It sounds crazy, but ...
"This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is
"And having said that, all options are on the table."
Even the White House stenographers felt obliged to note the result: laughter.
- The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin on President George W Bush's February
22 press conference
For a host of good reasons - the huge and draining commitment of US forces to
Iraq and Iran's ability to stir the Iraqi pot to boiling, for starters - the
notion that the Bush administration would mount a "preemptive" air
attack on Iran seems insane. And still more insane if the objective includes
overthrowing Iran's government again, as in 1953 - this time under the rubric
of "regime change".
But Bush administration policy toward the Middle East is being run by men -
yes, only men - who were routinely referred to in high circles in Washington
during the 1980s as the "crazies". I can attest to that personally,
but one need not take my word for it.
According to James Naughtie, author of The Accidental American: Tony Blair
and the Presidency, former secretary of state Colin Powell added an old soldier's
adjective to the "crazies" sobriquet in referring to the same officials.
Powell, who was military aide to defense secretary Casper Weinberger in the
early 1980s, was overheard calling them "the f---ing crazies" during
a phone call with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw before the war in Iraq.
At the time, Powell was reportedly deeply concerned over their determination
to attack - with or without United Nations approval. Small wonder that they
got rid of Powell after the election, as soon as they had no more use for him.
If further proof of insanity were needed, one could simply look at the unnecessary
carnage in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003. That unprovoked attack was,
in my view, the most fateful foreign policy blunder in our nation's history
... so far.
It can get worse
"The crazies" are not finished. And we do well not to let their ultimate
folly obscure their current ambition, and the further trouble that ambition
is bound to bring in the four years ahead. In an immediate sense, with US military
power unrivaled, they can be seen as "crazy like a fox", with a value
system in which "might makes right". Operating out of that value system,
and now sporting the more respectable misnomer/moniker neo-conservative, they
are convinced that they know exactly what they are doing. They have a clear
ideology and a geopolitical strategy, which leap from papers they have put out
at the Project for the New American Century in recent years.
The very same men who, acting out of that paradigm, brought us the war in Iraq,
are now focusing on Iran, which they view as the only remaining obstacle to
American domination of the entire oil-rich Middle East. They calculate that,
with a docile, corporate-owned press, a co-opted mainstream church, and a still-trusting
populace, the US and/or the Israelis can launch a successful air offensive to
disrupt any Iranian nuclear weapons programs - with the added bonus of possibly
causing the regime in power in Iran to crumble.
But why now? After all, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency has
just told Congress that Iran is not likely to have a nuclear weapon until "early
in the next decade?" The answer, according to some defense experts, is
that several of the Iranian facilities are still under construction and there
is only a narrow "window of opportunity" to destroy them without causing
huge environmental problems. That window, they say, will begin to close this
Other analysts attribute the sense of urgency to worry in Washington that the
Iranians may have secretly gained access to technology that would facilitate
a leap forward into the nuclear club much sooner than now anticipated. And it
is, of course, neo-conservative doctrine that it is best to nip - the word in
current fashion is "preempt" - any conceivable threats in the bud.
One reason the Israelis are pressing hard for early action may simply be out
of a desire to ensure that Bush will have a few more years as president after
an attack on Iran, so that they will have him to stand with Israel when bedlam
breaks out in the Middle East.
What about post-attack "day two?" Not to worry. Well-briefed pundits
are telling us about a wellspring of Western-oriented moderates in Iran who,
with a little help from the US, could seize power in Tehran. I find myself thinking:
Right; just like all those Iraqis who welcomed invading American and British
troops with open arms and cut flowers.
For me, this evokes a painful flashback to the early 1980s when "intelligence",
pointing to "moderates" within the Iranian leadership, was conjured
up to help justify the imaginative but illegal arms-for-hostages-and-proceeds-to-Nicaraguan-Contras
caper. The fact that the conjurer-in-chief of that spurious "evidence"
on Iranian "moderates", former chief Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
analyst, later director, Robert Gates, was recently offered the newly created
position of director of national intelligence, makes the flashback more eerie
- and alarming.
