Friday, March 03, 2006

Forbes on Fox Appearance Tomorrow: Iran and Nukes

I almost blundered into my appearance on Forbes on Fox tomorrow, where I argue that the world can live with, even if it's not desirable, Iran developing nuclear weapons. I say blundered because, even though I've posted the same thing on this blog a few times, I realized as the tapings approached that I was arguing a very counter-intuitive position and that Steve Forbes, who is, to say the least, a very formidable debater, was on the other side of the issue. If you get a chance to see it (11 eastern on Fox News) you can decide how well I did (or how well I didn't) but host David Asman decided to let me have a lot (by television standards) of time to flesh out my arguments and I think I finally, after doing this for awhile, managed to actually pick my best points rather than wasting my time with blather.

As an aside, I'm finally feeling really comfortable arguing on TV and my heart and stomach now seem to stay normal, even right before I'm asked to speak. So, I'm finally saying what I want to say. To the best of my recollection, here's the argument I made:

First, of course it's not cause for celebration when any country joins the nuclear powers. Ideally, after all, nobody would use atoms as weapons.

Second, the foreign policy that the U.S. is pursuing provides reasonable motives for any country that might have (or might someday have) problems with the US to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

Third, in a practical sense, while one person with a nuclear weapon can create a tragedy, on the scale of global politics, the size of an arsenal matters. Iran with one suitcase nuke could destroy an American city. But America, with a 50 year head start on developing such weapons, could destroy Iran. Over and over and over and over again and we all know it. It's not "Mutually Assured Destruction." It's "You stick a knife in us, we bleed really badly, then we cut you in so many places that you're mush."

Fourth, even though I don't trust or agree with Iran's government or with any radical culture (whether that radicalism come from religion or ethos) I think that all people have enough innate instincts towards survival that it's quite fair to say that having nukes is one thing but that using them (especially when retaliation seems inevitable) is quite another.

Finally, I argued that physics trumps politics. We might not want other countries, especially countries who are our stated rivals, to have nuclear weapons and we might have treaties that have quite effectively used carrots and sticks to keep those nations from developing those weapons, that, in the end, we're really talking about a basic fact of the universe here: matter is composed of atoms. Atoms can be isolated and manipulated. When the nucleous of an atom is broken apart, energy is released. That energy, in the right circumstances, can destroy. This is just a fact of life in the universe. All humans, regardless of culture, have the ability to manipulate the universe we inhabit. Treaties, threats and bribes can slow things down but nothing can change the fact that in the same way that humans can fashion rocks and sticks into spears, they can turn atoms into bombs. So, like it or not, we simply have to deal with, as a consequence of living in a universe where fundamental particles can be manipulated by people, that countries can and sometimes will, manipulate those particles into weapons.

Well, I surely gave a lot more elaboration here than I did on television, but that was the crux of my point of view. Do I want a nuclear Iran? Of course not. Nobody does. But, and I do remember saying this and having it used, cleverly and fairly, against me -- a nuclear Iran isn't the end of the world.

What I'll say here, that I didn't and couldn't have said there, is that... it had better NOT be the end of the world. The question isn't whether or not we want Iran to be a nuclear power. The question isn't even really about Iran. The real question is: given that nuclear weapons are something that is attainable by any person, organization or nation that sets out to build them, can we deal with that fact without provoking or allowing catastrophe?

I think we can. I'm by no means predicting that we'll get through the course of human history, even the immediate course, without a nuclear tragedy. One could very well argue, after all, that we've already failed at that, if not at Hiroshima than certainly at Nagasaki.

But I think I can still argue that we shouldn't, especially in a panic, fail to attribute the universal (at least, on a grand scale) survival instinct that humans have to cultures that might oppose us. I remember, when I was a kid growing up during the tail end of the Cold War, hearing people imply that the Soviet Union (it's government and it's people) might court Mutually Assured Destruction because they simply don't value life the way we Americans and our allies in Europe do. That turned out to be false. They do. They always did. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when humanity foolishly taunted the brink, when the Soviets were led by a government far more extreme than the Gorbachev government of my childhood, the Societ government knew better, as did ours. With all of that power on the line, that influence at risk and pride at stake, we all knew better. Yet, two decades after that, during my youth, I was still told that they didn't. They might start it all. They might risk it all. They don't even care if they lose.


They didn't. They wouldn't have. They never did.

In this divided world, we're led to think, sometimes, that we as individuals have little in common with individuals in places that we know very little about and will likely never visit. We're led to think that the differences between a secular American in Kansas City and a devout Muslim in Tehran are wider than they actually are. A guy like Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung shocks the hell out of us when he points out that people who will never meet and who tell their stories in such different ways actually share the same fundamental understanding of the world.

Truth is, we're not "all the same," by any means. Humans live in very disparate and sometimes opposing ways and they believe some very wild and often contradictory things and those contradictions and differences have led to a lot of death and war and yet...

...trite as this will sound, we are all human. We all share a physical existence that we trace back 200,000 years but that can actually be traced back to the sun that burned all of our constituent parts into being, and can actually be traced back farther than that.

Back to Iran...

Iran with nukes? No, not good. Of course not.

Cause for panic, though? It's not that, either. Nukes are a problem because any individual or group can break the basic mold of humanity and can act on the unthinkable. But that's as true of us, or Britain or Pakistan or Israel or France or Russia or any country with such power.

But to me, in the grand scheme and in terms of what's likely -- a nuclear Iran won't insitigate a war in the U.S. or with Israel or with anyone. The consequences are too severe. All legitimate fears about radical individuals or groups aside (and those are legitimate fears) I believe that the mass of human impulses push us towards survival rather than self destruction.

It's not a perfect impulse. The world is, heck, reality is, after all, dangerous. We were all born with the power to extinguish ourselves. But also, fortunately, with a tendency not to.

I wonder how much of that I snuck into 3 or 4 30 second long soundbites? Not much, I'm sure. But I think I got the feeling out.


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