Eliminating the Bar for War

by , February 15, 2010

Before the greenhouse gases do us in, the world faces a more traditional apocalypse. Two heavily militarized states are preparing to attack a third. The ensuing war could ignite an intercontinental bonfire and burn much of civilization to ash long before global warming does real harm.

It appears that the U.S. and Israel have plans to bomb Iran. The bull’s-eyes undoubtedly were drawn on the targets long ago. The policymakers behind these plans have the delusion that, to stop Iran from acquiring the capability to make nuclear weapons, the U.S. or its ally can launch precision strikes on a few sites to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program and then call it a day. Not likely. The first bomb will strike like a cinder block on an ice-covered pond. Warfare will rapidly crack apart the dozens of fault lines throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Central Asia.

None of this is news. Since the putative discovery of Iran’s allegedly "illicit" nuclear power activities in 2003 – which were neither illicit nor concealed in any material sense – the alternative media has been full of jeremiads about imminent U.S. or Israeli aggression against Iran. Those warnings cannot be dismissed en masse as politically motivated or the product of alarmists. There is evidence, for instance, that Israel came close to attacking Iran in the spring of 2008. According to the reports, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert unsuccessfully sought Bush’s approval to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Otherwise, the Bush-Cheney-Sharon-Olmert regimes vilified Iran and engaged in a good deal of reckless behavior toward it. As one small example, the appointment of the Iranian-obsessed psychopath John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the UN scarcely signaled prudence or caution in Iran policy.

The anti-Iranian bellicosity was supposed to soften, if not quite disappear, with Barack Obama in the White House. People thought that Obama would beat Cheney’s swords into plowshares and endear America to the Islamic world once again. While no one can be blamed for experiencing a "surge" of relief on Bush’s exit, a year has passed and nothing has changed, at least not for the better. The infatuation with Obama as some sort of peaceful prophet has long outlived any justification. Obama is responsible for killing hundreds of peasants with "Predator drone" missile attacks along the Pakistan-Afghan border. He has ordered the re-invasion of Afghanistan for no apparent legitimate purpose. He has cemented permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. And he has commissioned some of the most gargantuan military budgets in world history.

Despite his actions, a lot of Americans remain taken in by Obama’s charismatic, MLK-like peacemaking vibes. His warmongering and Bush-Cheney-like shredding of the Bill of Rights sometimes don’t seem to register – except among "Tea Partiers" and other distempered types, who flog him for not going far enough and unloading nukes on Tehran this instant. When it comes to Iran specifically, moreover, it is not clear that Obama ever gave much reason to hope for a less combative approach. The "dovish" Obama made his views clear the day after his party’s nomination in June 2008, when he sped off to a convention held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to assure the crowd that he was a true friend of Israel. Obama promised that the swords reserved for Iran would remain sharp and at the ready:

"There is no greater threat to Israel – or to the peace and stability of the region – than Iran. …

"The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. Its president denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.

"But just as we are clear-eyed about the threat, we must be clear about the failure of today’s policy. We knew, in 2002, that Iran supported terrorism. We knew Iran had an illicit nuclear program. We knew Iran posed a grave threat to Israel. …

"We will pursue this diplomacy with no illusions about the Iranian regime. Instead, we will present a clear choice. If you abandon your dangerous nuclear program, support for terror, and threats to Israel, there will be meaningful incentives – including the lifting of sanctions, and political and economic integration with the international community. If you refuse, we will ratchet up the pressure."

Despite the gestalt impression of Obama as peace-seeker, his administration’s actions on Iran have not deviated from the prejudices and threats in his speech to AIPAC. Indeed, Obama’s speech takes aim at Bush-Cheney for not getting tough on Iran as hard and as fast as he, apparently, would have. The current U.S. leadership’s most recent actions on Iran may well present a greater threat to global stability than those of its predecessors.