George H W Bush saw through the 'crazies'
During his term in office, George H W Bush, with the practical advice of his
national security adviser General Brent Scowcroft and secretary of state James
Baker, was able to keep the "crazies" at arms length, preventing them
from getting the country into serious trouble. They were kept well below the
level of "principal" - that is, below the level of secretary of state
Even so, heady in the afterglow of victory in the Gulf War of 1991, the "crazies"
stirred up considerable controversy when they articulated their radical views.
Their vision, for instance, became the centerpiece of the draft "Defense
Planning Guidance" that Paul Wolfowitz, de facto dean of the neo-conservatives,
prepared in 1992 for then-defense secretary Dick Cheney. It dismissed deterrence
as an outdated relic of the Cold War and argued that the US must maintain military
strength beyond conceivable challenge - and use it in preemptive ways in dealing
with those who might acquire "weapons of mass destruction". Sound
Aghast at this radical imperial strategy for the post-Cold War world, someone
with access to the draft leaked it to the New York Times, forcing Bush Snr either
to endorse or disavow it. Disavow it he did - and quickly, on the cooler-head
recommendations of Scowcroft and Baker, who proved themselves a bulwark against
the hubris and megalomania of the "crazies". Unfortunately, their
vision did not die. No less unfortunately, there is method to their madness
- even if it threatens to spell eventual disaster for our country. Empires always
overreach and fall.
The return of the neo-cons
In 2001, the new Bush brought the neo-cons back and put them in top policymaking
positions. Even former assistant secretary of state Elliot Abrams, convicted
in October 1991 of lying to Congress and then pardoned by George H W Bush, was
called back and put in charge of Middle East policy in the White House. In January,
he was promoted to the influential post (once occupied by Robert Gates) of deputy
assistant to the president for national security affairs. From that senior position
Abrams will once again be dealing closely with John Negroponte, an old colleague
from rogue-elephant Contra War days, who has now been picked to be the first
director of national intelligence.
Those of us who - like Powell - had front-row seats during the 1980s are far
too concerned to dismiss the re-emergence of the neo-cons as a simple case of
deja vu. They are much more dangerous now. Unlike in the 1980s, they are the
ones crafting the adventurous policies our sons and daughters are being called
on to implement.
Why dwell on this? Because it is second in importance only to the portentous
reality that the earth is running out of readily accessible oil - something
of which they are all too aware. Not surprisingly then, disguised beneath the
weapons of mass destruction smokescreen they laid down as they prepared to invade
Iraq lay an unspoken but bedrock reason for the war - oil. In any case, the
neo-cons seem to believe that, in the wake of the November election, they now
have a carte-blanche "mandate". And with the president's new "capital
to spend" they appear determined to spend it, sooner rather than later.
Next stop, Iran
When a Special Forces platoon leader just back from Iraq matter-of-factly tells
a close friend of mine, as happened last week, that he and his unit are now
training their sights (literally) on Iran, we need to take that seriously. It
provides us with a glimpse of reality as seen at ground level. For me, it brought
to mind an unsolicited email I received from the father of a young soldier training
at Fort Benning in the spring of 2002, soon after I wrote an op-ed discussing
the timing of Bush's decision to make war on Iraq. The father informed me that,
during the spring of 2002, his son kept writing home saying his unit was training
to go into Iraq. No, said the father; you mean Afghanistan ... that's where
the war is, not Iraq. In his next email, the son said, "No, Dad, they keep
saying Iraq. I asked them and that's what they mean."
Now, apparently, they keep saying Iran; and that appears to be what they mean.
Anecdotal evidence like this is hardly conclusive. Put it together with administration
rhetoric and a preponderance of other "dots", though, and everything
points in the direction of an air attack on Iran, possibly also involving some
Indeed, from the New Yorker reports of Seymour Hersh to Washington Post articles,
accounts of small-scale American intrusions on the ground as well as into Iranian
airspace are appearing with increasing frequency.
