Can We Handle It?

The poisonous, punishing politics of 2006 are already making me queasy. How on earth are our two great political parties going to come together to deal with this?

The debate on Iran is drifting toward the ugly question that the Bush administration would most like to avoid. That is: Is it preferable for the United States to live with the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran, or with those of a unilateral American military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities?

President Bush has never answered that question; instead, he and his State Department have repeatedly called an Iranian bomb “intolerable” while building a diplomatic coalition that won’t tolerate a military solution. But two of our more principled senators, Republican John McCain and Democrat Joe Lieberman, have this month faced the Iranian Choice — and both endorsed military action. McCain was most direct: “There is only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option,” he said on “Face the Nation.” “That is a nuclear-armed Iran.”


It’s easy to see why the Bush administration prefers ambiguity to McCain’s decisive judgment. After all, both options are terrible, and everyone can agree that diplomacy is worth a try. Yet Bush and both parties in Congress ought to be thinking through their own answers to the Iranian Choice, for two reasons. First, it looks more likely than not that the United States will, in the end, have to make that decision; and, second, the answer to the question ought to shape how the coming diplomatic phase is managed.

This is a heavy load of history, at a time when our fabric of our civic discourse seems frayed beyond patching; a time when the idea of reaching consensus is mocked as a sign of weakness or disloyalty.

Can the petty people in Washington put aside their spiteful grievances long enough to consider the problem of Iran as if it mattered beyond the next fundraiser or campaign ad?

Our country’s been so lucky. We thrive despite lousy leadership in every sector of society. But that’s the thing about luck. You can enjoy it, but you can’t trust it.


4 thoughts on “Can We Handle It?

  1. Thanks for your post. My point wasn’t to saber-rattle against Iran, exactly, but to point out that we’ve reached a point in our politics in which partisanship and personal agendas have made rational decision-making almost impossible. That is not the kind of environment suited for dealing with an issue with as many subtleties as the question of Iran’s nuclear position.

    Here’s a question that’s going to betray a certain amount of ignorance about Iran, but here goes. Why would a country with massive oil reserves need nuclear energy? Iran is not Japan in that respect. Iran could be self-sufficient for decades if not centuries, using conventional sources of energy. Nuclear power is costly. Why invest in it if you don’t have to?

  2. The influential Robert Kagan had a good column in the Washington Post on Sunday:

    The reasoning I heard for why Iran wants nuclear energy is that this will free the country to export its substantial natural gas and oil resources, which are Iran’s chief source of revenue. But, nuclear power, beyond the question of arms, still has some serious environmental issues to resolve. Iran is clearly earthquake country….I don’t suppose those reactors or waste storage facilities are located on dangerous fault lines, are they?

    Iran’s rhetoric belies its real interest in nuclear power development. However, the US and its allies should also take into account that Ahmadinejad is using this crisis to whip up nationalistic fury behind him….a rather classic political ploy. Too bad we seem to have such poor intelligence about Iran and its arms programs!

  3. Actually, not only does Iran have a good economic basis for wanted nuclear power, but the members of the current administration were key in encouraging Iran to go nuclear back in the 1970s so Iran could sell more oil rather than consume it at home:

    See “Past Arguments Don’t Square With Current Iran Policy” by
    By Dafna Linzer Washington Post Sun Mar 27 ’05:

    Also, the British Parliament has looked into this, and has concluded that there is a good argument for nuclear power in Iran:

    The fuel behind Iran’s nuclear drive
    By David Isenberg

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