Norman Podhoretz on the growing threat in Iran nobody is paying attention to
HH: Pleased to welcome now back to the Hugh Hewitt Show Norman Podhoretz, editor emeritus of Commentary Magazine. Mr. Podhoretz, welcome back, always a pleasure to speak with you.
NP: Same here, Hugh.
HH: I read with great interest your new article in Commentary, Stopping Iran: Why the Case For Military Action Still Stands. And I linked it on the Hugh Hewitt website. But I wanted to talk with you in depth about it, because it’s vitally important. Let’s cut to the chase at the beginning.
HH: Do you think President Bush needs to authorize air strikes against Iran now?
NP: Yes, I do. The question is whether he will, although I thought, I was pretty confident that he would before the National Intelligence Estimate came out in early December. I still think in the end, he will order air strikes before he leaves office. But I am, as the NIE would say, I offer that prediction now with only low to moderate confidence.
HH: Well, I agree with your assessment of what has to happen, and I agree as well with being less confident than I used to be. But in your piece, you remind us, though, on the day the NIE came out, the President went back into the dock of history, and basically doubled down, it will not happen on his watch. Doesn’t that encourage you, Norman Podhoretz?
NP: Absolutely. And you know, he has said several times before the NIE, that if we allow Iran to get the bomb, people fifty years from now will look back at us the way we looked back at the men who negotiated the Munich agreement in 1938, and ask how could they have let this happen. And I’ve always wondered why Bush would have put himself in the historical dock that way, if he intended to be convicted. And when he reiterated exactly the same point in his press conference the day after the NIE came out, he said it’s not going to happen on my watch. I didn’t know how else to interpret it but that he was determined to stop them. And he must know by now that the only way to stop Iran from getting the bomb is to bomb their nuclear facilities. Negotiations, sanctions, haven’t worked, and will not work.
HH: Now let’s cover a couple of the very troubling aspects of your new article, and again, I will relink it at Hughhewitt.com. One is the demoralization of the foreign policy establishment, previously pledged to carrots and sticks, and now apparently resigned to a nuclear Iran. That’s very dispiriting. You live in Manhattan amidst the Council On Foreign Relations people.
HH: Explain to folks how you came to the recognition that they’d lost their collective will.
NP: Well, I came to that recognition in the course of a debate I had on the Jim Lehrer New Hour with a young member of the foreign policy establishment, youngish member of the foreign policy establishment. And I expected him to attack me for being a warmonger, because I had said that sanctions and negotiations wouldn’t work. And I also expected him to assume, as almost everybody in the world had been doing, that Iran must not be permitted to get the bomb. Instead, he tacitly acknowledged that the sanctions and diplomacy hadn’t worked, and wouldn’t work, by saying that well look, we can live with an Iranian bomb. We contained the Russians and the Chinese, who were much more powerful than Iran would be, even with a nuclear weapon, and we can contain the Iranians. I was very surprised to hear that, because I say, it was a tacit admission that the means by which people like that were claiming all along that Iran could be stopped were no longer seen as effective by them. But instead of drawing the logical conclusion that the only thing we could do now was to resort to what Bush had been calling the last resort, namely bombing them, he said we could live with the bomb.
HH: Now, they’re obviously retreating into a theory of deterrence, which is inapplicable. Since your book came out, World War IV, two more books have come out that matter a great deal, Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism by George Weigel is one of them.
NP: Oh, yeah.
HH: He explores, as you did, the nature of the theology at work in Iran, and it’s simply not deterrable, is it, Norman Podhoretz?
NP: No, it is not, and people who know far more about Iran than I do, like Bernard Lewis, who probably knows more about that part of the world and about the culture of Islam than anybody on the face of the Earth, believes that you cannot deter a people who are not only ready to give up their lives for their religious beliefs, but eager to do so. And I think that if you add that idea, that religious ideological passion to the idea, the assumption within Islam that what matters is not the nation-state, nation-state is a pagan creation in the eyes of Islam. What matters is the realm of Islam, and what has to be protected and defended, and whose interests have to be paramount. It’s the real of Islam that transcends all national borders, which is like Khomeini, the Ayatollah Khomeini once said that he doesn’t care if Iran goes up in smoke, so long as Islam prevails.
HH: You also quote the alleged moderate, Rafsanjani, saying you know, we can wipe out Israel, and they might use nukes, but that would just produce some damage in the Muslim world. And then you quote Anthony Cordesman, a very serious guy, about what happens if Iran goes nuclear against Israel…
HH: And it’s a devastating, chilling, but I think absolutely necessary to get in front of people prediction.
