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Author and historian Arthur Herman on what to do about Iran, and it doesn’t include a lot of talking and diplomacy.

Thursday, March 29, 2007
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HH: Arthur Herman has been on this program before, eminent historian, author of To Rule The Waves: How The British Navy Shaped The Modern World. His next book is going to be on Gandhi and Churchill. But it is about the British Navy we are concerned today. So Professor Herman, good to have you back, thank you for joining us.

AH: Hey, it’s a great pleasure to be with you, Hugh.

HH: I also want to tell people, and we’ll get to this, at Opinionjournal.com today, Professor Herman’s article on how to win in Iraq, which talks with great authority about the French combat of the Algerian insurgents. You’ve got to read that. We’ll get to that, but let’s start here. Is this the lowest moment in 400 years for the British Navy, Arthur Herman?

AH: I would say it kind of ranks up there. I would say the idea that you would have, as we discovered…of course, the Navy didn’t…Ministry of Defense in the Blair government didn’t release the information, but we discovered it from blogs, which then got leaked to reporters, that they ordered the captain and crew of the HMS Cornwall not to open fire when the Iranians came and hijacked those 15 sailors and Marines. That’s pretty bad. That’s a pretty bad moment.

HH: You also point in your New York Post column yesterday, I didn’t know that on March 7th, Tony Blair’s Labor government went ahead with drastic cuts in the budget of the number of ships in Great Britain. “By this time next year,” you wrote, “the once vaunted Royal Navy will be about the size of the Belgian Navy, while its officers face a five year moratorium on all promotions.”

AH: Yes.

HH: Has Great Britain just decided to get out of the pretend to be a great power game?

AH: I think they got out of…I mean, for a long time, they’ve been fighting, shall we say, above their weight, if you follow me.

HH: Yup.

AH: But it’s also been, as I’ve explained in the New York Post article, it was also a kind of mark of honor. It was part of the whole tradition of the Royal Navy, of Great Britain as being a power that kind of wasn’t just sort of rule the waves in an imperial sense, but does it with a degree of even-handedness, that protects the community of nations, and the economic interests that link us all together, and that the Royal Navy is a kind of symbol of an umpire in world conflicts, and world crisis points. And they’re basically abdicating that role now, and they’re signing on to become part of Europe, and part of the European defense community, which I think is a big mistake on their part, and this is part of what happens when you do that.

HH: Does it have to be that way, Arthur Herman, because yesterday, Newt Gingrich argued on this program that the government ought to simply say to the Iranians in 30 days, we will blow up your one refinery, and then we will stop your tankers, and then you will be walking behind ox carts. What do you think of his suggestion?

AH: Well, I think he’s overestimating the time it would take. It would probably be closer to ten to twelve days, actually. I mean, Iran basically imports about 40% of its petroleum needs. And if you knock our the handful of refineries that work, and oil storage tanks by air strikes, let’s say, joint British and American air strikes, things would…they’d dry out a lot faster than that. But I think the main thing here is the Iranians wanted, they wanted to use this hostage crisis to drive a wedge between the British and the Americans. And instead, they’ve had the opposite effect. The Americans, the conversations that we know have taken place between Bush and Blair, that Bush has backed him up absolutely, that you’ve got two aircraft carriers there in the region right now, that could use the kind of military force that the Brits would need if they need it, the Iranians, to a degree, miscalculated. But the real question is…by the way, the British are willing to run the risk, take the steps that are necessary to sort of say this is truly unacceptable, and not just in a diplomatic sense, but in a military sense, to, as you say, to make the kinds of moves that make it clear that the British can still throw their weight around. You know, the British Navy is still large enough right now to still have two aircraft carriers, although they’re slated to be shut down now under the new Blair budget, they still have two aircraft carriers that can easily destroy the Iranian Navy by themselves.

HH: Now Arthur Herman, though, we saw that Iran miscalculated through their proxy last summer…

AH: Right.

HH: Israel responded with massive force. Of course it was a draw to some extent, but again, Hezbollah has not since attacked Israel, and that tells us something about massive responses. But the worry is any kind of action against Iran will unleash the Hezbollah affiliate league across the globe.

AH: Across the globe. That is always the excuse for inaction. You know, one can always, especially if you’re talking with, to diplomats and politicians, find excuses for doing nothing, and especially for avoiding a kind of military action. And of course, that’s always the claim that’s made, that somehow if we do this, they’ll be suicide bombers in Houston, and London and Manchester and around the world to respond to it. You know, I think to a degree, that terrorist threat is overestimated as being a kind of organized terrorist threat, the idea that Iran can sort of simply push a button and suddenly, these people are going to appear all over the globe, but especially if they know the Iranian is doomed, which it would be if we took serious military action, and I think Newt is right about that.

HH: What about…

AH: Think about the situation we would be in. I mean, think about the implications of that, that the idea that we cannot deal forthrightly with a foreign power out of fear that somehow, they’re going to have a terrorist network that’s going to set in motion all of these kinds of disasters. Isn’t that really an argument for saying it’s time for this regime to come down?

HH: Yes.

AH: And for us to take the actions that are necessary to prevent this kind of international blackmail? It seems obvious to me, but obviously, in the world of the U.N. and the diplomats and politicians, what is obvious is what they spend most of their time to avoid.

HH: Now do you believe it’s possible that in fact, Bush and Blair have set about on that course, but that obviously, secrecy…

AH: I don’t.

HH: You don’t? Why not?

AH: And I think that it may come to that, as this crisis is protracted. You know, the Iran hostage crisis of ’79-’80, which I know is very much on your mind, and everybody’s mind in comparison with this one, in the end, even Jimmy Carter had to order military action to try and rescue the hostages. Even he reached his limit in dealing with these people. But I think in Blair’s case, he is, you know, he’s a very calculating man. He’s got a sense of what his political fortunes are, and he’s hanging on by his fingernails right now in power.

HH: Right.

AH: So the pressure is growing around him to quit, and I think he feels that if he does act more sort of forcefully than he has right now, that the streets will be filled with protestors, Muslim and anti-war protestors. There may be an incident, perhaps in London, and then his government’s doomed. And if that happens, then the role of the British as our allies in the war on terror is very much up in the air, very much in jeopardy. And I think he’s weighing that possibility against the question of the end of his government, and what that might mean against taking some kind of action to restore British pride.

HH: He also has to worry about history, though, and he is at the end of his rope. And if he goes out with hostages in Tehran, that will color his ten years as prime minister.

AH: Well, I know, Hugh, I think you just put your finger on it.

HH: Right.

AH: And Charles de Gaulle once said, who knew politics, he said at some point, every statesman reaches a point where he has to either betray the electorate or betray his country. And I think Blair’s kind of approaching that point. Does he act in order to save his own prime ministership and hold onto power? Or does he act in order to restore British pride and integrity by saying this will not stand, and we need to take the actions that are necessary in order to bring our people home.

HH: And do you sense from the public conversation, Arthur Herman, that the public is aware of the stakes here? I find the non-coverage of this incident really quite amazing.

AH: Well, if you’ve followed the British coverage, it’s even more astonishing, I think, even to Americans, because the coverage there is simply how do we get through this as quickly and as painlessly as possible, and why is it that we don’t have diplomatic relations with Iran that might solve this problem in a matter of days or hours. I think there is very much an attitude in Britain, as there is among the part of the public here, which is that in some ways, all of this is a great inconvenience, and these are largely symbolic issues and questions that we could clear up just by simply telling the Iranians oh, that’s okay, we’re sorry we crossed into your waters, and move on from there. But let’s not forget the same thing happened in 2004.

HH: Right.

AH: The Iranians seized three British sailors, the British got them freed, didn’t make any kind of fuss, basically let bygones be bygones, and look where they are now.

– – – –

HH: Professor Herman, I talk to a lot of historians for some reason, Victor Davis Hanson, Andrew Roberts, Doris Kearns Goodwin, they all seem to understand the world in about as serious a way, and estimate the times in which we live as the most perilous in a long time. Are you in that gang?

AH: I think it’s in the sort of top ten.

HH: Agreed.

AH: But no, I wouldn’t say…I think the great difference is that it’s the velocity, not the weight of the issue that’s so confusing and difficult, thanks to mass communication, transportation and things of this sort. But no, I would see the 16th Century and the Reformation, I would see 5th Century AD Roman Empire, even the 3rd Century Roman Empire as things riddled with events and conflict that sort of put ours in perspective. But I understand their perspective. I mean, clearly, everybody feels, and I think rightly, that this clash between the West and Islam has reached a kind of critical mass.

HH: And it’s all relatively manageable.

AH: And decisions we make, and the decisions that politics and politicians are going to make in the next two or three years may well determine how that comes out, twenty, thirty years from now.

HH: Would a regime that is as provocative as Iran, in your belief, hesitate to use a nuke against Israel if they thought it could be useful to their theological end game, or their strategic interests?

AH: Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I mean, they…and that’s the big one. How serious are they when they talk about this return of the 12th Imam? How much of that is political rhetoric meant to sort of inspire the masses, and to rally Islamic support across the Arab world, and how much is deeply held belief that they’re going to see it through to the end. I just don’t really feel very comfortable waiting out to see the outcome of it.

