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The War of the World

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Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World was under my tree yesterday, and I want to pass along a couple of early paragraphs:

The hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era.  Significantly larger percentages of the world’s population were killed in the two world wars that dominated the century than had been killed in any previous conflict of comparable geopolitical magnitude.  Although wars between ‘great powers’ were more frequent in earlier centuries, the world wars were unparalleled in their severity (battle deaths per year) and concentration (battle deaths per nation-year).  By any measure the Second World War was the greatest man-made catastrophe of all time.  And yet, for all the attention they have attracted from historians, the world wars were only two of many twentieth-century conflicts.  Death tolls quite probably passed the million mark in more than a dozen others.*  Comparable fatalities were caused by the genocidal or ‘politicidal’ wars waged against civilian populations by the Young Turk regime during the First World War, the Soviet regime from the 1920s until the 1950s and the National Socialist regime in Germany between 1933 and 1945, to say nothing of the tyranny of Pol Pot in Cambodia.  There was not a single year before, between, or after the world wars that did not see large-scale organized violence in one part of the world or another.

*The Mexican Revolutionary War (1910-20), The Russian civil war (1917-21), the civil war in China (1926-37), the Korean War (1950-53), the intermittent civil wars in Rwanda and Burundi (1963-95), the post-colonial wars in Indo-China (1960-75), the Ethiopian civil war (1962-92), the Nigerian civil war (1966-70), the Bangladeshi war of independence (1971), the civil war in Mozambique (1975-93), the war in Afghanistan (1979-2001), the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the on-going civil wars in Sudan (since 1983) and Congo (since 1998).  Before 1900 only the rebellions of nineteenth-century China, in particular the Taiping Rebellion, caused comparable amounts of lethal violence.

It is against that backdrop that Iran’s thrust for nukes must be understood.  All of the carnage of the previous century was completed with the only uses of a WMD at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Project forward the same level of violence of the last century into the new one, but imagine even four or five of the aggressors or factions possessing WMD, and the picture of what is ahead in the next 93 years is bleak beyond description.

There is no persuasive reason to believe the world will be a better place over the next 100 years than it was in the past 100.  Indeed, given the willingness of some to erase the past in order to better prepare to repeat it and the rise of a suicidal fanaticism among large numbers of industrial-age, educated people, there are many reasons to expect that their will be many people eager for the violence of the 21rst century to far outstrip that of the 20th.

Thus history compels the United States to deny WMD to those most likely to use them in wars or civil wars.  Saddam was one such tyrant, and Iraq even in its chaos and its toll in American lives is much less dangerous to the world and the U.S. than Saddam’s Iraq or the Iraq of his sons when they succeeded him.

Iran is another such country, its leaders tyrants with intentions of piece with the worst of the last century’s murderers.  They want nukes and are moving very quickly and publicly towards that goal.  Because the Soviets, the Chinese, the Indians and the Pakistanis have never used their deadliest weapons does not mean that Iran and those to whom it transfers these weapons will not.  Reading Ferguson’s litany ought to remind people that Americans live in splendid isolation from the awful realities of the world, but 9/11 ought to have done that for at least a period of decades.  The latter failed to impress, so the history lesson is unlikely to do so either.

That won’t excuse the political leadership of the United States and the West though.  The Security Council’s resolution isn’t going to stop Iran.  If that is going to occur, the U.S. and its allies will have to do the stopping.

The question of whether Iran must be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons even if that means the use of force is the key question of the campaign of 2008 that is beginning.  Tim Russert and every other MSMer should bear down on that question before every other question.  It is the question that will divide the serious from the unserious, and serious people should want a result similar to the result Lincoln obtained 150 years ago in his debates with Stephen Douglas.  From Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People:

Lincoln’s object was not merely to put his name and his case before the American people, as well as Illinois voters.  It was also to expose the essential pantomime-horse approach of a man who tried to straddle North and South.  He succeeded in both.  He put to Douglas the key question: ‘Can the people of a United States territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of a citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a state constitution?’  If Douglas said yes, to win Illinois voters, he lost the South.  If he said no, to win the South, he lost Illinois.  Douglas answer was ‘It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a territory under the Constitution; the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour unless it is supported by local police regulations.’  This answer won Douglas Illinois but it lost him the South and hence, two years later, the presidency.  Lincoln, normally a generous and forgiving man, had no time for Douglas and did not regret destroying his future career.  He thought less of Douglas than he did of the Southern leaders.  He said: ‘He is a man with tens of thousands of blind followers.  It is my business to make some of those blind followers see.’

There are not merely “tens of thousands” of blind followers of appeasement-oreinted politicians who are opposed to Iran’s going nuclear but unwilling to back force if necessary, but millions.  The objective of the campaign ahead must be to achieve clarity on this subject first, for it will tell us all we need to know about the candidates’ capacity for the years ahead.

The question for candidates seems best framed this way:

If President Bush concludes, based upon the best available intelligence he can collect, that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons unless America uses military force to prevent it from so doing, would you support his use of force under those circumstances?

The politicians will either say “yes,” and then perhaps qualify it, or they will do everything to avoid the question via the dodge of “I’d have to see the intelligence,” or “I don’t think we can trust the Adminstration on such a matter,” or “Mr. Negraponte says the Iranians are years away,” or “We have to try everything else though of course force is never off the table.”

Perhaps there is a better formulation, but it is the question, and I hope the MSMers who cross paths with presidential candidates ask it again and again.


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