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Thelma and Louise Imperialism


Let me make an argument about Bush administration Iran policy — about the possibility that a regime-change-style, shock-and-awe air assault might someday be launched on Iranian nuclear facilities and associated targets — based on no insider knowledge, just the logic of George-and-Dick’s Thelma-and-Louise-style imperialism.

 

Of course, we all know at least half the story by now. Is there anybody in official Washington — other than our President, Vice President, the Vice President’s secretive imperial staff, assorted backs-against-the-wall neocon supporters lodged in the federal bureaucracy, and associated right-wing think tanks — who isn’t sweating blood, popping pills, and wondering what in the world to do about our delusional leaders?

 

You only have to pick up the morning paper to find the most mainstream of official types in an over-the-top mode that, bare months ago, would have been confined to the distant peripheries of political argument. There’s Senator Joe Biden, the very definition of a mainstream man, grilling Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about whether she believes the administration already has the authority to attack Iran and swearing, if she does, that it “will generate a constitutional confrontation in the Senate, I predict to you.” (You can add the exclamation point to that comment or to similar ones from the likes of Senators James Webb and Chuck Hagel among others.) Or how about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on presidential pronouncements in January?

 

“Much has been made about President Bush’s recent saber rattling toward Iran. This morning, I’d like to be clear: The President does not have the authority to launch military action in Iran without first seeking Congressional authorization — the current use of force resolution for Iraq does not give him such authorization.”

 

Former officials are now crawling out of the Washington woodwork to denounce Bush/Cheney policy in Iraq and Iran with the fervor (however masked by official Washington language) of an exorcism. There, for instance, is former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in front of Congress, more or less predicting the end of the Roman… sorry, the American empire:

 

“The war in Iraq is a historic, strategic, and moral calamity. Undertaken under false assumptions, it is undermining America’s global legitimacy. Its collateral civilian casualties as well as some abuses are tarnishing America’s moral credentials. Driven by Manichean impulses and imperial hubris, it is intensifying regional instability… If the United States continues to be bogged down in a protracted bloody involvement in Iraq, the final destination on this downhill track is likely to be a head-on conflict with Iran and with much of the world of Islam at large… A mythical historical narrative to justify the case for such a protracted and potentially expanding war is already being articulated…”

 

There are three retired high military officials, Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard (former assistant to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara), U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar (former Centcom commander), and Navy Vice Adm. Jack Shanahan issuing a public letter insisting that attacking Iran “would have disastrous consequences for security in the region, coalition forces in Iraq and would further exacerbate regional and global tensions.” There’s Paul Pillar, former CIA analyst for the Middle East, in the Washington Post warning: “Avoiding the next military folly in the Middle East requires that the agenda for analysis and debate not be so severely and tendentiously truncated as before Iraq.”

 

Even Secretary of State Rice, new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and hardline National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley seem to be exhibiting a certain degree of anxiety, sending back the intelligence dossier gathered by our embassy in Baghdad on Iranian interference in America’s Iraq. (You know, “foreign” interference on our home turf.) Assumedly, this was because the latest doctored intelligence, claiming the Iranians are supplying advanced IED technology that is causing American deaths looks as hollow as the administration’s cherry-picked and doctored intelligence on Iraqi WMDs before the 2003 invasion.

 

On the face of it, as Juan Cole long ago pointed out at his Informed Comment website, there’s something suitably George-and-Dick wacky about claims like this, implying that the Iranians are arming the Sunni insurgency. How times have changed, however. Unlike in 2002-2003, officials and former officials are finally making such points in very public ways. Take, for instance, Bruce Riedel, a former top Middle East expert on the National Security Council, who recently bluntly told USA Today, “There is no evidence that the Sunnis are being assisted by Iran.”

 

The Rice/Gates/Hadley send-back may, of course, turn out to be little more than the Iranian equivalent of Secretary of State Colin Powell sending back similarly wacky administration claims about Iraqi WMD before preparing his infamous UN presentation that led to the invasion of 2003. But if so, there’s certain to be a lot more mainstream skepticism, criticism, and noise this time around.

 

After all, to anyone not delusional — which leaves out you-know-who and his Vice President — a massive air assault on Iran, surely involving bunker-busting missiles with staggering explosive power, would seem to be an act of madness. It would be immensely destructive to Iran (and yet almost surely a rallying point for its fundamentalist regime); bloody in its repercussions for the U.S. (especially our troops in Iraq); imperiling to U.S, allies in the region; and, for the global economy, a potential energy catastrophe. A series of explosive events — some thoroughly unexpected and so never war-gamed by U.S. military strategists — could unravel the oil heartlands of the planet, making the administration’s last several years in Iraq little more than an hors d’oeuvre before a banquet of catastrophe. The decision to attack Iran would be the equivalent of setting off an advanced IED directly under the main highway of what’s left of global order.

 

You don’t have to rely on me for this. In his confirmation hearings, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — claiming that any attack on Iran would be a “very last resort” (when Bush administration officials have regularly called it a “last resort” or insisted “all options are on the table”) — offered his own bloodcurdling scenario for the aftermath of such an assault:

 

“It’s always awkward to talk about hypotheticals in this case. But I think that while Iran cannot attack us directly militarily, I think that their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil, their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror both in the — well, in the Middle East and in Europe and even here in this country is very real… Their ability to get Hezbollah to further destabilize Lebanon I think is very real. So I think that while their ability to retaliate against us in a conventional military way is quite limited, they have the capacity to do all of the things, and perhaps more, that I just described.”

 

And that’s just a smattering of the hair-raising news from a hair-tearing town in crisis.

 

Fatwa Time

 

The possibility of an attack on Iran has been a long time on the horizon. You’d have to start back at that moment before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when, as Newsweek reminded us, one quip of the bolder neocons was: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” You’d have to go back to January 2005, when reporter Seymour Hersh, in a New Yorker piece, “The Coming Wars,” wrote, “In my interviews, I was repeatedly told that the next strategic target was Iran,” and added that, in close cooperation with the Israelis, “the Administration has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer.”

 

You’d have to go back to March 2005, when ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern pointed out at Tomdispatch.com that “Bush administration policy toward the Middle East is being run by men… who were routinely referred to in high circles in Washington during the 1980s as ‘the crazies’” and who, he warned, might well head for Iran next.

 

You’d have to go back to August 2005 when, in the American Conservative magazine, former CIA official Philip Giraldi warned: “In Washington it is hardly a secret that the same people in and around the administration who brought you Iraq are preparing to do the same for Iran” — possibly involving an “unprovoked nuclear attack” on that country. A contingency plan was, he claimed, being drawn up in the Pentagon, “acting under instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.”

 

You’d have to check out a second Hersh New Yorker piece from April 2006, “The Iran Plans,” in which he reported: “Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups.” He added that, increasingly, insiders believed the President’s goal was not simply aborting the Iranian nuclear program, but Iraq-style “regime change,” and that, against Pentagon opposition, “the nuclear option” — the possibility of using a “bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon” — had made it into initial planning for a full-scale air assault on Iran. You’d have to check out the work of former UN arms inspector Scott Ritter (who was laughed out of the room in 2002-2003 for claiming that Saddam Hussein probably had no stocks of WMD, or even WMD programs, left), and who recently published a book whose title says it all: Target Iran.

 

These men — some classic conservatives — and others like them are now, if anything, even more passionately convinced that the Bush administration is headed for the Iranian cliff before its time in office ends, possibly as early as this spring.

 

But it took more than their work for so much of official Washington to panic. It took the administration’s decision to send the USS John C. Stennis, a second aircraft carrier task force into the Persian Gulf (with hints that a third could follow); it took the announcement of what Juan Cole has termed George Bush’s “fatwa,” allowing the U.S. military to take out Iranian agents anywhere in Iraq (“Announcing open hunting season on all Iranian visitors to Iraq,” Cole wrote, “is like playing Frisbee with nitroglycerin. Bush has gone looking for trouble and is likely to find it…”); it took the detention by U.S. forces of various Iranian officials in Iraq and the invasion of an Iranian office in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan; it took the President’s announcement of a decision to emplace Patriot anti-missile systems in the smaller Gulf states; it took a sudden, massive, and eerily familiar ratcheting up of administration rhetoric about Iran and Iranian influence in Iraq (as NBC’s Tim Russert put it after a meeting with the President, “There’s a strong sense in the upper echelons of the White House that Iran is going to surface relatively quickly as a major issue — in the country and the world — in a very acute way”); it took rumors that the Air Force was gearing up for an anti-Iranian surge along the Iranian-Iraqi border; it took the refusal of officials like John Negroponte to say whether or not they believed the administration already had the right to whack Iran without returning to Congress for permission; it took reports about the readying of new bases in Bulgaria and Rumania for a future Iranian air campaign; it took rumors that the Pentagon’s latest strike plan against Iran includes “more than 2,300 ‘high value’ targets.”

 

And it took, of course, the administration’s ongoing catastrophe in Iraq, which drives everything before it, as well as Bush’s pugnacious (if hopeless) “surge plan” reaction to rejection in the November midterm elections; it took the President’s insistence on victory in a situation where loss was so obviously on the agenda that you didn’t need scads of dollars and the sixteen agencies of the U.S. intelligence Community to make the point in a National Intelligence Estimate; it took Vice President Cheney’s delusional insistence, in a duke-it-out interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, that the administration’s Iraq policy would be “an enormous success story.”

 

And, of course, it took all those eerie parallels with the administration’s behavior in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, not to speak of the realization that this administration, devoted as it is to an unfettered commander-in-chief-style of Presidential power, believed it already had authorization aplenty to attack Iran. It took what increasingly looks like the beginnings of a systemic nervous breakdown in Washington, a feeling that a thoroughly avoidable disaster loomed, along with (as Robert Parry wrote recently) “a sense of futility among many in Washington who doubt they can do anything to stop Bush.” It took all of the above and more to bring home the possibility that our leaders might one day actually take the house down with them, that they might indeed gun the car and head directly for the cliff with something between sneers and smiles on their faces.

