John Abizaid, the general with regional command over the war in Iraq before the currently promising strategic overhaul led by Gen. David Petraeus, recently shared some thoughts reminding us why he is not missed. "I believe that we have the power to deter Iran, should it become nuclear. Let's face it, we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China, and we're living with other nuclear powers as well."
Rarely has the adage that generals always fight the last war been so blazingly confirmed. Such thinking arose not only in Robert Gates' writings before he was tapped to be defense secretary, but even in his Senate confirmation hearing. When asked about Iran's threats to "wipe Israel off the map," Gates launched into a defense of Iranian nukes, saying, "I think that they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent. They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons — Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf."
Gates believes that Iranian nukes are an unfortunate development, but little more than a return to a manageable status quo ante — that of the Cold War. This is the normal state of the world, goes such thinking.
Yet in reality, there's nothing normal about that. In the struggle with Islamofascism, aiming for deterrence alone courts defeat. The reason for this is not just the possibility that Iran has a martyrdom complex.
Abizaid directly discounts this, claiming that "Iran is not a suicide nation." To hard-bitten soldiers like him, when Iranian mullahs call Israel a "one-bomb" country and openly say that Iran, by contrast, can absorb a nuclear attack, that's just rhetoric. Our imaginations do not always match those of our enemies, so it is perhaps foolhardy to dismiss strange ideologies as mere rhetoric.
But why, after all, should they kill themselves when they can "fight" using others as human detonators?
While Iran has fought conventional wars, the regime's favorite tactic is proxy warfare, through terrorist groups.
What deterrence does not even pretend to address, however, is the most likely scenario of all: that Tehran neither fires nor transfers a nuke, but uses its nuclear umbrella to protect its regime and ramp up its projection of influence through terrorist proxies.
We see how Tehran operates in Iraq, through Syria, in Lebanon and in Gaza. Imagine such activity squared and safeguarded. Watch as the Sunni Arab regimes, all allied with the United States, run for cover and their lives. Forget about the peace process and the two-state solution. See the seedlings of democracy and moderation in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere driven deep underground. Note new nuclear programs throughout the Arab world sprout up in their stead.
What the Abizaid school does not seem to get is that, according to the rational model he is applying, no Iranian nuke needs to detonate for Iran to win. All that has to happen is for the jihadi camp to become progressively stronger, and the West progressively more intimidated. If the West deters, Iran will surge.
The barely hidden contention of the Abizaid school is that the cost of preventing a nuclear Iran, particularly through military action, is higher than living with a nuclear Iran. Such thinking not only fails to learn the lesson of the last global war, namely the limits of deterrence, but of the one before that.
World War II taught us that thinking you can live with an aggressive power with unlimited ambitions leads to exactly the war you are trying to avoid — but at a much higher cost. Following Abizaid's counsel, the most likely scenario begins with deterrence succeeding on its own terms, while simultaneously losing the war. But as that war is lost, and Islamofascism becomes more powerful, it is likely that deterrence would fail, too. In this war, deterrence is a recipe for defeat — and war.
Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of The Jerusalem Post.