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On "existential" threats

On the Beach

Detail from the cover of Nevil Shute's 1957 novel On the Beach, about the existential threat to all of humanity from nuclear war

I have received a foreseeable flood of mail in response to the collection of Israel-and-Iran letters posted three days ago. I am not going to quote any more of it. As has been evident for many years, there is an unbridgeable chasm in outlooks on this topic. Having offered a sample of the current state of that divide, I'll say Enough for now.

This makes me all the more admiring of diplomats who try to find ways across the chasm, starting with what I saw from Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and Jimmy Carter at Camp David long ago (as dramatised in Lawrence Wright's play Camp David).


But I will weigh in on one more aspect of the Netanyahu–Obama–Iran controversy, namely the language with which we describe it. If you’d like background on how Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu came to this impasse, please read two reports by David Ignatius, here and here. If you’d like to consider some of the long-term ramifications of Israel’s leader saying that he is the “true” voice of Jews worldwide, including American Jews, please read M.J. Rosenberg in The Nation, or former Congressman Mel Levine and former Israeli Ambassador Oded Eran in Politico.

From Levine and Eran: “[The US–Israel relationship] is especially threatened when an Israeli Prime Minister is seen as openly challenging the U.S president, asking the country and the Congress to side with a foreign Prime Minister over America’s President on an issue which potentially involves war and peace, a question about which the American public is anguished and divided.”

From Rosenberg: “Netanyahu’s action, in challenging the American president and claiming to speak for all Jews when he does so, suggests that it is Israel and not the country in which Jews live and vote that is their homeland. This idea is anathema to the overwhelming majority of American Jews … He is coming to the US Capitol to tell Congress that it should not support a president who is working to secure an agreement that president believes serves national interests, among which he has repeatedly said is the security of Israel.”


On language: We've reached the stage where a particular word obscures more than it clarifies about Iran and its nuclear prospects. That word is "existential," as in this now-standard formulation from Prime Minister Netanyahu: "A nuclear Iran is an existential threat on Israel and also on the rest of the world."

I have learned in seeing mail that if the first paragraph of a message includes the word “existential,” I know 90 per cent of what will come next. In this context an existential threat, literally a challenge to continued existence, means implicitly likening Iran to Nazi Germany — or explicitly equating it, as Netanyahu has done for many years.

By definition an existential threat justifies any action that might forestall it, from preemptive military strikes to efforts at torpedoing an “unacceptable” diplomatic deal. It makes all compromises suspect. And it means that opinions from other countries lack moral standing, because after all their existence is not on the line.

In most of Netanyahu’s speeches, as in most of the angry mail I receive, you can find each of those elements. Look for them in the next editorial you read in the Wall Street Journal or Commentary. Whenever you see an argument that could be paraphrased as “it’s 1938 again,” you’ve found the real thing. But let’s stop and think about this concept of existential threats.

Is there an existential threat from nuclear weapons? Of course there is. Throughout my Cold War childhood, families in the United States and the Soviet Union were constantly reminded of the danger that we could all be incinerated in a second. My parents sanely refused to build a fallout shelter, but many neighbours gave in to the fears. On the Beach and Fail-Safe were hugely popular novels because of exactly this danger. Soon after the first use of atomic weapons, Albert Einstein wrote in The Atlantic about the danger to all of humanity. Enough nuclear warheads remain to kill everyone on Earth many times over. I support the Global Zero drive to eliminate them.

Is nuclear proliferation a problem, wherever it occurs? Of course, yes as well. Each new nuclear power makes the emergence of further powers more likely. This domino effect on other Middle Eastern countries is a very strong reason to oppose Iran's getting a bomb.

Is there a state that faces a specific existential threat right now? Yes again. That state is South Korea.

South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own, though the United States has extended its "nuclear umbrella." Its immediate neighbour, North Korea, does have nukes, which it tested and developed while the United States was distracted in Iraq. North Korea’s leaders are peculiar, to put it mildly, and have repeatedly promised/threatened to destroy South Korea in a "sea of fire" in rhetoric as blood-curdling as any anti-Israel rant from Iran. South Korea's population center is practically on the border with the North, rather than several time zones away as with Iran relative to Israel.

It would be better for everyone except North Korea if it had no nukes, but the South Korean president was not invited to address Congress during the George W. Bush years to demand tougher action against North Korea.

Is Israel's situation comparable to that on the Korean peninsula — or, to use the more familiar parallel, to that of European Jews menaced by Hitler in 1938? It most emphatically is not, if you pay any attention to the underlying facts.

The most obvious difference is that Israel is the incumbent (if unacknowledged) nuclear power in the region, with the universally understood ability to annihilate any attacker in a retaliatory raid. The only similarity between this power balance and the predicament of European Jewry in 1938 is the anti-Semitism. In 1938 the Jews of Germany, Poland, France, and Russia were a stateless minority with no military force of their own to protect them and no foreign power (including the United States) willing to step in. In 2015 Israel is a powerful independent state, more heavily armed than any adversary.

Think of this parallel: The full-tilt United States slave economy of the 1850s and the police-shooting abuses of 2015 have in common racist anti-black prejudice, but they are not the same situations. One was resolved only by cataclysmic war. The other is very serious but not the prelude to North-versus-South combat. The Iranian rhetoric of 2015 and the Nazi death machine of the Reich have in common anti-Semitic hate-mongering. But the differences between them are far more obvious than the similarities.

And is the Iran of 2015 like the Germany of 1938? Oh, please. In 1938, Germany had the strongest military in the world, and the second-largest economy (behind only the United States). Its economy was bigger than France's and England's combined. Today's Iran, by contrast, doesn't even have the strongest military in its region, and its economy is not in the world's top 25. Hitler's Germany was an expansionist force that would grow until it was crushed. Iran makes enormous trouble for the United States and others, but no one serious can be proposing that it must be crushed.

I lay this out not imagining that it might change a single word in Netanyahu’s upcoming speech, nor the fervour of those who support him (and will soon tell me so). And of course Israel will decide for itself whether it feels "existentially" threatened. I am writing to an American audience that must assess our next steps and long-term goals toward Iran. When we call this situation "existential," we’re either saying something that is true for everyone — in the age of nuclear weapons all of humanity is at risk — or we’re making a specific observation that is far less applicable in Israel than in many other places, starting with South Korea. It's a slogan that has replaced thought.


A reader writes:

This whole thing has become so utterly surreal it's hard to talk about anymore. The entire kerfuffle is premised on an Iranian nuclear weapons program - a program we KNOW with certainty they do not have in operation. NO fissile materials have been diverted, IAEA inspectors routinely tell us that. Meanwhile, Netanyahu and his Likudnik colleagues have been telling us since the 1980s that Iran is SIX MONTHS away from having a nuclear weapon.

I understand that Netanyahu is using fear of a nuclear-armed Iran for domestic political purposes - primarily to frighten his citizens into keeping him in office. The use of a ginned-up external existential threat is a time-honored method for cowing and manipulating a domestic constituency, and clearly at some point the fear of the Palestinians had lost its punch.

But why do the US, UK, France, China and other nations go along with this charade? Why do the media always write the stories in such a manner as to indicate that Iran has an active weapons R&D program? Why did we pile sanctions on and make daily threats of offensive war against a signatory of the NPT is good standing, particularly in support of an illegal proliferator? How can we continue this ridiculous sham?

Over the last couple years, you wrote repeatedly about how the press covered Republican filibusters - and you were right. This is the same thing - we're going through all these massive machinations to address a problem WE KNOW DOES NOT EXIST. If I wrote this in a novel it would be rejected as "utterly implausible"...


This post was originally published at The Atlantic