The Mindset That Got Us Into War Is Alive and Well

I must admit that, like most progressives and antiwar activists in the coalition that played a crucial role in the victory of President-elect Barack Obama, I have been greatly disappointed with his national security team (NST). Gone are all the hopeful signs of real change in the American foreign policy that we saw – as it now appears self-deludedly – coming with the election of Obama. Instead, we must confront the cold – but by now very familiar – reality that the main players in U.S. foreign policy for several years to come will be people we have disagreed with very strongly, even despised, over the years.

There is not even one progressive or antiwar voice with principled positions in Obama’s NST to counter all the pro-war people he has picked, even though when introducing his NST, Obama declared that he believes in having “strong personalities and strong opinions” and that he will welcome “vigorous debate inside the White House.”

I don’t want to rehash all the praise that Obama has been receiving for the selection of his NST from the neoconservatives and the War Party, which is a glaring sign of how terrible his NST is. Many people, including the author, have already done that. It should suffice to say that the neocons and the War Party could not have been happier with Obama’s NST. The turncoat Joe Lieberman, whose sole purpose in life seems to be starting a war with Iran, called Obama’s selections “virtually perfect,” and Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard declared that the selections indicate “surprising continuity on foreign policy between President Bush’s second term and the incoming administration. … The expectation is that Obama is set to continue the course set by Bush….”

Here, I only want to describe the views of Obama’s NST about Iran. Sensing his victory as inevitable, the neocons and the War Party started an all-out campaign before Nov. 4 to convince Barack Obama that Iran is the biggest threat to the U.S. That was not, of course, unexpected. It is not even surprising that many members of Obama’s NST routinely speak of Iran’s “nuclear weapon program,” a program that the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. intelligence community have declared to be nonexistent.

What is dumbfounding and disheartening is that Obama himself employs the same language, which borders on lies and exaggerations. But even this is not really new. As a presidential candidate, Obama used the same language. For example, in the Democratic debate in Philadelphia on April 16, 2008, he said,

“I have said I will do whatever is required to prevent the Iranians from obtaining nuclear weapons. I believe that includes direct talks with the Iranians where we are laying out very clearly for them, here are the issues that we find unacceptable. … Now, my belief is that they should also know that I will take no options off the table when it comes to preventing them from using nuclear weapons….”

Those are weapons that Iran does not have, and there is no evidence that it is attempting to get them.

In an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America on April 22, 2008, Obama said, “We shouldn’t allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, period. I have consistently said that I will do everything in my power to prevent them from having it, and I have not ruled out military force as an option.”

More importantly, back in April 2008, the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington posed two questions [.pdf] to the presidential candidates:

1. Does the senator have a position on whether Iran should suspend permanently or temporarily its uranium enrichment activity and development of a plutonium reprocessing capability?

To which Obama’s aides responded, “Iran must verifiably abandon its nuclear weapons program. To that end, Senator Obama has made clear that he will engage in direct negotiations with Iran, with the immediate objective of a suspension of Iranian uranium enrichment activities and a commitment to refrain from reprocessing plutonium. …”

2. Does the senator have a policy or suggested proposal for controlling the nuclear fuel cycle in the case of Iran?

The Obama campaign’s response: “[T]he current Iranian regime, a state sponsor of terror and serious threat to Israel and our other allies in the Middle East, illustrates the problem with having national control over the nuclear fuel cycle. Tehran must agree on the immediate implementation of the Additional Protocol, halt any enrichment activities, and refrain from acquiring reprocessing capabilities. …”

These responses demonstrate astonishing arrogance, as well as ignorance of international laws, particularly the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

First, national control over uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing was granted to the signatories of the NPT, in return for their commitment to not seek any nuclear weapons. Iran has not violated the NPT – that is, it has not developed a nuclear weapon, and it has neither helped another NPT member state to do so nor transferred its nuclear technology to a non-member state. Iran was found to be in six minor breaches of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, none of which were meant, according to the IAEA itself, to “further a military purpose,” and all of which have been resolved, according to the February 2008 report of the IAEA, to its satisfaction. Nor has Iran diverted any nuclear materials to non-peaceful purposes. Therefore, Iran is lawfully entitled to both uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies, which it is developing indigenously under the IAEA’s safeguards.

