Rightly or wrongly, I believe that letting the lunatics in Tehran nuke up is a sufficiently bad idea that we should be prepared to go to war rather than allow it. But “prepared” is a long way from “eager.” It looks as if the lunatics in Washington would really like to go to war with the one Middle Eastern country whose population is, or at least was until recently, pro-American.

As the narrator says at the end of The Bridge Over the River Kwai: “Madness! Madness!”


Blogging is a humbling activity, if you go back and read your old posts and notice how many things you got completely wrong. But every once in a while, you look back at an old post and think “Hey! That was pretty smart!”

As it happens, I stumbled today on a post from the run-up to the Iraq war. Of course, it reminds me that I supported that war, which now looks like a very bad mistake. But it also reminds me that I had BushCo’s number, even back when Bush was popular. The fundamental fact about this crowd is that they think rashness is a virtue.

It isn’t.

Since roughly no one was reading the predecessor to this blog in September of 2002 (I think I was getting a couple of hundred hits on a good day), I’m taking the liberty of reposting the whole thing, at the jump.

“The Whole Earth is the Tomb of Famous Men”

My friend and colleague Eugene Volokh, who thinks we should go to war, quotes Thucydides: “The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom is courage.”

Here’s the full passage, in a different translation; it’s from the great Funeral Oration of Pericles:

For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.

The language is magnificent; but the context made it deeply ironic then, and its use now in the pro-war cause is not less ironic. Pericles had just led the Athenians into the Peloponnesian war, and the speech, given after its first, victorious, year, is confident of victory, even somewhat boastful. Yet Thucydides’ readers knew that this was to be the high-water mark of Athenian greatness: what was to follow was defeat, conquest, and the imposition of a Quisling government. Later Athens was to regain its independence, but not its hegemony, and its permanently poisoned relationships with the other poleis were to lead, in the next century, to the conquest of all of Greece by the Macedonians under Philip and Alexander.

So when Pericles urges his hearers not to “weigh too nicely the perils of war,” we are meant to hear in the background Thucydides’ sardonic laughter. Pericles took his own advice (or perhaps Thucydides put into the mouth of Pericles words appropriate to his actions), and the result was catastrophe.

Going to war with Iraq may be the safest, smartest thing we could possibly do; reading the arguments made against it is almost enough to make me think so. What worries me is that I do not now see in power men and women who nicely weigh the perils of war. Rather, I think I see a truly Periclean hubris, albeit expressed in much less stirring language.

America is, in many ways, the new Athens. The parallels between the Peloponnesian war and the Cold War are almost eerie: a land-based, insular, impoverished, culturally conservative and backward land power against a wealthy, mercantile, culturally rich, heterogeneous, and innovative democracy. Only this time the good guys won.

Let’s not have it go to our heads. A calculating boldness a virtue; rashness is a vice. There are better uses for the whole earth than to make it our tomb.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

11 thoughts on “Recklessness”

  1. Mark, Mark, Mark – what are we going to do with you? Haven't you learned by now that the thoughts that one has, after deep drags on the neo-con crackpipe, are not worth anything? I'm really, really puzzled by the fact that you are falling for these people's lies again, with the wreckage still burning around you.
    You said, way back when: "Going to war with Iraq may be the safest, smartest thing we could possibly do; reading the arguments made against it is almost enough to make me think so."
    This should be posted on your wall, above your computer, to remind you of prior poor judgement.
    Do you mean that there were some bad arguments against that war? I'd agree. Do you mean that there were some unpleasant/untrustworthy people arguing against that war? I'd agree.
    Now, let's look at the other side – were there bad arguments for that war? Yes. Were there unpleasant/untrustworthy people arguing for that war? Yes.
    What was the difference? The difference was that the untrustworthy guys on the pro-war side would be the ones running the war. A non-trivial distinction, IMHO.
    Remember – it's not some hypothetical war, it's not a Power Point slideshow, it's Bush's war, with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield and Rice running the show.
    You've seen this already. Why do you persist in believing any words which come out of these guys' mouths? It's pretty clear that a war with Iran, under the present circumstances, has the strong potential to make the Iraq War look like a smooth, competant operation. 'Strong potential' under competant leadership, that is.

  2. I went to the "lunatics in Tehran" message expecting to find reasons why a nuclear Iran can't be lived with. I didn't find any.
    Push come to shove, a nuclear Iran can be lived with. It will lack a first-strike capability; its nuclear weapons will safeguard it against the threat of regime change that we have so readily and unfortunately brandished. Iranian nuclear weapons won't make adventures beyond its borders any less deterrable.
    Were the Iranian people themselves prove able to replace the present regime with one more to their liking, it's doubtful that that regime would drop the nuclear weapons program.
    It would be supremely ironic were the United States to use nuclear weapons in order to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. But it's no doubt true that nuclear weapons are the surest way to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities.
    Your caution and plea for patience is most admirable. Your willingness eventually to venture a large-scale attack against Iran is frightening. Perhaps you will elaborate your reasons why you deem this willingness a necessity.