NP: Yeah, well, when Cordesman’s study came up with a grisly scenario, ten to twenty million dead, if Iran gets the bomb, he anticipates, as I do, that this would vastly increase the chances of an outbreak of a nuclear exchange that would not be confined to Israel and Iran. He thinks it might be confined only to the Middle East. I don’t. I think it would spread. But in any event, even if it were to be confined to the Middle East alone, he believes that Egypt and Syria and Iran would all pretty well be wiped out, whereas Israel, contrary to what Rafsanjani said, would survive, just barely. And he backstopped that contention with, by pointing to the relative size of the two nuclear arsenals. But however it were to come out, it would be, it’s, you know, it’s thinking about the unthinkable, except that I believe that by allowing Iran to get the bomb, we would be bringing the unthinkable much, much closer than it ever has before.
HH: I think you’re absolutely right about that. And now let’s talk about the American political elite. Are they willing to even indulge this kind of thinking? It seems to me that, and you cite 1938, we’re in 1936. They’re unwilling to think about what the other side can and will do in serious and sophisticated ways.
NP: Well, it begins to seem that way, and it is very disheartening, because at least the foreign policy, the old foreign policy establishment up until recently at least took the position that we must not allow Iran to get the bomb, and believed that it could be stopped by means short of military force. Now that it doesn’t believe we can stop them, even by non-military means, it’s unwilling to contemplate the use of air strikes, and so it’s trying to talk itself into the idea that we could live with an Iranian bomb. And this certainly is the climate of opinion that one detects in the body politick, except for one reassuring fact, which is that I think all the Republican candidates for president, except of course for Ron Paul, have insisted that the military option is on the table. And both Senator McCain and Rudy Giuliani, the candidate I support, have said pretty explicitly that you know, the only thing worse than bombing Iran now is to allow Iran to get the bomb. And both have said not on my watch. So assuming that there’s enough time for President Bush to basically kick the can down the road, one of those candidates should become president, there’s a hope that he would take the necessary action. But I fear that there’s not even enough time for that, and I think Bush knows that. I don’t know how…I mean, my guess is that he knows that, and that this is why I believe he will act. He’s a man who knows evil when he sees it. He’s shown the courage in the past to face up to evil, and to contend with it. And I think this is a case in which his determination and his moral clarity would face the ultimate test. And I believe he’s going to pass it. At least I pray that he will.
HH: Let me agree with you, and set the table a bit closer. You’re a Rudy guy, I’m a Romney guy. And you quote John McCain, and I approve of this, the only thing worse than bombing Iran is letting Iran get the bomb. I’m not a big fan of John McCain’s, but he’s right about this. Do you expect that the top five Republicans, if George Bush were to act in March or April, and that means Huckabee, Thompson and the other three we’ve mentioned, would all come out and stand shoulder to shoulder with the President, and declare that it was a necessary and important thing to do? Because that might be the moment of greatest political defense for the President to act, and I’m hopeful that’s what we’re headed towards.
NP: Well, that’s a great question. I would certainly hope that they would stand behind them, and it would, by the way, be in their political interest to do so, because they would, Democrats would stick them with the responsibility for it anyway. And so I would hope that they would have the simple moral and political courage to back him. I mean, I think that the five minutes after the first bomb were to fall on the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran, there would be a motion to impeach the President. And it would probably go forward. But…our only hope of avoiding a really horrible domestic political situation would be for the Republicans to stand firm.
HH: Norman Podhoretz, the new book out by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins called Nuclear Jihadist: Inside the A.Q. Khan Network, have you had a chance to read that yet?
NP: No, I haven’t. I read the Weigel book, which is wonderful, by the way.
HH: I agree with you. This book charts in such amazing detail, there is simply no credible way to believe that Iran is not on the brink of going critical. They’ve got everything they need, they’ve had it for years. A.Q. Khan gave them everything they need. Libya was far ahead. And our CIA comes up with this NIE. What is going on inside of our intelligence agencies?
NP: Well, you know, the CIA throughout the Bush administration, at least since the invasion of Iraq, has been clearly opposed to the President’s policies, leaks have been steaming out of the CIA at strategic, political moments which are calculated to undermine, or even sabotage his policies. And I think this NIE is just the, it wasn’t a leak, but it was just the latest in a series of efforts by the intelligence community, which has now been politicized in an anti-Bush direction, to stop him from taking military action. Because you know, the very first thing everybody in the world said when the NIE came out was well, this takes the military option off the table. It’s now impossible for Bush to do it, even if he still wants to. And I believe that was the intention of the people who wrote this summary. This is not the full NIE. You know, the full NIE is 99 pages long, and it’s still classified. But this summary was written basically, drafted by three guys who came originally from the State Department, and who have records of hostility to Bush’s policies. And I believe that the way they framed it was calculated to have exactly the effect it had, which was to tell everybody there’s nothing to worry about, even though they hedge their bets by saying well, to be sure, Iran still has the possibility, and we can’t say for sure that they’re not going to resume this program that they’ve allegedly halted. But they knew damn well that by leading with the assertion that it had suspended its weaponization program in 2003, that this would be interpreted as meaning that well, they’re not only not hell bent on getting a bomb, but they’re probably not even interested in getting one any longer.
