While Americans fret about the missing weapons of mass destruction, the Iranian regime is being shaken to its foundations. In an inversion of the biblical parable, we strain at the gnats in our own eyes, while timbers rattle in the eyes of our neighbors.
We told the world that Iraq had alarming weapons programs. We conquered the country, and are still looking. Shouldn’t our intelligence have been better? Several commentators, from William F. Buckley Jr. to The New York Times’ Bill Keller, have made this point. It is good to be able to drop a smart bomb on the Baghdad house of a Baathist; but we should have had a better notion of the Baathists’ long-range projects and capabilities.
We know that armies are blunt instruments, even in the era of smart bombs. The notion of “close enough for government work” is never more morbid than on the battlefield. But intelligence can be equally stupid. How difficult is it to enter the mind of your enemy, when it’s so hard keeping tabs on your own mind? We remember great intelligence coups like the Venona transcripts, but the failures are also legion. George Tenet, whom everyone in Washington seems to love, didn’t do a very good job of anticipating 9/11.
Still, we try to do the best we can, and the intelligence failures of the run-up to the Iraq war-if that is what they ultimately turn out to be-deserve study and rectification. But the discussion of W.M.D.’s has gone way beyond this point. The conspiratorial left sees a plot to stampede Americans into war; the sour left, while not so systematic in its distress, feels that our victory has been invalidated.
Can we come to our senses? Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in the past, and used them. He behaved as if he was intending to recover the weapons he had, and to develop new ones. (Why else throw out U.N. inspectors?) It is better to be safe than sorry. After 9/11, American policy-call it the Bush Doctrine, if you like-must be this: If you do not come clean, we will clean you out.
How is the war invalidated by Saddam’s tardiness and incompetence in arming himself? Henry Stimson famously said, of spying in the age of innocence, that gentlemen do not read each other’s mail. Saddam was no gentleman. The character of his regime gave us legitimate fears of the means to which he would put any power that he could assemble. It also gives us good reason to delight in his fall. What if Werner von Braun had told us after V-E Day that, yes, in theory it would have been nice to have an A-bomb, and that Heisenberg and his crowd had looked into the subject-but, given the intellectual and logistical obstacles, the project had simply been abandoned? Would we have taken Hermann Goering from the Nuremberg dock, returned his uniform and his wallet, and apologized for the whole unfortunate episode of regime change? Saddam Hussein (assuming he is still alive) and his cronies will no longer be able to murder their subjects, or their neighbors, and they will not be able to collude in murdering us.
The fret over missing W.M.D.’s is part hatred of Bush, part paranoia concerning the security state, and part funk over seeing America do anything that is effective and moral. We should scarcely defend ourselves; we should never extend ourselves; since we are bad, how can our enemies be anything but good?
While we are engaged in this shadow play, the Middle East is being swept by a storm as great as the Iraq war. For a week, mobs of anti-government demonstrators have taken to the streets of Iran. The regime has sicced gangs of Islamist goons on them, throwing students out dormitory windows and beating passersby. But still the people continue their agitation.
No one in the West seems to know quite what is going on. Once again our intelligence is failing, and journalists, mostly cooped up in Tehran, are doing little better. But the reports that we do get suggest that the upheaval is nationwide. Michael Ledeen, who has followed the Iranian situation passionately, even obsessively, for years, compares the situation there to the moment when Gorbachev sent troops to crack down on demonstrators in Lithuania: too many to retain his reformist credentials, too few to be effective. Kathryn Lopez, my boss at the superb National Review Online, received this e-mail from a young Iranian woman:
“Many of my peers have been captured by the regime. Lots of them, including myself, have been injured by the vigilantes of the regime. I have cried a lot not for myself but for those sisters of mine who were beaten harshly and taken away by those barbarian savages-nobody knows where they have been taken …. I hope [that we can change the minds] of those who are still deluded by the illusion of Mullah Khatami and his gang, who are no different from the other group of the mullahs as long as we are concerned.”
We cannot help such a movement militarily. Then again, we already have helped, by toppling Saddam Hussein across the border and giving hope to the long-suffering Iranians, who were already disaffected with their state. Given the history of our recent dealings with Iran, from Desert One to Iran-contra, perhaps it is just as well that we cannot intervene. But we should say that we are for freedom, not tyranny and terror.
The moment is heart-stopping, as when the shipbuilders and playwrights came to power in Eastern Europe in 1989, or when Boris Yeltsin (his failings still in the future) clambered atop the tank in Moscow in 1991. The stakes are huge. The New York Times on June 16 carried the Iranian events on page 1. Inside the A section was a story on efforts to commemorate another popular uprising, in East Germany in 1953. Those freedom fighters were crushed; 36 years of bondage ensued. Godspeed to the brave men and women of Iran.