First it was the Syrian peace deal brokered by Russia – and a war-sickened American public: next it may be a deal with Iran, which has been the War Party’s main target all along. Is peace breaking out all over? Not if the neocons in both parties can help it – however, they may not be able to prevent it. And that’s the good news.
Newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a different kind of Iranian chief executive – the polar opposite of his militant predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tirades (however mistranslated) weren’t exactly good public relations in the West. While Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitism was on constant display – his government sponsored a "festival" devoted to Holocaust denial – Rouhani’s Foreign Minister took the occasion of Rosh Hashanah to wish the world’s Jews a happy holiday. And when Christine Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, answered him with a belligerent tweet, berating him for his government’s Holocaust denial, – "The New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran’s Holocaust denial, sir" – he tweeted back at her: "Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year."
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s answer to Ms. Pelosi and the world was, in short: That was then, but this is now. And now is a moment for choosing between war and peace. The Iranians have clearly chosen the latter, if such can be done with honor. However, when it comes to the Americans and their Israeli and Saudi allies, the answer is a decidedly mixed bag.
That Tehran is tired of its isolation, and the constant threats emanating from the West, is fairly obvious. From the tone and content of President Rouhani’s recent statements to Ann Curry of NBC News, it’s clear the Iranians have decided to do something about it. In a remarkable interview, Rouhani unequivocally denied Iran would ever attempt to build a nuclear weapon:
"CURRY: The world believes that Iran could build a bomb very quickly. You’ve said this period of time for resolving this nuclear issue will not be unlimited. Just how short is this window? Weeks, months, or years?
ROUHANI: We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb and we are not going to do so. We solely are looking for peaceful nuclear technology.
CURRY: Can you say that Iran will not build a nuclear weapon under any circumstances whatsoever?
ROUHANI: The answer to this question is quite obvious. We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever."
Yes, the answer to this question is indeed quite obvious, especially to anyone who’s been following the issue over the past few years or so: Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went so far as to issue a fatwa against the very idea of nuclear weapons, the mere possession of which, he contends, is contrary to Islamic law. But that wasn’t enough for the United States government, and it certainly wasn’t enough for the Israeli government, which insists Iran is on the brink of raining nuclear fire down on Tel Aviv. Although the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – to which Iran, but not Israel, is a signatory – permits member nations to develop peaceful uses of nuclear power, both the US and Israel aver that Iran represents a nuclear threat.
It’s important to understand what the US government is saying, however: they’re not claiming Tehran is presently developing an actual nuke. After all, their own latest National Intelligence Estimate asserts, "with high confidence," Iran gave up any such effort in 2003 and hasn’t since restarted. Yet there is a lot of political pressure on our elected officials to hold the Iranians feet to the fire anyway – and singe them enough so that they’ll howl in pain.
In short, it doesn’t matter what the intelligence is because it can always be massaged to come out how the politicians want it. With a powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and fiercely loyal factions influential on both sides of the aisle, the War Party has always been able to impose its own version of reality on the national and diplomatic discourse.
The Israelis have a somewhat different take from the Americans. Netanyahu underscored his essential beef with Washington – as well as Tehran – when he got up in front of the UN, waving that silly graphic of a bomb like a battle flag, declaring it’s all about "break out capacity." His point being that once Iran acquires the ability to produce nuclear materials, they could, if they chose, develop a bomb in a matter of months. Which means, in the Israeli view, that Iran is not to be permitted to develop anything remotely nuclear, peaceful or whatever, because they’re inherently untrustworthy and dedicated to the destruction of Israel.
Yet once a nation reaches a certain stage of industrial and technological development, the acquisition of a nuclear capacity as Netanyahu defines it is inevitable. It is a simple byproduct of modernity. Therefore, what the Israelis have in mind for Iran – and, indeed, for all their Arab and Muslim neighbors – is a 21st century version of the Morganthau Plan, a vision of postwar Germany developed by then US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau, Jr., that would have reduced it to a purely agricultural state, wiping out its industrial capacity and foreclosing any possibility that it might arise again and pose a military threat. An American attack on Iran would accomplish that goal.
Never mind the horrific consequences for the region and the world – Israel would be safe behind its Great Wall of Separation, or so the ultra-nationalist politicians would have ordinary Israelis believe.
In the event of war, the consequences for the US, both economically and politically, are not anything a sitting President wants to experience: and so the tug of war for the President’s mind is a deadly serious game, one in which the Iranians have a fighting chance of winning – and they are clearly exerting their maximum effort this week.
The NBC interview with Rouhani is revealing in many ways, one of which is the degree to which some American "journalists" are trapped inside their own hopeless vacuity:
"CURRY: Do you believe the United States, President Obama looked weak in backing off an air strike on Syria?
ROUHANI: We consider war a weakness. Any government or administration who decides in order to wage a war, we consider a weakness. And any government that decides on peace we look on it with respect to peace."
We consider war a weakness – as opposed to the Americans, or at least their journalistic specimens, who consider the willingness to go to war a sign not only of great strength but also of high moral status. It’s the difference between the political class of a decadent global empire and an emerging state on the imperial periphery – one that, furthermore, has successfully resisted Western domination since the fall of the Shah in 1979.
Rouhani also revealed his recent exchange of letters with President Obama: the two will share the speaker’s rostrum at the UN next week, and there is talk of a possible meeting. This has the War Party in a panic, as if they aren’t already in quite a disgruntled state after having the rug pulled out from under them in Syria. The populist antiwar upsurge took them by complete surprise – and now this!
