In Jules Verne’s brilliant Journey from the Earth to the Moon, a group of old artillery officers meet after the Civil War to try to figure out what to do with their now outmoded skills. “There was hardly a full set of arms and legs left among them,” writes Verne, but the romance of ballistics has not deserted them.
And so they settle on the idea of building a cannon big enough to fire a capsule to the moon. As a measure of how prescient Verne could be, he chose the east coast of Florida as the blast-off site, within a stone’s throw of Cape Canaveral. You achieve the shortest arc to the moon there. Most memorable in the book’s wonders, however, is this short line: “In their quietest moments, they all dreamed of building a weapon so big and terrifying that no one would ever dare use it — and wars would at last come to an end.”
Verne wrote all this in 1870. Radioactivity wasn’t discovered until 1895 and it took another 50 years to fashion this energy into a bomb. But he was right.
Although “peace activists” are always talking about “ridding the world of nuclear weapons,” the fact is those weapons have kept the peace for 60 years. The Cold War was undoubtedly the longest standoff in history where two sides went toe-to-toe, fingers on the trigger, but nobody ever fired the first shot. The reason was transparent — both sides knew the result would be world catastrophe. The people lamenting the possibility of “nuclear winter” were right. They just didn’t see the point. The vision of total destruction was what kept everyone’s worst impulses at bay.
Now we’re about to see a rerun of this whole scenario in the Middle East.
Any student of history can tell you where events in Egypt are headed. The French Revolution set the historical prototype and, with only a few exceptions, it’s been the same ever since. A country under authoritarian rule develops a middle class. This articulate, legal-minded group agitates against the arbitrary rule until it finally overthrows the ancien régime in the name of representative government. However, the “revolution” quickly runs into two problems: 1) the overwhelming mass of people who don’t care much about democracy but simply want “peace, bread and land,” as Lenin expressed it, and/or 2) a highly organized illiberal party of fanatics ready to seize power in the name of some utopian scheme. Often the two mesh. The result is a Committee on Public Safety or Lenin’s Bolsheviks or the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. The only exception to this pattern was the great American Revolution, where George Washington, Ben Franklin, James Madison, and the Founding Fathers were able to keep control of the process and wisely shepherded us into the truly representative system we still have today — bless their hearts forever.
It isn’t going to happen in the Middle East. During the Iraq War, President George W. Bush was heard to lament, “Where are the George Washingtons, the Thomas Jeffersons, the John Adamses?” There are none. You need an enlightened cultural tradition built over centuries plus a population steeped in “republican virtue” to achieve such a thing. Blessedly, we had it in the 18th century. Today the whole idea has spread far enough to the boundaries of Western culture so that when Eastern Europe freed itself from Communism, most countries were able to make the transition to a reasonable stable representative system as well
In Egypt and the Islamic world, however, there is no such tradition. Instead, you have the Koran and Sharia, which is basically a 7th century Bedouin ethos imposed on a society with cell phones. Bedouins were always big on conquest. Studies have shown them to be much more violent than settled agricultural communities — and in fact, “Raids are our agriculture” is an Arab proverb. Islam is also the only major culture that sanctions polygamy, which is a system that produces a surplus population of unattached, unsatisfied men. In Thursday’s New York Times, Anthony Shadid reported the grievances of protesting mobs to be “the hopelessness, the humiliations at the hands of the police and the outrage of having too little money to marry.” The reason men need money to marry is because of the “bride price,” an institution of polygamous cultures where the shortage of women allowed families to charge prospective grooms to marry their daughters. All this pent-up male anger has to be channeled someplace and the best solution is to point it outward, toward other cultures. Seventy-two virgins await you. Just pull this detonator when you get into the market square. Is it so difficult to understand why Islam at war with every society on its borders?
