Thursday, April 24, 2008

Unfolding a Mideast Nuclear Umbrella: A Positive Step Washington Could Take

Powerful political factions exist today in two Mideastern countries advocating an aggressive, militant foreign policy that is needlessly spiraling the region toward war. Many issues--including justice, economic development, security on a host of levels--need to be resolved to bring stability to the Mideast, but perhaps the most fundamental, because it is the ultimate red line, is nuclear security. In a word, the Mideast needs a nuclear umbrella – a believable guarantee that no regional state need fear a nuclear attack.

In Iran, Ahmadinejad, leader of the super-nationalist war (vs. Saddam) generation, is making a career out of pretending to be the 21st century’s Saladin. Whether Ahmadinejad or anyone else in Iran actually cares about the fate of Palestine is very much open to question; whether Ahmadinejad or anyone else in Iran would actually risk the security of their own country by fighting on behalf of Palestinians is even more doubtful. No matter; his rhetoric raises tensions; that, after all, is its purpose: it is the existence of such tensions that give Ahmadinejad his much-desired status. Those tensions are kindling; regardless of intent, the more dry kindling, the greater the danger posed by every spark.

In Israel, governing circles are dominated by a clique advocating not just overwhelming military dominance as the strategic solution to Israel’s security issues but, even after having now achieved that dominance, aggressive military solutions on a tactical level as well. For example, Israel not only insists on being the sole nuclear power of the region but also on resolving sociopolitical disputes in Gaza through military means. Were Israel to use its regional superpower standing as a security blanket to enable it to show tactical magnanimity, the insistence on total strategic dominance might, just barely, be justifiable, but to use it as the excuse to deny independence to marginalized, poverty-struck civilian populations is not only morally inexcusable but strategically irrational. It can only condemn Israeli citizens to endless war.

Focusing on either of these countries alone will do nothing to resolve the problem. Both factions must be dealt with simultaneously, for they stimulate each other’s excesses. In both Iran and Israel, the ruling faction asserts the self-fulfilling nonsense that "they" only understand force. Bounds need to be placed on the increasingly irrational rhetorical war, a highly contagious virus, to pave the way for reasoned discussions of differences. At the moment every effort to resolve any specific regional disagreement, e.g., resolution of the Golan Heights dispute, is sabotaged by the understandable hypnotic focus on nuclear fears. The most logical way to create an atmosphere conducive to solving problems would be to erect a regional structure for minimizing the threat of a nuclear attack.

We need not obsess over the mechanics of making this work. Were Washington to announce a clear policy that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in the Mideast and that it would condemn without reservation any party that was the first to use them, that would open the door to devising a believable regional nuclear umbrella.

Umbrellas with holes don’t work. A nuclear umbrella must protect all regional states equally to have value. Were Washington to guarantee the nuclear security of all regional states, then the region would have escaped its most emotional concern and would be able to begin to think rationally about how to solve all the other problems it faces.

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