The Magazine

A Misleading Cold War Analogy

Don’t count on containing Iran.

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Israeli debate over Iran’s nuclear program is, perhaps oddly, not yet heated. For now, the action is with the Americans: Israelis watch the negotiations nervously and without confidence, but there is little sense of impending doom—or impending war.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

Opinion polls show that Israelis think Iran is building toward a weapon, not toward a “capability,” and they pay attention to Iran’s continuing acts of aggression (in Syria, for example), its support for terrorism, and the constant statements from Iran’s leaders about eliminating Israel from the map.

So why no panic? Perhaps Israel’s experiences with war and terror, facing Arab armies and more recently Hezbollah and Hamas, have immunized it from a panicked response. Perhaps there is faith in the Israel Defense Forces’ ability to stop Iran if the need arises. Or perhaps Israelis expect that in the end America will act to stop Iran from getting a bomb.

But during a recent visit I found another explanation as well—one that is more disturbing. Talking with members of what I’d call the “security establishment,” I found the occasional appearance of wishful thinking built around imagined Cold War analogies. That the Obama administration appears to harbor precisely the same hopes is no cause for comfort.

Here’s the theory: Once upon a time the United States and the Soviet Union almost came to war, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there were decades of deep and belligerent hostility. But over time, with the growing desire among Russians for economic improvement and the good things of life and the weakening of the Communist ideology among the ruling elites, that hostility eroded. Diplomatic relations were opened between Moscow and Washington, class warfare on a global scale was replaced by “peaceful coexistence,” a hot line was established, summits proliferated, and relations got into a groove of peaceful competition and occasional cooperation. The Soviet Union became a status quo power with which America could do business. So we waited, and watched while their economy rotted and their system became unreformable, the rulers lost faith in it, and finally it fell. Without a shot being fired, as Mrs. Thatcher once said.

So, the theory continues, that’s what we need to seek with Iran. Perhaps we are at an early stage; perhaps the religious elites, at any rate, haven’t lost their fervor. But they’ve lost popular support, lost the youth and the businessmen, and have realized they need a compromise. They are willing to slow down their nuclear program. Now they are led by “moderates” like Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif, who recognize the need for change. Time will erode their system just as it did the Soviet system, so is a war really necessary and unavoidable? Sure, if they leap toward a bomb, if they misjudge us, we’ll have to act or you Americans will. But in Cold War terms maybe it isn’t 1962 and the missile crisis and DEFCON 2; maybe it’s the 1970s or 1980s, and maybe there’s only a decade or so to go. So maybe we just wait.

That Israelis should entertain such a theory is natural, considering the price they might pay for an attack on Iran. And while rehearsing this approach they always repeat that if at some point they see Iran jumping for the bomb, they will have to bomb Iran. Still, what is striking is how this theory—whether expounded by Israelis or by Obama administration supporters—misunderstands the Cold War and its lessons.

First, it has to be said that Mrs. Thatcher’s wonderful line about Reagan winning the Cold War “without firing a shot” is false. Throughout the Cold War we fired shots. The greatest number of American casualties came in Korea and Vietnam, but on many other battlegrounds our soldiers and CIA agents, and our proxy forces, killed and died. Containment was not a series of speeches but a military strategy designed to impose costs on the Soviets and to constrain their behavior. Moreover, defeat on those foreign battlefields weakened the USSR and its alliance system—and perhaps more importantly weakened the party’s hold at home. There is no better example of this than the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. For we understood that the way a tyranny keeps power is by tyrannizing, which defeat lessens its ability to do. It shows the populace that the rulers are not invincible, have been beaten, and may be beaten again.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers