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

Why We Fight

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

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

What Manifest Destiny?

As January was ending, and not one week after the president's State of Union status report on how things are going - we have a plan to win in Iraq and the plan is escalation and getting serious this time - it was clear the next war was coming and no one could do anything about it.  The president has said he's the decision-maker and we're in a "war on terror" after all - and if that means war with a few other counties, no one can stop him from doing his duty and whacking Iran. Whether we're talking Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran or Syria, or even Norway, it's all the same to him. We get the bad guys. That's, as he sees it, his job.

Others seem to disagree. Sure, he's the commander-in-chief, and gets the say in just how to run whatever war Congress has authorized.  Congress just is puzzled. They thought they authorized a war in Iraq, even if they now regret agreeing to that.  And they fund that, and the one in Afghanistan.  But Iran?

It's clear we'll soon be bombing Iran back to the Stone Age, with nuclear bunker-busters, to stop them from developing nuclear weapons.  There's talk that we only mean to frighten them into being peaceful, by keeping them guessing about whether we'll actually pull the trigger, but, after all, we can better assure they'll be peaceful and no threat by simply attacking them with devastating force now, before they get the means to be a real threat.  The argument is the same one as we heard with Iraq - sometimes you have to eliminate the bad guys before they can do something really bad.  You prevent them from being bad as they might be, you see.  We save the world, in this view. That's our job - to make the world safe, no matter what the cost.

But who authorized the president to start up this third war? It wasn't mentioned the first time around.  It was implied? We all should have understood that?

That led to this on Tuesday, January 30 - Senators Warn Against War with Iran - "Republican and Democratic senators warned Tuesday against a drift toward war with an emboldened Iran and suggested the Bush administration was missing a chance to engage its longtime adversary in potentially helpful talks over next-door Iraq."

The Bush administration has long held there's nothing to talk about, and needs no advice.  Things are moving forward - US Takes New Steps to Isolate Iran -

    The United States took new steps to isolate Iran, announcing a freeze on the sale of all F-14 fighter parts and warning that an attempt by Tehran to block the flow of Gulf oil could be turned against it.

    … Countering Iran has emerged as a prime objective of US policy as Washington struggles to stabilize Iraq and regain its footing in a region rife with both anti-American and sectarian tensions.

    Admiral William Fallon, Bush's nominee to replace General John Abizaid as commander of US forces in the Middle East, said Iran appeared to be developing military means to deny US forces access to the oil-rich Gulf.

Yeah, what are they doing messing with our oil?

And who gets to decide on a third war and an escalation of the second of the two underway?

Even one of the key "let the man do anything he wants" Republicans is getting worried - GOP Senator Challenges Bush on War Powers -

    A Senate Republican on Tuesday directly challenged President Bush's declaration that "I am the decision-maker" on issues of war.

    "I would suggest respectfully to the president that he is not the sole decider," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said during a hearing on Congress' war powers amid an increasingly harsh debate over Iraq war policy. "The decider is a shared and joint responsibility," Specter said.

The issue of who gets a say is now on the table. Over war powers, the long-anticipated constitutional crisis regarding the whole concept of separation of powers begins.  The idea that in times of war you can have only one person in charge now bumps up against the owner's manual - the constitution - which doesn't say that at all.  Are things too perilous now that what the congress thinks, what the people think, what voters think (they're very small subset of the public these days), what the courts think, is all just irrelevant?  That's what we're told - or at least that's what implied. What about the rule book, the constitution?

The just-elected Democratic senator from Virginia, the newest start of that hapless opposition party, just wants to be sure there's no misunderstanding  -

    January 29, 2007

    The Honorable Condoleezza Rice
    Secretary of State
    Department of State
    2201 C Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20520

    Dear Secretary Rice:

    During your appearance before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on January 11, 2007, I asked you a question pertaining to the administration's policy regarding possible military action against Iran. I asked, "Is it the position of this administration that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran, in the absence of a direct threat, without congressional approval?"

    At that time you were loath to discuss questions of presidential authority, but you committed to provide a written answer. Since I have not yet received a reply, the purpose of this letter is to reiterate my interest in your response.

    This is, basically, a "yes" or "no" question regarding an urgent matter affecting our nation's foreign policy. Remarks made by members of this administration strongly suggest that the administration wrongly believes that the 2002 joint resolution authorizing use of force in Iraq can be applied in other instances, such as in the case of Iran. I, as well as the American people, would benefit by fully understanding the administration's unequivocal response.

    I would appreciate your expeditious reply and look forward to discussing this issue with you in the near future.


    James Webb
    United States Senator

It's just a simple question. And she'll never answer the question.  She doesn't have to - and that's the actual answer.  It's nobody's business but her own, as they say.  If you have to ask, your own whining is your answer to the question.

Of course Webb is seething and picking a fight.  He's asking her, or anyone in the administration, to go on record saying that there is no check of any kind on their authority - no matter what those who voted their opponents into office think, what the general public thinks, or what the original 2002 joint resolution authorizing use of force in Iraq actually says, or even what the constitution says. So just say it - we answer to no one - then we'll see what happens.  He's got the public, the majority in both houses of congress, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, and no end of actual experts on the rules we're supposed to play by.  She's got… not much.  But she's Secretary of State - and he's not.

The president has actually said that he has his mandate - and the only time anyone gets to question his policies or actions is once every four years. What they think in the years between presidential elections doesn't matter a whole lot. It doesn't matter at all.  That's just the system as he sees it. All that polling, and the voting that changed who controlled congress, is just silliness - meaningless noise.

Of course, what the administration needs is a trigger, and we're not talking about Roy Rodger's horse.

Josh Marshall explains what they need -

    When the bogus 'Iran incident' happens that becomes the predicate for a military attack on Iran, what will it look like? Let's try to sketch it out in advance. Will it be a real incident in Iraq for which the Iranians are blamed? Or will it be a complete bogus incident, something that never happened, that they're blamed for? Will we receive the news in manufactured evidence? Or will it all come through unnamed leaks and Richard Perle appearances on CNN?

    Some key requirements occur to me.

    1. Despite being fake, the incident must seem reasonably credible.

    2. It must appear serious enough that discounting its importance or questioning its veracity appears the height of unseriousness.

    3. It must place the majority of us in the odd and unexpected position of granting to President Bush the unfettered discretion to launch a war against Iran at the time and place of his choosing, despite our desire that he start it right now.

And one of his readers suggests this -

    The incident can't be quickly falsifiable. It will have to take a long time and a lot of effort to be revealed as bogus. Weapons of mass destruction were perfect: we had to get into Iraq to show them to be false, and by that time, of course, it was too late to stop the war. The sort of same thing will be needed to commit some sort of act of war on Iran.

And we have a winner.  That would be the capture and execution of our soldiers -

    The Pentagon is investigating whether a recent attack on a military compound in Karbala was carried out by Iranians or Iranian-trained operatives, two officials from separate U.S. government agencies said.

    "People are looking at it seriously," one of the officials said.

    That official added the Iranian connection was a leading theory in the investigation into the January 20 attack that killed five soldiers.

    The second official said: "We believe it's possible the executors of the attack were Iranian or Iranian-trained."

    Five U.S. soldiers were killed in the sophisticated attack by men wearing U.S.-style uniforms, according to U.S. military reports. (Watch how attackers got into the compound Video)

    Both officials stressed the Iranian-involvement theory is a preliminary view, and there is no final conclusion. They agreed this possibility is being looked at because of the sophistication of the attack and the level of coordination.

    "This was beyond what we have seen militias or foreign fighters do," the second official said.

Marshall notes the possibility that this is being looked at because of the sophistication of the attack and the level of coordination - the implicit assertion that is not likely that any native Iraqis could have pulled off this attack. Secondly, there is the idea that the attackers were Iranian or "Iranian-trained" - after all, the Badr Brigade was formed in Iran and by Iran from pro-Iranian Iraqi Shi'a. They did fight alongside the Iranian army during the Iran-Iraq war, and before the present war they were headquartered in Tehran. It all fits together.  You just have to connect the dots, as best you can. It's not a direct attack (that never happened) like the Gulf of Tonkin thing that led to the War Powers Act with Vietnam, but it will do nicely.

Fox News was quickly giving us news of the secret Iran meddling 'dossier' - and they are pretty much the official network of the Bush administration.  And elsewhere there are the rumors in Iraq that the Karbala incident might be the work of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, retaliating for the capture of their "comrades" in Erbil earlier this month. But that's from the New York Times, and the writer, Robert Baer, is very careful to say these are just rumors. Fox isn't particularly careful in that way - they're still reporting that Barack Obama was raised a Muslim and was educated at a radical school for terrorists (and that Hillary Clinton's campaign did the research to prove this is true). There isn't shred of evidence this is true, but you go with what works.

Other things wouldn't work that well.  The news that Iran will open banks in Baghdad and pour in funds to get the electricity and water and such working again just isn't useful.

Andy Borowitz comes up with the only way that business could be useful, in Bush Warns Iran Not to Be Helpful on Iraq.  The subhead is "Promises 'Swift Retribution' for Constructive Role" -

    Amid reports that Iran is prepared to offer Iraq help with reconstruction and other forms of economic aid, President George W. Bush warned Iran today that any helpfulness on its part would be met with "swift retribution" from the U.S.

    Speaking from the White House, Mr. Bush warned Iran not to entertain any thoughts of being helpful, vowing, "No good deed will go unpunished."

    The president also issued a stern ultimatum directly to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warning him against "future provocative offers of help."

    "Iran can continue down this dangerous path of helpfulness, or it can resume its role as an international pariah," Mr. Bush said. "The choice is clear."

    The president appeared bent on isolating Iran to punish it for its threatened acts of helpfulness, even naming it to what he called "The Axis of Constructiveness."

    In Tehran, President Ahmadinejad seemed almost emboldened by Mr. Bush's remarks, even taunting the U.S. president with threats of his own: "Iran will continue to be as helpful as it wants to be, and no one can make us stop."

There's a bit more, but you get the idea.  The "offer to help" just wouldn't do as a threat. People laugh.  The "we think they're behind X, Y or Z, and although we can't prove it yet, we will, and we have to act now" will do just fine.  It worked the last time, after all.

How did we even get into this mess?  It may be time to step back and think about that.

The long view is provided by William Pfaff, the author and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, breaking out of his eight-hundred-word format there for an extremely long analysis in the New York Review of Books, the feature story in Volume 54, Number 2, the issue of February 15, 2007. 

This is Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America - and makes some interesting points.

Yes, the president decided to disregard both "the political message of the 2006 midterm election" and congressional pressure for an early end to our Iraq adventure, as well as all the Baker-Hamilton proposals. There's opposition to what he's now up to, but it won't come to much, as "most of Bush's critics in Congress, in the press and television, and in the foreign policy community are hostage to past support of his policy and to their failure to question the political and ideological assumptions upon which it was built."

And you must look at the larger intellectual failure.  As Pfaff notes, for years there has been little or no critical reexamination of how and why the limited, specific, and ultimately successful postwar American policy of "patient but firm and vigilant containment of Soviet expansionist tendencies... and pressure against the free institutions of the Western world, "as George Kennan formulated it in "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," Foreign Affairs, July 1947.  That somehow morphed into a vast project for "ending tyranny in the world."

What up with that? This -

    The Bush administration defends its pursuit of this unlikely goal by means of internationally illegal, unilateralist, and preemptive attacks on other countries, accompanied by arbitrary imprisonments and the practice of torture, and by making the claim that the United States possesses an exceptional status among nations that confers upon it special international responsibilities, and exceptional privileges in meeting those responsibilities.

    This is where the problem lies. Other American leaders before George Bush have made the same claim in matters of less moment. It is something like a national heresy to suggest that the United States does not have a unique moral status and role to play in the history of nations, and therefore in the affairs of the contemporary world. In fact it does not.

    This is a national conceit that is the comprehensible result of the religious beliefs of the early New England colonists (Calvinist religious dissenters, moved by millenarian expectations and theocratic ideas), which convinced them that their austere settlements in the wilderness represented a new start in humanity's story.

And it seems we're still on that kick, even if a few have jumped ship -

    Even Francis Fukuyama, a recovering neoconservative, acknowledges in a recent book that American economic and political policies today rest on an unearned claim to privilege, the American "belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible." Nor, he adds, is the claim tenable, since "it presupposes an extremely high level of competence" which the country does not demonstrate.

The core reality, as Pfaff sees it, is asserted in this passage -

    A claim to preeminent political virtue is a claim to power, a demand that other countries yield to what Washington asserts as universal interests. Since 1989, when the end of the cold war left the United States the "sole superpower," much has been made of this, with discussion of a benevolent (or even inevitable) American world hegemony or empire - a Pax Americana in succession to the Pax Britannica. While such ideas have not been explicit in official discourse, they seem all but universally assumed, in one or another form, in policy and political circles.

    The most coherent and plausible official articulation of such reasoning was offered in the summer of 2003 by Condoleezza Rice, then President Bush's national security adviser, speaking in London at the annual meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. She said that the time had come to discard the system of balance of power among sovereign states established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The Westphalian settlement ended the wars of religion by establishing the principles of religious tolerance and absolute state sovereignty. The UN is a faulty embodiment of international authority because it is an indiscriminate assembly of all the governments of the world, and should, she argued, be replaced as the ultimate world authority by an alliance or coalition of the democracies. This is a theme frequently promoted in conservative circles in Washington.

    Rice also told the institute's members that the time had come to reject ideas of multipolarity and balance of power in international relations. This was a reference to French and other arguments in favor of an international system in which a number of states or groups of states (like the EU) act autonomously, serving as counterweights to American power. It followed the controversy earlier that year over the UN Security Council's failure to authorize the US invasion of Iraq. In the past, she said, balance of power may have "sustained the absence of war" but did not promote an enduring peace. "Multipolarity," she continued, "is a theory of rivalry; of competing interests - and at its worst, competing values. We have tried this before. It led to the Great War...."

    Foreign policies of power balance were, of course, a response to the rise of nation-states of varying weight and ambition, which, in order to preserve their independence and protect their national interests, had no alternative to policies that "balanced" their relations and alliances with others in order to contain rival interests and conflicting ambitions. The only apparent alternative to such a policy is submission of all to a dominant power. Rice's seeming confidence that such conflicts and rivalries would not create problems in some new international organization of the democracies would seem very optimistic.

    Nonetheless both the professional foreign policy community and American opinion generally seem to assume that the international system is "naturally" headed toward an eventual American-led consolidation of democratic authority over international affairs.

There seems to be some disagreement here about the march of history. Rice says balance of power arrangements just lead to war. Pfaff, and most everyone else in the world, thinks she's quite nuts.  If you read on, the rest is reviewing history to show how nuts the idea is, from the idea of a "manifest destiny" for continental expansion through Woodrow Wilson's saying he believed he had been chosen by God to lead America in showing "the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty," and beyond.

As for why anyone would object to our assuming that role, there's this -

    Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins recently asked why, if other nations really objected to an American effort to establish a new international hegemony, there has been no effort to build a military coalition to oppose it. He describes the United States as already dominating the world, much as the elephant (in his genial comparison) dominates the African savanna: the calm herbivorous goliath that keeps the carnivores at a respectful distance, while supporting "a wide variety of other creatures - smaller mammals, birds and insects - by generating nourishment for them as it goes about the business of feeding itself." Everyone knows the United States is not a predatory power, he says, so everyone profits from the stability the elephant provides, at American taxpayer expense.

    Elephants are also known to trample people, uproot crops and gardens, topple trees and houses, and occasionally go mad (hence, "rogue nations"). Americans, moreover, are carnivores. The administration has attacked the existing international order by renouncing inconvenient treaties and conventions and reintroducing torture, and arbitrary and indefinite imprisonment, into advanced civilization. Where is the stability that Mandelbaum tells us has been provided by this American military and political deployment? The doomed and destructive war of choice in Iraq, continuing and mounting disorder in Afghanistan following another such war, war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, as well as between Hamas and Fatah, accompanied by continuing crisis in Palestine, with rumbles of new American wars of choice with Iran or Syria, and the emergence of a nuclear North Korea - all demonstrate deep international instability.

    American efforts to deregulate the international economy and promote globalization, whatever its benefits, have been the most powerful force of political, economic, social, and cultural destabilization the world has known since World War II, providing what closely resembles that "constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation" forecast by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto.

Other than that, we do real good in the world.

And you have to allow for some "we told you so" gloating about this - see Edmund Stillman and William Pfaff, The New Politics: America and the End of the Postwar World (Coward McCann, 1961, and Harper's, January 1961). See also Stillman and Pfaff, Power and Impotence: The Failure of America's Foreign Policy (Random House, 1966).

The gloat -

    In the late 1950s, a colleague, the late Edmund Stillman, and I circulated an argument that eventually became a magazine article and book, suggesting that the American obsession with Soviet Communist power was turning the United States toward an American version of Marxist historicism and ideological messianism. We said that Washington had fallen under the influence of "the ideological politics of the Thirties and moral fervor of the second world war" in assuming that we and Soviet Russia were struggling, so to speak, for the soul of the world.

    We argued that quite the opposite was true. We said that common sense about the nature of Russia's and China's real interests suggested that time was not on their sides, and that Kennan's policy of containing the major Communist powers, until what Marx would have called their internal contradictions undermined them, was the correct one. The interest of China was mainly to weaken Soviet supremacy among the Communists. Russia itself was in material decline, its messianism faded. Western Europe, Japan, and other Asian nations were increasingly dynamic, and could be expected to reclaim their pre-war influence. The 1950s, we concluded, were already a time of plural power centers and multiple interests, a system in which international power and ambitions were increasingly expressed by independent state actors, a system in which the United States could flourish, but the Soviet Union, in the long term, could not. We ended by recommending patience.

    This went against much thinking of the period. In retrospect, it is the loser's tale, describing a road not taken. It might seem of little interest now, if the direction actually followed had not proven so disastrous. It seems scarcely imaginable that the present administration could shift course away from the interventionist military and political policies of recent decades, let alone its own highly aggressive version of them since 2001, unless it were forced to do so by (eminently possible) disaster in the Middle East. Whether a new administration in two years' time might change direction seems the relevant question.

That is an easily answered question. There will be no change in direction, no alternative, even if this below is true -

    The noninterventionist alternative to the policies followed in the United States since the 1950s is to minimize interference in other societies and accept the existence of an international system of plural and legitimate powers and interests. One would think the idea that nations are responsible for themselves, and that American military interference in their affairs is more likely to turn small problems into big ones than to solve them, would appeal to an American public that believes in individual responsibility and the autonomy of markets, considers itself hostile to political ideology (largely unaware of its own), and professes to be governed by constitutional order, pragmatism, and compromise.

    A noninterventionist policy would shun ideology and emphasize pragmatic and empirical judgment of the interests and needs of this nation and of others, with reliance on diplomacy and analytical intelligence, giving particular attention to history, since nearly all serious problems between nations are recurrent or have important recurrent elements in them. The current crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine-Israel, and Iran are all colonial or postcolonial in nature, which is generally ignored in American political and press discussion.

    Such a noninterventionist policy would rely primarily on trade and the market, rather than territorial control or military intimidation, to provide the resources and energy the United States needs. Political and diplomatic action would be the primary and essential instruments of international relations and persuasion; military action the last and worst one, evidence of political failure. Military deployments abroad would be reexamined with particular attention to whether they might actually be impediments to solutions of the conflicts of clients, or reinforce intransigence in the complex dynamics of relations among nations such as the two Koreas, China, Taiwan, and Japan, where lasting solutions can only be found in political settlements between principals.

    Had a noninterventionist policy been followed in the 1960s, there would have been no American war in Indochina. The struggle there would have been recognized as nationalist in motivation, unsusceptible to solution by foreigners, and inherently limited in its international consequences, whatever they might be - as has proved to be the case. The United States would never have been defeated, its army demoralized, or its students radicalized. There would have been no American invasion of Cambodia, which precipitated the Khmer Rouge genocide. The tribal peoples of Laos would probably have been spared their ordeal.

    The United States would not have suffered its catastrophic implication in what was essentially a domestic crisis in Iran in 1979, which still poisons Near and Middle Eastern affairs, since there would never have been the huge and provocative American investment in the Shah's regime as American "gendarme" in the region, compromising the Shah and contributing to the fundamentalist backlash against his secularizing modernization.

But we intervene.  We want to make things better.  It's what we do.  Any "what if" argument is juvenile.  We are who we are.

So it's off to Iran.

This item posted - in its final version - February 4, 2007

[Why We Fight]

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