In a speech given on February 18, former UN arms inspector and Marine officer
Scott Ritter (who was totally on target before the Iraq war on that country's
lack of weapons of mass destruction) claimed that the president has already
"signed off" on plans to bomb Iran in June in order to destroy its
alleged nuclear weapons program and eventually bring about "regime change".
This does not necessarily mean an automatic green light for a large attack in
June, but it may signal the president's seriousness about this option.
So, again, against the background of what we have witnessed over the past four
years, and the troubling fact that the circle of second-term presidential advisers
has become even tighter, we do well to inject a strong note of urgency into
any discussion of the "Iranian option".
Why would Iran want nukes?
So, why would Iran think it has to acquire nuclear weapons? Senator Richard
Lugar, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was asked this on a
Sunday talk show a few months ago. Apparently having a senior moment, he failed
to give the normal answer. Instead, he replied, "Well, you know, Israel
has ..." At that point, he caught himself and abruptly stopped.
Recovering quickly and realizing that he could not just leave the word "Israel"
hanging there, Lugar began again: "Well, Israel is alleged to have a nuclear
Is alleged to have? Lugar is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
and yet he doesn't know that Israel has, by most estimates, a major nuclear
arsenal, consisting of several hundred nuclear weapons. (Mainstream newspapers
are allergic to dwelling on this topic, but it is mentioned every now and then,
usually buried in obscurity on an inside page.)
Just imagine how the Iranians and Syrians would react to Lugar's disingenuousness.
Small wonder our highest officials and lawmakers - and Lugar, remember, is one
of the most decent among them - are widely seen abroad as hypocritical. Our
media, of course, ignore the hypocrisy. This is standard operating procedure
when the word "Israel" is spoken in this or other unflattering contexts.
And the objections of those appealing for a more balanced approach are quashed.
If the truth be told, Iran fears Israel at least as much as Israel fears the
internal security threat posed by the thugs supported by Tehran. Iran's apprehension
is partly fear that Israel (with at least tacit support from the Bush administration)
will send its aircraft to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, just as American-built
Israeli bombers destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981.
As part of the current war of nerves, recent statements by the president and
vice president can be read as giving a green light to Israel to do just that;
while Israeli air force commander Major General Eliezer Shakedi told reporters
on February 21 that Israel must be prepared for an air strike on Iran "in
light of its nuclear activity".
The Iranians also remember how Israel was able to acquire and keep its nuclear
technology. Much of it was stolen from the US by spies for Israel. As early
as the late-1950s, Washington knew Israel was building the bomb and could have
aborted the project. Instead, American officials decided to turn a blind eye
and let the Israelis go ahead. Now Israel's nuclear capability is truly formidable.
Still, it is a fact of strategic life that a formidable nuclear arsenal can
be deterred by a far more modest one, if an adversary has the means to deliver
it. (Look at North Korea's success with, at best, a few nuclear weapons and
questionable means of delivery in deterring the "sole remaining superpower
in the world".) And Iran already has missiles with the range to hit Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has for some time appeared eager to enlist
Washington's support for an early "pre-emptive" strike on Iran. Indeed,
American defense officials have told reporters that visiting Israeli officials
have been pressing the issue for the past year and a half. And the Israelis
are now claiming publicly that Iran could have a nuclear weapon within six months
- years earlier than the Defense Intelligence Agency estimate mentioned above.
In the past, Bush has chosen to dismiss unwelcome intelligence estimates as
"guesses" - especially when they threatened to complicate decisions
to implement the neo-conservative agenda. It is worth noting that several of
the leading neo-cons - Richard Perle, chair of the Defense Policy Board (2001-03);
Douglas Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; and David Wurmser, Middle
East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney - actually wrote policy papers for
the Israeli government during the 1990s. They have consistently had great difficulty
distinguishing between the strategic interests of Israel and those of the US
- at least as they imagine them.
