Bibi's Botched History Lesson

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Benjamin Netanyahu loves history. And he loves deriding his critics for not understanding it as well as he does. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly last year, he attacked journalists for their weak grasp of past events, calling for a “press whose sense of history extends beyond breakfast.”

But while Netanyahu’s sense of history may extend beyond breakfast, he doesn’t remember events the way most historians do. Take his comments in this year’s U.N. speech, delivered yesterday, about the cold war. In his argument for why the United States and other world powers should draw a “clear red line” specifying when Iran’s nuclear progress would trigger military action, Netanyahu approvingly cited NATO, whose charter “made clear that an attack on one member would be considered an attack on all.” According to Bibi, “NATO’s red line helped keep the peace in Europe for nearly half a century.”

Yes, but NATO established a red line against Soviet attack. If the USSR invaded West Berlin, to use the most often-discussed scenario, the United States would be obligated to come to West Germany’s defense. What NATO self-consciously did not do was draw a red line against a Soviet bomb. To the contrary, the Truman administration rejected calls for a preventative military strike aimed at stopping Moscow’s quest for atomic power. Then, during the Kennedy administration, the U.S. and its NATO allies rejected calls to establish a red line that would have prompted military action against communist China before it joined the nuclear club. Netanyahu may believe that NATO’s policies of containment and deterrence won’t work against Tehran because its leaders—unlike Stalin and Mao—are bloodthirsty tyrants who sometimes speak in messianic, apocalyptic terms. But people whose historical memory extends beyond breakfast should remember that NATO’s “red line” was not the equivalent of preventative war; it was the alternative to preventative war.

Similarly, Netanyahu told his U.N. audience, “President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban missile crisis.” Yes, but Kennedy also conducted secret diplomacy with Nikita Khrushchev, which led not only to the Soviets ceasing their nuclear missile construction in Cuba, but to the U.S. removing its nuclear missiles from Turkey. (Imagine what Mitt Romney would have said about that). Kennedy, in other words, gave the Soviets something in return for meeting his red lines. When they circumscribed their nuclear capabilities, he circumscribed America’s. Netanyahu, by contrast, hasn’t given any inkling of what Israel might concede if Iran stops short of building a bomb. Forget offering to limit Israel’s own nuclear program; Netanyahu hasn’t even suggested that if Iran halts its nuclear progress the West should lift sanctions.

But Netanyahu’s deepest misreading of the cold war is more subtle. In his U.N. speech, he spoke about “the medieval forces of radical Islam” as a unitary actor. “They seek supremacy over all Muslims. They’re bent on world conquest. They want to destroy Israel, Europe, America. They want to extinguish freedom. They want to end the modern world.”

In the first decades of the cold war, uber-hawks like Barry Goldwater, James Burnham, and William F. Buckley talked about communism this way, too, as if the differences between various leftist movements and governments were trivial because Marxist ideology itself bound them in a common, evil purpose. But that turned out to be wrong.

At the very moment American right-wingers were lumping all communists together, George Kennan—who had lived for years in Eastern Europe and spoke Russian—was predicting that national rivalries would soon split the communist world. Kennan worked feverishly to exploit the feud between Yugoslavia’s communist leader, Marshall Tito, and Stalin. And early on, he predicted that the world’s two Marxist giants, China and the USSR, would turn viciously against each other. In the 50s and 60s, China hands like John Paton Davies, who understand East Asia in the same textured way that Kennan understood the Soviet bloc, saw the folly in depicting communist North Vietnam as an agent of communist Chinese power, given the historical enmity between the two nations. And, tragically, it was only after tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese had been killed, that men like Davies were proven correct—when communist China and a unified communist Vietnam went to war.

None of this is to suggest that Netanyahu is wrong to worry about a nuclear Iran. Where he’s wrong is in forgetting that Israel’s foe is one particular regime, influenced by ideology, to be sure, but also representing various national traditions and interests. (Iran’s nuclear program, after all, began under the Shah). By instead defining Israel’s enemy as an amorphous behemoth called “radical Islam,” Netanyahu is making it harder for Israel and America to exploit divisions among Islamists, as Kennan exploited divisions among communists. By turning Israel’s foe from a nasty government into a demonic ideology, he’s forgetting that even the most evil of regimes (Stalin’s Soviet Union, for instance) have rational security concerns, and that understanding them is critical to keeping the peace.

If Benjamin Netanyahu really understood the history of the cold war, he’d realize that he’s treading the path of those American leaders whose grandiose ideological formulations concealed their deep ignorance of the countries against which they waged war. Netanyahu fancies himself our era’s Winston Churchill. That’s wrong. He’s our Robert McNamara.