We sophisticated modern materialists slight these religious motives, dismissing them as throwbacks to the Dark Ages, or cynical pretexts to camouflage the pursuit of the material goods we recognize, such as wealth and power. Because religion in the West has faded into a life-style choice or repository of comforting holiday rituals, we cannot fathom that for other creeds the spiritual world is a living reality in their lives. But even if those beliefs are mere ghosts, they still drive behavior in the here-and-now. As Orwell wrote in 1941 of H.G. Wells, the celebrated champion of internationalism and scientific rationalism, “He was, and is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.”
The melancholy lesson of history is that force is the “strong magic” that compels fanatical believers to abandon their murderous ideologies or keep them within their own borders. Equivocating about the use of force, or pursuing non-lethal ways to change behavior, such as diplomatic negotiation or economic sanctions, only convinces the fanatic aggressor that he has the gods or history or destiny on his side, that his enemy is weak and lacks conviction, and that a few more blows will achieve the aggressor’s aims. Nor does it matter if the failure to retaliate actually reflects other concerns such as political expediency. There were many reasons Clinton withdrew our forces from Somalia in 1993 after the “Blackhawk Down” battle in which 18 U.S. servicemen were killed, but political self-interest and survival were clearly the most important. Yet to bin Laden, the retreat from Mogadishu was like the withdrawal from Vietnam and Beirut after the Marine barracks bombing: the result of America’s “low spiritual morale” and “cowardice and feebleness.” And that perception fed bin Laden’s certainty that the U.S. rested on “foundations of straw” and could be toppled with spectacular terrorist attacks.
Settling the conflict with Iran and keeping it from acquiring nuclear weapons, then, will in the end be achieved with mind-concentrating force that convinces the mullahs to change their ways. One place to start would be to destroy Iran’s navy and shore missile batteries in the Persian Gulf. Degrading the military assets, bases, and production facilities of the Iranian Republican Guard Corp and the paramilitary Basij might provide an opportunity for the dormant Green Revolutionaries to effect regime change. As Indiana University’s Jamsheed K. Choksy wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Once the power of the Basij and the IRGC to enforce the regime’s will upon the people has been seriously compromised, it would not be surprising to see large segments of Iran’s population casting off the theocratic yoke.” A saner regime perhaps would be more amenable to abandoning the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The time is fast running out on policies that refuse to accept the necessity of force in changing Iranian behavior. Military action obviously involves unknowable risks and costs; but allowing a rogue regime, one situated in the middle of a region that produces one-fifth of the world’s oil, to acquire nuclear weapons will likely end up subjecting our security and interests to much greater risks and much higher costs.
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