Saturday, July 19, 2008

Benny Morris - nuclear war against Iran

Benny Morris has an utterly terrifying article in yesterday's New York Times arguing that Israel should bomb Iran's nuclear sites sometime after the U.S. presidential election and before the next president is sworn in - or else there will be a nuclear war between Israel and Iran.

Because if the attack fails, the Middle East will almost certainly face a nuclear war — either through a subsequent pre-emptive Israeli nuclear strike or a nuclear exchange shortly after Iran gets the bomb.

He admits that if Israel's conventional strike fails, there will be Iranian counterattacks, both directly and through Iranian proxies like Hizbollah and Syria. He also says that it's unlikely that Western countries will then force Iran to abandon its nuclear program, which Iran will in turn work on even more strongly. His argument then slides into the possibility/probability that Israel will launch a nuclear first strike against Iran before Iran succeeds in building a nuclear weapon.

Such a situation would confront Israeli leaders with two agonizing, dismal choices. One is to allow the Iranians to acquire the bomb and hope for the best — meaning a nuclear standoff, with the prospect of mutual assured destruction preventing the Iranians from actually using the weapon. The other would be to use the Iranian counterstrikes as an excuse to escalate and use the only means available that will actually destroy the Iranian nuclear project: Israel’s own nuclear arsenal.

Given the fundamentalist, self-sacrificial mindset of the mullahs who run Iran, Israel knows that deterrence may not work as well as it did with the comparatively rational men who ran the Kremlin and White House during the cold war. They are likely to use any bomb they build, both because of ideology and because of fear of Israeli nuclear pre-emption. Thus an Israeli nuclear strike to prevent the Iranians from taking the final steps toward getting the bomb is probable. The alternative is letting Tehran have its bomb. In either case, a Middle Eastern nuclear holocaust would be in the cards.

Morris should not have written this article and the New York Times should not have published it. I think that this is one of the most irresponsible articles I have ever read. I think that it is quite possible to read Morris' article not only as descriptive of what might happen, but also as urging Israel to attack Iran conventionally, and if that doesn't work, launch a nuclear war against it. The Israeli government doesn't even admit publicly that it has a nuclear capability.

I assume that Morris really cares about Israel - if so, why is he writing such inflammatory words in an already dangerous situation? Not to speak of the moral implications of such a possibility - hasn't Morris thought about the absolute immorality of launching a nuclear first strike on a nation which has not attacked Israel?

Physicians for Social Responsibility produced a report in 2006 on the consequences of an American nuclear strike on Iran (using nuclear bunker-buster bombs with the purpose of destroying its underground nuclear installations in addition to conventional bombing). They estimate that about 2.6 million people would die in the first 48 hours after the attack. In the wider region, over 10 million would be exposed to significant radiation. (See the article for complete information and how they arrived at the numbers).

Gershom Gorenberg has a far more reasonable article on Iran and Israel in the most recent American Prospect, laying out the reasons why such an Israeli attack would be unwise and ineffective.

We should not be listening to Benny Morris and I hope that someone high-up in the Bush administration is informing the Israeli government right now that such an attack should not even be contemplated.


  1. People are entitled to their opinions. There may also be some good in expressing our worst fears right out there in the open. I don't agree with his position, but he is bringing out something we all fear, whatever his purpose.

    There is a lot of irresponsible writing in the scholarly world. Scholars are among the most arrogant people in the world. What I would love to do to some of their work. But you can't and to recommend any kind of censorship is not a particularly healthy idea. Nat Hentoff has it right. The only cure for bad speech is more speech, better speech.

    Leon Zitzer

  2. Leon, I wasn't advocating that the government suppress his article. I think it was very unwise for him to write this article and have it published in the New York Times. All it does is add to the overheated atmosphere - it doesn't contribute any useful information. And I think that he is advocating war against Iran, and if it leads to nuclear war - it doesn't seem to me that he thinks that's so bad.