Commentary

The Blueprint of Blame: Provoking War with Iran

President Bush’s recent accusation that Iran has supplied weapons to Iraqi insurgents has many speculating about a possible U.S.-Iran war. As Malou Innocent explains, such conjecture is warranted — especially given that the current blame game is reminiscent of the way past U.S. leaders rallied public support for wars against both Spain and North Vietnam.

After months of finger-pointing and blustery rhetoric from both nations, it is growing increasingly likely that the United States will come to blows with Iran. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sternly declared, “We are trying to uproot these Iranian networks that are planting explosives that are causing 70% of our casualties.”

President George W. Bush recently authorized U.S. soldiers to kill Iranian agents in Iraq. Unsurprisingly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lashed out at the West, saying, “You are actually powerless and cannot inflict any harm on the Iranian nation.”

History repeats

An examination of previous U.S. engagements shows how these expressions of anti-Iranian rancor would translate into possible conflict.

The history of U.S. conflicts points to two incidents that mimic this “blueprint of blame” as a drumbeat to war: the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine (and the public outcry which led to the Spanish-American War), and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Learning lessons

Given the increasingly bellicose rhetoric toward Tehran — and what history has shown — it is clear that the Bush Administration has set its sights on conflict with Iran.

Due to Iranian support of numerous insurgent attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, its influence could be used to justify U.S. retaliation. The lessons we decide to take from previous U.S. conflicts may determine the response we choose to take with Iran.

Mystery

It is important to remember that the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine on February 15, 1898, was not President William McKinley’s casus belli for war with Spain. In fact, the sinking of the Maine, even to this day, remains a mystery.

Some historians argue that it could have been a coal bunker explosion, while others firmly attest to the theory of an underwater mine in the Havana Harbor.

“Remember the…”

While the United States could have declared war on Spain outright, it would have diminished the cause for war by painting the United States as the aggressor. Rather, the sinking provoked a “rally around the flag” effect fed by the era’s Yellow Journalism, producing the oft-repeated slogan “Remember the Maine.”

In the end, the attack mobilized public support for war while giving the McKinley Administration a carte blanche for military retaliation.

The present administration’s depiction of Iran as an instigator in the mold of Spain is also specious on its face. According to a report released in January 2007 by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, the involvement of neighboring countries in Iraq’s downward spiral is of little importance “because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq’s internal sectarian dynamics.”

Learn from history

The lesson to be taken from the U.S.S. Maine incident is that, if Iran appears to be at fault for an inexplicable disaster in Iraq, the public must exercise caution until after all the causes are assessed.

Another caution from history is the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. On August 2, 1964, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the U.S.S. Maddox, an American destroyer.

Hindsight

Historians later discovered that Operation 34A, a secret plan executed by the United States, provoked the North Vietnamese to attack the Maddox. 34A was a series of covert naval attacks on two North Vietnamese islands, Hon Me and Hon Nieu, off the Thanh Hoa coast. Less than a week later, it was reported that a second torpedo attack occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Historians now dispute whether a second attack even occurred, since sonar contacts at the time were inconclusive. Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite was later quoted as saying that the sonar data could have been produced by an incontinent whale. Despite the uncertainty, the situation was construed as an attack on U.S. forces.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to disclose Operation 34A, the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, granting sweeping war powers to the president. The resolution allowed Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The U.S. was unable to extricate itself from the country for another nine years.

Blaming Iraq on Iran

Today, President Bush may undoubtedly take a similar course of action. Rather than initiate a preventive war as he did four years ago in Iraq, Bush will portray Iran as an aggressor in the current conflict. One false move by Iran will be Bush’s green light to retaliation, providing a path to overthrow Tehran’s clerical regime.

But blaming the deteriorating situation in Iraq on Iran misunderstands a fundamental reality of geopolitical conflict. While the violence in Iraq has come to dominate U.S. foreign policy, so too has it come to dominate the foreign policy of countries in the region.

Neighbors

These countries worry daily that the tit-for-tat sectarian turmoil may spill over their borders. Does the Bush Administration expect Iraq’s neighbors to allow the violence to rage out of control without getting involved to protect themselves?

Imagine, just for a moment, a day when the People’s Republic of China decided to intervene militarily in Mexico — and, inadvertently, ignites urban warfare and spiraling bloodshed.

One would reasonably assume that the United States would intervene in its neighbor’s affairs, at least in an attempt to restore stability.

Rationality

For the administration to expect complete neutrality on the part of Iran, Syria or any other Middle East nation-state is a failure to appreciate the magnitude of the unfolding anarchy taking place in Iraq.

While there is no denying that Iran is led by a nefarious regime seeking to undermine U.S. power, it is quite another to argue that a rational solution would be to provoke a conflict that could quickly escalate into full-scale war.

U.S. and Iraq

There are many reasons why the United States should not attack Iran. For one, Iran would be the third Muslim nation the United States has attacked in the last six years.

Not only would it look as if the United States was out to destroy Islam, but it could very well precipitate Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” and increase jihadi-style terrorism exponentially around the globe.

Prior to the U.S. invasion, Americans were told Iraq would be a cakewalk. But that illusion quickly vanished. If we attacked Iran, an even bigger monstrosity would develop.

To see how things in Iran would progress, post-invasion, a look at what has happened to Iraq would suffice. In fact, the ominous assertion that people are condemned to repeat their past, unfortunately, may come to fruition.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.