The Year of Living Fearfully

It's 1938, says the liberal columnist Richard Cohen, evoking images of Hitler's armies massing in the face of an appeasing West. No, no, says Newt Gingrich, the Third World War has already begun. Neoconservatives, who can be counted on to escalate, argue that we're actually in the thick of the Fourth World War. The historian Bernard Lewis warned a few weeks ago that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could be planning to annihilate Israel (and perhaps even the United States) on Aug. 22 because it was a significant day for Muslims.

Can everyone please take a deep breath?

To review a bit of history: in 1938, Adolf Hitler launched what became a world war not merely because he was evil but because he was in complete control of the strongest country on the planet. At the time, Germany had the world's second largest industrial base and its mightiest army. (The American economy was bigger, but in 1938 its army was smaller than that of Finland.) This is not remotely comparable with the situation today.

Iran does not even rank among the top 20 economies in the world. The Pentagon's budget this year is more than double Iran's total gross domestic product ($181 billion, in official exchange-rate terms). America's annual defense outlay is more than 100 times Iran's. Tehran's nuclear ambitions are real and dangerous, but its program is not nearly as advanced as is often implied. Most serious estimates suggest that Iran would need between five and 10 years to achieve even a modest, North Korea-type, nuclear capacity.

Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall--and crazy. During the cold war, many hawks argued that the Soviet Union could not be deterred because the Kremlin was evil and irrational. The great debate in the 1970s was between the CIA's wimpy estimate of Soviet military power and the neoconservatives' more nightmarish scenario. The reality turned out to be that even the CIA's lowest estimates of Soviet power were a gross exaggeration. During the 1990s, influential commentators and politicians--most prominently the Cox Commission--doubled the estimates of China's military spending, using largely bogus calculations. And then there was the case of Saddam Hussein's capabilities. Saddam, we were assured in 2003, had nuclear weapons--and because he was a madman, he would use them.

One man who is greatly enjoying being the subject of this outsize portraiture is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has gone from being an obscure and not-so-powerful politician--Iran is a theocracy, remember, so the mullahs are ultimately in control--to a central player in the Middle East simply by goading the United States and watching Washington take the bait. By turning him into enemy No. 1, by reacting to every outlandish statement he makes, the Bush administration has given him far more attention than he deserves. And so now he writes letters to Bush, offers to debate him and prances about in the global spotlight provided by American attention.

Ahmadinejad strikes me as less a messianic madman and more a radical populist, an Iranian Huey Long. He has outflanked the mullahs on the right on nuclear policy, pushing for a more confrontationist approach toward Washington. He has outflanked them on the left on women's rights, arguing against some of the prohibitions women face. (He wants them to be able to attend soccer matches.) Almost every week he announces a new program to "help the poor." He uses the nuclear issue because it gives him a great nationalist symbol. For a regime with little to show after a quarter century in power--Iranian standards of living have actually declined since the revolution--nuclear power is a national accomplishment.

Even Ahmadinejad's most grotesque statement, implying the annihilation of Israel, is likely part of this pattern. Iran is seeking leadership in the Middle East, and what better way to do so than by appropriating the core grievance of the Sunni Arabs: Israel. By making his dramatic statements, he is taunting the regimes of the Arab world, using rhetoric they dare not, for fear of Washington. His rhetoric is not so new; the Iranian "moderate" Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani said similar things. The real shift that has taken place in the Middle East is that 30 years ago most Arab regimes would have made statements like Ahmadinejad's. Today his "rejectionism" stands alone.

Iran is run by a nasty regime that destabilizes an important part of the world, frustrates American and Western interests, and causes problems for allies like Israel. But let's get some perspective. The United States is far more powerful than Iran. And, on the issue of Tehran's nuclear program, Washington is supported by most of the world's other major powers. As long as the alliance is patient, united and smart--and keeps the focus on Tehran's actions not Washington's bellicosity--the odds favor America. Ahmadinejad presides over a country where more than 40 percent of the population lives under the poverty line; his authority is contested, and Iran's neighbors are increasingly worried and have begun acting to counter its influence. If we could contain the Soviet Union, we can contain Iran. Look at your calendar: it's 2006, not 1938.