HH: Well, it’s like Hitler saying he’d suspended his territorial ambitions in 1938, after swallowing Czechoslovakia.
NP: That’s exactly right. He said he had no further demands, territorial demands to make. And that led Neville Chamberlain to come back and proclaim notoriously peace in our time. And you know, I think the same kind of mistake is being made now, because you know, appeasement was not in itself a dishonorable diplomatic tactic. I mean, it was based on the idea that if you’re negotiating with another state, and they had grievances, some of them might be legitimate, if you satisfied those grievances, you could avoid war, you would appease them, you would make peace. And if you were dealing with a traditional conflict between states over a negotiable issue, that might have worked. But the mistake that Chamberlain and Daladier and everybody in the West except Churchill made, was mistaking Hitler for such a statesman. Hitler was not interested in making a deal or in satisfying certain grievances. He wanted to change the international order so that Germany would be the dominant power. Iran has the same ambition now, beginning with its push for hegemony in the Middle East, and extending to Europe, and even to eliminating our influence over its designs, its religious political designs. And we, and now the foreign policy establishment is telling us, and most of the elites are telling us, that well, you know, despite the way Ahmadinejad talks, you can’t take that seriously. This is, they have, you know, we can deter them, because they’re not interested in blowing, having their country blown up, and they are actually, well, the NIE itself says they respond to a cost-benefit analysis, which is nonsense.
HH: Norman Podhoretz, it is, and it’s almost soft bigotry on the part of Western elites to impose upon Iran a less chauvinistic view of the world than they have. They are expansionist. They’re Muslims who believe in Islam.
NP: And of course, the Western elites are tone deaf when it comes to religion. They don’t believe that anybody can take a religious eschatology as seriously as Ahmadinejad and most of the other mullahs do.
HH: Two more questions, and then I know you are traveling. First of all, in your article, Stopping Iran, you point out that some Americans are hoping we can outsource the dirty work to Israel.
HH: But that’s not going to happen, and we can’t expect Israel to do that. Explain a little bit, would you?
NP: Well, I don’t say it’s not going to happen, because I think it might conceivably happen. The problem is that the Israeli Air Force, superb though it is, would, according to a very important study issued a year or so ago by two guys at MIT, the Israelis, if they undertook this mission, could only succeed if every single detail went right. And you can’t expect that to happen, because you know, if you have no margin for error whatsoever, it’s not going to work. And of the Israelis did it, or if we left it to the Israelis to do, first of all, we’d get blamed, because they would be regarded as our surrogate. But in any event, we could have the worst of all possible worlds, that is they could fail to damage the Iranian program, and at the same time, the world would totally turn against us. So my conclusion is that if Bush doesn’t do it, the Israelis may feel they have to, because here, how can they sit there and let a country that has sworn to wipe it off the map, sixty years after the first Holocaust, a second one being prepared, they would be forced to act. And I fear, as I say, that they would not be able to pull off as difficult a mission as this. We, on the other hand, could, even if we made some mistakes. We have a much larger margin for error. So it would be better if we did it, and let the Israelis off the hook.
HH: And when do the Israelis, according to your best sources, suspect that Iran reaches the point of no return?
NP: Well, officially, they say 2009, which as we have to remind ourselves, is only a year away.
NP: There are those who think it’s even, we have even less time than that, and maybe eight months.
HH: Last question, and this goes back to your yeoman’s work during the years of Commentary’s rallying of the West against the Soviets, is that in your analysis, there’s quite a lot of noting in America, fear of Iran. And that here we are, we’re on two of their borders with America’s expeditionary forces, our military is mobilized and highly trained, and we’ve got a wartime leader, and a population that has generally supported victory. And yet we’re afraid of Iran? That suggests something even deeper unnerving to me than Iran getting the bomb, which is the failure of the ability to resist.
NP: Well, we have, there are large numbers of people in this country, we don’t know how many, I mean, it would seem from the last election, that the country is almost evenly divided between people who realize that we’re in a war, and that we have to win it, if our civilization is to survive and flourish. And there are those who think that this is not a war, this is just, in John Kerry’s words, a nuisance that we can live with like…he uses illegal gambling and prostitution, that it doesn’t rise to the level of a military challenge, and that it’s ridiculous for us, the greatest power on Earth, to worry about a country, a relatively poor country like Iran, which at best would have a couple of nukes, and we have hundreds or thousands or whatever. So this is their attitude, and I think this is simply a cover for the kind of semi-pacifist passions that have invaded large sectors of our population. But thank God, not the whole country.
HH: Norman Podhoretz, thanks for a wonderful piece, Stopping Iran: Why the Case For a Military Action Still Stands, and for spending time with us today. Again, folks, World War IV is a must-read, it should be on your bookshelf, and we look forward to talking to you again, Norman, sometime in the near future.
NP: Thanks a lot, Hugh.
HH: Bye, bye.
End of interview.