A Powder Keg and the Bomb

by Sydney Williams “The short, bewildering war had followed, the […]

Image by © Dreamstime

Image by © Dreamstime

by Sydney Williams

“The short, bewildering war had followed, the war of which no history had been written or ever could be written now, that had flared all around the northern hemisphere and had died away with the last seismic record of explosion on the thirty-seventh day.” That sentence appears in the opening chapter of Nevil Shute’s alarmist 1957 novel, On the Beach. The story tells of a nuclear war that had destroyed the northern hemisphere. It takes place in southern Australia, about a year after that fictional 1961 war. Radioactive dust drifts slowly, but steadily south. In the end, all die.

Horrifying memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still vivid a dozen years later when Shute’s novel was published. Those memories were kept alive by John Hersey’s telling of what happened in Hiroshima in his eponymous and best-selling book, published in 1946. Shute’s novel reminds us that the consequences of a nuclear war would not be confined to the participating parties. The book tells us that events can overwhelm expectations and that hope based on a misreading of human behavior can lead to disaster. Mr. Shute wrote: “No one knows how the war started or how it escalated.” In his desire for a deal, at seemingly any price, with a rogue nation known for exporting terrorism and for lying about their assets and capabilities, Mr. Obama may have put the world at great risk.

War with Germany, as Winston Churchill knew during the mid 1930s, was not the only alternative. He knew that bullies had to be confronted and, when done so early and firmly, tended to back down. Giving into their demands makes them bolder. Mr. Obama has always presented his proposal with Iran as a Hobson’s choice, or, as the Wall Street Journal put it on Friday, with “his usual false dilemma gambit” – that the only other option is war. That is not true. Current sanctions are hurting. They could be further tightened. Given our recent increases in oil production, we and the Saudis can continue to put downward pressure on crude prices, a major source of revenues for the regime. Iranian demographics are the mirror image of much of the west. More than 70% of its population is under 30. How long, as K.T. McFarland recently asked, will the youth of Iran tolerate 80-year-old mullahs who restrict their liberties?

That the Iranians were the victors in this negotiation was noted in the report of Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times’ man in Tehran. He wrote after the agreement was signed: “…but the Iranians seem to have gotten their way, for the most part.” Demonstrators in Tehran that evening shouted the name of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif: “Zarif! Zarif is the one who beats the U.S.!” There were no such demonstrations for John Kerry.

The principal risk to the deal does not lie in the number of asterisks, or even whether Iran will cheat (which seems certain), but in the reaction of Iran’s Middle East neighbors, none of whom participated in the negotiations. While not all details of the pact have been made public, what concerns many of those in the region (and should those within range of Iran’s ICBMs!) is the inevitability that the country will, at some point, get nuclear weapons – perhaps ten years from now, maybe fifteen years, but possibly less. And that will lead to an arms race. Pakistan already has the bomb. Saudi Arabia will not wait to see how things play out. Turkey will not want a nuclear-empowered Iran on her border, without having her own nukes. Israel, we can be sure, is a nuclear power. Egypt and the UAE will follow. Libya will likely re-start her program. As game theorists know, the greater the number of players, the greater the risk. The Middle East is unsettled, and violence created by volatility is spreading, On Tuesday, the same day Mr. Obama announced the Iran deal at a White House Rose Garden ceremony, a small band of Islamic militants, led by the Somalia-based, Shia-inspired al-Shabaab, shot and killed 148 Christian students at Garissa University College in Kenya.

A Financial Times editorial praising the “historic deal,” quoted Mr. Obama as having mentioned that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had made “imperfect deals with more dangerous antagonists during the cold war.” The premise is dubious. Certainly China and the Soviet Union were larger than Iran, but their leaders were not zealots in the way Iran’s mullahs are. A smaller but crazier adversary is more dangerous. Additionally, the agreement adds a mantle of legitimacy to a rogue regime, providing the accoutrements of a regional hegemon.

The Balkan states, in the early years of the 20th Century, were known as the “powder keg” of Europe. That proved to be true, when one fine late June morning in 1914 Gavrilo Princip lit the fuse that burst Europe into flames. He shot and killed the Archduke Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg while traveling in a motor car in Sarajevo. No one can say for sure whether the deal signed this week will work or not. But making nice to bullies does not work, especially when the consequence could be a nuclear arms race. England and France did nothing to stop Hitler when it was still possible. The result was a war that took the lives of 60 million people. President Ronald Reagan, who had spent six years making the U.S. militarily stronger, defied Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev when he spoke at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Four and a half years later the Soviet Union collapsed without a shot being fired, and a few hundred million people became free.

Once, when asked by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, what should the war be called, Winston Churchill replied, “The unnecessary war.” In the mid-1930s, England and France were exhausted from the Great War, which had ended less than two decades earlier. They were reluctant to go to war again; thus they pandered to Hitler: They allowed him to rearm in the early ‘30s, permitted him to annex the Sudetenland in 1938, and then let him take over the rest of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1939.

Let us hope that Mr. Obama does not become the Neville Chamberlain of our time. As I wrote, it is too soon to know whether the agreement will be a success or failure. We do know that Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi gave up his search for nuclear weapons without any negotiations. He saw what happened to his buddy Saddam Hussein and that was enough. But this agreement seems risky because of the possibility it will initiate a nuclear arms race in a part of the world that has all the characteristics of a powder keg.



The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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