As for Bush, over the past four years he has amply demonstrated his preference
for the counsel of Sharon who, as Scowcroft said publicly, has the president
"wrapped around his little finger". (As chairman of the president's
Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board until he was unceremoniously removed at
the turn of the year, Scowcroft was in a position to know.) If Scowcroft is
correct in also saying that the president has been "mesmerized" by
Sharon, it seems possible that the Israelis already have successfully argued
for an attack on Iran.
When regime change meant overthrow for oil
To remember why the US is no favorite in Tehran, one needs to go back at least
to 1953 when the US and Great Britain overthrew Iran's democratically elected
premier Mohammad Mossadeq as part of a plan to ensure access to Iranian oil.
They then emplaced the young Shah in power who, with his notorious secret police,
proved second to none in cruelty. The Shah ruled from 1953 to 1979. Much resentment
can build up over a whole generation. His regime fell like a house of cards
when supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rose up to do some regime change
of their own.
Iranians also remember Washington's strong support for Saddam Hussein's Iraq
after it decided to make war on Iran in 1980. US support for Iraq (which included
crucial intelligence support for the war and an implicit condoning of Saddam's
use of chemical weapons) was perhaps the crucial factor in staving off an Iranian
victory. Imagine then, the threat Iranians see, should the Bush administration
succeed in establishing up to 14 permanent military bases in neighboring Iraq.
Any Iranian can look at a map of the Middle East (including occupied Iraq)
and conclude that this administration might indeed be willing to pay the necessary
price in blood and treasure to influence what happens to the black gold under
Iranian as well as Iraqi sands. And with four more years to play with, a lot
can be done along those lines. The obvious question is: how to deter it? Well,
once again, Iran can hardly be blind to the fact that a small nation like North
Korea has so far deterred US action by producing, or at least claiming to have
produced, nuclear weapons.
Nuclear is the nub
The nuclear issue is indeed paramount, and we would do well to imagine and craft
fresh approaches to the nub of the problem. As a start, I'll bet if you made
a survey, only 20% of Americans would answer "yes" to the question
"Does Israel have nuclear weapons?" That is key, it seems to me, because
at their core Americans are still fair-minded people.
On the other hand, I'll bet that 95% of the Iranian population would answer,
"Of course Israel has nuclear weapons; that's why we Iranians need them"
- which was, of course, the unmentionable calculation that Lugar almost conceded.
"And we also need them," many Iranians would probably say, "in
order to deter the 'crazies' in Washington. It seems to be working for the North
Koreans, who, after all, are the other remaining point on President Bush's 'axis
The ideal approach would, of course, be to destroy all nuclear weapons in the
world and ban them for the future, with a very intrusive global inspection regime
to verify compliance. A total ban is worth holding up as an ideal, and I think
we must. But this approach seems unlikely to bear fruit over the next four years.
So what then?
A nuclear-free Middle East
How about a nuclear-free Middle East? Could the US make that happen? We could
if we had moral clarity - the underpinning necessary to bring it about. Each
time this proposal is raised, the Syrians, for example, clap their hands in
feigned joyful anticipation, saying, "Of course such a pact would include
Israel, right?" The issue is then dropped from all discussion by US policymakers.
Required: not only moral clarity but also what Thomas Aquinas labeled the precondition
for all virtue, courage. In this context, courage would include a refusal to
be intimidated by inevitable charges of anti-Semitism.
The reality is that, except for Israel, the Middle East is nuclear free. But
the discussion cannot stop there. It is not difficult to understand why the
first leaders of Israel, with the Holocaust experience written indelibly on
their hearts and minds, and feeling surrounded by perceived threats to the fledgling
state's existence, wanted the bomb. And so, before the Syrians or Iranians,
for example, get carried away with self-serving applause for the nuclear-free
Middle East proposal, they will have to understand that for any such negotiation
to succeed it must have as a concomitant aim the guarantee of an Israel able
to live in peace and protect itself behind secure borders. That guarantee has
got to be part of the deal.
That the obstacles to any such agreement are formidable is no excuse not trying.