SO DON’T EXPECT anything good to come out of Egypt’s “Revolution.” Mohamed ElBaradei may be able to keep things under control for a few weeks but sooner or later he will prove too moderate and one of two other candidates will emerge — either a Napoleonic military figure, à la Gamal Abdel-Nasser, or a Lenin-style party infiltrating the power centers of society — i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood. Once united in this fashion, the new Egyptian leaders, be they secular or sacred, will follow the Napoleonic tradition and turn their turmoil outward. “Let’s stop fighting amongst ourselves and go conquer Europe,” Napoleon told the French Revolution. In Egypt and whatever other countries fall to the protest now sweeping the region, the cry will be “Let’s stop fighting among ourselves and go conquer Israel.”
Within a year, Israel will probably be facing a Hezbollah-led government in Lebanon, a revolutionary Egypt ready to scrap the legacy of Anwar Sadat (it was the Brotherhood, after all, that assassinated him), and possibly newly radicalized regimes in Syria and Jordan. The repeat of the 1967 and 1973 invasions would be a foregone conclusion, except for one thing — Israel now has nuclear weapons. Nobody knows exactly how many but estimates it may be as many as 200 in Israel’s arsenal — certainly enough not to have to worry about a few misfires. They wouldn’t have to be aimed at cities. Blowing up the Aswan Dam would essentially wipe the Egyptian economy off the map.
The Egyptians are not stupid. They would realize they have to restrain themselves, even if they indulged in a lot of sword waving or talked about obtaining their own nuclear weapons. (The Russians are building four new reactors for them, which makes this a not-remote possibility.) The same thing would hold true in Lebanon, Syria, or a revanchist Jordan. Lobbing shells across the border could become common and there might be subversive efforts in Gaza and on the West Bank. But even a nuclear-armed Egypt or Saudi Arabia would be unlikely to risk an all-out attack as in 1967 and 1973. The possibilities of nuclear war make the stakes too high. And so a Cold War-like standoff would prevail.
UNFORTUNATELY, THERE’S ONE MORE wild card in the deck — Iran. As we are all learning, there are two main sects of Islam, the Sunni and the Shi’ia. The Sunni are mostly Arab (Egypt is 90 percent Sunni) and take pride that they are the “Sons of the Prophet.” (That’s why nearly half of them are named “Mohammed.”) They are wedded to the Islamic idea of world conquest and can produce legions of suicide bombers, but they are not a suicidal culture. The same cannot be said of the Shi’ia, whose center of gravity is in Iran. The Shi’ia, as the saying goes, have “martyrdom in their blood.” Given their history, the world cannot be completely confident that Iran would not be willing to start a nuclear war.
Do you know the story of Hussein, the patron saint of the Shi’ia sect? Here’s what happened. In 680 A.D., Muawiya I, the first Caliph of Baghdad, died and tried to pass his title on to his son, Yazid. Sitting in Mecca, Hussein, the only living grandson of the Prophet, objected on the grounds that Mohammed had not intended his rule to be hereditary (even though Hussein himself was asserting hereditary authority). In order to dispute Yazid’s claim, Hussein left Mecca and marched toward Baghdad to do battle. He had with him 75 warriors plus some women and children. Yazid met him at Karbala, 60 miles southwest of Baghdad, with an army of 5,000.
Squaring off against each other, the two sides negotiated and Yazid offered terms of surrender. Hussein meditated for a week before deciding that, yes, even though outnumbered 50-to-1, he would do battle with Yazid. Needless to say, he and his followers were slaughtered and his head ended up on a pole. Shi’ia Muslims commemorate this defeat every year during the month of Muharram by marching in huge processions, flagellating themselves and wailing, “Hussein, why were we not with you at Karbala?”
Any culture that worships martyrdom in such a fashion would probably have no trouble starting a nuclear war, even it meant leaving its own country a smoldering ruin. All those virgins will still be waiting in heaven.
The confrontation between Israel and its newly radicalized neighbors, then, will probably produce a Cold War-type standoff held in place by Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The world will have to learn to live with that. What we cannot live with is an Iran that has nuclear weapons. It will be up to the rest of the world to make sure it doesn’t happen.