“How can it be, less than a decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, that the Iran debate is breaking down along largely the same lines, and the people who were manifestly, painfully wrong about that war are driving the debate this time as well? Culturally, it’s a fascinating question—and too depressing for words.”
The real cause of Beinart’s malaise isn’t hard to identify. It’s democracy, American-style, i.e. rule by the screamers, that has him sick at heart. Under our system of elected oligarchy, whoever screams the loudest gets the biggest piece of the policy pie. Since most normal Americans don’t think about foreign policy issues except when it’s thrown in their faces – a major war breaks out, or if the blowback from one of our overseas extravaganzas takes them by surprise – the debate on this subject is dominated by a triad of special interest groups: 1) The military-industrial complex, otherwise known as war profiteers, 2) the neoconservatives, who believe in perpetual war as a matter of high principle, and 3) the well-organized and wealthy Israel lobby, which has as its mandate to keep the US engaged not only with Israel but with theglobal network of protectorates, alliances, and client states that make up the American Empire.
Together with incidental allies (e.g. the Albanian Mafia during the Kosovo conflict), these three forces control the terms of the foreign policy discourse in this country, and little deviation from the party line is tolerated. When it comes to the pundits and the politicians, it doesn’t matter much whether they’re ostensibly liberal or conservative: internationalism of one sort or another is the order of the day. The “mainstream” media plays a big role in orchestrating this unanimity, in part because they’re easily manipulated – and often owned – by the very corporate and ideological interests pushing the War Party’s agenda.
The methodology of the War Party doesn’t vary all that much: in every war we’ve been duped into fighting, the pattern has been pretty much the same. First, we are given fabricated “intelligence,” which has been “cherry-picked” to death and the sources of which are nearly always anonymous. “A senior official” reveals Iran’s nuclear weapons program is much farther along than anyone thought: a “top aide” to the White House tells us “all options are on the table,” and ready to go. Eventually we reach the climactic moment when the President hauls out some incriminating “evidence” of the Enemy’s evil intentions, as when George W. Bush said the Iraqis were planning to bomb American cities with unmanned drones, and seeking uraniumfrom the African nation of Niger. Those “drones” turned out to be nothing more than gliders that couldn’t make it across the Mediterranean, let alone the Atlantic Ocean – but by the time this was proved, it was far too late. As for that Niger uranium, the documents detailing the evidence were debunked as crude forgeries, a detail that nearly derailed the administration’s war plans.
Such brazen lies are hardly a Bushian innovation. If we go all the way back to FDR, and the run-up to World War II, there are plenty of examples of even bolder prevarications. My favorite is when the old liar got up there on Navy Day, in 1941, and declared:
“Hitler has often protested that his plans for conquest do not extend across the Atlantic Ocean. I have in my possession a secret map, made in Germany by Hitler’s government – by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America as Hitler proposes to reorganize it.”
The map was a British forgery, and while the more charitable among my readers won’t assume he knew it was fake, I’ll simply point to FDR’s well-known record as a fibber of the first order and leave it at that.
In short, prior to launching whatever crusade for “democracy” and “peace” our rulers have in mind, the American people are routinely treated to a campaign of systematic deception, conducted both by government officials and their friends in the mass media.
One problem for the War Party, however, which has gotten progressively worse for them, is that there are sectors within the government whose institutional biases tend to resist the march to war. In the 1930s and 40s it was a certain element of the military, which disbelieved in FDR’s British-created map, and thought we should tough it out until Hitler and Stalin destroyed each other, like scorpions in a bottle. In our own era, too, mid and top-level officers – none too eager to see their troops sacrificed on the altar of some politician’s ambition – remain one of the bulwarksagainst imperialist wars. Add to this sections of the national security bureaucracy, whose job it is to assess threats, and the intelligence and diplomatic communities, and you have a built-in resistance to the kind of manipulation engaged in by every wartime administration since Woodrow Wilson’s day.
The anti-interventionist resistance inside the government has ways of pushing back against the War Party, and we saw that last week in the Los Angeles Times, with the revelation of the long-lost post-2007 National Intelligence Estimate, a previous version [.pdf] of which determined Iran has not decided to pursue a nuclear weapons program. As the Times put it:
“As U.S. and Israeli officials talk publicly about the prospect of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, one fact is often overlooked: U.S. intelligence agencies don’t believe Iran is actively trying to build an atomic bomb. A highly classified U.S. intelligence assessment circulated to policymakers early last year largely affirms that view, originally made in 2007. Both reports, known as national intelligence estimates, conclude that Tehran halted efforts to develop and build a nuclear warhead in 2003.”
The New York Times followed this report up a few days later with one including pushback from the War Party, citing those who “criticize the C.I.A. for being overly cautious in its assessments of Iran, suggesting that it is perhaps overcompensating for its faulty intelligence assessments in 2002 about Iraq’s purported weapons programs, which turned out not to exist. In addition, Israeli officials have challenged the very premise of the 2007 intelligence assessment, saying they do not believe that Iran ever fully halted its work on a weapons program.”
Leave it to Judith Miller’s alma mater to get the neocon party line in there: actually, this contention the CIA got it “wrong” on Iraq is the exact opposite of what really happened in the run-up to the invasion. It was the CIA that struggled mightily againstrelentless pressure from the office of the Vice President to provide an intelligence-based justification for war. This job was left to the manifold “rogue” sub-agencies, such as the ad hoc “Office of Special Plans,” that did an end-run around the mainstream intelligence community and fabricated – there is no other word for it – the “intelligence” that lied us into war.
The same pattern is repeating itself as the War Party gears up for an attack on Iran. By leaking the supposedly “highly classified” NIE to the media, the analysts and officials in the bowels of Langley are pushing back against the drive to drag us into another major conflict in the Middle East.
A desire to protect their turf and a healthy nationalism combine, in these national security professionals, both military and civilian, to inoculate them against the war hysteria that so easily grips other sections of our elites. Whether they can get out their side of the story when the “mainstream” media is arrayed against them – after all, if the Iranians aren’t pursuing “weapons of mass destruction” it’s a much less exciting and dramatic narrative – remains to be seen.
Leaks such as this one aren’t aimed at our lawmakers and policy wonks, who have already largely made up their minds and are just waiting to the green light from the President – or the Israelis, as the case may be. The leak is aimed at two targets: the American people, and the White House.
The second to last thing President Obama wants is another war, especially one with the kind of economic consequences a military conflict with Iran is likely to have. The very last thing he wants, however, is to preside over a dramatically failing economy as the election season rolls around, while the Republicans rail at his “appeasement” of Tehran and oil prices continue to skyrocket. Never mind that those price hikes can be traced directly back to our provocations directed at Iran: the average American is likely to blame hostile foreigners rather than our own government officials for the uptick. When the political price for not attacking gets higher than the potential price of going to war, the President will cave – as he has most of the time on substantive issues.
The NIE leak gives him less room to maneuver between the contending factions within his administration, and delivers a big blow to the War Party, which has been agitating for a revision of the NIE ever since it blew Dick Cheney and the neocons out of the water back in 2007. While this is probably not enough to lift Beinart out of the black pit of his depression, that our spooks are holding their ground is good news indeed.