Sunday, April 09, 2006

“The Most Worrisome Thing"

I don't exactly know how Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing figured out how to get her hands on it a day before it was even officially posted on the web, but in this week's New Yorker, Seymour Hersh has an article on the Bush administration's not-entirely-secret-but-nevertheless-shocking plans for nuclear war -- with Iran. (It's also worth re-reading Hersh's earlier article on "The Coming Wars.")

Okay. My first thought is that something is going to go down inside or because of Iran in the near future, and that something will probably not be very good. Americans -- and I mean all Americans, from voters and non-voters to Congress -- need to get serious about finding out more about Iran, its people, its history, its domestic and regional politics, its military capabilities, everything. We should know more about Iran than we did about Russia or China during the cold war, and know way more about Iran than we know about Iraq in either of the gulf wars. Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason so many of the American people were so convinced that Saddam Hussein had helped plan the attacks on Sept. 11 and posed an immediate threat to the U.S. was that everyone had stopped paying attention after the first Gulf war. If the only cultural memory of Iran in America is of the 1979 revolution, the taking of American hostages, the WWF wrestler "The Iron Sheik," and fatwas against Salman Rushdie, we're all in very serious trouble. Again.

Have you noticed that -- with the exception of Laura Secor's article last November, also from The New Yorker -- you never see news or magazines stories that talk about Iran's domestic politics any more? There's a line in Hersh's essay that's almost a throwaway: “The Iranian economy is in bad shape, and Ahmadinejad is in bad shape politically,” a European intelligence official tells Hersh. Why don't we hear about that more often on "Hardball" or "Meet the Press"? Why do we always assume that a bad political leader of a country either has full support of his people or has totally suppressed and dominated them? Is it hard to imagine a world where the average Iranian citizen might say something like "I don't like this Ahmadinejad guy. But at least he's tough, and he didn't raise my taxes." That seems to be the way a lot of American voters feel about our own resident nutcases hell-bent on bringing disaster on everyone's heads.

Speaking of which -- there is something almost ennobling about Bush's belief in the transformative power of democracy, and the stance of near-tragic resolve he takes up in wanting to address unpopular problems during his Administration that no future President, Republican or Democrat, will likely be able to face. After all, Lincoln probably could have negotiated with the Confederacy, saved a lot of bloodshed and held off on any immediate military threat to the Union, despite the attack on Fort Sumter. Instead, we had the Civil War.

But every reasonable observer (not to mention common sense) seems to say that just like with Iraq, the Bush administration is totally fucking deluding themselves about what will happen if we hit Iran with a bunker-busting nuke. The actual use (as opposed to the threat) of conventional bombs and nuclear weapons have never worked as a deterrent to the breakout of open war. The bombing of military and civilians in Germany and firebombing and exploding nuclear weapons on the population in Japan only worked at the end of a costly conventional war, when neither country had any allies left. The models we have for what we're proposing: initial bombing, followed possibly by conventional war with well-allied nations with the goal of regime change -- are really limited to the Blitz and Vietnam. Neither of which had the expected outcome. If we bomb Iran, no one -- neither Iran, the insurgency in Iraq, Hezbollah, or Al-Qaeda -- will back down. Which is a problem for us, since the immediate threat to the United States isn't from Iran-launched nuclear weapons, but from international terrorism.

And really, while we all need to worry about an Iranian nuclear power, the countries that really need to worry about it are Iran's neighbors -- above all, Israel. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that the United States is at least partially trying to intimidate Iran into negotiations from a position of strength, especially to protect Israel. It's a crazy act of brinksmanship, but it's not unreasonable. It really just remains to be seen whether or not the Iranian civil government and religious oligarchy are deterrable. I also wouldn't be surprised to see us play a back up role (either covertly, with intelligence and tactical help, or with some public and/or material asssistance) in a unilateral attack by Israel on Iran's nuclear facilities, à la their 1981 attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor in Osirak. In many ways, Israel is a more natural agent against Iran than the United States, because they have more to lose in the event Iran goes nuclear and less to lose than we do in terms of exposure to terrorism, if only because it sometimes seems like everyone who really wants to commit acts of terrorism in Israel is already taking steps to make that happen.

But this brings us back to Bush, and his messianic hopes -- "the most worrisome thing," according to the U.S. rep who spoke with Sy Hersh. When Israel attacked Osirak, it had every reason to support regime change in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was totally awful, and the only thing he had in common with the neighboring Muslim regimes was a hatred of Israel, coupled with a unique willingness to use WMDs in warfare. Israel is willing to target foreign and terrorist leaders, and it wouldn't have been surprising for them to mount an attempt against Hussein and the Ba'ath hierarchy. But Israel was a lot smarter in 1981 then we were in 2003 -- it knew that any attempt it made to try to shake up Iraq, espcially through force of arms, would have totally rallied the Iraqi people against them. Instead, they destroyed the reactor. The message was clear, but limited: we will not tolerate a hostile nuclear power. The only problem with the Israelis attacking Iran's facilities in a similar fashion is that there's a chance that conventional bombing won't do the trick, and a nuclear attack by Israel on Iran would break loose very nearly the same amount of hell as a nuclear attack by the United States. More, possibly -- since Israel isn't a recognized nuclear power.

I believe that Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons. (I don't really think North Korea, India, Pakistan, China, Russia, or Israel should have nuclear weapons either, but whatever.) If our options are exhausted, and it requires a military strike to make that happen, fine. Our best hope is that Iran is years away from the bomb, that negotiations can hold off the immediate threat, and that the long-term political transformation of Iran is shifting in our favor. (Isn't it the Bush administration that's always stressing taking the long view of history?)

But we -- all of us -- need to be prepared for the shitstorm that follows if anyone takes military action against Iran. This is the real thing, and it is as worrisome as hell itself. Pay attention.

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