 

Over the Cliff?

 

So feel free to imitate official Washington. Be scared, very scared. An attack on Iran, if it were to happen, promises a special mixture of two fundamentalisms deeply engrained in our top political and military officials that may, in the end, combine into a single lethal brew — and that will, in the bargain, give American policy in the Middle East the full-blown look of a war on Islam. Though our President is a Christian fundamentalist, neither of these Washington fundamentalisms are, in the normal sense, religious or particularly Christian.

 

The first — the bedrock faith of the Bush administration and its neocon supporters since September 12, 2001 — is the religion of force. Our self-styled “wartime” Commander-in-Chief, and the Vice President head an administration that has long been in love not just with the American armed forces, but with the dazzling military possibilities that seemed open to them as leaders of the last standing superpower. Its high-tech destructive capabilities, they believed, gave them the power to go it alone in the world, shocking and awing a post-Cold War assemblage of lesser states into eternal submission. Force — the threat of it, the application of it — was the summa cum laude of their go-it-alone university of power (vividly demonstrated, at a theoretical level, in the single most important strategic document of these last years, their 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America).

 

At the height of their self-dazzled sense of power back in 2001-2003, they saw force as their own special Tao, their Way in the world; at their depths -– now — reaching back into their problem-solving quiver, they naturally find only the same arrow that’s always been there; a belief system, a religion for all occasions.

 

In the case of a possible future assault on Iran, the larger fundamentalism of the Church of Force will surely combine with the only significant force the Pentagon has on hand — air power. The belief in air power’s ability to fell regimes and change the political essentials, to bring whole peoples to their knees, is long-lasting and deep-seated. Since well before World War II, we’ve been living with a belief system in which bombing others, including civilian populations, is a “strategic” thing to do; in which air power can, in relatively swift measure, break the “will” not just of the enemy, but of that enemy’s society; and in which air power is the royal path to victory.

 

That this has not proven so; that, most recently, it did not prove so in Afghanistan, in shock-and-awe Iraq, or in Israel’s air assault last summer on Lebanon matters little. Faith in the efficacy of air power (as opposed to its barbarism) is fundamentalist in nature and so not disprovable by the facts on the rubble-strewn, cratered ground.

 

As a result, the strength of the belief that “it” — force, air power — will do the trick the next time, if only you have the nerve not to listen to the Nervous Nellies, if only you double down on your bet, if only you commit to it, should not be underestimated.

 

Do you remember that period before the invasion of Iraq when the neocons and their various admirers and clustering pundits were proclaiming us quite literally the New Rome and speaking of a Pax Americana globally (and a Pax Republicana domestically) that would last forever and a day? They were, in fact, intent on describing a jungle world of failed states at the peripheries of our globe, the sort of planet that needed an imperial power like… well, like us… for order. That, of course, was before the Bush administration managed to bring a jungle world of chaos to Iraq and so to the heart of the global energy system — and they all fell imperially silent.

 

I’ve been wondering in their stead, what sort of empire are we? Empires are usually settled and ruled areas (except at their frontiers), not jungle worlds. So if, say, Sudan or the Congo or Afghanistan or Somalia is a failed state, are we then, under George and Dick, simply a failed empire? Do we now rule (as opposed to threaten) anything? Are we an empire at all — even at home where a vast, ungainly government is being privatized into a new kind of (ever more expensive) chaos and the federal budget is being driven over a military-industrial cliff — or are we Kong (before he underwent his most recent cinematic transformation into a loving softie)? Or are we a Three Stooges version of the imperial, or is it just that Dick and George, all four hands on the spinning wheel of state, are heading for that cliff intent on liberating us all?

 

In that over-the-top interview with CNN’s Blitzer, Vice President Cheney, in essence, accused him of, as the Washington Post put it, “embracing defeat.”

 

What an apt phrase for Dick himself — and for his presidential pal! Having long embraced a fantasy of victory, they now show every sign of wrapping their arms around their own Iraq defeat as if it were victory, and — with the enthusiasm of Thelma and Louise, trapped by all those cop cars — taking the only path that seems open to them. As the alternatives grow ever starker — surrender to all those “Democrat” electees, to the reporters and the critics, the cavilers and the antiwar demonstrators, the ragtag insurgents, the alien Mullahs, and even the panicked Republicans in their own ranks — what’s left but that liberating, exhilarating trip over the cliff?

 

Unlike the movies, where any review can tell you the ending before you even enter the local multiplex, life — even political life, even geopolitical life — is a remarkably unsettled, as well as unsettling thing.

 

Nothing assures us that some predetermined fate will actually drive us all over that cliff. But if, before November 2008, we do head in that direction, a small suggestion: Don’t bother to buckle your seatbelt. It’s not going to be that sort of a trip to the bottom.

 

 

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”),where this article first appeared, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

 

[Note: Special thanks go to Juan Cole's Informed Comment website, Paul Woodward's the War in Context website, and Antiwar.com, all invaluable, all offering more than the usual support in their gathering, sorting, and interpreting of Iraq and Iran news while I've been on the road this month.]

 

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