Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Whatever It Takes

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Iran Next

The weekend before Valentines Day gave us the mainstream press, namely Newsweek, basically saying the obvious that no one wanted to say - the Bush administration will do whatever it can to provoke a war with Iran -

    "They intend to be as provocative as possible and make the Iranians do something [America] would be forced to retaliate for," says Hillary Mann, the administration's former National Security Council director for Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs. …
    A second Navy carrier group is steaming toward the Persian Gulf, and NEWSWEEK has learned that a third carrier will likely follow. Iran shot off a few missiles in those same tense waters last week, in a highly publicized test. With Americans and Iranians jousting on the chaotic battleground of Iraq, the chances of a small incident's spiraling into a crisis are higher than they've been in years.

It has been rather obvious.  The talk has been all over the place for months - the neoconservative dream - we take out their nuclear capabilities with our own nuclear bunker-busters, the Iranian people rise up and throw out the mullahs, and thank us, installing a pro-American, pro-Israel secular government, and until things settle down one brigade from some division or other walks around Tehran, making sure things are calm.

That goes something like this -

    The opponents of military strikes against the mullahs' weapons facilities say there are no guarantees that we can permanently destroy their weapons production. This is true. We can't guarantee the results. But what we can do is demonstrate, to the mullahs and to others elsewhere, that even with these uncertainties, in a post-9/11 world the United States has red lines that will compel it to act. And one nonnegotiable red line is that we will not sit idly and watch a virulently anti-American terrorist-supporting rogue state obtain nukes. We will not be intimidated by threats of terrorism, oil-price spikes, or hostile world opinion. If the ruling clerical elite wants a head-on collision with a determined superpower, then that's their choice.

That's from William Kristol's Weekly Standard - the neoconservative flagship publication.  It is very stirring. There are certain things up with which we will not put, as they say. The world needs to know we have limits and we're not girly-men. No one messes with us.

Of course there are words to calm us all down -

    Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates insisted again Friday that, despite persistent reports to the contrary circulating in Washington and around the world, the United States is not planning military action against Iran.

    "I don't know how many times the president, Secretary Rice and I have had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran," an exasperated Gates told reporters at a NATO meeting in Spain. In fact, he said, the administration has consciously tried to "tone down" its rhetoric on the subject.

    Similar statements in recent weeks by President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others follow a high-level policy assessment in January that U.S. and multilateral pressure on Tehran, to the surprise of many in the administration, might be showing signs of progress.

    Officials highlighted growing internal public and political criticism of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as the reemergence, after months of public silence, of Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. Larijani arrived in Munich yesterday for talks with European Union officials.

    As a result, new talking points distributed to senior policymakers in the administration directed them to actively play down any suggestion of war planning.

So what's with the third carrier battle group steaming into the area?  They were bored and lonely?

Something odd is going on here - the day the Army announced, in Iraq, away from the peskier and more career-driven reporters stateside, that Iran's leadership is arming Iraqi militias with nasty stuff, Newsweek is running an exposé of sorts, providing a history of how it came to this. 

Yep, we don't want war with Iran - we've got a war in Iraq and a war in Afghanistan keeping us quite busy, thank you very much. But we're sending in a third carrier group, and publicly announce the government of Iran is directly responsible for the deaths of nearly two hundred of our troops, and we can sort of prove it.

It is a tad confusing. And it's a tad familiar - we don't want war, but sometimes you just have to do what you have to do, and it's best to prepare for the worst, having everything in place beforehand, even if you may not need it. It's the same song, second verse.

Is Newsweek suggesting we shouldn't be fooled this time? That would be odd - and enough to make Rupert Murdoch weep, or get very, very angry and unleash O'Reilly and Hannity.

But Newsweek does add this delicious tidbit of on how Iran made the finals, as part of the Axis of Evil -

    In a pattern that would become familiar, however, a chill quickly followed the warming in relations. Barely a week after the Tokyo meeting, Iran was included with Iraq and North Korea in the "Axis of Evil." Michael Gerson, now a NEWSWEEK contributor, headed the White House speechwriting shop at the time. He says Iran and North Korea were inserted into Bush's controversial State of the Union address in order to avoid focusing solely on Iraq. At the time, Bush was already making plans to topple Saddam Hussein, but he wasn't ready to say so. Gerson says it was Condoleezza Rice, then national-security adviser, who told him which two countries to include along with Iraq. But the phrase also appealed to a president who felt himself thrust into a grand struggle. Senior aides say it reminded him of Ronald Reagan's ringing denunciations of the "evil empire."

    Once again, Iran's reformists were knocked back on their heels. "Those who were in favor of a rapprochement with the United States were marginalized," says Adeli. "The speech somehow exonerated those who had always doubted America's intentions."

What?  Iran wanted to work things out and that was thrown away for rhetorical purposes?  It was a PR thing?  No.