HH: That’s where…

AH: I’d rather that this regime is gone, and their nuclear capacity is either handed over to a democratic regime, or terminated altogether, rather than sort of settle up bets later about whether we were right or wrong.

HH: You see, I don’t…I believe with you that we cannot play dice with Israel, because not only the morality, immorality of doing that, but also, what would follow, in your estimate, Arthur Herman, if Iran or a proxy uses a WMD against Israel, would they limit their counterattack to Tehran?

AH: You know, that is a very interesting question, and it, in some ways, raises imponderables that again, I don’t want to sort of size up. My fear, to be honest with you, and to your listeners, my real fear is that if a WMD were used in Israel, that Israel might not respond. I mean, if you look at the way in which they conducted the last war in Lebanon, and if we look at the kinds of political divisions in the sense of a kind of resignation to events that they share with the other Western democracies, what happens if a bomb goes off in Tel Aviv, and the Israelis go to the U.N? Or an Israeli government does something like that? Then suddenly, the…I mean, I really think that could actually be more disastrous than an Israel which is really willing to retaliate and strike back.

HH: You know, as I recall in 1973, though, temple weapons were loaded and in the air, and aimed at Cairo…it wasn’t just going to be one or twosies, they were taking everyone with them.

AH: No. You know what? That was almost 35 years ago, Hugh. Things have changed a lot.

HH: Oh, I’m going to talk to Yoni after this.

AH: And I think, as I say, I think none of us wants to reach that point, and out of the Joel Rosenberg novel, where we’re sort of figuring out how we’re…sort of when the bombs are going to drop. I think that the way to deal with this, and I’ve made this clear in articles that I’ve published in Commentary and elsewhere, is you’ve got to deal forthrightly and decisively with Iran, take them out of the picture, the rest of the Arab world will breathe a great sigh of relief when they’re gone, and then you move on from there.

HH: And you might even have peace between the Arabs and the Israelis if that happened, but not unless and until they’re gone. Now I want to turn to the Commentary article available at Opinionjournal.com today, it’s linked at Hughhewitt.com. Right in the center of it, you write about the third lesson from the expert on the Algerian conflict that counterinsurgency must project a sense of inevitable victory…

AH: Right.

HH: The local populace had to see the military and the civilian authority as the ultimate winner. I agree, I worked closely with Nixon in ’78-’79-’80, used to read Robert Thompson’s book on Malaysia. It was always that inevitability. And the Congress killed us this week on this point, didn’t they?

AH: It was definitely…and I don’t know if it was a fatal stab in the back, but it was definitely a stab in the back. And it just goes to show the kind of uphill work that the Bush administration is going to have to do, which, I mean, let’s be frank, which they’ve avoided doing up until now. They have…you’ve got General Petraeus, and by the way, this is not unrelated to the Iran issue.

HH: Of course not, yup.

AH: I think one of the reasons why Iran has acted in the kind of provocative way which it has this last week, was precisely because they were feeling the heat from the Petraeus offensive. That’s my term for it. I don’t like the term surge. Surge, I think, doesn’t describe what’s happening there. This is really the Petraeus offensive, and a whole different way of conducting the war, including cutting off the Iranian support, and going headfirst, and really making sure that that kind of support is undercut. And I think the Iranians are feeling the heat, and that is one reason why they’ve tried to drive this wedge.

HH: You know, the Petraeus…

AH: But yeah, but to come back to your question, I think in some ways here, what you are really seeing is that we’ve got a general who finally understands and gets it about the counterinsurgency in Iraq. What we need is an administration that’s going to deal with the counterinsurgency at home, which is taking root in the Democratic Congress.

HH: Now I think your article is part of that. I think also other arguments made by other historians is part of that. But very quickly for the audience, we’ve got about two minutes, how does the French experience in Algeria…what’s that teach us about what to do next?

AH: It teaches us that the military guys get it a lot faster than politicians and bureaucrats. They catch on, they make the adjustments, they can win this kind of a war. It’s when the politicians and the bureaucrats, who sense on the part of the public a kind of faltering support and confidence, will undercut that. That’s where the great disasters come from. And Algeria, like Vietnam, was a humanitarian disaster. Those who cooperated with the regime, would help the French and so on, were slaughtered or driven into the sea, and this is what we’re going to face in Iraq without a doubt, if we don’t turn this game around. Not Iraq, that’s being turned around. Turn around the game here in the United States.

HH: The article is How To Win In Iraq, And How To Lose. It’s by Arthur Herman, it’s available online at Opinionjournal.com. It’s in the next issue of Commentary Magazine. Professor, always a pleasure, thanks for taking time with us. I would also strongly recommend that you go to Amazon.com and order up To Rule The Waves, one of the best popular histories I have ever read.

End of interview.

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