I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The President's intentions towards Iran need much more attention

(updated below - Update II)

Iraq continues to receive the overwhelming bulk of attention in the media and among political analysts. But the fate of Iraq, tragically, is all but sealed -- the President will send more troops and order them to be increasingly brutal and indiscriminate, and they will stay through at least the end of his presidency. That is just a fact. The far more attention-demanding issue now is what the President's intentions are with regard to Iran.

As Think Progress notes, the White House took multiple steps yesterday to elevate dramatically the threat rhetoric against Iran. Bush included what The New York Times described as “some of his sharpest words of warning to Iran” yet. But those words could really be described more accurately not as “threats” but as a declaration of war.

He accused the Iranian government of “providing material support for attacks on American troops” and vowed to “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies.” But those networks are located in Iran, which means that search and destroy missions on such networks would necessarily include some incursion into Iranian territory, whether by air or ground.

Hours before the speech, the White House released a Powerpoint presentation with details about the president’s new policy. “Increase operations against Iranian actors” was listed in the “Key Tactical Shifts” section. As The New York Times reported: “One senior administration official said this evening that the omission of the usual wording about seeking a diplomatic solution [to the Iranian nuclear stand-off] ‘was not accidental.’”

But these were merely the latest in a series of plainly significant events over the last several weeks that, taken alone, are each noteworthy themselves, but when viewed as a whole unmistakably signal a deliberate escalation of tensions with Iran by both the U.S. and Israel:

  • Israel's Prime Minister "accidentally" ending decades of nuclear ambiguity by unambiguously acknowledging Israel's nuclear arsenal;

  • New Defense Secretary Robert Gates's extraordinary departure -- the very same week -- from long-standing protocol by explicitly describing Israel as a nuclear power;

  • The announced build-up of forces in the Persian Gulf back in December, the purpose of which -- according to Bush officials -- "is to make clear that the focus on ground troops in Iraq has not made it impossible for the United States and its allies to maintain a military watch on Iran" (UPDATE: As well as this incident revealing the placement of a nuclear-powered submarine in the Straits of Hormuz);

  • The leaking by the Israeli military that Israel was developing plans for an attack on Iran using small-grade, limited tactical nuclear weapons. Though the leak was done in such a way as to create plausible deniability as to its significance -- the leak was to a discredited newspaper and leaks that a country has "planned" for a certain type of attack are commonplace and do not mean they are actually going to attack -- the leak was nonetheless deliberate and caused the phrases "Israeli nuclear attack" and "Iran" to be placed into the public dialogue, at exactly the time that tensions have been deliberately heightened between the U.S./Israel and Iran -- the purpose of which is almost certainly not a planned nuclear attack by Israel on Iran, but a ratchering up of the war rhetoric;

  • Increasingly explicit advocacy by neoconservatives in the U.S. for a war with Iran, as reflected by the recent Washington Post Op-Ed by Joe Lieberman in which he really did declare that the U.S. is already at war with Iran ("While we are naturally focused on Iraq, a larger war is emerging. On one side are extremists and terrorists led and sponsored by Iran");

  • The transparent and deliberate use by the President throughout the last several months of 2006 of highly threatening and accusatory language towards Iran that is identical in content and tone to the language he used towards Iraq in the months immediately preceding the U.S. invasion -- often verbatim identical.

I think there is a tendency to dismiss the possibility of some type of war with Iran because it is so transparently destructive and detached from reality that it seems unfathomable. But if there is one lesson that everyone should have learned over the last six years, it is that there is no action too extreme or detached from reality to be placed off limits to this administration. The President is a True Believer and the moral imperative of his crusade trumps the constraints of reality.

The AEI/Weekly Standard/National Review/Fox News neonconservative warmongers are mocked because of how extremist and deranged their endless war desires are, but the President is, more or less, one of them. He thinks the way they think. The war in Iraq has collapsed and the last election made unmistakably clear that Americans have turned against the war, and the President's response, like their response, was to escalate. How much more proof do we need of how extremist and unconstrained by public opinion and basic reality he is?

For anyone with ongoing doubts, here is how the President thinks, as expressed in an October, 2006 interview with his with his ideological soulmate, Fox's Sean Hannity:

Hannity: Is this a struggle literally between good and evil?

Bush: I think it is.

Hannity: This is what it is? Do you think most people understand that? I mean, when you see the vacillating poll numbers, does it discourage you in that sense?

Bush: Well, first of all, you can't make decisions on polls, Sean. You've got to do what you think is right. The reason I say it's good versus evil is that evil people kill innocent life to achieve political objectives. And that's what Al Qaeda and people like Al Qaeda do.

Bush means all of that. That's really what he believes. And he isn't constrained by the things that constrain rational people because his mission, in his mind, transcends all of those mundane limitations. Is there anyone who still doubts that?

More importantly, a war with Iran can happen in many ways other than by some grand announcement by the President that he wants to start a war, followed by a debate in Congress as to whether such a war should be authorized. That is the least likely way for such a confrontation to occur.

We have 140,000 troops (soon to be 20,000 more) sitting in a country that borders Iran and where Iran is operating, with an announced military build-up in the Persian Gulf imminent, increased war rhetoric from all sides, the beginning of actual skirmishes already, a reduction (if not elimination) on the existing constraints with which our military operates in Iraq, and a declaration by the President that Iran is our enemy in the current war.

That makes unplanned -- or seemingly unplanned -- confrontations highly likely, whether through miscalculation, miscommunication, misperception, or affirmative deceit. Whatever else is true, given the stakes involved -- the unimaginable, impossible-to-overstate stakes -- and the fact that we are unquestionably moving forward on this confrontational path quite deliberately, this issue is receiving nowhere near the attention in our political discussions and media reports that it so urgently demands.

For all the pious talk about the need to be "seriously concerned" and give "thoughtful consideration" to what will happen if we leave Iraq, there is a very compelling -- and neglected -- need to ponder what will happen if we stay and if we escalate. And the need for "serious concern" and "thoughtful consideration" extends to consequences not just in Iraq but beyond.

UPDATE: For those who think that the threat of military confrontation with Iran isn't a serious one, here is a BBC report from this morning:

US forces have stormed an Iranian consulate in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil and seized six members of staff.

The troops raided the building at about 0300 (0001GMT), taking away computers and papers, according to Kurdish media and senior local officials.

The US military would only confirm the detention of six people around Irbil.

The raid comes amid high Iran-US tension. The US accuses Iran of helping to fuel violence in Iraq and seeking nuclear arms. Iran denies both charges.

Tehran counters that US military involvement in the Middle East endangers the whole region. . . .

One Iranian news agency with a correspondent in Irbil says five US helicopters were used to land troops on the roof of the Iranian consulate.

It reports that a number of vehicles cordoned off the streets around the building, while US soldiers warned the occupants in three different languages that they should surrender or be killed.

This is the most serious action yet. Isn't it a definitive act of war for one country to storm the consulate of another, threaten to kill them if they do not surrender, and then detain six consulate officers?

UPDATE II: Balloon-Juice's Tim shares some worthwhile observations about Iran and its prior war with Iraq.

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