Fareed Zakaria: Depending on the Moderation of Mullahs

A 1955 Broadway comedy was titled “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” Today a production called “Has Success Spoiled Fareed Zakaria?” would be humorous only to the extent audiences enjoyed unintended self-parody.


Zakaria is the over-exposed host of Cable News Network’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” editor at-large of TIME magazine and columnist for The Washington Post. Two recent Post commentaries on Israel and Iran, “Deterrence works” (March 15) and “Israel’s false choice” (February 16) – partially echoed by a TIME column and remarks on his March 11 CNN show – raise a question: Why so much Zakaria?


CAMERA has pointed out before his blind spot when it comes to Israeli concerns and his use of a Palestinian magnifying glass to squint at the rest of the Middle East. One notable example, demonstrating either superficiality or manipulation comes from the Aug. 22, 2010 episode of his CNN program. See “Fareed Zakaria Casts Hezbollah as a Model of Religious Tolerance” (Aug. 26, 2010). 

His March 15 Post column, “Deterrence works,” continues the pundit’s two-dimensional campaign against Israeli or U.S. military pre-emption of Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons program. Zakaria argues that since Western deterrence against a nuclear-armed Soviet Union worked, it’s likely to do so against an Iranian government in possession of such arms.


False comparisons
He omits the time element from his comparison. The Soviet Union that behaved as a rational actor, deterred by Western nuclear arms from using its own, was two generations beyond its Bolshevik revolutionary leadership. Still dedicated strategically to world communist expansion according to the Brezhnev doctrine, it made numerous tactical maneuvers, including sub-contracting aggression to lesser surrogates, to avoid direct confrontation with the United States and its allies.


Iran only now is attempting a transition from its first-generation Islamic revolutionary rulers. But the younger generation of leaders and would-be successors, highlighted by Iran’s recent parliamentary elections, includes not only President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other apocalyptic messianists, but also “harder-line” theological “purifiers” and other Islamic ideologues. “Moderate” Islamic modernizers, let alone secularists, were barred from running.


Never mind. Zakaria continues in this unanalytical vein, asking “if deterrence doesn’t work, then why are we not preparing preventive war against Russia, which still has a fearsome arsenal” of nuclear weapons, “or against Pakistan, home to a military-intelligence regime that has been implicated in more major acts of terrorism” far more often than Iran?


Facile comparisons don’t impress high school debate judges, and they should raise doubts about Zakaria’s arguments. The United States hasn’t put the option of pre-emptive military strikes against Russia “on the table” as it has with Iran because, among other things, since the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russian republic has not reiterated that “we will bury you”; has not hidden its nuclear program from international inspection; or, at least not directly, supported anti-American attacks.


But Iran, labeling the United States “the Great Satan” and Israel “the Little Satan,” has urged supporters to “imagine a world without America” as well as “a world without Israel.” It has masterminded, among other strikes, the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, the 1996 bombing of American military quarters in Saudi Arabia and the arming of anti-American insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year it apparently tried to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington.


Why not pre-empt a nuclear-armed Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban’s de facto hinterland? Zakaria does not acknowledge that, like preparations for the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hide out last year, plans to “secure” Pakistan’s nuclear facilities in case of a coup by Islamic extremists reportedly are ready at the Pentagon.


Caught in history’s cross-walk
Such real-world complications escape Zakaria, who instead pursues apples-to-oranges comparisons, including also “Mao’s China” and “Kim Jong Il’s North Korea” as examples of successful deterrence. Previous Chinese and North Korean regimes may have been deterred by, among other things, lack of accurate, long-range delivery systems (like those Iran reportedly is working on) and, at least for North Korea, lack of faith in its warheads. Zakaria says nothing of Iranian military parades that reportedly have included ballistic missiles carrying signs proclaiming Israel as their target.


Zakaria declares that “great powers went to war with brutal regularity for hundreds of years. Then came nuclear weapons, and there has not been a war between great powers since 1945 – the longest period of peace between great powers in history.” Like pedestrians crossing against the light, media celebrities should beware historical generalizations.


The United States and Soviet Union did not fire directly at each other during the Cold War, 1946 – 1991, but during the Korean War, Vietnamese War and numerous smaller, surrogate conflicts – including, in some respects, the 1967 Six-Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War – the United States and NATO, and other allies, most certainly fought the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact countries and their satellites. Millions of people died in and from wars in which the great powers were invested during Zakaria’s “peace between great powers”.


He follows false com
parisons and retroactive historical determinism with a logical fallacy. Describing Kenneth Waltz as “one of the most distinguished theorists of international relations,” Zakaria quotes Waltz that “rulers want to have a country that they can continue to rule.” Waltz is known in academia as founder of “neorealism,” an approach to explaining the behavior of countries. Explanation, of course, looks back. Prediction, which neither Waltz nor most other foreign policy specialists are famous for, looks forward. Zakaria misses this elemental distinction. Rulers who see themselves with God or history on their side not infrequently over-reach and bring devastation to their countries: King Phillip II and Spain, Napoleon and France, Hitler and Germany are among the examples. 


Zakaria almost airily dismisses Iran’s potentially genocidal threat to Israel, acknowledging “anguish over the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapons is understandable. It would be better for Israel, the Middle East and the world if Tehran does not acquire such a weapon.” But if it does, “a robust policy of containment and deterrence would work …”  


“Robust” is one of those currently fashionable words used to imply specific, effective measures the speakers don’t care to itemize. Absent not just shades of gray but even relevant blacks and whites, Zakaria’s analysis, if it can be called that, tells us little about the “whys” of the past or the “what” of today.


More is less


His earlier Post Op-Ed on the topic, “Israel’s false choice,” exhibited the same defects and more. Zakaria began by equating Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s assertion that Iran’s nuclear program will soon enter a “zone of immunity” as it expands deep underground with “Germany’s decision to start what became World War I.” But regardless of threats to German military power in 1914, other European states did not threaten the existence of Germany or its people.


Zakaria goes further off base by insisting that American can understand Israel’s existential fears because “we have gone through a very similar experience ourselves” with the Cold War Soviets: “Everything that Israel says about Iran now, we said about the Soviet Union.”


Besides missing the time/generational difference between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and his colleagues and Iranian “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khameni and others with power or reaching for it in today’s Tehran, Zakaria is mistaken in asserting that Americans have experienced existential threats like the Jewish state has. Not only were one of every three Jews murdered in the Holocaust, killings the world was largely indifferent to at the time, Israel was nearly destroyed at birth in what Arab leaders said would be a war of extermination. In 1967, Israelis saw hundreds of thousands of enemy troops and thousands of tanks on their borders and heard Arab leaders again threaten genocide. Then, for a few days at the start of the ’73 war, they were forced to relive those earlier nightmares. And each time they felt abandoned while the world counseled patience and restraint. Americans have experienced nothing similar, not even those in the South during the Civil War.


Zakaria says “over the past decade, there have been thousands of suicide bombings by Saudis, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Pakistanis, but not been a single suicide attack by an Iranian.” This is supposed to indicate Iran would not stage a nuclear first strike.


In the past decade, plenty of those suicide bombings by Lebanese, Palestinians and others, in the form of attacks by Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their ilk were made possible by Iranian funds, training and weapons. And why limit it to “the past decade”? Add the 1992 and 1994 Hezbollah-Iranian bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center, respectively, in Buenos Aires to the list including the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks and the French military barracks in Lebanon, the Khobar Towers bombing and countless mass murders in Iraq.  


Erroneous comparisons, thin-ice history and a pose as enlightened sage – all are informed by Zakaria’s lack of empathy with realistic Israeli concerns and unwillingness to take Iranian words and deeds seriously.


Michael Singh, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, titled his critique of Zakaria’s February 16 column published by Foreign Policy, “How to Construct an Inaccurate Historical Analogy.” It too highlights the difference between the performance of a communication media celebrity, like Zakaria, and a news analyst, and can be found here:  


The day before Zakaria’s first column appeared, The Post ran an editorial headlined “The U.S.-Israeli trust gap; The Obama administration needs to be clearer about possible military action against Iran.” It argued that “military action against Iran, by Israel or the United States, is not yet necessary or wise.” However, “saying ‘all options are on the table’ is not enough; the Obama administration should be explicit about Iranian actions that will violate its red lines – and what the consequences will be.” Contrary to Zakaria, it did not assume “robust” deterrence, should Iran obtain nuclear weapons, would be sufficient.


And several days before Zakaria’s second column, The Post’s Outlook section ran a feature by Don Cooke, one of the Americas held captive at the U.S. embassy in Tehran from 1979 – 1981. Cooke spent 33 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, his last posting as senior policy adviser for Iran, before retiring recently. He concludes “the key to the Iranians accepting such a solution [to halt their nuclear program] is to convince them that we have the capability and the will to end the program ourselves. The irony is that the more clearly we demonstrate that capability and will, the less likely we will need to use them.”


In other words, when making policy, pay no heed to Fareed Zakaria.    

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