by Joe Shea
March 19, 2012
ISRAEL, IRAN AND 'MORAL EQUIVALENCE'
BRADENTON, Fla., March 19, 2012 -- The great American writer and philosopher Henry James coined the term "moral equivalence," and everywhere in the Middle East, the equation it describes is held fast to diplomats' hearts. The phrase is defined in Wikipedia thusly:
"Moral equivalence is a term used in political debate, usually to criticize any denial that a moral hierarchy can be assessed of two sides in a conflict, or in the actions or tactics of two sides. The term originates from a 1906 address by William James entitled The Moral Equivalent of War, subsequently published in essay form in 1910."There's another, simpler and older saying, too: "What's good for the goose is good for the gander."
We are confronted in the Iran-Israel entanglement with the core of these two ideas. Israel has been openly planning an attack on Iran and pleading with the United States to get support for it; Iran has been saying it plans to wipe Israel off the map, a rather more ambitious idea. But in "moral equivalence," the two find a balance that has so far eluded most thinkers in the West, but none in the Middle East.
If Israel repeatedly threatens to attack Iran in the near term, and American leaders openly entertain discussions of that possibility with Israeli leaders, what moral bar exists to Iran attacking Israel to avoid the planned attack?
Before you go ballistic, try to put yourself in the shoes of the Iranian military. For better or worse, no hard evidence of an advanced nuclear weapons program has been discovered by the U.S. intelligence establishment. On the Israeli side, however, the widespread belief is that Israel has at least 260 nuclear weapons at its base in Dimona. So a nuclear-tipped spear from Israel is weighed against a nuclear-tipped lance from Iran, but actually, one side is lacking that nuclear tip. Israel does have the spear. Is Israel an existential threat to Iran, as Israel argues Iran is to Israel?
Israel's arsenal of nuclear weapons would probably have to be completely exhausted to wipe Iran off the map of the 221 nations of Earth, which has never been it ststaed ambition. Iran could wipe out Israel with four or five nuclear weapons - if it has any.
Frankly, Iran's hesitation to attack Israel is based on sound military strategy. Iranian planes would be defenseless in Israeli airspace, and so would its ballistic missiles, while after a small amount of time Iran's extensive air defenses would be immobilized. What could happen to change this balance is an Iranian coalition that used Hezbollah, Hamas and the Syrians as the forward elements of a ground invasion that would be followed up by the delivery of regular Iranian infantry in as great a number as Iran could afford.
That substantial coalition would likely be defeated, but it would take most of Israel's military might to do it. Iran would have little left to fight with, and a dearth of allies left to fight for it. With both nations exhausted, Pakistan would play a critical role. It would have to decide whether it is a modern nuclear state or a pre-modern one, and it would have to face the very real threat of a nuclear reprisal by India if it chose to attack Israel on Iran's behalf, as one of Pakistan's diplomats recently said it would do if Iran was attacked.
Now comes news on the front page of the New York Times, whose writers (Judith Miller, for instance) fudged the truth about the Iraq war, that Pentagon war games - supposedly not meant to posit a U.S. military involvement in the struggle - would lead to a dramatically wider war. Indeed, it is hard to stand still when so many pieces on the board are moving as fast as they can.
Some run to trouble, and some run from it. But before the running starts, there are key steps the United States, the Mossad and any of its allies that choose to help can take. The very first of those would be to decapitate the Syrian regime that is slowly devastating its own cities and people. Removing Syria from the equation would be one of the very first acts in any likely Israel attack on Iran, and for good reason. Facing one well-armed nation is enough; facing another backed by Iran is an awful lot to ask of Israel's valiant army. If it can be eliminated now by covert means, it should be. There is no moral reason to stand back from executing the Assad government.
It is harder by far to eliminate the Hamas irregulars without heavy Israeli casualties, and the same is nearly as true for Hezbollah elements. Hamas surely has plans for a infrastructure attack on Israel that have been long in the making; Hezbollah has both men and weapons to support such an attack. It would certainly have an air of desperation, with assaults on both civilian and cultural targets, such as the Knesset and the Israeli forces at the Temple Mount.
Indeed, early control and capture by Hamas of the Temple Mount, and even East Jerusalem, which Israel would have little manpower to defend in wartime, would galvanize a great many Muslims who might be on the fence about the morality and wisdom of an Iranian attack. It is something Israel would have to stop, even at great cost. It is uncertain if U.S. largesse and diplomacy could contain the jihadist instincts of Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Morocco in those circumstances.
Capture of the Temple Mount would almost certainly galvanize a rapid and dangerous overthrow of the Pakistani government and its entrance on several fronts into the war. The U.S. would be unable to restrain the Pakistanis with threats of a cutoff of aid; that may well occur even before any war starts. It would require doomsday threats by our Indian allies to slow the Pakistani juggernaut. Meanwhile, extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan would do all they can to keep U.S. forces in both nations occupied.
Worldwide attacks against Western capitals and persons should be anticipated, and may grow in number in the week or so leading up to an attack, especially if the Temple Mount is seized. U.S. forces would be restrained by a law and treaty from joining the defense of these cultural treasures. It is very likely the most draconian nightmares of progressives about martial law and internment camps (for Muslims living here) would become realized under recently enacted laws and Executive Order decrees; civil unrest in America would again become a reality. Gas might be rationed throughout the U.S. and Europe. The Saudis would face rebellions such as they have never seen before, and the Palestinians in Jordan would surely attempt to overthrow its pro-Western leadership.
There is absolutely nothing pretty about the result of an Israeli or Iranian attack, or U.S. involvement. There is only great cost in blood and wealth.
Israel has vowed to use nuclear weapons if the Jewish people appear to be in danger of extinction once again. When one considers the essential elements of Israel's identity, i.e., the fact that they number just a handful in terms of targets - the Temple Mount, the Wailing Wall, the Knesset, etc. - there is a disadvantage for Israel. Erasing Iran's identity, which in a sense has none but its Persian language and Muslim faith, would be much more difficult. Ideas are far harder to kill than buildings.
The truth is that should Iran feel it has become empowered to attack Israel first, and Israel fails to decapitate the Syrian government, Israel well could lose the engagement until nuclear weapons are used. Then, everyone would lose.
The world's leaders must become more forceful in their diplomatic and military pressure on both nations to avoid war - at any cost, as they say.
Joe Shea has been a war and foreign correspondent in several conflicts.