April 10, 2006

by Reb Yudel
Bush: When you've got 36%, you've got nothing to lose

Seymour Hersh makes news again, with a report in The New Yorker about Bush plans for nuclear war with Iraq.

One former defense official, who still deals with sensitive issues for the Bush Administration, told me that the military planning was premised on a belief that 'a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government.' He added, 'I was shocked when I heard it, and asked myself, 'What are they smoking?''

Hersh warned on CNN Sunday:
What I’m writing here is that if this [plan to use nukes] isn’t removed — and I say this very seriously, I’ve been around this town for 40 years — some senior officers are prepared to resign. They’re that upset about the fact that this plan is kept in. … [O]ne thing about our military, they’re very loyal to the president, but they’re getting to the edge. They’re getting to the edge with not only Rumsfeld, but with Cheney and the President.
And also:

HERSH: The word I hear is messianic. He thinks, as I wrote, that he's the only one now who will have the courage to do it. He's politically free. I don't think he's overwhelmingly concerned about the '06 elections, congressional elections. I think he really thinks he has a chance, and this is going to be his mission.
Is this a good idea? Will it make the world, or America, a better place? Two years ago, The Atlantic ran a simulated war game of conflict with Iran:

In the end, according to our panelists, [the President] should understand that he cannot prudently order an attack on Iran. But his chances of negotiating his way out of the situation will be greater if the Iranians don't know that. He will have to brandish the threat of a possible attack while offering the incentive of economic and diplomatic favors should Iran abandon its plans. "If you say there is no acceptable military option, then you end any possibility that there will be a non-nuclear Iran," David Kay said after the war game. "If the Iranians believe they will not suffer any harm, they will go right ahead." Hammes agreed: "The threat is always an important part of the negotiating process. But you want to fool the enemy, not fool yourself. You can't delude yourself into thinking you can do something you can't." Is it therefore irresponsible to say in public, as our participants did and we do here, that the United States has no military solution to the Iran problem? Hammes said no. Iran could not be sure that an American President, seeing what he considered to be clear provocation, would not strike. "You can never assume that just because a government knows something is unviable, it won't go ahead and do it. The Iraqis knew it was not viable to invade Iran, but they still did it. History shows that countries make very serious mistakes."

So this is how the war game turned out: with a finding that the next American President must, through bluff and patience, change the actions of a government whose motives he does not understand well, and over which his influence is limited. "After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers," Sam Gardiner said of his exercise. "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work."

That was then. This month, The Atlantic's James Fallows revists the question in an article whose subhead tells all:

Now that Iran unquestionably intends to build a nuclear bomb, the international community has few options to stop it—and the worst option would be a military strike:

Economically, Iran also has far greater leverage than before. Through 2004, the price of a barrel of oil averaged less than $40. In 2006, it has been above $60, an increase of more than 50 percent. Rising demand from China, India, and, yes, the United States has left virtually no slack in the world’s oil markets. OPEC’s “spare” production capacity—the amount it could quickly supply beyond current demand—is about 1 million barrels a day. Iran now supplies about 4 million barrels a day. If it chose to, or had to, remove much of its oil from the market, a bidding war could send the price of a barrel of oil above $100. Eventually, everyone would adjust. Eventually, the Great Depression ended.

P erhaps the American and Israeli hard-liners know all this, and are merely bluffing. If so, they have made an elementary strategic error. The target of their bluff is the Iranian government, and the most effective warnings would be discreet and back-channel. Iranian intelligence should be picking up secret signals that the United States is planning an attack. By giving public warnings, the United States and Israel “create ‘excess demand’ for military action,” as our war-game leader Sam Gardiner recently put it, and constrain their own negotiating choices. The inconvenient truth of American foreign policy is that the last five years have left us with a series of choices—and all of them are bad. The United States can’t keep troops in Iraq indefinitely, for obvious reasons. It can’t withdraw them, because of the chaos that would ensue. The United States can’t keep prisoners at Guantánamo Bay (and other overseas facilities) indefinitely, because of international and domestic challenges. But it can’t hastily release them, since many were and more have become terrorists. And it can’t even bring them to trial, because of procedural abuses that have already occurred. Similarly, the United States can’t accept Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power, but it cannot prevent this through military means—unless it is willing to commit itself to all-out war. The central flaw of American foreign policy these last few years has been the triumph of hope, wishful thinking, and self-delusion over realism and practicality. Realism about Iran starts with throwing out any plans to bomb.

As always, for an idea of the gap between American policy and the oil wars on the ground, John Robb regularly has the depressing news. His take on Iran:
Iran is going to be the end point for our increasingly dysfunctional
global state system. The system is already in disrepair due to
competitive interests (increasingly economic), underfunding, and a
disbelief (in the US particularly) that it's already a failure. For
example, the US is unable to get meaningful sanctions against Iran due
to competitive economic interests and even if there were sanctions and
Iran relented the US wouldn't trust the process/results. If the US does
attack, what's left of this system will be gutted and states will
increasingly run solo. From that point on, isolated states beset by
non-state foes will be hollowed out at a very fast clip.

But what should we expect from a willful, unpopular president whose popularity has been dropping from the day he was elected?

Just the usual. As Jane Smiley notes:
Bush doesn't care whether you disagree with him. As a man who has
dispensed with the reality-based world, and is entirely protected by
his handlers from feeling the effects of that world, he is indifferent
to what you now think is real. Is the Iraq war a failure and a
quagmire? Bush doesn't care. Is global warming beginning to affect us
right now? So what. Have all of his policies with regard to Iran been
misguided and counter-productive? He never thinks about it. You know
that Katrina tape in which Bush never asked a question? It doesn't
matter how much you know or how passionately you feel or, most
importantly, what degree of disintegration you see around you, he's not
going to ask you a question. You and your ideas are dead to him. You
cannot change his mind. Nine percent of polled Americans would agree
with attacking Iran right now. To George Bush, that will be a mandate,
if and when he feels like doing it, because...

Bush does what he feels like doing and he deeply resents being told,
even politely, that he ought to do anything else. This is called a
"sense of entitlement". Bush is a man who has never been anywhere and
never done anything, and yet he has been flattered and cajoled into
being president of the United States through his connections, all of
whom thought they could use him for their own purposes. He has a
surface charm that appeals to a certain type of American man, and he
has used that charm to claim all sorts of perks, and then to fail at
everything he has ever done. He did not complete his flight training,
he failed at oil investing, he was a front man and a glad-hander as a
baseball owner. As the Governor of Texas, he originated one educational
program that turned out to be a debacle; as the President of the US,
his policies have constituted one screw-up after another. You have
stuck with him through all of this, made excuses for him, bailed him
out. From his point of view, he is perfectly entitled by his own
experience to a sense of entitlement. Why would he ever feel the need
to reciprocate? He's never had to before this.

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