With people clearly in a mood to settle the trumped up Iranian nuclear "crisis" peacefully, the Israel lobby and its Praetorian Guard in both parties are at their wit’s end. Their propaganda is trying to fit a round Rouhani in a square Ahmadinejad, and it clearly isn’t working. The War Party’s answer to anything remotely smacking of rapprochement with Iran is invariably the same old neocon clichés strung together like cheap baubles on a dime-store bracelet: Munich! 1939! Hitler!
Their big problem is that narrative is wearing a little thin, and not solely due to our experience in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. The rising generation, by definition, is less a prisoner of history than its forebears, and is therefore less likely to be manipulated by such simplistic symbolism. Someone under the age of 70 just isn’t going to identify the soft-spoken uncle-ish looking Rouhani with Hitler, and any meeting between the two presidents will be seen as an event more akin to Reagan’s meeting with Gorbachev at Reykjavik than Neville Chamberlain’s Munich sojourn.
The interventionists’ tend to see the Iranian issue through an Israeli prism, while the average American – and by that I don’t mean Bill Kristol or the Rev. John Hagee – has a different perspective. While the phraseology of the American mindset is best summarized by Ronald Reagan’s "trust but verify" axiom, the Israeli view is closer to: Trust is for schmucks – strike them before they strike you. Much of this difference is due to geography, but – as always – history and culture play the decisive role.
The key to peace in the Middle East is held in the hands of Barack Obama. Whether he chooses to unlock the door and let Iran out of its near solitary confinement, or else redoubles the longstanding American policy of enforced isolationism, is a decision that will be made politically: that is, according to the President’s calculation of the domestic costs and benefits.
As Chris Coyne of George Mason University’s economics department pointed out at the Charles Koch Institute’s excellent program on "American’s Role in the World," held at the Library of Congress the other day, our leaders shape American foreign policy chiefly in response to political pressures on the home front. Since their overriding goal is to preserve and expand their own prestige and power, the role of pressure groups and other domestic factors, including the economic equation, is decisive.
This is the central axiom of what I call "libertarian realism." Like the unmodified version of "realist" international theory, libertarian realists hold that states are inherently aggressive and ceaselessly engaged in a competition which could turn violent at any moment. Libertarians, however, take this principle further, deconstructing and applying it to their own political class. While realist theory holds that the "national interest" – however broadly or narrowly defined – must be the guiding principle of America’s role in the world, libertarian realists translate "national interest" into the particular interests of specific individuals – because, after all, the "national interest" is a floating abstraction. It doesn’t really exist: what does exist are human beings with individual interests, and the question libertarian realists always put to the fore in regard to any specific issue, foreign or domestic, is whose interests are being served?
The political class in this country, and its economic beneficiaries, have a direct interest in maintaining our foreign policy of endless conflict on a global scale. The whole world of Washington, D.C., with its corporate-funded thinktanks, its hierarchy of corporate journalists, and its platoons of foreign lobbyists, military "consultants," and ambitious publicists, is centered around a core conceit: the idea that they know what’s best for the rest of the world. Yes, money has a lot to do with it, but the central motivation here is status: the recognition that comes with having sway over the actions of a great empire.
On the other hand, ordinary Americans have zero interest in maintaining, defending, or expanding that empire. As the Old Right polemicist Garet Garrett put it, America is an imperial hegemon unlike any other in world history in that "everything goes out and nothing comes in." Nothing, that is, for the ordinary folk, who pay for it in cash and cold blood: however, what President Dwight Eisenhower called the "military-industrial-congressional complex" does quite well, thank you. The Romans exacted tribute from their conquered subjects: we have inverted that tradition, instead paying tribute – in the form of "foreign aid" – to our allies and satellite nations, even as they denounce us and their Washington lobbyists demand more.
Recent events have demonstrated the growing consciousness of this radical disparity of interests in the minds of the public. What happened when they tried to strike Syria is that the elites underestimated the degree to which the American people are increasingly aware of what game is being played – and who are the invariable winners. This consciousness raising is due, in part, to the efforts of libertarians and old-style liberals who find themselves on the same side of the barricades these days. The fight against a Surveillance State that justifies its existence with the doctrine of perpetual war has thrown these two factions together, in spite of their disagreements, just because the stakes are so high.
President Rouhani described his exchange of letters with President Obama as "tiny steps toward an important future," and the same might be said of recent developments on the domestic front. Many are describing the upsurge of antiwar activism in response to the manufactured Syrian "crisis" as a turning point in terms of the future of American foreign policy, but it is far too soon to claim such an advance.
Yes, the peace movement won a great victory, but this is just the beginning of a protracted battle in which the War Party will try every trick in the book and then some to put us back on the road to war with Iran. That’s what the Syrian "crisis" was and is about, or rather was meant to be about: a prelude to the War Party’s symphony of destruction, one to be played as bombs fall on Tehran.
When the issue of war with Iran is poised pointblank – as it will be – let us hope the same coalition of libertarian Republicans – and oftentimes squishy libertarian fellow travelers – in Congress show the same spine they demonstrated in the face of the President’s call for war with Syria. And let us hope the congressional caucus of old-style non-Pelosi progressives remembers the outcry on the left that chastened the rush to war. It is our goal, here at Antiwar.com, to remind both of their alleged principles when push comes to shove – and hold their feet to the fire, when necessary, so that they actually feel the burn.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).