Can We Not Threaten to Obliterate Anyone Today?

We must encourage global norms of decency in which it becomes simply unthinkable to harm or terrorize innocent people in pursuit of any political cause or to unleash any weapon of mass destruction.
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We have serious issues with Iran. The Iranians have emerged as the main beneficiary of the Iraq war. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been saying disgusting things about Israel. He and other Iranian leaders seem determined to acquire nuclear weapons. It's not clear that we can or will stop them. Many people are very nervous about all this. I count myself in that number. Speaking to this constituency among others, Hillary Clinton made the following comments in a television interview:

"I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran," she said when she was asked what she would do if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons. "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them," she added.

Senator Clinton is basically a good person. As a woman locked in a tough presidential race, she has an obvious need to look strong and decisive. It's important to deter Iran. Still, this is a terrible statement to make about any nation, perhaps especially one with which we might someday be at war. After all, how would Americans react if a prominent Iranian said the same thing.

It is telling that Senator Clinton speaks with greater menace than do our own military leaders. To state the obvious, a massive attack of the sort described by Senator Clinton would be monstrous and crazy. As Omid Memarian notes, such an act would also be a crime, violating the Geneva Convention, international treaties against genocide, and our own uniform code of military justice. Senator Clinton's comments are especially dismaying when we are already equipped to respond to any attack the Iranians could mount.

To our military's enduring credit, it has spent billions of dollars developing smart weapons whose accuracy allows smaller warheads and less collateral damage. West Point cadets read and debate works such as Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars to ponder the wrenching dilemmas of counterinsurgency and preemptive war. One does not have to support the Iraq war or every military policy to realize that we have built very different armed forces from the one that firebombed German and Japanese cities and sometimes behaved shamefully in Vietnam.

Whatever difficulties we've encountered in Iraq, our forces needed only a few short weeks to maul Saddam Hussein's war machine that had fought Iran's military to a standstill in a long and devastating war. If Iran were foolish enough to attack Israel, Israel is quite capable of launching a devastating response. If Israel could not, our forces are equipped to severely punish the Iranian military and the political establishment that launched the strike without exacting massive collective retribution against the Iranian people with whom we have much in common. Iran is a sophisticated society. Everyone, from the president down to the lowliest cabdriver knows it would be crazy to attack the United States, Israel, or our other key allies.

Senator Clinton also speaks quite differently from the scientists who developed nuclear weapons, and who were often chastened by what these weapons had wrought. Four blocks from my office, a Henry Moore sculpture marks the spot where Enrico Fermi supervised the world's first nuclear reactor.

Fermi was a central figure in the Manhattan Project. He was equally famous among scientists for other achievements. He was perhaps the last great physicist who made fundamental discoveries as both a theoretician and a gifted experimentalist in the lab.

In 1949, Fermi and other Manhattan Project scientists tried in vain to prevent the development of the hydrogen bomb. In a famous (then-secret) statement, Fermi and another great scientist, I.I. Rabi, concluded:

It is clear that the use of such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground which gives a human being a certain individuality and dignity even if he happens to be a resident of an enemy country. It is evident to us that this would be the view of peoples in other countries. Its use would put the United States in a bad moral position relative to the peoples of the world.

Any postwar situation resulting from such a weapon would leave unresolvable enmities for generations. A desirable peace cannot come from such an inhuman application of force. The postwar problems would dwarf the problems which confront us at present....

The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon makes its very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light.

These words make more chilling reading today than they did 59 years ago. The fact is, atomic bombs are 1945 technology. Many determined nations with fairly rudimentary technical infrastructures could probably build these weapons if they so chose. Hydrogen bombs are more complicated. Yet their basic features have been widely understood since physicists unpacked the furnace-mechanisms of the sun seventy years ago. There are no deep secrets here.

Leaving aside the challenge of global warming, nuclear weapons proliferation is the most serious threat to peace and security in the world. The barriers to acquiring these weapons have declined in the post cold war world. Several countries appear to have enhanced their security and prestige by openly possessing these weapons. The great powers seem hesitant and divided in trying to stop this trend. We must do better, partly by getting a better grasp on loose nuclear materials, partly by negotiating new international agreements that address these dangers. Reducing our own nuclear stockpiles would be a helpful gesture in furthering these agreements.

We must also think, talk, and act differently about the use of mass violence. We must stand ready to defend ourselves and our allies in a dangerous world. Without abdicating this responsibility, we must try to diffuse the anger and hate that ultimately threaten everyone. One of the best things we can do is to encourage global norms of decency in which it becomes simply unthinkable to harm or terrorize innocent people in pursuit of any political cause or to unleash any weapon of mass destruction.

Elements of the Iranian regime pose real dangers. We are still the superpower with the world's most powerful military. Saber rattling does not become us. It frightens our allies and encourages adversaries to be even more fanatical than they would otherwise be. Loose talk about nuclear obliteration will not hasten the day that Iran is ruled by a more benign government that reflects the urbanity and tolerance of so many Iranian people.

Other than to scare up a few primary votes, it's hard to imagine anything good coming from Senator Clinton's unfortunate comments.

Postscript: My friend Mark Kleiman over at Reality-Based Community has a terrific short essay on the disastrous moral and diplomatic implications of Senator Clinton's comments:

Money quotes:

Seventy million people live in Iran. They are currently ruled by a religious dictatorship covered by a thin veneer of "controlled democracy": the voters can vote, but only for candidates the mullahs approve in advance....

The current Iranian regime has an unsure grip on power. Younger people and the educated urban elite (think of it as the Iranian version of the Obama constituency) hates the current ruling clique and would like to move toward democracy and civil liberty. Iran's wealth and military power make it a key player in the Middle East, and the fact that Iranians aren't Arabs means that Iran isn't necessarily part of the anti-Israel coalition. (The Shah was strongly pro-Israel, and that wasn't what caused him to fall.) Bringing about regime change in Iran by fostering the growth of democratic forces must rank very high on any intelligent list of American foreign policy objectives: much higher, for example, than achieving a stable Iraq....

It is precisely because the United States has the biggest stick in the history of the world that we can and must talk softly.

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