Even before the P5 +1 negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear program reach a conclusion, hawks in the United States are beating their war drums. Longtime neoconservative activist Joshua Muravchik published a piece in the Washington Post on March 13 ridiculing the notion that diplomacy might work with Tehran, insisting that war as the only prudent alternative. Less than two weeks later, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton published an op-ed in the New York Times advocating air strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites.
Two features of such proposals stand out. First, Muravchik, Bolton and other hawks are cavalier about the challenge of containing the effects of the new Middle East war that they want to initiate. In a March 25 debate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a less famous hawk, Georgetown University Associate Professor Matthew Kroenig, emphasized that he merely proposed air strikes, not putting U.S. boots on the ground. He was a tad vague, though, about what Washington’s response would be if, or more likely when, Iran retaliated against American or allied targets. Bolton and other war proponents also tend to avoid discussing that messy detail.
The second prominent feature in the hawkish case is the eerie similarity of their arguments to those made fifty years ago regarding Communist China’s nuclear program. Today’s proponents of preemptive war insist that Iran’s clerical regime is irrational and, therefore, cannot be deterred. According to that logic, a nuclear-armed Tehran would at a minimum use its arsenal to threaten and intimidate its neighbors, thereby putting the Middle East under the domination of a virulently anti-Western power. Even worse, hawks insist, Iran might well use its nukes against Israel or even U.S. forces in the region, plunging the world into the nightmare of nuclear war.
Yet even Israeli intelligence officials have concluded that Iran’s leaders are not irrational, much less suicidal. And suicidal they would have to be to start such a conflict against Israel—a country that has 150 to 300 nuclear weapons. The mullahs would have to be even more suicidal to initiate a nuclear war with the United States and its arsenal of several thousand nuclear weapons.
The Cold War–era predecessors of today’s advocates of preemptive air strikes used strikingly similar logic regarding China’s embryonic nuclear-weapons program. National Review, the flagship publication of the conservative movement, published two editorials in 1965 warning that China’s communist leaders could not be deterred the way that the United States had deterred the Soviet Union. The second editorial appeared with the headline “Bomb the Bang.” National Review’s editors admonished U.S. officials not to sit passively “like a man who watches and waits while the guillotine is constructed to chop his head off.”
The assumption that Maoist China was so reckless that it would turn East Asia into a pile of radioactive rubble came through clearly in those editorials. Officials in Lyndon Johnson’s administration shared those fears. Walt W. Rostow, who served as Johnson’s national-security adviser, later told me that the administration seriously considered conducting preemptive air strikes, either alone or in conjunction with an equally worried USSR, to thwart China’s nuclear ambitions.
Proponents of that course actually had more evidence than the current crop of Iranophobes to justify their fears. Some of the statements by Mao Zedong and his associates were truly alarming. In a speech to the Eighth Party Congress in May 1958, Mao urged his countrymen not to flinch from the prospect of war, even nuclear war. Noting that China had lost huge percentages—sometimes as much as one half—of its population in previous eras, Mao argued that “the best outcome” of a nuclear war might be that “only half of the population is left, and the second best may be only one third.” Either way, he predicted, the result would be the “total elimination of capitalism” and the onset of “permanent peace.” Therefore, “It is not a bad thing.”
Writing in Red Flag, the main ideological publication of the Communist Party in the 1960s, General Lo Jui-ching argued that while a nuclear war would cause “sacrifices and destruction, it will also educate people.” Therefore, he stressed, the party must give “first priority” to preparing the Chinese public psychologically for such a war. One would be hard-pressed to find comments from Iran’s clerical leaders comparable to the extraordinarily scary and inflammatory statements of Mao and his colleagues. Mao’s and Lo’s comments led prominent nuclear scientist Ralph Lapp, writing in the pages of Life Magazine, to conclude that Chinese leaders “may not be rationally deterred from starting a nuclear war.” For them, he worried, “the unthinkable may be thinkable.”
Yet when China joined the global nuclear-weapons club later in the 1960s, it did not behave in a reckless fashion. That gap between statements and behavior confirms an observation that has been valid throughout history. Although political elites may sometimes engage in apocalyptic rhetoric, their actions are almost never suicidal. Fortunately, cooler heads in the U.S. foreign-policy community prevailed regarding China’s nuclear program, and the United States never launched a preemptive war. Relations with Beijing today would likely be far different—and vastly more hostile—if the hawks of that earlier era had won the debate. American leaders face a similar choice today regarding Iran, and one hopes that they are wise enough to spurn the irresponsible advice of taking a fateful—potentially disastrous—military action.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The National Interest, is the author of nine books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more than 600 articles and policy studies on international affairs.