In War and Peace Tolstoy has Russian generals urging the commander in chief Marshal Kutuzov to stand and fight Napoleon instead of continuing to retreat. He refuses. “Patience and Time,” he says. “Patience and Time will save Russia.” It was better in effect to do nothing than to do something rash. Of course, you may say, with some justice, that to do nothing is actually to do something, and this is true, up to a point anyway. Nevertheless Kutuzov proved to be right. His negative policy of masterly inactivity was successful. Napoleon never recovered from the Russian campaign.
I thought of this when I picked up an old copy of The Spectator the other day. It was dated 26 January, 2008, and it reported a debate in which the motion was “It’s better to bomb Iran than risk Iran getting the bomb.” Almost ten years have passed and an agreement that has at least seen a halt, or slowdown, in Iran’s development of nuclear weapons has been reached. Now the same sort of debate is being conducted with regard to North Korea.
The debate is not identical because Iran and North Korea are very different countries. Iran may be a repressive theocracy, but the regime is notably cautious. Iran, as one Iranian academic remarked in the debate, hasn”t invaded anyone for 250 years”not something that could be said of the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, or Italy. At that time the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was notably aggressive”in speech anyway”calling for the eradication of Israel. But Israel is still there, and Ahmadinejad is nowhere.
In the debate a French Middle East analyst, Dr. Bruno Tertrais, suggested that the response of Iran to an “act of war” would be “manageable.” Bombing would result in “a great leap backward” and deliver a more compliant Iranian regime. Meanwhile a former CIA analyst, Reuel Marc Gerecht, was in favor of bombing because Iran had sponsored terrorism for decades”which is more or less what Donald Trump pleased his Saudi Arab hosts by saying a few weeks ago, politely ignoring the Saudis” own sponsorship of terrorism.
Well, as we know, we chose not to bomb Iran, instead choosing to rely, like Marshal Kutuzov, on patience and time. The Israelis, who sometimes spoke threateningly of taking independent military action themselves, have also held off. The milder policy of imposing sanctions has proved at least partly effective, and, for the moment anyway, bombing Iran is off the agenda.
What then of North Korea, which is pushing on fast with its program of developing nuclear weapons, and which now has missiles that threaten South Korea and Japan, and can even, we are told, reach Alaska. The issue is livelier and apparently more urgent than it was in the case of Iran, all the more so because while there was good reason to believe that the Iranian regime was more cautious than its language sometimes suggested, this is not the case with North Korea, where the young dictator Kim Jong-un threatens to match his words with action.