July 15, 2006

It's Much Later than We Think: Why It is Not "Our War"

I have received several emails and seen comments here and there that indicate my post the other day, "The Danger Spreads," has given rise to some misinterpretations and misunderstandings. A few of them are of considerable moment and involve important issues, so allow me to offer a few (hopefully) clarifying observations.

I debated for several hours about whether to add the following passage in an Update to the original post. I was aware that it was a very brief comment on an enormously complex subject, but I thought my other writing would provide some of the necessary context. I occasionally forget that many readers come here, briefly look over only a couple of entries, and then may not return for some time. Often, however, to provide a fuller explanation would result in entries of prohibitive length. The passage that I debated over is this one:
There is an alternative to this increasingly out of control spiral of events. If the Bush administration wanted to, they could bring all the pressure at their disposal to bear on the various parties involved -- which pressure is fairly monumental, it should be noted -- and arrange for an immediate cease fire, to be quickly followed by intensive negotiations. The negotiations might not work in the end, but at least a period of reprieve would give everyone a chance to catch their breaths, and reconsider where this path is leading.

Of course, that assumes that peace, and not war, is the administration's objective.
In some quarters, these observations gave rise to much derision and merriment. How "awfully dumb" of me, and how stupid I must be, to think for even a moment that the U.S. could influence Hamas, or Hezbollah, or Iran (if, in fact, Iran can control the events that are now unfolding). This criticism is very badly aimed for several reasons. First, the major party that we have enormous influence over, should we choose to exercise it, is Israel. Israel is the major Middle Eastern beneficiary of U.S. protection in many ways: we provide aid in the many billions of dollars every year (much if not most of which goes for military purposes) and, much more significantly, we sanction and support Israel's actions generally, and its actions at this particular moment. I am not interested here in debating whether this is a good or bad idea: I am simply noting the fact of our support, which is not open to question.

If we were serious about trying to stop this gathering madness, we could tell Israel that all foreign aid would cease for the time being, and that we would no longer publicly support Israel's actions. The administration could deliver this message privately, to avoid the firestorm that would follow were we to make such a proclamation publicly, and give Israel a day or two to think it over. We might be able to convince Israel to announce that it would stop all military action within 24 or 48 hours, except for absolutely required actions of self-defense. If Israel made an announcement to the world to that effect, the dynamic would shift significantly almost immediately: if the various militants did not endorse the offer and make a similar pledge, they would be viewed extremely negatively by virtually everyone, especially since this would represent a change in Israel's posture of immense importance. There might be a chance for the violence to stop in large part, and for everyone to begin wide-ranging negotiations.

Instead, we have Bush issuing pronouncements like this one yesterday:
President Bush rejected Lebanon's calls for a cease-fire in escalating Mideast violence on Friday, saying only that Israel should try to limit civilian casualties as it steps up attacks on its neighbor.

"The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

Lebanon's prime minister asked Bush, during a phone call Friday, to pressure Israel for a cease-fire. But Bush told Prime Minister Fuad Saniora that Israelis have a right to protect themselves.

"We think it's important that, in doing that, they try to limit as much as possible the so-called collateral damage, not only on civilians but also on human lives," Snow said.
And, still worse:
President George W. Bush condemned Iran and Syria for their support of Hezbollah, blaming them for the chaos in Lebanon.

"Again, the Iranians and Syrians also have a choice to make, which is whether they continue provoking and supporting terrorist organizations within the region," the president's spokesman, Tony Snow, told reporters in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Bush is attending the G8 summit.
In brief: Israel has the full support of the United States, and the real and primary enemies are Iran and Syria. In other words: bring on the wider war, the sooner the better.

With regard to Iran, we have a card of profound significance to play; thus far, the Bush administration resolutely refuses to play it, or even consider it. We could grant full diplomatic recognition to Iran, and begin very broad negotiations immediately: on Iran's willingness to stop supporting terrorist groups and instead aid in anti-terrorism efforts; on Iran's relations with Israel; on Iran's desire to pursue nuclear power; and on many other subjects. Iran has made a number of overtures over the last several years that emphasize that this is precisely what Iran itself wants, but we refuse to engage that country except in the most strictly delimited ways, and even then, only with great reluctance -- and in a manner that makes meaningful discussion impossible.

But think what might happen if we granted recognition to Iran -- and if we did so right now. Again, the entire dynamic would shift very profoundly. And such moves are not unknown in the history of our foreign policy, Nixon and China being perhaps the prime example. This is the kind of courageous and daring gesture that breaks stalemates apart -- and that possibly could halt the bloody insanity that threatens to engulf the entire Middle East. It requires at least one statesman of vision and bravery, one who knows what he is doing and is willing to take the long view. We have no such statesmen at the moment. The great loss is ours, and the world's. (I note that, at one time recently, even the otherwise detestable Christopher Hitchens saw the wisdom of this approach to Iran.)

There are still a number of other options we could pursue. My point in the Update I added was simply that there are many actions we could take that might very well halt the current momentum. We could introduce any number of new elements, that would cause some of the parties to step back, reconsider their positions, and then perhaps to start down a new road. But we remain trapped in the conventional way of conducting foreign policy, despite the fact that it has always led to death and destruction, and now is doing so again.

A number of comments about the earlier post focused on a more general point. Some people seem to think I'm suggesting that there is a conspiracy of some kind, involving those in the U.S. and in Israel who hope to intentionally provoke a broader regional war. My repeated observation that "it's all about Iran" appears to have played a large part in this view of my remarks. I have never put much store in conspiracy thinking of any kind. My approach is the Occam's Razor one: to put it informally, in the absence of other factors and other evidence, the simplest explanation is the right one. And "conspiracy" is a very odd word to use in this context. The neocons and their supporters have announced their plans explicitly for many years. If this is a conspiracy, it's one conducted before the entire world, and utilizing one of the biggest PR campaigns of all time.