Since the turn of the year, the U.S. has been deploying the heavy machinery needed to put war plans against Iran into action. In January, the Obama administration forced several Gulf countries to agree to install American ballistic-missile defense emplacements on their soil. At the same time, the Pentagon announced a new "first line" of defense in the Persian Gulf, reinforcing the U.S. Navy’s already considerable armada in the region with Aegis cruisers equipped with advanced radar and anti-missile systems. Moreover, under Obama, the plans for missile-shield systems Bush crammed down on Poland and the Czech Republic, which triggered furious protests from Russia, have been modified to concentrate on potential medium and short-range missile attacks from Iran. More recently, the Romanian government reportedly has agreed to accept U.S. anti-missile batteries on its territory to thwart theoretical Iranian rockets.

In a similar move, aimed more at a gullible American public than Iran, the Missile Defense Agency on Feb. 1 tested a new Raytheon-made defensive radar system to see if it could knock down a "simulated" Iranian ICBM attack on California. The test failed. But Golden State citizens shouldn’t start packing their bags in a panic just yet. The closest any actual Iranian missile could come to the United States is about 600 miles west of Sarajevo.

The Obama government’s moves are telegraphing to Iran that the U.S. is mobilizing defenses in anticipation of an Iranian response to U.S.-Israeli attack and ramping up the "Persian Menace" propaganda to weaken U.S. domestic antiwar sentiment.

As the U.S. fortifies its "interests" in the Middle East and Orange County from Iranian warheads, the Congress has been busy with a slew of sanctions bills, always by near-unanimous vote, always at the direction of the Israel lobby. The most recent bills would sanction any business or country that ships gasoline or heating oil to Iran unless the Iranians cede their rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to peaceful development of nuclear energy. These "sanctions" bills may be a more creative hoax than Iranian warheads falling on Malibu. The war crowd loves to argue that because Iran has plenty oil, its nuclear activities must be for military rather than energy needs (as Iran claims). The sanctions legislation, however, demonstrates the frivolity of that argument: It targets petroleum imports because Iran lacks adequate refinement capacity and depends on imported fuel for its energy needs. On the other hand, the bills would create the very condition – deprivation of petroleum fuel – that, if anything, would force Iran to accelerate clandestine nuclear development, producing the opposite of the "sanction’s" ostensible purpose.

A lot of this recent effort looks and sounds similar to the run-up to Bush-Cheney’s Iraq invasion. There is, however, a profound difference in the current administration’s targeting of Iran. It is essentially following Cheney’s model for preventive war – with one exception: It has dispensed with relying on any tangible facts to "make the case" for war. Instead, it has made the Iranian leadership’s intent the decisive factor.

Bush-Cheney lowered the bar for starting war by adopting the doctrine that in a "post-9/11 world," preventive war is not only permissible but morally imperative. Cheney’s innovation lay in arguing that "failure to act" was inherently the greater risk, even if the likelihood of terrorist or other attack was trifling. In his "low-probability, high-impact event” analysis, the magnitude of the possible event was always horrific, limited only by the darkest imagination, a catastrophe the destructive impact of which would make the ever-looming specter of 9/11 look trivial in comparison. Cheney’s reasoning may have been fallacious and repugnant, but it was effective. It’s hard to argue against 9/11. He thereby swept aside the Western ideal of war as a matter of last resort to be launched only when necessary to repel an attack on self or others.

Cheney’s "1 percent solution," however, had an Achilles heel. It required the putative existence of actual, physical fact. The possibility that WMDs may exist may be small – but it still must exist. But the drawback to any plan based on assertion of fact is the possibility of refutation – maybe not in time to prevent a horror show, but sooner or later. In other words, under the Cheney Doctrine, the casus is subject to falsification, even long after the belli has broken out. Which is, of course, exactly what happened in Iraq.

The Cheney Doctrine’s very low bar for war was bad enough. Obama and his own neoconnish coterie of advisers, however, are tossing away the bar altogether.

The many anti-Iranian advocates and advisers who stayed on or arrived with Obama saw the consequences of the flaw of the Cheney Doctrine. While Cheney’s plan won the war, it seriously risked losing political support for the broader long-term U.S./Israeli objective of control of the Middle East and Central Asia. Indeed, the loss of the Holy Grail of neocon policy was such a dire prospect that its desperate defenders resorted to the most absurd excuses after the WMD search was a bust, including the claim one can still hear today that Saddam moved his WMDs to Syria.

