Reading Tuchman in Tehran
While traveling in London this past week, I could not help but to be reminded of the enormous sacrifices that have been made by nations in times of war. It seems as though every street has a memorial to a particular war or regiment, most striking of all is The Cenotaph, an empty tomb that stands in the middle of Whitehall. Constructed shortly after the First World War, the tomb bears the inscription “The Glorious Dead,” words chosen by Rudyard Kipling to remember those who have given their lives for each of their nations in all wars around the world. Indeed, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War it is worth reminding ourselves that wars are difficult to control - even if limited by intent or design.
As Barbara Tuchman reminds us in The Guns of August, it is doubtful that at the outbreak of war in 1914 anyone would have predicted a war that ended with well over 10 million dead by its conclusion. If the experience of the First and Second World Wars is not enough to remind us, then the experience of war in Afghanistan and Iraq – both begun with “limited” objectives and timelines – should shake the world from the belief that wars can deliberately be limited with any degree of certainty. The current tension between Israel and Iran, including incredibly heated rhetoric calling for pre-emptive actions and assassinations is eerily reminiscent of the period before the summer of 1914, when the sense of “inevitability” of war seized national leaders. Israel feels that pre-emptive action against Iran may be needed to prevent an existential threat – Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. While Iran has not crossed the point of no return in becoming a nuclear state, Israel may not be willing to risk that its own nuclear capability could deter a nuclear armed Iran. Indeed, for Israel, a nation whose collective memory includes the Holocaust, Iranian threats of nuclear “extermination” may not seem idle threats.
The point is that the tinder is dry, the flints are primed, and we are on the brink of war in the Middle-East – a war that is likely to go well beyond the borders of Israel and Iran. The world cannot simply sit and wait for the spark. It is time for Israel and Iran to talk. It is time for Iran to recognize the state of Israel and to understand that acquiring a nuclear weapon may make Iran less safe. Iran must allow IAEA inspectors to complete their inspection missions unhindered. If the Iranian government refuses, then the Iranian people need to truly consider whether it is time to choose between their nation and their leaders. This crisis is bigger than Khamenei or Ahmedinejad and their continued intransigence is threatening the Iranian people.
For their part – the Israelis must weigh the true consequences of pre-emptive war and recognize that such action may be a greater risk to Israeli lives than a nuclear armed Iran. For the United States, this continuing crisis comes at a time when our nation is tired after over a decade of war in Afghanistan, a tremendously costly struggle in Iraq, and a man-made humanitarian disaster in Syria precipitated by a despicable leader who may have to be stopped through military force. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey have correctly explained the potential risks posed by a nuclear Iran as well as the additional risks posed by pre-emptive military action by Israel. In the end, military action will at best only delay Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
Therefore, these ambitions must be halted through other means. The recent efforts at enhanced sanctions, an effort including European participation, is a strong sign that the world is committed to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state, while also avoiding the need for massive military action. It is not, as some would suggest, a matter of being willing to wage war to back up talk. It’s a matter of knowing when a nation has no choice but to go to war. We have not exhausted all options just yet. History is replete with as many examples of prudent military action as it is risks taken on behalf of peace. Our leaders must remember that we still go to war, as Thucydides wrote over 2000 years ago, out of fear for our own security, justice and honor, and self-interest. There is certainly enough fear at this point, but it is time to take the edge off rhetoric and move away from the certainty of conflict.
All it will take is one misunderstanding, one accident, or one bungled action for the Middle East to be plunged into a calamity. As Barbara Tuchman wrote almost fifty years ago, “war is the unfolding of miscalculations.” Hopefully, someone in Tehran – and in Tel Aviv – is reading Tuchman.
Dr. Mark R. Jacobson is a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC and previously worked at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. He has served as both an Army and Navy Reservist and deployed to Bosnia in 1996 and Afghanistan in 2006.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.