Commentary

Forget about War with Iran?

“Ding-dong, the witch is dead,” cheerlead the proponents of the Conventional Wisdom (CW) in the Beltway’s reality-based community these days - the “witch” being President Buscheney’s plan to bomb Iran, which was supposed to be the next chapter in the neo-conservative narrative.

Unfortunately, this CWers’ (pronounced se-wers) don’t-worry-be-happy spinning is based not on reality but on a lot of wishful thinking masquerading as a larger-than-life Realpolitik axiom, that is, the realist “surge” in Washington is working!

On a macro-level, this realist faith has helped construct a fairy-tale-like narrative in which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Pentagon chief Robert Gates have mounted a courageous and effective bureaucratic and political campaign against the neo-con remnants in the George W Bush administration now that Rummy (Donald Rumsfeld) the matinee idol, Paul “Wolfie” Wolfowitz of Arabia, “The f**ing stupidest guy on the face of earth,” and the man-with-the-bad-toupee who’d been given the pink slip.

We are being asked to believe that Gates, who, as the former chief spook once upon a Cold War. had pressured the CIA’s analytical division to exaggerate the Soviet menace to fit the ideological perspective of Reagan’s neo-cons, has been transformed into President Bush’s Elliot Richardson and that “Mushroom Cloud” Condi’s pair of black knee-high boots are going to walk all over her boss’ Dick Cheney.

How else would you explain the “dramatic” changes in the administration’s policies on North Korea (sending love letters to nutty Kim) and Israel/Palestine (did we say A-N-N-A-P-O-L-I-S?), not to mention the “thaw” in the relationship with those who were once bashed as Old Europe (Germany) and Cheese-Eating-Monkeys (the French)?

According to the CWers these are all signs that the so, so Brilliant Condi and Very Cool Bob have gained the upper-hand in the struggle over Bush’s foreign policy as Cheney has been forced to spend his time gushing over his miracle-of-the-sperm-bank grandkid instead of, say, nuking someone somewhere or doing regime-changes around the world.

And then there was of course the piece de resistance in the Realist Resurgence - the historic bureaucratic coup d’etat in during which the Realists struck back - and in the “key judgments” of their US National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) that pulled the rug right out from under President Bushcheney’s scheme to fillet the New Hitler and the rest of the Holocaust Deniers in Tehran. Yep. It’s time for that proverbial collective sigh of relief, for some good old’ shadenfroid as we watch humiliated John Bolton doing his Churchill shtick as he accuses the “appeasers” of perpetrating a new Munich in the name of Peace in Our time, etc.

But let’s be a bit contrarian here. It is possible that what the CWers are celebrating as strategic changes in Bush’s foreign policy - suggesting that the Dubya has decided to abandon his grand designs of Freedom Marching and hegemonizing the Middle East - are really nothing more than tactical maneuvers on the way towards a new age of Pax Americana here (Iraq), there (Iran) and everywhere (watch out Russia and China!). After all, even builders of great world empires - Napoleon and Hitler come to mind - had to suffer many tactical setbacks and adjust to realities on their way to continental and global domination. Not that we - God forbid! - are comparing mini W to the big H. Instead, Bush’s own Truman Narrative seems to project his fantastic mindset. The War against Islamo-Fascism equals the War against Communism, and Bush like Truman established the foundations for the grand American strategy in dealing with a global menace.

From that perspective, the Rice-Gates-led so-called realist resurgence should be seen for what it really is: taking one step backward so as to prepare for racing full-speed forward. Hence, an overstretched US military cannot threaten Pyongyang with war, especially after Kim Jong-il possessed the Bomb; so the Bushies talk with him. Sort of. Try to make a deal. Perhaps. But notice that American troops are still on the Korean Peninsula.

At the minimum, Bush wants to be recalled as someone who “kicked some ass” in the Persian Gulf before leaving office.”

Meanwhile, Condi recognizes that she cannot “make” peace between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land and in any case, she doesn’t want to pressure the Israelis. But America needs to placate the (oil-producing) Saudis by “doing something”. So here we go with a photo-ops in Annapolis, Jerusalem and Ramallah that produce a sense of “momentum” in the peace process, and make it possible to maintain US influence in the region.

And then there has been the coming-to-power of more conservative figures in Berlin and Paris who have been depicted by the CWers as “pro-American” (which they aren’t; they’re pro-German and pro-French respectively) and who are supposedly willing to support the Bush Administration’s policies in the Mideast as long, that is, as the Bushies don’t mention the war (if you haven’t notice: there are no French or German troops in Iraq).

Which brings us back to Iran. Even before the release of the NIE report and at a time when Rumsfeld and Bolton were still hanging around Washington it was becoming clear that with all the mess in Mesopotamia, the Americans didn’t have the military resources to “do an Iraq” in Iran. Yes, there was some talk about targeting Iran’s nuclear installations if the diplomatic pressure on Tehran would fail to force the ayatollahs to cry “uncle”. And even before the coup d’etat in Washington, many CWers were arguing that a limited US strike on Iranian installations would be impractical (do we really know where they are?) and costly (oil prices and anti-Americans in the Middle East would rise above their current dangerous levels).