Second, in return for the commitment of the non-nuclear states, Article VI of the NPT stipulates that the (original) nuclear states must commit themselves to eventually get rid of their nuclear weapons. The nuclear states have not done that. In fact, Robert Gates, Bush’s – and now Obama’s – defense secretary has advocated modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Third, if control over uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technology is to be taken away from the individual states, the NPT itself must first be modified. But there is no way that the non-nuclear states will agree to such modifications without gaining significant and meaningful concessions from the nuclear states.

These were Obama’s positions before his election, when he was supposedly trying to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton and the War Party. How is he going to approach Iran when he takes office in January? The most important clue is provided by his NST. So, let us see what Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton has said about Iran.

In an interview on Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, on April 21, 2008, Clinton said,

“If Iran does achieve what appears to be its continuing goal of obtaining nuclear weapons, and I think deterrence has not been effectively used in recent times, what I think the president should do and what our policy should be is to make it very clear to the Iranians that they would be risking massive retaliation were they to launch a nuclear attack on Israel.”

Just to make sure that everybody understood that she is the hawks’ hawk when it comes to Iran, the next day in an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America Clinton made the following infamous remark [.pdf]:

“Well, the question was if Iran were to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, what would our response be? And I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran. And I want them to understand that. Because it does mean that they have to look very carefully at their society, because whatever stage of development they might be in their nuclear weapons program in the next 10 years during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them. …”

No matter how hard one may try to sugarcoat this statement, its implication is obvious. In Clinton’s view, an attack on Israel by Iran would entail not just defending Israel, but obliterating Iran. I suppose when Bill Clinton dodges military service for his own country but declares that
he would take up arms to defend Israel, we should also expect that his wife would obliterate Iran if necessary.

But Hillary Clinton is not in love only with Israel. In the Philadelphia Democratic debate, on April 16, 2008, she said,

“I think that we should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel. Of course I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States, but I would do the same with other countries in the region. …

“[W]e’ve got to deter other countries from feeling that they have to acquire nuclear weapons. You can’t go to the Saudis or the Kuwaitis or UAE [United Arab Emirates] and others who have a legitimate concern about Iran and say: Well, don’t acquire these weapons to defend yourself unless you’re also willing to say we will provide a deterrent backup and we will let the Iranians know that, yes, an attack on Israel would trigger massive retaliation, but so would an attack on those countries that are willing to go under this security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear ambitions.”

Yes, let’s promise all the Arab states of the Persian Gulf that American blood and money will defend their corrupt regimes against a nonexistent threat. In the process let’s also sell them tens of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons that they will never be capable of using, which will only add to the instability in the region, and let’s do all that under the guise of Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapon program.

In response to the first question of the Institute for Science and International Security (see above), Clinton replied,

“Given Iran’s clandestine enrichment program and the many other violations of its nonproliferation obligations over a period of close to 20 years, the only way Iran can now persuade the international community that it is not seeking nuclear weapons is to suspend both its uranium enrichment and its heavy water-based plutonium production programs. …”

That is an outrageous lie. Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities are fully safeguarded by the IAEA; they are not clandestine. But based on a lie, Clinton expects Iran to give up its internationally recognized rights! Some bargain!

Clinton’s response to the second question:

“If Iran’s motives for acquiring a uranium enrichment capability are genuinely peaceful – to provide low-enriched fuel for the nuclear power reactors it hopes to build – then it has no need to build its own enrichment facility. The six countries that have offered Iran a package of incentives to resolve the nuclear issue – China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – have proposed various means of guaranteeing Iran that it would have reliable access to foreign sources of reactor fuel as long as it complies with its nonproliferation obligations.”

Now, what are the incentives that the six nations have offered Iran? Some vague promises for the future, in return for concrete facts on the ground, namely, Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities and the plutonium reprocessing plant that it is constructing.

But Hillary Clinton’s anti-Iran stance does not end with the above positions. She also voted for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution – a vote that Obama called “reckless” – which declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRG), part of its legitimate armed forces, a “foreign terrorist organization.”

It has been widely reported that Clinton will bring her own team to the State Department. Three people come to mind as her advisers. George W. Bush’s policy regarding Iran and Iraq was in fact the continuation of Bill Clinton’s “dual-containment” policy designed by Martin Indyk, who was twice the U.S. ambassador to Israel, according to which Iraq and Iran were to be isolated by tough sanctions and threats. Indyk has been a close foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton.

