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September 28, 2009

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Where Iran is concerned: there is no way we are going to act militarily there. Not even Bush was rash enough for that, and the circumstances are infinitely less propitious now than when he was considering an attack. It's simply not going to happen. Embroiled in two ground wars and economically limping; at time when we've regained diplomatic leverage in the Middle East, including among enemies and frenemies of Iran (Syria, Saudi Arabia, Russia) who can put the screws to Tehran more effectively than we can; at a time when Iran's own people and important factions of its secular government and even its theocracy have displayed their dissent with its politics; and at a time when Israel, our ward where Iran is concerned, is losing clout in Washington by the day, as they rightly should given that they just put in office the childish, opportunistic Netanyahu and his preposterous, jingoistic attack dog Avigdor Leiberman, who incidentally is soon to indicted by his own government... It is simply not going to happen. We have neither the inclination, nor the support, nor the popular will -- nor, most importantly, the need -- to attack Iran. In Tehran there rules a retrograde, if fractured, theocracy, yes, and the country's somewhat-elected president is a millenarian and a thoroughgoing anti-Semite. But that doesn't mean he or the Ayatollahs are stupid. They're not. They know very well they can't withstand a war with Israel, which has the world's third most powerful military and a nuclear program that dwarfs theirs. Iran is not attempting to build a military nuclear program because it thinks it can defeat Israel, or Saudi Arabia, or even France for that matter. It wants a nuclear program as a diplomatic bargaining chip. It is the issue of Israel's vulnerability and that issue alone that would be the deciding factor in any US decision to attack Iran, and Israel is not vulnerable to Iran. Iran knows it. Washington knows it. As does Israel, but Netanyahu was elected in large part on a platform of castigating Iran so don't expect to hear that obvious and plain fact from him anytime soon. As does, for that matter, Russia, which is why Putin and Medvedev have begun negotiating with Washington on Iran, which in turn is why we scrapped the Bush-conceived European missile plan. If Israel is our querulous ward, Iran is, for the moment, Russia's, and Moscow knows that it has very little to gain by continuing in its myopic support of Ahmedinijad. The diplomatic landscape is changing by the day, I think for the better, despite the subterfuge of these recent and not very threatening missile tests.

The much more important half of this question is of course Afghanistan. Important not just to the US, but to Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East, and indeed to the very notion of civilized society and representative government. For while Iran might be governed, badly and only partially, by a retrograde theocracy and a Holocaust-denying martinet patiently awaiting the return of the Mahdi, it is, in fact, a democracy, indeed a very youthful and thriving one, at three decades in, which until recently boasted some of the most orderly and best-attended elections in the world. The Taliban, by contrast, is a retrograde, misogynist, theocratic and thoroughly malevolent organization uninterested in governance in anything like the post-Medieval sense of the term and hated by the majority of the Afghan population, who rely on the it for little more than the occasional caning and the selling of poppy crops at market. But if we leave Afghanistan the Taliban is, unpopular and inept as it may be, what will remain, and that is, to my mind, flatly unacceptable. What's more, if we pull out of Afghanistan not only will the Taliban take that country, but it will take increasing swaths of Pakistan, which, unlike Iran, already has a nuclear arsenal. This prospect may pose less of a threat to Israel -- or at least Israeli politicians have not yet seen fit to scare Israelis about it, yet -- but a greater threat to our allies in Europe and our newest and most important ally in Asia, namely India, which, it must be added, is the only other regional power with a nuclear arsenal, and which, but for our cajoling and counsel, may have already attacked Islamabad or Karachi at this point. A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and Taliban-influenced and destabilized Pakistan are, in other words, a far greater threat to our allies and interests than is an Iran with a couple of circa-1951-strength nukes.

But we haven't touched on the worst consequence of a US pullout from Afghanistan: a resurgent Al Qeada. If the Taliban poses a threat to Europe and much of Asia, Al Qeada poses a threat to the entire world, as they've amply demonstrated. There are unmistakable strains of malevolence in Iran, there is no doubt, as there are in all of the unsavory countries with whom we have to negotiate to maintain the fragile peace that is the current alternative to a third war. But Al Qeada is pure malevolence.

It's my hope, then, that Gates and Obama elect to give McChrystal what he needs to keep fighting in Afghanistan. It's going to be an expensive and very long war, but it is, for the moment, not one we can in good conscience give up on.

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