But yes, and Matthew Yglesias sums it up -

    In short, Michael Gerson and Condoleezza Rice, purely in order to make a speech that (a) sounded good, and (b) pretended not to be exclusively about Iraq, set the United States on a collision course with Iran. That's really got to be a historic speechwriting blunder.

    Naturally enough, Gerson's paid a high price for his role in instigating this destructive conflict. After continuing to serve for years in the White House he's been forced to accept a humiliating position as a Council on Foreign Relations fellow and a columnist for some obscure magazine called Newsweek.

Yglesias notes this as one amazing bit of falling upward.  It would be funny, but for the dead people.

The there's this, from Arnaud de Borchgrave's most recent column -

    At a farewell reception at Blair House for the retiring chief of protocol, Don Ensenat, who was President Bush's Yale roommate, the president shook hands with Washington Life Magazine's Soroush Shehabi. A grandson of one of the late Shah's ministers, Soroush said, "Mr. President, I simply want to say one U.S. bomb on Iran and the regime will remain in power for another 20 or 30 years and 70 million Iranians will become radicalized."

    "I know," President Bush answered.

    "But does Vice President Cheney know?" asked Soroush.

    The president chuckled and walked away.

That has been quoted widely. Some joke.

But the idea - that, if (1) we bomb the snot out everything in Iran that we wonder about, then (2) the masses there will rise up and "throw off their yokes" and join us, and Israel, and not be radicalized at all, and (3) we'll thus transform the middle East into a secular, democratic, peaceful paradise, redeeming the legacy of George Bush and confounding the critics of the elusive and somewhat sinister, and certainly secretive Dick Cheney - seem to be the only idea in play.

The problem is that there are signs already that none of this will work. Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times reports from Tehran on 11 February that all that hawkish rhetoric from the United States has been a a surprise gift for their leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had been losing popularity until recently -

    A large number of parliamentary deputies signed letters this year demanding answers from the president on the nuclear issue and the economy. But new, strong language from Washington starting in January that hinted at the possibility of a military strike quickly took the wind out of their sails.

    Independent legislator Akbar Alami, who had circulated a letter, said he stopped getting signatures almost immediately.

    If Iranians perceive a foreign threat, he said, "they don't pay attention anymore to differences, and the problem they have between parties and governments doesn't matter anymore."

    To the contrary, said former central bank governor Mohammad Hossain Adeli, it mobilizes the Iranians and ratchets up the conflict.

    "The foreign pressure is counterproductive and radicalizes the domestic environment," he said. "And then this radicalization results in more confrontational positions on the part of Iran."

Oops.  And Kevin Drum adds more -

    Of course, it's more complicated than this, since in this case "foreign pressure" includes UN sanctions designed to bring Iran's nuclear program into compliance with international rules. Ahmadinejad may well be able to use the UN's actions to his benefit, but that doesn't mean anyone thinks the UN should back off. Quite the contrary.

No one is backing off. Our third war in the region seems inevitable.  The game may be "Risk" or "Chicken" or whatever. But it is underway.

As for our motivations, the legacy must be saved.  That's about it.  You choose the trope, the rhetorical device that captures your bold manliness - the famous Axis of Evil - even if two of the three are just filler - and you can hardly back down.  That's who you are. And anyone who has bought into this "diplomacy is for wimps" approach has also defined themselves here. It is a trap, and the only way out is to push through, and show that if such an approach didn't work out so well the first time, or second, it really will the third time, or the fourth, or the fifth.  Otherwise, you lose it all. You lose what defines you, what makes you different from everyone else.  Otherwise you're just a joke yourself - someone who got the one big thing spectacularly wrong. People laugh at you behind your back, and bullies kick sand in your face at the beach in front of that pretty girl.  You can't have that.

Enter William E. Odom, the retired Army lieutenant general who was head of Army intelligence and director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan. He also served on the National Security Council staff under Jimmy Carter - a West Point graduate with a PhD from Columbia, who now teaches at Yale and is a fellow of the Hudson Institute. He has some things to say about the current war in Iraq not going so well, on the same 11 February in the Washington Post. And although he argues we out to get out, now, as he had before, he's probably stoking the fires for war with Iran, suggesting the legacy has already slipped away.

The title says it all - Victory Is Not an Option.  The subhead is more detailed: "The Mission Can't Be Accomplished - It's Time for a New Strategy." Iraq is lost.  Congress might inform the president.

The reasoning goes something like this -

    Too many lawmakers have fallen for the myths that are invoked to try to sell the president's new war aims. Let us consider the most pernicious of them.

    1) We must continue the war to prevent the terrible aftermath that will occur if our forces are withdrawn soon. Reflect on the double-think of this formulation. We are now fighting to prevent what our invasion made inevitable! Undoubtedly we will leave a mess - the mess we created, which has become worse each year we have remained. Lawmakers gravely proclaim their opposition to the war, but in the next breath express fear that quitting it will leave a blood bath, a civil war, a terrorist haven, a "failed state," or some other horror. But this "aftermath" is already upon us; a prolonged U.S. occupation cannot prevent what already exists.

That's followed by this -

    2) We must continue the war to prevent Iran's influence from growing in Iraq. This is another absurd notion. One of the president's initial war aims, the creation of a democracy in Iraq, ensured increased Iranian influence, both in Iraq and the region. Electoral democracy, predictably, would put Shiite groups in power - groups supported by Iran since Saddam Hussein repressed them in 1991. Why are so many members of Congress swallowing the claim that prolonging the war is now supposed to prevent precisely what starting the war inexorably and predictably caused? Fear that Congress will confront this contradiction helps explain the administration and neocon drumbeat we now hear for expanding the war to Iran.

    Here we see shades of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy in Vietnam: widen the war into Cambodia and Laos. Only this time, the adverse consequences would be far greater. Iran's ability to hurt U.S. forces in Iraq are not trivial. And the anti-American backlash in the region would be larger, and have more lasting consequences.

He similarly demolishes 3) We must prevent the emergence of a new haven for al-Qaeda in Iraq, and 4) We must continue to fight in order to "support the troops."

The reasoning regarding the last is clear - the troops argument "effectively paralyzes" almost all members of Congress. They "proclaim in grave tones a litany of problems in Iraq sufficient to justify a rapid pullout" then reject that logical conclusion, "insisting we cannot do so because we must support the troops." Has anybody asked the troops? Odom covers what they've actually been saying.

What he proposes - 1.) Recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy, 2) recognize that the United States alone cannot stabilize the Middle East, 3) acknowledge that most of our policies are actually destabilizing the region, and 4) redefine our purpose. The idea is we go for "a stable region, not primarily a democratic Iraq" and write off the war as a "tactical draw."  We make "regional stability" as how we measure "victory."

But then, what about the legacy? Stability is so boring.

On the other hand, as one of Josh Marshall's readers points out, there are some interesting dynamics at play -

    Failure is a tough sell. Odom admits that, but he does not fully understand the implications. The Democrats in Congress are not especially stupid, but they are necessarily anxious about withdrawal, because they are sensibly fearful of being blamed by the Republicans for "losing Iraq".

    The worst kinds of Republicans control almost the whole news Media. The punditocrisy has backed this stupid war completely. The narrative, which will be fed to the American People by this propaganda machine will not be favorable to a Democratic Congress.

    And, withdrawal from Iraq will be followed for months and years by a series of events catastrophic to American interests in the region. Stability will not magically reappear. At best, Iran may assume control of much of Iraq; at worst, Iran and Saudi Arabia will fight a prolonged proxy war.

    Odom is wrong to attribute the dire situation entirely to the mere fact of the war. In fact, the conduct of the war by the U.S. has largely created the chaos in Iraq. The corrupt and incompetent conduct of the war has created the chaos in Iraq. Bush's corrupt and incompetent conduct of the occupation and reconstruction has created the chaos in Iraq.

    Everywhere, political punditry from the Right concentrates on ignoring, or distracting from, the massive contribution to Iraqi chaos made by Bush's conduct of the occupation and reconstruction. And, too many on the Left help them in this effort, prattling on about "age-old" conflicts between Shi'a and Sunni, with scarcely a word about how the institutions of secular society were ground to dust, leaving only ancient tribal affiliations.

What to do?  There's this -

    The critical work of the Congress in the next six months is to build the narrative, which places the responsibility for the course of the Iraq War on its conduct. The narrative, favored by the self-destructive left, of a war that was doomed from the outset, is welcomed by the Right, which wishes to gloss over the corruption, malfeasance and incompetence. I am no fan of Hillary's (or Kerry's) conspicuous calculation, but Hillary is right to remind Democratic Primary voters that the mistakes in Iraq belong to Bush. Squabbling over which Democrats have uttered mea culpas on their support for the Iraq War at the outset does not build a political majority. Focusing attention on Bush's conduct of the war, and how the conduct of the war has contributed to the hopelessness of the current situation - there Bush's responsibility is unambiguous and unshared.

    With the foundation afforded by a narrative of Iraq failure, which clearly fixed blame on the incompetence and corruption of Republicans, the Democrats might be able to sell the idea that it is too late in Iraq, to recover. And, with that foundation, the Democrats will be able to get the country out of Iraq, without destroying themselves.

    The story of how Bush conducted the war, and how that conduct led to the on-going fiasco and catastrophe, which is Iraq, is the story ALL Democrats should be telling, over and over, until nothing else can be heard in this country, and the U.S. gets out, out, out.

Unless they get in, in, in - into Iran.

Iran may have been an afterthought in the original speech about ridding the world of evil, but then some things that start out as an afterthought can get you in real trouble.

This item posted - in its final version - February 18, 2007

[Whatever It Takes]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik