Bomb Them to Gain Their Support?

August 1, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 1, 2006.

An Israeli air strike killed almost 60 civilians in the Lebanese village of Qana on Sunday. Israeli leaders stress that their primary objective is to degrade Hezbollah’s ability to launch rocket attacks against northern Israel, but they also mention another motive: forcing the Lebanese people to understand that supporting Hezbollah will bring them nothing but grief. With that realization, so the reasoning goes, most Lebanese will turn against the terrorist organization.

Logic suggests that the more likely reaction will be greater Lebanese hatred of Israel and, hence, more support for Hezbollah. It is bizarre to assume that displacing a population and destroying a country’s infrastructure will somehow lead the people being targeted to turn against the adversaries of the attacking power rather than the attacking power itself.

Nevertheless, American hawks are urging the Bush administration to emulate Israel’s dubious strategy and launch air strikes against Iran–both because of that country’s apparent quest for nuclear weapons and its support of Hezbollah. A military assault, they argue, would result in the fall of the repressive clerical government. Iranians would supposedly be so enraged at the clerics for bringing destruction upon them that they would overthrow the mullahs. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, explicitly embraces the bombing‐​as‐​political catalyst rationale. Asserting that “the Iranian people dislike their regime,” he predicts that “the right use of military force … could cause them to reconsider whether they really want to have [it] in power.”

The notion that populations will rise up against the governments of their own countries and make common cause with countries that are killing their loved ones defies history and comprehension. In spite of massive bombing of Germany and Japan in World War II, the fascist regimes there remained in power to the bitter end. U.S. bombing of North Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s did not dislodge Ho Chi Minh or his successors from power. NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 actually caused Slobodan Milosevic’s popularity to increase for a time. It was not until much later—primarily for domestic reasons—that the democratic opposition was able to get rid of him.

Bombing Iran would almost certainly be counterproductive for the goal of regime change. Like most other people, Iranians could be expected to rally around the flag if their country came under attack. Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, a liberal critic of the theocracy, likely expresses the views of most of her fellow citizens when she warns Washington not to attack Iran: “We will defend our country till the last drop of blood.” If that is the attitude of a pro‐​Western, liberal Iranian, one can only imagine what Iranians who are less hostile to the current government would do.

Trying to achieve forcible regime change is especially likely to backfire with respect to Iran. A good many Iranians remember that the United States interfered once before in their country’s political affairs, and the outcome was not a happy one. It was, after all, a coup orchestrated by the CIA that ousted a democratic government and restored the autocratic Shah to power in 1953. His corrupt and repressive rule over the next quarter century paved the way for the Islamic revolution and the emergence of the current odious regime. Any attempt to bomb Iran into regime change is almost certain to reawaken those old grievances, even among Iranians who loathe the mullahs.

Bombing may be an effective way to wage war, but it is a terrible way to win hearts and minds. Israel was unwise to pursue that strategy in Lebanon, and the United States would be foolish indeed to try it in Iran.

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