“Let the high praises of God be in their throat and a two-edged sword in their hand—to execute vengeance upon the nations.” Psalm 58

The Western desire for rational textbook explanations plays a trick on diplomats when they deal with the third world. The explanations often fail even in the West. Thus Carter put American weight behind the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty solely because of his religious beliefs. Bush Sr.’s policy was dictated by personal involvement with Saudi oil interests. Clinton entered Israeli-Syrian and later Palestinian peace talks to cover for the Lewinsky scandal.

Politics becomes even more personal in authoritarian countries, where it is run by personalities rather than institutional bodies or bureaucracies like the State Department.. The Egyptian rapprochement with America and Israel against Iran and its proxies can be superficially explained by the Egyptian Sunni regime’s fear of a Shiite insurrection; given the minuscule numbers of Shiites in Egypt, that’s hardly a concern. Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood looms large to Westerners, who habitually respect the largest opposition party, but Egypt has kept it under a lid for decades with periodic crackdowns; if anything, it makes sense for Mubarak to disregard American liberal opinion in order to deal with the Brotherhood properly. US aid to Egypt, unreasonably huge as it is, is far less important now than thirty years ago. Mubarak’s major and perhaps only reason to strongly align with America despite the Arab street opinion is to ensure smooth succession to his son Gamal. He needs the United States to accept a less-than-transparent transfer of power and continued suppression of democracy in Egypt. Mubarak fears the examples of Pakistan and Lebanon, where the US administration pushed for transparent elections which predictably brought Islamists and demagogues to power; similar pressure on Gamal would bring the Muslim Brotherhood to the helm—but more importantly for Hosni, it would replace his son.

military solutions for the world's subjective troubles

Hafez Assad played exactly the same scenario with America shortly before his death. He entered into negotiations with Israel and accepted peace terms more favorable than those his son insists upon now. Syria’s economy is too backward for the old Assad to really care about integration with the West, and America was unlikely to make another perpetual billion-a-year aid commitment. Assad’s only concern was to receive US approval for his son’s succession. The concern might not be entirely rational, but despite their anti-Western rhetoric authoritarian rulers see the world as a macrocosm of their country: just as the country has a ruler, so does a world. They are sure America rules the world, and that like all imperial masters it must approve its vassals’ successions.

Events develop similarly in Iran and North Korea, although technically the approach is the opposite. Instead of bowing down to America, Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-Il up the stakes. Unlike Mubarak and Assad, they cannot place themselves in the vassal’s role, and want the succession to come as a settlement with America rather than by submission to it.

The Korean communists are not so crazy as to imagine that their impoverished economy can resume war with South Korea or Japan. They see that nukes did not win much international standing for India and Pakistan, and cannot hope to do much better themselves. Aid extortion does not seem to be their goal because they did not press to receive even the agreed-upon $900 million. On his deathbed, Kim needs nukes in order to deter the United States from interfering with his choice of successor. Now that North Korean establishment is embroiled in a fight over several candidates Kim needs a nuclear scepter to decide the issue.

Ahmadinejad’s successor is himself. As important as he seems to the West, he is next to nothing in the Iranian hierarchy, a third figure after the chief ayatollah and the head of the religious council. Ahmadinejad’s own powers are limited to street cleaning. He has nothing to do with decisions on nuclear issues or Iran’s anti-Israeli stance, as these policies come directly from the ayatollahs. Ahmadinejad understands that he is expendable: the ayatollahs have accepted him as a straw man for the duration of the nuclear program and will fire him afterward. With militant rhetoric he molds himself into Iran’s indispensable face in the West. Ahmadinejad is not the most active politician: both Khatami and Rafsanjani do more to spread Iranian Shiite influence than he does. Ahmadinejad is, however, the most recognizable Iranian politician, and he has cornered the ayatollahs into an awkward position—ousting him would be seen as Iranian capitulation to the West. Ahmadinejad’s struggle for political survival has the backing of the Revolutionary Guards and fundamentalist militia, which strive for a power-sharing understanding with the religious establishment.

The West has the worst of two worlds. In Egypt, just as in Syria, the new ruler won’t need American support and might pursue much more aggressive policies than his father did in his later years. In North Korea, the communists cannot repudiate their right to a nuclear bomb no matter the incentives. In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards need the bomb to tilt the internal power balance away from, the ayatollahs. And there is no solution short of bombing them all.