Nations have doctrines. The Soviet Union had the Brezhnev Doctrine and the United States had the Monroe Doctrine, among others.
Even little Israel has one. I call it the Maybe the Dog Will Talk Doctrine, and it is based on a folk tale of the rabbi who makes a preposterous deal with a tyrant: If the tyrant spares the lives of local Jews, the rabbi will teach the tyrant's dog to talk. When the rabbi tells his wife what he has done, she calls him a fool. But, he says, "A year is a long time. In a year, the tyrant could die or I could die" -- and here he gives her a sly wise rabbi smile -- "or maybe the dog will talk."
All sorts of people -- defense intellectuals, military officers and even the president of the United States -- either have not heard of the Maybe the Dog Will Talk Doctrine or do not recognize its importance. (It was cited to me by an Israeli official.) Both Barack Obama and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have characterized any Israeli attempt to disrupt Iran's nuclear program as a short-term affair. An Israeli raid "wouldn't achieve their long-term objectives," Dempsey said on CNN -- and he is surely right.
But Israel also has a short-term objective -- and that is to play for time. Israel notes that its 1981 bombing of a nuclear reactor in Iraq set back Saddam Hussein's program -- and did not result in some sort of massive retaliation. Something similar happened with the 2007 bombing of a Syrian installation. Neither operation was conceived as a long-term solution, but both accomplished short-term goals. In a year or two, much could change in the Middle East. The region's in turmoil. Dogs are talking all over the place.
A note of exasperation can be detected in much of what is written about Israel: Why can't it just hang on? What's wrong with containment? It worked with the Soviet Union. It has worked with North Korea. Pakistan has bombs galore, but no one is taking shelter in the basement. How is Iran different?
Iran is different because it has explicitly threatened Israel. It is different because it supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, both terrorist groups with a penchant for lobbing the occasional rocket into Israel. Iran is different because it acts irresponsibly, plotting just recently to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. This is just plain nuts -- and very, very scary.
To understand Israel's predicament, the book to read is "Startup Nation" by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Both are on the political right, but their book is not about politics or settlements and such. It is about economics. Israel has a humming economy with a marvelously vibrant high-tech sector. The statistics are astounding. For instance, Israel, with fewer than 8 million people, is second only to America when it comes to companies listed on the Nasdaq -- ahead of India, South Korea and even China. Israel's pre-eminent natural resource is brain power.
Talent, though, is fungible. It can get on an airplane and move. It can come to the United States where Israelis, as it happens, swarm all over Silicon Valley. Everyone has a different figure, but at least 250,000 Israelis live in the United States -- maybe a lot more. That's a significant slice of Israel's population. These Israelis are in America for a variety of reasons -- education, jobs, etc. -- but some of them may like the fact that nowhere in America do rockets rain down or terrorists run amok. If Israel is to keep its talent, it must provide a safe and secure environment.
As long as Iran supports anti-Israel terrorist groups, Israel remains -- to one degree or another -- a dangerous place. An Iran with nuclear weapons becomes a more potent protector of its client terrorist groups -- maybe bolder and more reckless as well. Life becomes less secure. Earlier this month, rockets hit cities in the south of Israel. Had this happened in the United States, we would be at war. Why Israel is expected to live under such conditions is beyond me.
Sanctions may cause Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, if indeed that's where it is now heading. But critics of Israel's approach have to understand that Iran's program looks different from Tel Aviv than it does from Washington. In the long run, an Israeli attack on Iran will accomplish nothing. In the short run, it could accomplish quite a lot.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group