It could be argued that the spooks in Washington just provided the Bushies with an excuse not to do what they had already decided not to do (which explains why some conspiracy theorists have suggested that the Bushies were the driving force behind the decision to release the NIE report). But consider the following: Does anyone really think that President Bush would like to read the following Wikipedia entry 10 years from now:

George Walker Bush (born July 6, 1946) was the 43rd US president. His decision to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein resulted in the disintegration of Iraq and in the emergence of its neighbor and rival Iran as the main military power in the Persian Gulf, turning the Shi’ite-headed regime in Baghdad as well as the Shi’ite-led groups in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East into political satellites of Tehran. The invasion of Iraq accelerated Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear military capability (which it did in 2009 immediately after President Barack Obama entered the White House), posing a major threat to US allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Western strategic and economic interests in the oil-rich region.

In short, President Bush proved to be Iran’s most faithful ally. Indeed, President Bush recognizes that the mess he has made in Iraq, combined with the rising power of radical Shi’ite forces there, has played into the hands of the Iranians.

That, together with the failure of Israel to deal a military blow to the Hezbollah in Lebanon has helped shift the balance of power in the Persian Gulf toward Iran and its Shi’ite allies in the Middle East, in a way that threatens the interests of key regional US allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Hence the current status quo is only making Iran more assertive, inducing it to continue its nuclear programs, and threatening the “legacy” of President Bush (see the above Wikipedia entry). That means that the Bushies are hoping that they’ll be able to “do something” that would change the status quo, and remove that smirk from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At the minimum, Bush wants to be recalled as someone who “kicked some ass” in the Persian Gulf before leaving office.

That doesn’t mean an all-out war with Iran or even an attack on its suspected nuclear installations. If you followed the recent bizarre encounter between the US Navy and the Iranians in the straits of Hormuz, you get an idea of the opportunities that are opened to the Bushies if and when they decide to orchestrate or exploit a crisis in the Persian Gulf that could lead to an American retaliation against an Iranian “provocation”.

That kind of opportunistic approach is not different from the way the Bush Administration took advantage of September 11 to mobilize public support for going to war against Iraq. Just change the nationality of the 15 sailors who were seized by the Iranians in March last year, imagine that they would have been Americans and not British and you here we are watching CNN’s Wolf Blitzer reporting on “Day 15: American Held Hostage” (“We have an exclusive interview with the mother of Sergeant Brittany Steele … ” and before you know it, Congressional and public pressure builds-up and US troops are storming into a headquarters of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

And it’s possible that a “provocation” could turn to be a (real) provocation if and when elements in the Iranian leadership who are looking forward towards a military confrontation with the US would make sure that Iranian forces do take military action against the forces of the Great Satan.

Iran will hold parliamentary elections on March 14, 2008, and you don’t have to be an expert in Iranian politics to figure out that the political parties associated with President Ahmadinejad who has been under attack at home for his mismanagement of the country’s economy could benefit politically from rising tensions with between Tehran and Washington.

Interestingly enough, it’s not inconceivable that by early March the Iranian political calendar will intersect with the American one, when we’ll probably know by then who the Democrats and the Republicans have nominated as their presidential candidate. And you don’t have to be an expert on American politics to figure out that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama would be in a position to challenge President Bush’s decision to retaliate against Iran. Mix American nationalism aimed at long-time adversary, Revolutionary Iran, the threat of Islamo-Fascism and the support for Israel and the role of its American friends in US electoral politics, and you understand why Obama or Hillary won’t allow themselves to sound less hawkish than John McCain or Mitt Romney.

And apropos Israel. It’s an open secret that Israel’s leaders have been alarmed by the effect that the NIE report had on Washington and they clearly are concerned that the Bush Administration and Congress may lack the will to confront Tehran over the nuclear military program which, they insist, is alive and well. So if you’re in the shoes of the Israeli prime minister, you will probably conclude that Israel has a narrow window of opportunity extending until the end of 2008 - before Bushcheney, Likud’s best friend in Washington, leaves office - to take military action against Iran.

Realistically speaking, the Israelis will not attack Iran without at least an American “yellow light” (and we’ll learn about that in Bob Woodward’s next anthology of White House memos and conversations). And there is no doubt that the CW in most world capitals - certainly in Tehran and the rest of the Middle East - will be that Iran was attacked by Israel and the US. Expect Obama and McCain, Clinton and Romney in the midst of a heated election campaign to stand squarely behind the Israelis in their confrontation with Iran, ensuring that Bush’s successor at the White House will be forced into a multi-front war in the Middle East that could involve Israel and Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

If these scenarios sound improbable - like terrorist flying planes into the World Trade Center or the United States invading Iraq - it’s probably a failure of imagination on your part. Contrary to the narrative promoted by the CWers, the realists have not won the policy war in Washington and Bushcheney and its neoconservative minions continue to have the upper hand in setting US foreign policy agenda. We’re still watching and taking part in the Bush Show - and we shouldn’t be surprised to find out sometime this year that the witch is not dead.

Leon Hadar is a research fellow with the Cato Institute.