But the approach would have to be new and everything would have to be on the
table. Persisting in a state of denial about Israel's nuclear weapons is dangerously
shortsighted; it does nothing but aggravate fears among the Arabs and create
further incentive for them to acquire nuclear weapons of their own.
A sensible approach would also have to include a willingness to engage the
Iranians directly, attempt to understand their perspective, and discern what
the US and Israel could do to alleviate their concerns.
Preaching to Iran and others about not acquiring nuclear weapons is, indeed,
like the village drunk preaching sobriety - the more so as our government keeps
developing new genres of nuclear weapons and keeps looking the other way as
Israel enhances its own nuclear arsenal. Not a pretty moral picture, that. Indeed,
it reminds me of the scripture passage about taking the plank out of your own
eye before insisting that the speck be removed from another's.
Lessons from the past ... like mutual deterrence
Has everyone forgotten that deterrence worked for some 40 years, while for most
of those years the US and the USSR had not by any means lost their lust for
ever-enhanced nuclear weapons? The point is simply that, while engaging the
Iranians bilaterally and searching for more imaginative nuclear-free proposals,
the US might adopt a more patient interim attitude regarding the striving of
other nation states to acquire nuclear weapons - bearing in mind that the Bush
administration's policies of "preemption" and "regime change"
themselves create powerful incentives for exactly such striving.
As was the case with Iraq two years ago, there is no imminent Iranian strategic
threat to Americans - or, in reality, to anyone. Even if Iran acquired a nuclear
capability, there is no reason to believe that it would risk a suicidal first
strike on Israel. That, after all, is what mutual deterrence is all about; it
works both ways.
It is nonetheless clear that the Israelis' sense of insecurity - however exaggerated
it may seem to those of us thousands of miles away - is not synthetic but real.
The Sharon government appears to regard its nuclear monopoly in the region as
the only effective "deterrence insurance" it can buy. It is determined
to prevent its neighbors from acquiring the kind of capability that could infringe
on the freedom it now enjoys to carry out military and other actions in the
area. Government officials have said that Israel will not let Iran acquire a
nuclear weapon; it would be folly to dismiss this as bravado. The Israelis have
laid down a marker and mean to follow through - unless the Bush administration
assumes the attitude that "preemption" is an acceptable course for
the US but not for Israel. It seems unlikely that the neo-conservatives would
take that line. Rather ... "Israel is our ally."
Or so said our president before the cameras on February 17. But I didn't think
we had a treaty of alliance with Israel; I don't remember the Senate approving
one. Did I miss something?
Clearly, the longstanding US-Israeli friendship and the ideals we share dictate
continuing support for Israel's defense and security. It is quite another thing,
though, to suggest the existence of formal treaty obligations that our country
does not have. To all intents and purposes, our policymakers - from the president
on down - seem to speak and behave on the assumption that we do have such obligations
toward Israel. A former colleague CIA analyst, Michael Scheuer, author of Imperial
Hubris, has put it this way: "The Israelis have succeeded in lacing tight
the ropes binding the American Gulliver to Israel and its policies."
An earlier American warned:
A passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils.
Sympathy for the favorite nation facilitates the illusion of an imaginary common
interest in cases where no real common interest exists, infuses into one the
enmities of the other, and betrays the former into participation in the quarrels
and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification ... It also
gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, who devote themselves to
the favorite nation, facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their
- George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796
In my view, our first president's words apply only too aptly to this administration's
lash-up with the Sharon government. As responsible citizens we need to overcome
our timidity about addressing this issue, lest our fellow Americans continue
to be denied important information neglected or distorted in our domesticated
Ray McGovern served as a CIA analyst for 27 years - from the administration
of John F Kennedy to that of George H W Bush. During the early 1980s, he was
one of the writers/editors of the President's Daily Brief and briefed it one-on-one
to the president's most senior advisers. He also chaired National Intelligence
Estimates. In January 2003, he and four former colleagues founded Veteran Intelligence
Professionals for Sanity.
This article is reposted here by permission of Tomdispatch.com.
(Copyright 2005 Ray McGovern)