Whatever you may think of President George W. Bush and his record, there's no denying him one character trait: courage. He has never been deterred from doing what he believes to be right by fear or nervousness. And courage, as we constantly need remind ourselves, is indispensable to successful statesmanship. It may be that Mr. Bush will need to display a supreme act of courage before leaving the White House: to decide what the U.S. response will be to Iran's efforts to acquire an aggressive nuclear capability. This should not be left for Mr. Bush's successor to deal with early in his or her presidency.
Of course, the easy way out would be to leave the decision and action to Israel, confining U.S. participation to ensuring that the action is adequate and successful. Israel has always been the prime target of an Iranian nuclear bomb and the chief reason that the Ahmadinejad regime is striving so hard to make one. Of course, Iran's government is not representative of the majority of its people. Most, being sensible and civilized, have no desire to engage in a nuclear war with Israelor in any other war for that matter.
But the regime, run by fanatics, is likely to remain in power for the foreseeable future. It has made many statements regarding the acquisition of nuclear power, some of them obvious lies and others contradictory. But in view of Iran's declared policy toward Israelthat it will be content with nothing less than Israel's eradicationwe must assume that once the regime acquires nuclear weapons it will use them against Israel at the earliest opportunity.
That is certainly the view taken by the Israelis. The country is too small and fragile to survive even a single nuclear strike from Iran. Such a brutal and evil act would be a second Holocaust, one from which the Jewish people might never recover. Therefore, if Iran persists in its plans, it's only a matter of time before the Israelis will be obliged to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. In September Israel apparently acted against a putative nuclear weapons plant in Syriasuccessfully. It has chosen to keep silent about this strike, presumably because it serves as a dress rehearsal and experience-gathering operation for a similar but much larger strike against Iran.
Certainly Israel's preemptive strike plans against Iran are well advanced and constantly being improved. In the last resort, I believe Israel could conduct such a military operation on its own and in such a way as to delay Iran's acquisition of nuclear power for many years. Nevertheless, to leave it to the Israelis would be both cowardly and imprudent.
The Anglo-French use of Israel as a surrogate invader of Egypt during the 1956 Suez War is an example of dishonesty that we now should bear in mind: It did not work. The collusion involved was quickly exposed and seen by the worldnotably the Eisenhower Administrationas dishonorable and squalid. It damaged Britain's position in the Middle East, as well as the West's as a whole, with no countervailing military advantage.
The U.S. would be wise to avoid any such subterfuge. If one has justice on one's side, it always pays to be honest and open. If Iran persists in its nuclear efforts, then at a certain point Mr. Bush should make his intentions clearand in the following terms.
"Let those who currently rule Iran take heed, for this will be our only warning. Israel is a democracy and America's friend and ally. A nuclear attack or any other act of aggression against Israel and its people is totally unacceptable to the U.S.
"If at any point the Israelis judge an Iranian nuclear assault on their people to be feasibleand this is confirmed by our own intelligence sourcesthe U.S. will not only support an Israeli preemptive strike against Iranian facilities but also give the Israeli armed forces any assistance they may need to make such a strike effective.
"Furthermore, in certain circumstances the U.S. may judge it to be in its own national interest to participate directly in the destruction of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. The Iranian regime must therefore realize that its pursuit of nuclear weapons will be interpreted as tantamount to a declaration of war against Israel and even the U.S. itself. In such circumstances American action in self-defense will take place on whatever scale deemed necessaryusing whatever weapons are appropriateand will commence without warning."
In my view the U.S. should find an early occasion to issue such a declaration. The Ahmadinejad regime holds power increasingly by force and terror. It may be, then, that the Iranian peopleor even the armed forceswould be encouraged to replace those men leading them into a catastrophic conflict against a nuclear-armed Israel, as well as the world's strongest military power. At any rate, America's position would be clear beyond any possible doubt. Such a declaration also might persuade those nations whose attitudes toward Iran's possession of nuclear weapons have been ambivalent to recognize just how dangerous Iran's current policies are and seek to change them.
For President Bush to grasp the nettle in such a way, and in good time, will take courage. But as we all know, courage is not a virtue he lacks.