Towards A Good Samaritan World

Sunday, January 29, 2006


With a possible war with Iran on the horizon, the humanitarian calculus in Iraq, in hindsight, looks pretty easy. A few tens of thousands were killed in the war, compared to a few hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) killed under Saddam, including hundreds of thousands of children who perished because of America's own sanctions. If the war resulted in net lives lost, one would have to weigh the value of those lost lives against the value of freedom for other Iraqis. But you don't even have to worry about that trade-off because the war probably resulted in net lives saved rather than lost. It was expensive. One can argue about the opportunity cost: maybe we could have done more good by intervening somewhere else, or just by shrinking the deficit. And there's the issue of sovereignty, and whether the precedent of removing a "sovereign" tyrant is good or bad. But to believe that the war was a net negative in humanitarian terms is just ignorance.

In Iran, we have to face the grave question that we didn't (really) have to face in Iraq: Are we willing to kill, on a large scale, for our safety, our principles, our civilization? Everyone looks back on World War II now with pride, because those deaths are in the past and as a result, don't seem quite real. If we had to do it today, in the same cause, would we? Of course, Hitler did a lot of conquering before we intervened, which makes him different than the contemporary rulers of Iran. But it is not to our credit that Hitler did a lot of conquering before we intervened. That's why the Holocaust was almost completely successful.

Long ago, Tamurlane, the conqueror, built a pyramid (it is said) of 100,000 skulls at Isfahan, in Iran. There is a tendency to assume that the times in which such things happened are gone forever, but perhaps we assume this too easily. A re-run of Tamurlane's conquest of Isfahan would, I think, be better-- morally better-- than a nuclear sequel of the Holocaust. Whatever we're willing to do, we should start rumbling about it, the sooner the better. You'd rather threaten to do a bit more than you're willing to do, than a bit less, because your enemy might believe your threat, and back down.

Nothing would make me sadder than for the ancient and fascinating culture of Persia to vanish into the night, because of my country's actions. I would be haunted by the knowledge of what we had done long afterwards, and many other Americans I think. Yet it does not follow that this would be wrong. In some ways, military annihilation by the superpower would be a fitting end for Iran. For centuries, Iranians have celebrated ten days of silence every year in remembrance of Karbala, the place where Imam Hussein, the rightful leader of Islam, was killed by the troops of the caliph-usurper. Suicidal holy war lies at the heart of Iranian Shiism, as the Iranians spectacularly demonstrated in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians went to the front in search of "martyrdom." Now Iran, or rather its leadership speaking on its behalf, is bent on a path towards national martyrdom. If we make it clear that we're ready to help them out with that, they may decide they didn't want it so much anyway.


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