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Joe Klein: A Mea Culpa, Sorta. Don't nuke Iran
Joe Klein
April 28, 2006

A few weeks ago, I made a mistake while bloviating on the Sunday morning television program This Week With George Stephanopoulos. I said that all military options, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, should remain on the table in our future dealings with Iran. I was wrong on three counts.

First, my words were a technical violation of a long-standing protocol: A diplomat friend tells me that while it is appropriate to say, "All options should remain on the table," the direct mention of nukes — especially any hint of the first use of nukes — is, as Stephanopoulos correctly said, "crossing a line." If George had asked, "What about nukes?" the diplomatic protocol would have been to tapdance: "I can't imagine ever having to use nuclear weapons," or some such, leaving the nuclear door open, but never saying so specifically. In truth, I was trying to make the same point, undiplomatically — which comes easy for me: If the Iranians persist in crazy talk about wiping Israel, or New York, off the face of the earth, it isn't a bad idea if we hint that we can get crazy, too. One can easily imagine the unthinkable: a suitcase nuclear weapon, acquired from the former Soviet Union by Iranian agents, detonated in New York, London or Tel Aviv. A nuclear response certainly would have to be on the table then — and the military would be negligent if it weren't studying all possible nuclear scenarios.

But I can't imagine a first use of nukes, and certainly not the unilateral use of nuclear weapons — or military force of any kind — against Iran by the Bush administration now. This was the second level on which I was mistaken: I failed to give the proper context for my remarks. I should have said, "Look, I believe the President has squandered our credibility in the world, and it would be disastrous for us to act unilaterally, given our unwarranted — and tragically incompetent — invasion of Iraq." (I did get around to saying something like that a few sentences later.)

As a general principle, I'm opposed to the unilateral first use of U.S. force in all but the most extraordinary circumstances. As regular readers of my column know, I was opposed to the Iraq invasion. In the past, I have only favored military action when it had a United Nations or NATO imprimatur, as did the first Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan operations. Furthermore, for more than 10 years I've been in favor of diplomatic recognition of so-called rogue states like Iran, North Korea and Cuba. I've visited Iran, have friends there and I understand that a significant portion, perhaps the vast majority, of Iranians admire the United States and hate the current mullah-run Islamic Republic.

My third mistake was less profound: My remarks opened the door for misinterpretation, especially by left-wing bloggers. Within hours, The Nation's perpetually intemperate Eric Alterman was "reporting" that I'd come out in favor of "nuking Iran." Which opened the door for another tedious chorus of "Klein Is not a liberal" and other, more mangy imprecations. Let me give credit where it's due: I probably would not be writing this were it not for all the left-wing screeching. The Stephanopoulos moment came and went ephemerally, as TV moments do, leaving a slight, queasy residue — I knew that I hadn't explained myself adequately, but that happens a lot on television. So thanks, frothing bloggers, for calling me on my mistake. You can, at times, be a valuable corrective.

At other times, though, your vitriol just seems uninformed, malicious and disproportionate. You seem to believe that since I'm not a lock-step liberal — and we can talk about what a liberal actually is some other time — I'm some sort of creepy, covert conservative. Of course, most conservatives consider me a liberal. I call myself a moderate — a radical or flaming moderate, take your pick — because in this witlessly overheated political environment, you've got to call yourself something. But the conservatives do have a point: I disagree with Ronald Reagan's famous formulation, "Government is part of the problem, not part of the solution." I believe that government action can, when judiciously applied, make life better for people — and that we, as a society, have a responsibility to provide equal opportunity for all. I've had some problems with the methods liberals use to accomplish those goals, especially when they do not recognize the corrosive effects of entrenched bureaucracies and special interests, like the public employees unions, on the lives of the poor. I've also had problems with the reflexive tendency of Democrats to oppose the use of U.S. military power, even when that power has been sanctioned by the UN or NATO; I have absolutely no patience for those who believe the United States is a malignant or immoral force in the world.

Recently, though, there's been a growing sense among some Democrats that since the Republicans have an obnoxious amen chorus of radio talk-show hosts and vituperative elected officials like the late, great Tom DeLay, the Democrats should respond by being equally vehement and obnoxious. There's been a growing sense that since Republicans resort to disgraceful tactics — the impeachment of Bill Clinton, questioning the war records of candidates (John Kerry, Max Cleland) who happen to be Democrats — Democrats should respond in kind, call for the impeachment of George W. Bush and resort to demagoguery whenever plausible. Sorry, guys, you lost me there. George W. Bush has proven that governing from the right can't work; but governing from the left won't work either. The only way that real change — a universal health-care system (along the lines enacted by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts), a real alternative energy plan, progressivity in taxation and entitlement reform, a cooperative non-toxic foreign policy—will come is through coalitions built from the center out. And those coalitions will only flourish in a public atmosphere of civility, humanity and compromise.

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