Mullen Wary of Israeli Attack on Iran

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came home with sweaty palms from his mid-February visit to Israel. He has been worrying aloud that Israel will mousetrap the U.S. into war with Iran.

This is of particular concern because Mullen has had considerable experience in putting the brakes on such Israeli plans in the past. This time, he appears convinced that the Israeli leaders did not take his warnings seriously – notwithstanding the unusually strong language he put into play.

Upon arrival in Jerusalem on Feb. 14, Mullen wasted no time in making clear why he had come. He insisted publicly that an attack on Iran would be "a big, big, big problem for all of us, and I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences."

At a Pentagon press conference on Feb. 22 Mullen drove home the same point – with some of the same language. After reciting the usual boilerplate about Iran being "on the path to achieve nuclear weaponization" and about its "desire to dominate its neighbors," he included this in his prepared remarks:

"I worry a lot about the unintended consequences of any sort of military action. For now, the diplomatic and the economic levers of international power are and ought to be the levers first pulled. Indeed, I would hope they are always and consistently pulled. No strike, however effective, will be, in and of itself, decisive."

In answer to a question about the "efficacy" of military strikes on Iran’s nuclear program, Mullen said such strikes "would delay it for one to three years." Underscoring the point, he added that this is what he meant "about a military strike not being decisive."

No Glib Talk About War

Unlike younger generals such as David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, Adm. Mullen served in the Vietnam War. It seems likely that this experience prompted this gratuitous philosophical aside at the press conference: "I would remind everyone of an essential truth: War is bloody and uneven. It’s messy and ugly and incredibly wasteful, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the cost."

Although the immediate context for the remark was Afghanistan, Mullen has underscored time and time again that war with Iran would be a far larger disaster. Those with a modicum of familiarity with the military, strategic, and economic equities at stake know he is right.

Firing "Fox"

Recall that one of Mullen’s Vietnam veteran contemporaries, Adm. William "Fox" Fallon was cashiered as CENTCOM commander in March 2008 for saying things like war with Iran “isn’t going to happen on my watch." Fallon openly encouraged negotiations with Iran as the only sensible approach, and he harshly criticized the "constant drum beat" for war.

Fallon’s attitude appears to be shared by the more politically cautious – and less rhetorically blunt – Mullen, as the same war-with-Iran drumbeat reaches a new crescendo today. Fallon abhorred the thought of being on the receiving end of an order inspired by the likes of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams to send American troops into what would surely be – as Mullen would describe it – a "bloody, uneven, messy, ugly and incredibly wasteful" war.

How strong the pressure was within the Bush administration to attack Iran – and/or to give Israel "a green light" to go first – can be read between the lines of a Feb. 14 exchange between ABC News’ This Week host Jonathan Karl and former Vice President Cheney.

Karl: "How close did the Bush administration come to taking military action against Iran?"

Cheney: "Some of that I can’t talk about, obviously, still. I’m sure it’s still classified. We clearly never made the decision – we never crossed over that line of saying, ‘Now we’re going to mount a military operation to deal with the problem.’ …”

Karl: "David Sanger of the New York Times says that the Israelis came to you – came to the administration in the final months and asked for certain things, bunker-buster bombs, air-to-air refueling capability, over-flight rights, and that basically the administration dithered, did not give the Israelis a response. Was that a mistake?"

Cheney: "I can’t get into it still. I’m sure a lot of those discussions are still very sensitive."

Karl: "Let me ask you: Did you advocate a harder line, including in the military area, in those final months?"

Cheney: "Usually."

Karl: "And with respect to Iran?"

Cheney: "Well, I made public statements to the effect that I felt very strongly that we had to have the military option, that it had to be on the table, that it had to be a meaningful option, and that we might well have to resort to military force in order to deal with the threat that Iran represented. … [But] we never got to the point where the president had to make a decision one way or the other."

Renewed Pressures

Clearly, those pressures have again grown during the first 13 months of the Obama administration. Today, it appears that Mullen has replaced Fallon as the principal military obstacle to exercising the war option against Iran.

From his recent demeanor, as well as his many statements since he became the country’s most senior officer in October 2007, it is apparent that Mullen does not believe that a "preventive war" against Iran would be worth the horrendous cost.

Washington rhetoric, echoed by the stenographers of the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) over the past eight years, has brought a veneer of respectability to the international crime of aggressive war, as long as it is launched or sanctioned by the United States. With nodding approval from the FCM, Bush and Cheney sold the notion that such attacks can be justified to "prevent" some future hypothetical threat to the United States or its allies. This provided a thin, fig-leaf rationale for invading Iraq seven years ago this month.

The Obama administration has not fully backed away from such thinking.

While in Qatar on Feb. 14, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern over what she called "accumulating evidence" of an Iranian attempt to pursue a nuclear weapon, not because it "directly threaten[s] the United States, but [because] it directly threatens a lot of our friends" – read Israel.