In an interview with Bloomberg News on July 11, 2008, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration and another Hillary Clinton adviser, said, “Obviously, you can’t take a force option off the table completely in any contingency. And obviously, Iran proposes an existential threat to the state of Israel.” The same rhetoric and lies are repeated again and again by the War Party and Israel’s lobby. Another Hillary Clinton adviser, Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s special envoy for the Israel-Palestine problem, opined
recently in Newsweek, “Tehran clearly wants nukes for both defensive and offensive purposes. … Iran has continued to pursue nuclear weapons….”

Given such hawkish positions among Obama’s inner circle, how can one be optimistic about a peaceful resolution to the U.S.-Iran confrontation?

What about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates? He has repeated – most recently last week in a conference in Manama, Bahrain – the baseless accusations that Iran is causing trouble in Iraq. He also claimed recently that he has “been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate[s] for 30 years.” Clearly, despite having a Ph.D., Gates does not know how to do research!

In 1995, the “nonexistent” Iranian moderates, wishing to reestablish relations with Washington, granted a large contract to Conoco to work on an Iranian oil field, even though another oil company had won the bidding. Bill Clinton prevented Conoco from doing the work. Instead, he imposed tough sanctions on Iran.

Under former president Mohammad Khatami, another “imaginary” moderate, Iran provided crucial help to the U.S. when it attacked Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 by opening its airspace to U.S. aircraft and providing vital intelligence on the Taliban forces. The forces that Iran had supported for years against the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, were the first to reach Kabul and overthrow the Taliban government.

Then, during the UN talks on the future of Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, Iranian representative Mohammad Javad Zarif met daily with U.S. envoy James Dobbins, who praised Zarif for preventing the conference from collapsing. Two months later, President Bush, Gates’ boss, rewarded these “nonexistent” moderates by making Iran a charter member of his “axis of evil.”

In May 2003, the same “nonexistent” Iranian moderates made a comprehensive proposal to the U.S., offering to negotiate all the important issues, including recognizing Israel within its pre-1967 war borders and cutting off material support to Hamas and Hezbollah. The proposal was rejected. That was when Bush’s “mission accomplished” banner was the toast of Washington.

During the Democratic primaries, Obama declared repeatedly that he would negotiate with Iran without any preconditions, for which he was ridiculed by Hillary Clinton. But, as discussed above, he has also insisted on Iran giving up its internationally recognized rights to uranium enrichment, which is the War Party’ demand. Obama recently said that he would offer Iran important “carrots.” Well, I have news for our president-elect: Iranians do not want nor need “carrots.” What they want is to preserve their NPT rights to nuclear fuel technology.

But the problem does not end with Obama’s insistence on Iran giving up its rights. The same Hillary Clinton who has consistently taken the most hawkish positions on Iran and has threatened Iran with obliteration is going to lead the negotiations with Iran? The same Hillary Clinton who voted for declaring the IRG a “terrorist organization” is going to sit with a straight face across the negotiating table from Iran’s delegation, composed mostly of former and current IRG commanders? This defies logic.

The War Party constantly declares that negotiations with Iran will fail, implying that the U.S. must attack Iran at some point. Even George W. Bush decided that was not a wise idea. But if giving up uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technology are going to be the subjects of Obama’s negotiations with Iran “without any preconditions,” they will indeed fail, because unless a puppet government is installed in Tehran, no Iranian government, regardless of its political leanings, would dare to do so. In that case, what will Obama do? Succumb to the War Party’s and the Israel lobby’s pressure and attack Iran?

True, Obama has said, “Understand where the vision for change comes from; first and foremost it comes from me. That’s my job, to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure then that my team is implementing [that vision].” True, we should wait to see what Obama will do. But, as a Persian proverb goes, “A good year is indicated by its spring season.” Obama’s NST, particularly Hillary Clinton, had a large role in creating the confrontation with Iran.

As a candidate, Obama said, “I don’t want to just end the [Iraq] war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”

Are we to believe that the same people who played a major role in starting the illegal Iraq war and ratcheting up tensions with Iran will suddenly undergo a fundamental transformation of their mindset? Not likely. An intelligent man like the president-elect should know better.