Minutes to Midnight
The famous doomsday clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved ahead last January to five minutes before midnight. With the news on Feb. 28 that the Israelis are ready to attack Iran, in defiance of the United States, in order to dissuade it from developing a nuclear weapon, there is reason to move the minute hand even closer to midnight. The farthest the clock has been from midnight was 17 minutes in 1991, after the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. The closest was two minutes before midnight in 1953, when both powers tested thermonuclear weapons.
Both Iran and Israel bear responsibility for the current crisis. The Iranian regime deserves considerable blame for its refusal to collaborate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and for its overt anti-Semitism. But the Obama administration is well advised to counsel the Israelis that a preventive attack would be no more than a short-term solution and that the unpredictable consequences of a bombing campaign could be disastrous. Israelis and Jews everywhere will be vulnerable to retaliation, as well as Americans. Oil prices, already high, would climb further, resulting in a severe shock to the world economy. A nuclear arms race could also take off in the Middle East. Finally, an attack would also open an opportunity for the black market in nuclear technology to reappear. Israel and Iran both need to step back from the brink.
The best hope for Israel and for the world is vigorous renewal of efforts at nonproliferation, including a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Israel, an undeclared nuclear power, will not like that. But an Israel-Iran conflict has the makings of a Samson-like scenario, in which the wrathful giant brings the roof down on all. The Iran-Israel crisis constitutes “an existential threat” not just for Israel but for much of the world.
United States involvement in Afghanistan is at an end. Even if troop withdrawal continues as planned and joint operations between international and Afghan forces still take place, the thoughtless burning of Korans at Bagram Air Force Base and the ensuing rioting and killing of Americans reveal that the protracted U.S. stay in Afghanistan has been a failure. U.S. forces have failed to appreciate Afghans’ Muslim sensibilities, and the Afghans are past the point of tolerating offenses as the deeds of a well-meaning but awkward friend. What’s more, the security institutions we tried to build have been penetrated by the Taliban and other Afghans who are now alienated from us. Like the British and the Russians before us, we will inevitably leave Afghanistan to sort out its own problems.
Post-mortems will have to be written by those closer to the scene than we are. But they will need to be probing, because continued disorder in Southwest and Central Asia will be a problem for the world. Some deterrent and discreet military options will have to be devised to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a harbor for global terrorism. But Afghanistan and its neighbors, India, China and Pakistan, will need to muddle through to the future with minimum involvement from the United States. In the meantime, the United States must consider whether the military is a suitable tool for dealing with such problems, or if in the years ahead it needs to invest more seriously in soft power.
A Masterpiece of Translation
Before 2011 fades into the distance, it is worth noting the 400th anniversary of what many consider the finest single volume of writing in the English language: the King James Bible. Published in 1611 by a group of scholars charged by King James I to oversee the translation, the King James is the source of some of the best known and facund biblical passages. Thanks to the king’s men, we sing with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps 23:1) and feel the sting of Cain’s query to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gn 4:9). And is there a more elegant summation of the muddle of this mortal life than St. Paul’s phrase, “We see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor 13:12)?
The King James Bible is often referred to as the only masterpiece written by a committee. What is less often noted is that it drew on several existing translations, including the Geneva Bible and the work of William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake because he dared to translate God’s word. Rather than begin the translation process anew, the king’s committee strove “to make a good [translation] better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.” They chose text that was both poetic and compact and in many cases revealed new layers of meaning. Key to their success was a sense of humility: they did not privilege their abilities above those who came before them. Through their judicious editing and dedication to the larger good, they produced a prayerful work of translation that endures to this day. Theirs truly was “a labor of love” (1 Thes 1:3).