Mullen, for his part, seems acutely aware that the Constitution he has sworn to defend makes no provision for the kind of war he might be sucked into in order to defend Israel. When he studied at the Naval Academy, his professors were still teaching that the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2) establishes that treaties ratified by the Senate become the "supreme law of the land."

It would be, pure and simple, a flagrant violation of a supreme law of the land, the Senate-ratified United Nations Charter, for the United States to join in an unprovoked assault on Iran without the approval of the UN Security Council, which surely would not go along – just as it did not go along on attacking Iraq.

Moreover, Adm. Mullen appears to be one of the few Americans aware that there is no mutual defense treaty between the United States and Israel and, thus, the U.S. has no legal obligation to jump to Israel’s defense if it ignites war with Iran. In other words, in a strictly juridical sense, Israel is not our "ally."

Sorry, you can’t create an ally by just repeating the word over and over.

Now you may scoff. "Everyone knows," you will say, that political realities in America dictate that the U.S. military must defend Israel no matter who started a conflict.

Still, there was a time – after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war when Israel first occupied the Palestinian territories – that the U.S. did take soundings regarding the possibility of a mutual defense treaty, in the expectation that this might introduce more calm into the area by giving the Israelis a greater sense of security.

But the Israelis turned the overture down cold. Such treaties, you see, require internationally recognized boundaries and Israel did not want any part of parting with the territories it had just seized militarily.

Besides, mutual defense treaties usually impose on both parties an obligation to inform the other if one decides to attack a third country. Israel wanted no part of that either.

This virtually unknown background helps to explain why the lack of a treaty of mutual defense is more than a picayune academic point.

Why Is Mullen Worried?

If Adm. Mullen is an old hand at reining in the Israelis, why is he so visibly worried at present? He is used to reading the riot act to the Israelis. What could be so different now?

Last time, in mid-2008, Cheney and Abrams were arguing for an aggressive military posture toward Iran but lost the argument to Mullen and his senior commanders, who – in the final days of the Bush administration – won the backing of the president.

When former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seemed intent on starting hostilities with Iran before Bush and Cheney left office, Bush ordered Adm. Mullen to Israel to tell the Israelis, in no uncertain terms, don’t do it. Mullen gladly rose to the occasion; actually, he outdid himself.

We learned from the Israeli press that Mullen went so far as to warn the Israelis not to even think about another incident at sea like the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967, which left 34 American crew killed and more than 170 wounded. With Bush’s full support, Mullen told the Israelis to disabuse themselves of the notion that U.S. military support would be knee-jerk automatic if Israel somehow provoked open hostilities with Iran.

Never before had a senior U.S. official braced Israel so blatantly about the Liberty incident, which was covered up unconscionably by Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, the Congress, and by the Navy itself.

The lesson the Israelis took away from the Liberty incident was that they could get away with murder, literally, and walk free because of political realities in the United States. Never again, said Mullen. He could not have raised a more neuralgic issue.

So, once more, what’s different about today? How to account for Mullen’s decision to keep expressing his worries about "unintended consequences"?

I believe the admiral fears that things are about to spin out of control. Whether there will be war does not depend on Mullen – or even Obama. It depends mostly on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And Mullen does well to be worried.

Netanyahu’s Impression of Obama

It is altogether likely that Netanyahu has concluded that Barack Obama is – in the vernacular – a wuss. Why, for example, does the president keep sending an endless procession of the most senior U.S. officials to Tel Aviv to plead with their Israeli counterparts, Please, pretty please, don’t start a war with Iran?

Loose-cannon Vice President Joe Biden arrives on Monday, hopefully with clearer instructions than when he blithely told ABC on July 4, 2009, that Israel is a "sovereign nation" and thus "entitled" to launch a military strike on Iran, adding that Washington would make no effort to dissuade the Israeli government.

Will Biden be able to keep his foot out of his mouth this time, or will his four decades of experience in the Senate – learning how to position himself politically with respect to Israel – again reassert itself?

It is a safe bet that Netanyahu is wryly amused at such obsequious buffoonery. But his impression of Obama’s backbone – or lack thereof – is key. The Israeli prime minister must be drawing some lessons from Obama’s aversion to leveraging the $3 billion a year the U.S. gives to Israel. Why doesn’t Obama simply pick up the phone and warn me himself?, Netanyahu might well be thinking.

Is Obama so deathly afraid of the powerful Likud Lobby that he cannot bring himself to call? Is the president afraid his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, might listen in, and then leak the conversation to neoconservative pundits like the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank?

Benjamin Netanyahu has had ample time to size up our president. Their initial encounter in May 2009 reminded me very much of the disastrous meeting in Vienna between another young American president and Nikita Khrushchev in early June 1961. The Soviets took the measure of President John Kennedy, and one result was the Cuban missile crisis, bringing the world as close as it has ever come, before or since, to nuclear destruction.

The Israeli prime minister has found it possible to thumb his nose at Obama’s repeated pleas for a halt in construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories – without consequence. Moreover, Netanyahu has watched Obama cave in time after time – on domestic as well as international issues.

Netanyahu styles himself as sitting in the catbird’s seat of the relationship, largely because of the Likud Lobby’s unparalleled influence with U.S. lawmakers and opinion makers – not to mention the entrée the Israelis enjoy to the chief executive himself by having one of their staunchest allies, Rahm Emanuel, in position as White House chief of staff. In the intelligence business, we might call that an "agent of influence."

Emanuel’s father, Benjamin Emanuel, was born in Jerusalem and served in the Irgun, the pre-independence Zionist guerrilla organization. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Rahm Emanuel, then in his early 30s, traveled to Israel as a civilian volunteer to work with the Israeli Defense Forces. He served in one of the IDF’s northern bases.

Mullen’s Worries

Netanyahu is supremely confident of the solidity of his position with the movers and shakers in Congress, Washington opinion-makers, and even within the Obama administration. And he gives off signs of being singularly underwhelmed by the president.

These factors enhance the possibility Netanyahu will opt for the kind of provocation that would confront Obama with a Hobson’s choice regarding whether to join an Israeli attack on Iran.

And so Mullen continues to worry – not only about "unintended consequences," but about intended consequences, as well. The most immediate of these could involve mousetrapping Obama into committing U.S. forces to war provoked with Iran.

And for those fond of saying that "everything is on the table," be advised that this would go in spades in this context.

Very little seems outlandish these days. Remember Seymour Hersh’s report about Cheney’s office conjuring up plots as to how best to trigger a war with Iran?

"The one that interested me [Hersh] the most was why don’t we build – we in our shipyard – build four or five boats that look like Iranian PT boats. Put Navy SEALs on them with a lot of arms. And next time one of our boats goes to the Straits of Hormuz, start a shoot-up."

In other words, another Tonkin Gulf-type incident, like the one that President Johnson used to justify a massive escalation in Vietnam.

A modern-day Gulf of Tonkin-like incident in the Strait of Hormuz could be even more problematic, given the waterway’s vital role as a supply route for oil tankers necessary for maintaining the world’s economy.

The navigable part of the Strait of Hormuz is narrow, and things often go bump in the night without even trying. For example:

"DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – On the evening of January 8, 2007, a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine collided with a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil supplies travel, officials said. The collision between the USS Newport News and the Japanese-flagged motor vessel Mogamigawa occurred at approximately 10:15 in the evening (local time) in the Strait of Hormuz while the submarine was transiting submerged."

AP, March 20, 2009: "The USS Hartford nuclear submarine and the amphibious USS New Orleans collided in the waters between Iran and the Arabian peninsula today. Fifteen sailors were slightly injured aboard the Hartford … the New Orleans suffered a ruptured fuel tank, spilling 25,000 gallons of diesel…. The ships were on routine security patrols in a busy shipping route."

Think back also to the bizarre accounts of the incident involving swarming Iranian motorboats and U.S. Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz on Jan. 6, 2008.

Preventing Preventive War

The Persian Gulf would be an ideal locale for Israel to mount a provocation eliciting Iranian retaliation that could, in turn, lead to a full-scale Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear-related sites. Painfully aware of that possible scenario, Adm. Mullen noted at a July 2, 2008, press conference that military-to-military dialogue could "add to a better understanding" between the U.S. and Iran.

If Mullen’s worries are to be taken as genuine (and I believe they are), it would behoove him to resurrect that idea and formally propose such dialogue to the Iranians. He is the U.S. government’s senior military officer and should not let himself be stymied by neoconservative partisans more interested in regime change in Tehran than in working out a modus vivendi and reduction of tension.

The following two modest proposals could go a long way toward avoiding an armed confrontation with Iran – whether accidental, or provoked by those who may actually wish to precipitate hostilities and involve the U.S.

1. Establish a direct communications link between top military officials in Washington and Tehran, in order to reduce the danger of accident, miscalculation, or covert attack.

2. Launch immediate negotiations by top Iranian and American naval officers to conclude an incidents-at-sea protocol.

A communications link has historically proven its merit during times of high tension. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 underscored the need for instantaneous communications at senior levels, and a “hot line” between Washington and Moscow was established the following year. That direct link played a crucial role, for example, in preventing the spread of war in the Middle East during the Six-Day War in early June 1967.

Another useful precedent is the “Incidents-at-sea” agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed in Moscow in May 1972. That period was another time of considerable tension between the two countries, including several inadvertent naval encounters that could well have escalated. The agreement sharply reduced the likelihood of such incidents.

It might be difficult for American and Iranian leaders alike to oppose measures that make such good sense. Press reports show that top U.S. commanders in the Persian Gulf have favored such steps. And, as indicated above, Adm. Mullen has already appealed for military-to-military dialogue.

In the present circumstances, it has become increasingly urgent to discuss seriously how our two countries might avoid a conflict started by accident, miscalculation, or provocation. Neither the U.S. nor Iran can afford to allow an avoidable incident at sea to spin out of control.

With a modicum of mutual trust, these commonsense actions might be able to win wide and prompt acceptance by both governments.

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Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).