  3. What would Thomas Schelling say, about why Iran wants nuclear weapons, and how circumstances might be created, in which Iran would think it in their self-interest to cooperate sincerely in an international non-proliferation effort?
    Is threatening war with Iran really a wise approach? Once the expertise exists in a human team, how effective would it be to destroy a facility, any facility?
    Could we win a protracted war with Iran? Assuming Bush cannot pull a quarter million soldiers out of a hat to occupy Iran, are we certain that Iran would "surrender"? Can the U.S. survive in the Persian Gulf, facing an actively and possibly implacably hostile Iran? At what cost? Has anyone in Washington looked at a map?
    How does the U.S. policy with regard to Iranian nukes fit in with the U.S. policy on non-proliferation, generally? Could a Schelling distinguish usefully between current U.S. policy and a policy of encouraging proliferation? (I'm serious about this. A cynic might honestly conclude that Bush is objectively pro-proliferation. He wants to pull the teeth from the next non-proliferation treaty; he wants to develop tactical nukes, he's allied with Pakistan, he wants to aid India, he's manuevered North Korea into at least claiming to have nukes, etc., etc.)
    Let's assume that the Bush approach to building "institutions" of non-proliferation, based on blowing up expensive and hard to replicate facilities, screw diplomacy and international cooperation. Ten years from now, how well does this approach generalize to genetically engineered virii? The capability to engineer a deadly flu is no more than ten years away, and it will not require exotic aluminum tubes or a rare mineral from Niger, a billion dollar development effort, and it will be deliverable in an egg carton or an aerosol can or a migrating bird. Will the international "institutions" we are so helpfully building do us any good?
    Bush's policy on Iraq and, now, Iran has been so mind-bogglingly bad on so many levels, I can scarcely believe we are still discussing it as if anything Bush proposes to do, has any presumptive merit.

  4. That good people such as yourself and Volokh can abstract war to the point where it can be discussed in the above manner is the gravest disappointment and the reason it does not die.
    "Going to war with Iraq may be the safest, smartest thing we could possibly do; reading the arguments made against it is almost enough to make me think so."
    War has a terrible impact upon human bodies. We have very strong prohibitions against causing harm of that sort to human bodies in domestic law, and yet people can make statements like the above that will commit to terrible impacts on human bodies overseas. This is not not some easy cost-benefit analysis situation.
    The reasons for war have to be persuasive to a very high level. You may defend yourself – clearly that criterion is not met here. You may in some circumstances defend others. War supporters moved from the former to the latter, but the lack of any seriousness about the latter was as obvious at the time as the sheer bogus nature of the former was. To be frank, unless we meet some very high standards of argument that account for the persuasiveness of the human body shattered by a dropped bomb, we have no right to support a war.

  5. Iran currently uses 1/3 of the oil they pump out of the ground for internal uses. If they have the internal growth they are planning for, they will stop exporting oil in the near future (less than 10 years away) as all the oil they pump will be used for electrical production and their own domestic gas/diesel. Just look at the demographics of their country.
    In any event, Iran will be forced into nuclear power whether we want them there or not.

  6. I don't think the occupation will likely be the issue. Remember, they say people fight the last war. The last war was Iraq.
    My naive guess is that something truly wonderful and unique awaits us in Iran.

  7. Funnily enough, I was against the Iraq war, and I kind of agree with you. I think there's a lot more room for diplomacy, but I also think a nuclear Iran under Ahmadinejad is unacceptable. That said, I fear the only realistic way to dissuade Iran from going nuclear without military invention (which in all likelihood would have catastrophic consequences, at least if performed by the Bush administration) would be to force Israel to come clean about it's own programme and to agree to eventual disarmament. Which ain't going to happen.

  8. "Since roughly no one was reading the predecessor to this blog in September of 2002 (I think I was getting a couple of hundred hits on a good day),"
    Gee, that's still what I get… okay, on a not such a good day; on a good day, I get 2-3 times that; but, still.

  9. There is actually a good reason to take seriously the claims of the Iranian leadership that they are not actively pursuing nuclear weapons. The reason is the the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameine'i, who is also the Commander in Chief of the military, has issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons. For all his "madness," this guy is not a hypocrite about his religion. That fatwa is serious, and as long as he is in power, there will be no nuclear weapons built in Iran. The current uranium enrichment can only be used for peaceful uses, not weapons, and despite all his firebreathing rhetoric, Ahmadinejad is on board with Khameine'i regarding what they are up to.
    Why is Ahmadinejad being so fire breathing? He was elected on an economically populist platform. But the economy is currently dominated by banyads, Islamic foundations, that are run by mullahs he cannot remove. Hence, he gains popularity even with his liberal opponents by stirring up the idiot US leadership.

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