Leon Panetta at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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Lax Americana

The U.S. could stop Iran from going nuclear. But policy-makers won’t risk the repercussions of a devastating attack on the Islamic Republic.

Lee Smith
December 07, 2011
Leon Panetta at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

First came the tech bubble. Then came the housing bubble. Now the bubble of U.S. power is about to burst. A half-century-long Pax Americana is coming undone because our elected officials would rather tell each other—and the public—soothing fictions about the Middle East rather than face reality. Just as there’s no law of nature that says U.S. real-estate prices will always go up, there’s nothing engraved in stone that says the United States is always going to be prosperous and secure. The party is about to stop.

Nobody wants to hear the bad news, which only ensures it will get worse. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February was heralded with sunny optimism in Washington as the birth of an Egyptian liberal democracy, even though the facts were rather obviously otherwise. It was clear that free elections in Egypt would mean the rise of the Islamists, and last week we saw just that: In the country’s first round of parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood won the support of 40 percent of the electorate. The Salafists—hard-line Islamists whose 7th-century dress reflects their model for the ideal Islamic state—got 25 percent of the votes. All facts to the contrary, we’re now being told by policy-makers that these Islamists, even those who openly align themselves with Osama Bin Laden, aren’t so scary after all. In other words, the U.S. reaction to the Egyptian mess is that there’s nothing we can, or will, do about it, so best to get used to the new reality.

The same resigned attitude goes for Iranian nuclear weapons. Sure, there’s been plenty of high-toned rhetoric. President George W. Bush said Iran was part of the axis of evil, and President Barack Obama called an Iranian bomb “unacceptable.” But as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta scolded the Israelis to get back to the “damn table” with the Palestinians last week, he also explained why Washington is ultimately not going to stop the Iranians from getting the bomb. First of all, Panetta explained, a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran would simply delay the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, not finish it for good. Even then, he said, the United States “could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases.” Furthermore, according to Panetta, a strike could mean “severe economic consequences” that could negatively affect “a fragile economy here in the United States.” It’s not just Panetta who makes this argument: His predecessor, Robert Gates, who worked for Bush before Obama, has made the same claims.

Of course, U.S. officials don’t want Islamists running the largest Arab state, or Iran getting a bomb. But neither Democratic nor Republican policy-makers are willing to pay the electoral and geopolitical price for making sure these bad things don’t happen. Instead, these policy-makers and these analysts protest that once a country is determined to get a nuke, there’s no stopping it. Besides, they claim, even if Iran does get a bomb, we can deter and contain it.

The truth is that the United States can stop the Iranian nuclear program any time it wants. It has the military capacity to turn the lights off across the country, cripple the economy, and bring the regime to its knees—by bombing its oil and natural-gas fields, its ports, power plants, reservoirs, and dams as well as its nuclear facilities. The fact that the United States has the power of life and death over 80 million Iranians may not make the rest of the world comfortable. But there’s no use lying about it. Similarly, American policy-makers continue to pretend that the fall of Mubarak was a triumph for U.S. values when the truth is that it was a catastrophe for U.S. interests. Why are we so confused about our priorities? And why are we insisting on our weakness?

The problem is that at the end of the Cold War the United States government turned away from pursuing our national interests and toward an abstract idea of American transcendence. Talk of interests, allies, balance of power, and so on began to seem a little vulgar. Part of this has to do with the rise of a generation of policy-makers who didn’t know from first-hand experience what it took to win the Cold War. To younger policy-makers, the triumph of the United States was inevitable. It represented, as Francis Fukuyama saw it, the final synthesis of a Hegelian dialectic—the end of history. The reality is that it was messy, and the outcome was never certain.

In the past, U.S. foreign policy-makers saw the world in stark terms. For instance: In the old view, it would be a good thing for the rulers of Iran to fall because they are enemies; and it is bad for Mubarak to fall since he is an ally. The new dispensation is instead premised on catchwords like “consistency.” If we want the mullahs toppled, the new thinking goes, then for the sake of consistency we should also demand Mubarak leave. The United States, you see, is no longer a normal country like all the rest pursuing its national interests. It’s a set of values.

Just one generation ago, this country was led by policy-makers who helped both sides in the decade-long Iran-Iraq war kill each other because they believed that the bloodbath kept American citizens safe. Now we’re governed by men and women who want to make sure the Syrian opposition is sufficiently devoted to pluralism before the White House decides if bringing down the anti-American dictator Bashar al-Assad is a good thing. It’s a noble goal to want Syrians to treat each other as Americans treat each other. But just because it’s a hopeful ideal doesn’t make it sound foreign policy. No one says we have to be as cynical as France, but we do need to conduct our dealings with other countries as though we, too, were a normal country with national interests.

The fact is that there are lots of countries with fine values, like most of Northern Europe. What makes the United States a superpower, the foundation of our prosperity and security, is not our values, but our policies. I am referring specifically to those policies that took us to war against the Germans in Europe and the Japanese in Asia in World War II and the Soviets on four continents during the Cold War.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Let us both commemorate and celebrate the American men and women who handed us as part of our birthright the free trade in Europe and the Pacific that made this country wealthy beyond comparison. A major part of our inheritance includes the Persian Gulf, through which the free flow of oil at affordable prices has made possible much of what we now take for granted, like the Interstate highway system, fresh vegetables on our plate, the social and geographic mobility that is a signature of our way of life.

There is always a price for being American. Everyone knows the cost of bringing the Iranian nuclear program to an end. The Iranians are going to shoot at U.S. troops based in the Middle East and attack soft targets in the United States—the Mall of America, the Port of Los Angeles, Disney World, who knows? And the price of oil is going to rise. The question is, are we are willing to pay for all that? If not, we shouldn’t be surprised when the bubble bursts.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.