Where is Richard Nixon when we really need him?
The time is ripe for rearranging the diplomatic chess board -- but this time, Western leaders must entice Tehran, not Beijing, into a new relationship.
The present confrontational strategy isn't working. Even if Netanyahu's threatened airstrike successfully delays Iran's nuclear program, Israel faces a bleak future in the middle run. Its initial attack will alienate Americans and Europeans obliged to cope with Iranian counter-offensives on the economic and military fronts. Once the mullahs recover from their setback, an increasingly isolated Israel will be obliged to deal with the resurgent Iranian threat. With nuclear weapons technology proliferating, it will also confront threats emerging elsewhere in the Arab world. It is only a matter of time before one or another enemy penetrates Israel's air defenses. Given its small size, a single successful attack can devastate the country.
The time to stop this cycle is now. Instead of escalating the cold-war with Iran, my Nixonian proposal seeks to end it. It invites the mullahs to join in a larger effort that includes Israel to create a nuclear-free Middle East. Under the initiative, the West doesn't only require Iran to end its quest for nuclear weapons. It calls on Israel to eliminate its own nuclear stock-pile. In exchange, the West guarantees that it will launch a preemptive attack on any country in the region that seeks to acquire atomic weapons.
Everybody wins. Israel wins by gaining a credible Western safeguard against future nuclear assaults. Iran wins by reestablishing normal relations with the outside world. The West wins by transforming itself from an increasingly alienated ally of the Israelis into a genuinely neutral guarantor against catastrophic nuclear destruction.
This is one treaty that the American Senate will ratify with enthusiasm. Given the powerful political support for Israel in the United States, and residual guilt about the Holocaust in Europe, there is every reason to suppose that the Western guarantee will endure for generations. Even if this commitment did decline, the costs to Israel would be small. The treaty will allow the parties to retain nuclear capacities for peaceful purposes. Given Israel's technological edge, it could move promptly to restore its war-making capacities. At the very worst, it would find itself in the strategic position similar to what it occupies today.
The Arab Spring adds urgency to the Nuclear Weapons Ban. In the old days, the West could offset its strong support for Israel with counterbalancing alliances with authoritarian Arab governments. The result wasn't pretty, but it served to sustain the fragile détente constructed by the two sides after the 1967 war.
The days of the Mubaraks are numbered throughout the region. Nobody knows where the Arab Spring is going, but one danger is obvious. The movement toward more popular government can readily push the Arab world in anti-Israeli and anti-Western directions. Within this context, an ongoing cycle of Israeli airstrikes will be especially destabilizing, increasing the probability of region-wide conflict.
A nuclear weapons ban is no panacea. Yet it will place a ceiling on military risk, and create a setting in which the parties can reach an accommodation on other tough issues.
Which returns us to the Nixon question. It doesn't take a Roosevelt or a Churchill to see the need for a dramatic shift in our present course. It just requires Western leaders to rival Richard Nixon in political courage and strategic insight. Are there any around today who might aspire to this level of statesmanship?
Barack Obama declared early on that he was aiming for a radical reduction in nuclear stockpiles throughout the world. This is an opportunity to put his brave words into action. His initiative could also gain support from Angela Merkel, who is alive to Germany's special responsibility to prevent another Holocaust. But leaders are more apt to seize the opportunity if their followers recognize the need to consider large changes in the status quo. It's time to take a nuclear weapons ban seriously.
Bruce Ackerman is a professor of law and political science at Yale, and the author, most recently, of The Decline and Fall of the American Republic.