Delicately dealing simultaneously with Iran and Iraq, U.S. policy regarding the former is preposterous yet useful, and U.S. policy regarding the latter is lucid but delusional. Regarding Iran, the faded and tattered flag of arms control is being unfurled for yet another pious salute, the predictable result of which will be redundant confirmation of the axiom that arms control is impossible until it is unimportant. Regarding Iraq, the hope is that the democratic transformation that took centuries in much more promising social settings can succeed in Iraq, given another week.
There has never been any reason for expecting the "international community," that frequently invoked and rarely useful fiction, to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Today's Iran is culturally ancient and demographically young -- a combustible compound. It nurses nostalgia about vanished Persian grandeur and has a potentially turbulent population, the median age of which is just 24.2 (compared with 36.3, 38.9 and 42.2 in the United States, France and Germany respectively). Even Iranians of temperate and democratic inclinations, and especially the young, seeing four nuclear powers in the neighborhood -- Russia, Israel, Pakistan and India -- and a fifth, the United States, next door in Iraq and riding nearby waves -- might think of nuclear weapons as validations of modernity and conferrers of political weight. If regime change someday puts people of civilized inclinations in power in Tehran, arms control will be possible, if unimportant.
Meanwhile, acting on behalf of "Europe" -- an old geographic expression and a freshly minted political fiction -- Britain, France and Germany, that troika of old-world high-mindedness, have offered Iran, as inducement for abandoning its nuclear aspirations, the carrot of favors that translate into cash. They also have threatened the stick of sanctions and "isolation." But Iran, floating on a sea of oil, neither feels nor fears the hot breath of penury breathing down its neck. Besides, nations rarely minutely calculate the cash value of glory, honor and power, all of which, together with paranoia and religious messianism, are entangled in Iran's decades-old drive for nuclear weapons.
U.N. sanctions, usually exercises in feebleness, probably would be blocked by Russia, an enabler of Iran's nuclear aspirations, or by China, which is voracious for oil. Regarding the dread of "isolation," Iran has noticed that its nuclear program has seized the world's attention. And having noted that one distinction between the member of the "axis of evil" that has been attacked by America, Iraq, and the member that has not been, North Korea, is the latter's probable possession of nuclear weapons, the third member, Iran, may have come to an inconvenient conclusion.
Nevertheless, President Bush wisely encourages others earnestly to try those things that he is despised for supposedly disdaining -- multilateralism and diplomacy. U.S. policy should give the "international community," "Europe," and the United Nations frequent occasions for demonstrating their impotence.
Iraq -- a frightening country but a fascinating seminar -- is testing this postulate of political science: Democratic institutions do not necessarily spring from a hospitable culture, but they can help create that culture. Arguably, they did, to some extent, in America. But Philadelphia in 1787 was rather calmer than Baghdad today because American differences were comparatively negligible. The great compromise struck by our Constitution's Framers -- a bicameral legislature, with proportional representation of population in one chamber, equal representation of the states in the other -- was necessary because small states worried that large states were alarmingly large, not that they were, as many Shiites and Sunnis think of each other, stenches in God's nostrils.
Iraq's constitution makers differ about fundamentals -- the role of religion, the rights of women, the sovereignty of regions and the control of national wealth, meaning oil. Hectoring American voices say that, lest America seem overbearing, Iraq's constitution must be (a) distinctly Iraqi and (b) suffused with today's American values, including secularism, women's rights and federalism that accommodates ethnic and sectarian factions but achieves e pluribus unum.
Sensible Americans understand that, whatever their opinions about the war's origins and execution, leaving Iraq as a failed state would be disastrous. They also understand that overreaching now would not be a rational response to having underachieved so far.
Last December the Weekly Standard, a voice of neoconservatism, noted Syria's involvement in infiltrating foreign fighters and weapons into Iraq and suggested bombing "Syrian military facilities," occupying the Syrian border town that "seems to be the planning and organizing center for Syrian activities in Iraq" and going "across the border in force to stop infiltration." About the first two: U.S. forces already have quite enough bombing and occupying chores. About the third: Our imperial difficulties will not be diminished by expecting to have more success sealing Syria's eastern border than we have had sealing Arizona's southern border.