world doing about Iran? "There is a growing international consensus on taking steps to pressure Iran's leaders to change course." What kind of pressure? New U.N. Security Council resolutions with "sanctions that will bite."
Now, these won't be quite the "crippling" sanctions Clinton promised last year -- but they'll be biting ones. (Then we learned, late in the week, that the sanctions were being adjusted so they wouldn't bite too much -- so as to get the "international community" on board.) Of course, three Security Council resolutions seeking to pressure Iran's leaders were passed during the Bush administration, before the great international awakening brought about by President Obama's engagement policy. Clinton had to acknowledge that "it is taking time to produce these new sanctions." But she maintained that "time is a worthwhile investment for winning the broadest possible support for our efforts." And she reiterated that "we will not compromise our commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring those nuclear weapons."
Notice what Clinton conspicuously failed to mention as part of that "commitment" -- another word, by the way, about whose unhappy diplomatic history Raymond Aron would undoubtedly have had mordant comments. What the secretary of state did not say is that all options are on the table. What she did not say is that force remains a last but credible resort against this regime's nuclear plans. What she did not say is that we would try to help the opposition change who "Iran's leaders" are.
So: Nothing about regime change. Nothing about the possible use of force. Just broadly supported "sanctions that will bite," but not too much.
Then Clinton turned -- one can almost hear the sigh of relief -- to other issues, because, after all, "Iran is not the only threat on the horizon. Israel is confronting some of the toughest challenges in her history." And we were off into the maze of the peace process, the settlements, and other ephemera and trivialities.
The Iranian regime and its pursuit of nuclear weapons constitute the dominant threat to the security of Israel and to the national security interests of the United States in the Middle East. While presidents Bush and Obama have proclaimed that this Iranian regime obtaining nuclear weapons would be unacceptable, they have done nothing effective to stop it. Now we are also apparently pressuring Israel not to act to stop Iran from getting nuclear arms.
Is it so hard to remember what happens when liberal democracies accept the unacceptable? Is it too much to hope that, for the government of the United States in 2010, accepting the unacceptable should be unacceptable?
William Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard.