The Neocon Dog That Isn’t Barking

For several weeks now, Washington has been abuzz with rumors that U.S. President George W. Bush is preparing to attack nuclear and other sites in Iran this spring – rumors deemed sufficiently credible that lawmakers from both parties are hastily preparing legislation precisely to prevent such an eventuality.

The evidence cannot be ignored.

As cited by former CIA officer Philip Giraldi in the most recent edition of American Conservative, Bush’s charges that Iran is supplying bombs to Shi’ite militias to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq; the seizure by U.S. forces of Iranian diplomatic and intelligence officials there; the deployment of two aircraft carrier groups with a flotilla of minesweepers to the Gulf; the supply of Patriot antimissile batteries to Washington’s allies in the region; the unprecedented appointment of a navy admiral and former combat pilot as the head of Central Command; the "surge" of as many as 40,000 troops into Iraq; persistent reports of U.S. covert operations inside Iran – all suggest that Washington is preparing for a military confrontation, and soon.

No one doubts that the administration has developed detailed plans for attacking Iran and is certainly putting in place a formidable armada that, if so ordered, has the means to carry out those plans without delay.

But if indeed a decision has already been made, it appears that the faction that led the pro-war propaganda offensive in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and that has long favored "regime change" in Iraq – the neoconservatives – has either not been clued in, or more likely, believes that any such attack is still some time off, if it takes place at all.

It is not that the neocons don’t favor war with Iran if diplomatic and other means fail to achieve either regime change or, at the very least, Tehran’s abandonment of its nuclear program.

The group, whose views on the Middle East generally span those of Israel’s Likud Party and the extreme right, has long warned that a nuclear-armed Iran is, in Bush’s words, "unacceptable" and that military means to prevent that outcome must be used if all other means fail.

"The only way to forestall an Iranian nuke," wrote Joshua Muravchik, a leading neocon polemicist at the American Enterprise Institute in this month’s Foreign Service Journal, ..".is by military strikes to cripple the regime’s nuclear program."

It is, rather, more the fact that the neocons, who helped lead the yearlong propaganda campaign to rally the country behind the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 with an admirable single-mindedness and urgency, appear far less focused on Iran, at least for the moment. If an attack on Iran is on the near-term agenda, the neoconservatives have been decidedly off-message.

The contrast with the run-up to the Iraq war is instructive.

For a full year or more before the March 2003 invasion, the neocons and their major media outlets – notably, the Weekly Standard, the National Review Online, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the New York Post, and Fox News – kept up a virtually daily drumbeat of op-ed articles, television appearances, and selective leaks by their confreres within the administration with only one aim in mind: to persuade the public that Saddam Hussein represented such a threat that he could only be dealt with by military means.

As the invasion drew near, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the movement’s de facto headquarters, drew scores of reporters to its weekly "black coffee briefings," where such neocon worthies as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, then-Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, former CIA director James Woolsey, and Iraq National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi held forth on the evils of the Ba’athist regime and the regional implications of the forthcoming "liberation" of the Iraq people.

Carefully orchestrated and coordinated with their comrades in the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney and former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, neocons were able to create a powerful media "echo chamber" that, by late 2002, centered entirely on Iraq, and the necessity of going to war, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Their discipline and focus on Iraq four years ago has been nowhere in evidence with respect to Iran over the past month. Judging by their writings and television appearances, they have seemed far more concerned with the growing public and Congressional pressure to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and prevent Bush from adding more forces there.

That has been the overriding preoccupation of Kristol’s Weekly Standard, National Review Online and the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. Article after article has assailed turncoat Republicans, as well as "defeatist" Democrats, for opposing the surge. AEI has held four briefings on Iraq compared to only one on Iran in the past two months.

Despite the sharply rising tensions between Iran and the U.S. over the past month, for example, the lead editorials of the last four issues of the Standard – always a reliable indication of neocon priorities – were all devoted to rallying lawmakers behind the surge.

That doesn’t mean that Iran is not a major concern – and ultimate target for the neocons. Indeed, the cover story of this week’s Standard, entitled "Iran’s Obsession with the Jews: Denying the Holocaust, Desiring Another One," shows no hesitation in building up the case for eventual war against Tehran.

But the same issue ran yet another story that illustrates the relative lack of urgency for war: "Sanctions Against Iran Would Work," it was entitled, although its subtitle, "Too Bad They Won’t Be Tried," hinted at the inevitability of war.

Nonetheless, to the extent that neocons, and their allies in the right-wing "Israel Lobby," are addressing themselves to Iran policy at the moment, expanding and enforcing sanctions, rather than imminent war, appears to be the main message.

Indeed, AEI fellows and fixtures in its "black coffee briefings" four years ago, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Gary Schmitt, just published an article this week on precisely this theme in the Financial Times: "How the West Can Avert War With Iran."

Similarly, television ads by the neoconservative American Foreign Policy Council running on the major cable television networks in the Washington D.C. area at the moment warn the viewer about Iran’s nuclear program, its status as "the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism," and its president’s alleged Holocaust denial and threats to "wipe Israel off the map." But they conclude with the relatively anodyne exhortation: "Call the White House and tell them to enforce sanctions against Iran today." Not exactly what one would expect on the eve of a military attack.

This tack may simply be a ruse to lull antiwar forces into complacency. Or it may reflect a fear that, given their record on Iraq, beating the drums for war with Iran may prove counterproductive (although AEI has not hesitated to take credit for the "surge" option). Or it may indicate that prominent neocons have somehow lost touch with the hawks in the White House and Cheney’s office who are now determined to go to attack Iran this spring.

But it may also reflect the neocons’ assessment, based no doubt on inside information, that Bush – who spoke about U.S. policy on Afghanistan at AEI Thursday – intends to let the diplomatic game play out a little longer, perhaps as long as another year, before deciding to attack.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.