The emerging confrontation between the United States and Iran is "the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion," argues Graham Allison, the Harvard University professor who wrote the classic study of President John F. Kennedy's 1962 showdown with the Soviet Union that narrowly averted nuclear war. If anything, that analogy understates the potential risks here.
If five years of the Bush administration isn't gonna teach you, and if fifty years of crises, missile gaps, atomic-powered bomber gaps, and the International Communist Conspiracy isn't gonna teach you, then perhaps you can stop and think for a minute. The Cuban missile crisis is, indeed, a fine illustration of the "crisis" in Iraq. But its lesson is the exact opposite of how either is being portrayed.
Those Soviet missiles in Cuba were not an offensive threat to the United States. And Kennedy and his minions knew it (and they knew, but couldn't reveal, why they were there--our attempts to assassinate Castro). Think for a minute. How do you use Cuban-based nuclear weapons offensively against the United States? Well, you launch them, of course. But that tips off the US of impending Soviet attack, so not only do we destroy Cuba in a heartbeat, we're launching at the USSR at the same time. Alternately they launch the Soviet missiles first, in which case Cuba is destroyed before it can begin a countdown. (It was, of course, the same with our missiles in Turkey, which we quietly removed after the hubub was over.) If indeed the world was on the brink of all-out nuclear war in 1962 it was the doing of the Kennedy administration, not the Soviets.
Same thing today, mutatis mutandis. There's no superpower arms race as a backdrop; Iran, which has outplayed the World's Only Superpower in Iraq (and whose fault is that?) realizes that both US hard and soft power have been drastically reduced by our little Mideast adventure, and now is the time to create a deterrent force. You don't have to like the Iranians (who does?) to recognize they've got a legitimate concern about permanent US bases on their border. And while we're a generation away (or a draft and five years, minimum) from the possibility of raising a sizeable force to send anywhere (and whose fault is that?) is the perfect time to do it. We've graciously given them that time--uranium bomb technology is relatively easy, but stockpiling the materials takes years. It's the opposite of the plutonium bomb.
Iranian nukes can't be used offensively against Israel, or the US, without the immediate obliteration of Iran. That doesn't make them a non-threat, of course, but the program itself is not the threat. There's five years, minimum, for the world to dissuade them.
On the other hand, the US may have one more bolt in its quiver, though even the Bush administration is now forced to concede it's an airstrike, not an invasion. Bombing never stopped anything but the lives of those unfortunate in their choice of location. Bomb Iran today, they're back in business tomorrow, and the hostility of the rest of the world to its lone superpower becomes the process of reining it in for good.
It's dollars to doughnuts there'll be regime change in Iran (whatever happened to the reverse-domino spread of democracy theory, anyway?) before there's sufficient manpower and materiel for another administration of idiots to threaten anybody with "liberation", US style. Granted, Ignatius urges a Kennedy-like "creative" solution to the question of Iranian nukes, but is there anyone left who expects that of Bush? Forty years later there was plenty of misplaced cynicism about Pearl Harbor, fer chrissakes. Forty years is long enough to have learned that Kennedy was playing for very different stakes than we were told, and to take the Great Brink of Nuclear Annihilation off the list of Fables for Our Time. Even for the romantics at WaPo.