Obama’s advisers also learned from Cheney’s mistakes, however. Picking up on Iran where Bush-Cheney left off, the Obama hawks are not about to try to justify war based on testable factual claims – or any fact-based claims whatsoever. If the Obama/Netanyahu war factions get their war, they will do so based on the article of faith that "we cannot allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon." To ensure that objective, they have concluded, Iran cannot be permitted to achieve the technological and manufacturing capability to build a bomb. Thus, a plan for war is being built on inherently unverifiable beliefs about what the leadership – more likely, some later leadership – of Iran might decide to do in the future with knowledge, skills, equipment, and infrastructure it has yet to acquire. Under the Cheney Doctrine, the U.S. needed to strike if there was a 1 percent risk that Iraq actually had WMDs. In contrast, the Obama-Netanyahu Doctrine permits military aggression if there is any chance that Iran someday may have the ability to create a nuclear weapon and might then decide to actually make one.

For Cheney’s progeny now in control, the beauty of basing state action on inferences about Iran’s future intentions is its irrefutability. This approach already has been seen in action dozens of times. How often have the Iranians, the IAEA, even the U.S. intelligence community come forward with evidence supporting the "case" that Iran is not engaged in nuclear weapons activities, only to be met with the U.S. response: "We don’t believe you," or "That doesn’t mean they won’t resume a nuclear weapons program"? Obama himself best illustrated this sort of reasoning at a news conference Feb. 9, discussing Iran’s alleged "rejection" of an offer by the U.S. and its Western allies to convert some low-enriched uranium in Iran’s possession into medical isotopes, requiring enrichment to a level just short of weapons-grade. He said: "That indicates to us that, despite their posturing that their nuclear power is only for civilian use, that they in fact continue to pursue a course that would lead to weaponization. And that is not acceptable to the international community, not just to the United States." But virtually any step by Iran to develop nuclear capabilities with is own science and resources could lead to "weaponization." Obama here simply imputes a malicious intent – building the "case for war" based on analysis no better than palm reading.

What is in the heart of another group of people can be divined to be whatever one wants, based on whatever tea leaves or animal droppings one chooses to interpret. That is an exercise, however, that usually does not seek to determine any knowable facts, but simply to confirm prejudices. After all, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). And isn’t it better – indeed, necessary, in a "post-9/11 world" – that the state assumes the worst? Once Cheney’s "high-impact event" constant is plugged in, the "case for war" is open and shut. And no evidence can ever be found – or not found – that can prove the war-makers wrong.

Because the "case for war" against Iran is being made based on the thoughts and intentions of Iranian leadership, and not on empirical fact, those who oppose war are mostly wasting their time arguing the evidence. It does not matter that the IAEA repeatedly has stated for years that it has found no evidence of a nuclear weapons missile program. It does not matter that the Iranian leadership and opposition (whom the war party otherwise claims to adore) steadfastly maintain that Iran has no plans to make nuclear weapons. It does not matter that the U.S. national intelligence consensus is and remains that Iran is not at work on nuclear weapons – despite enormous political pressure to alter its judgment. It does not matter that, even if Iran does intend to create a nuclear weapon, there is no reason to think that it would try to use it against the U.S., or that it could use it against the U.S. if it wanted to. Finally, it does not matter that the states engaged in this telepathy-based policymaking have been caught red-handed trying to manufacture evidence that Iran has an existing "nuclear weapons" program.

The only tangible fact that has any significance is that Iran does not have any nuclear weapons. And that matters only because we cannot allow it to get one, not in a "post-9/11 world" in which warfare based on remote possibilities that proved false has already killed millions of people.

Americans may be chastised for their mostly uncritical acceptance of the propaganda used to manufacture consent to the Iraq invasion. In mitigation, however, the leadership in government and the press were lying in a way that, if not entirely credible, at least conveyed their own conviction in the truth of their claims, the core of which was that Saddam Hussein actually possessed the means to murder millions of Americans in another 9/11.

The "case for war" on Iran does not depend on some infernal machine that Iran possesses. It depends entirely on speculation, suspicions, and superstitions about what a group of old men in Tehran might think – and what they might decide to do some time in the future – because of what they do not possess now. If Americans let war happen this time, on this quality of propaganda, then perhaps we will deserve what we get.

Read more by Peter Casey