In recent days, we have had several high profile examples of these announcements once again -- but I note that identical remarks stretch back to the 1990s. From the other day, here is Michael Ledeen:
No one should have any lingering doubts about what’s going on in the Middle East. It’s war, and it now runs from Gaza into Israel, through Lebanon and thence to Iraq via Syria. There are different instruments, ranging from Hamas in Gaza to Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon and on to the multifaceted "insurgency" in Iraq. But there is a common prime mover, and that is the Iranian mullahcracy, the revolutionary Islamic fascist state that declared war on us 27 years ago and has yet to be held accountable.

It is very good news that the White House immediately denounced Iran and Syria, just as Ambassador Khalilzad had yesterday tagged the terrorist Siamese twins as sponsors of terrorism in Iraq.


The only way we are going to win this war is to bring down those regimes in Tehran and Damascus, and they are not going to fall as a result of fighting between their terrorist proxies in Gaza and Lebanon on the one hand, and Israel on the other. Only the United States can accomplish it.
Here is Andrew Sullivan:
It's hard to avoid the conclusion from the fast-changing events in the Middle East that we are approaching a wider conflagration. The Maliki government is hanging by a thread as Casey begs for more troops for Baghdad. Only three years too late. Iran's success in infiltrating and controlling a large chunk of Iraq has now emboldened the mullahs not merely to press ahead with nuclear weapons but also to attack Israel via Hezbollah. This has always been a regional conflict, with Iran and Syria as dangerous than Saddam ever was. The Middle East has exploded before, of course. But not with 130,000 American troops stationed in the heart of it.
And here is William Kristol, in an article titled, "It's Our War":
What's happening in the Middle East, then, isn't just another chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict. What's happening is an Islamist-Israeli war. You might even say this is part of the Islamist war on the West--but is India part of the West? Better to say that what's under attack is liberal democratic civilization, whose leading representative right now happens to be the United States.


No Islamic Republic of Iran, no Hezbollah. No Islamic Republic of Iran, no one to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. No Iranian support for Syria (a secular government that has its own reasons for needing Iranian help and for supporting Hezbollah and Hamas), little state sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah. And no Shiite Iranian revolution, far less of an impetus for the Saudis to finance the export of the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam as a competitor to Khomeini's claim for leadership of militant Islam--and thus no Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and perhaps no Hamas either.


The war against radical Islamism is likely to be a long one. Radical Islamism isn't going away anytime soon. But it will make a big difference how strong the state sponsors, harborers, and financiers of radical Islamism are. Thus, our focus should be less on Hamas and Hezbollah, and more on their paymasters and real commanders--Syria and Iran. And our focus should be not only on the regional war in the Middle East, but also on the global struggle against radical Islamism.


The right response is renewed strength--in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions--and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.
Given these kinds of views and this sort of perspective, all of which are shared by some of the key people in the Bush administration (most notably in the Cheney wing), it isn't necessary for Israel and the U.S. to concoct or arrange stories like the one involving the captured Israelis possibly being moved to Iran that I mentioned the other day. That's looking at it backwards: the point is that, given these aims and goals, every event that occurs will be used to advance their strategic objectives. Anything that happens (or even that doesn't happen) will be used for propaganda purposes.

I see that some people are questioning whether these recent attacks "were green-lighted by Iran." This is, still one more time, arguing about intelligence, and about whether it's right. Once again: intelligence is irrelevant to major policy decisions. If you're arguing about whether the intelligence is right -- in this instance, about whether Iran is behind these attacks -- you're playing right into the Bush administration's hands. Why won't people see this?

Let's say we knew for a fact that Iran is behind the attacks. Does that mean we should start the bombing tonight? No, it does not, unless you want to start World War III in earnest, and possibly bring on a nuclear Armageddon. And this question is entirely irrelevant for another reason: as the above excerpts demonstrate, those who intend to have their wider war have already targeted Iran and Syria. Whether Iran can be proven to be behind these attacks is completely irrelevant to them, so why are you even arguing about it? But to the extent you do, you aid their cause, even if you don't intend to. Forget all that, and argue about the policy, and about whether we ought to be moving heaven and earth to find a diplomatic solution and to stop the killing.

The most important issue, of course, and the one of most overarching significance, is that the conception of our enemy and the desire for a regional and even worldwide war held by the Bush-Cheney-Ledeen-Sullivan-Kristol cabal and all its followers is entirely wrong in every respect. For some time, I have been intending to offer excerpts from Robert Dreyfuss's enormously valuable book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. This is as good a time as any, and better than most.

The theme of Dreyfuss's book is an enormously powerful demonstration of "The Folly of Intervention," and of the principle I identified:
Intervention always leads to more intervention: the first intervention leads to unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences, which are then used as the justification for still further intervention. That intervention in turn leads to still more unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences, which are then used as yet another justification for still further intervention. The process can go on indefinitely, and the ultimate consequences are always disastrous in the extreme.
Dreyfuss writes the following at the very beginning of his Introduction:
There is an unwritten chapter in the history of the Cold War and the New World Order that followed. It is the story of how the United States--sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly--funded and encouraged right-wing Islamist activism. Devil's Game attempts to fill in that vital missing link.

Vital because this little-known policy, conducted over six decades, is partly to blame for the emergence of Islamist terrorism as a worldwide phenomenon. Indeed, America's would-be empire in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and South Asia was designed to rest in part on the bedrock of political Islam. At least that is what its architects hoped. But it proved to be a devil's game. Only too late, after September 11, 2001, did Washington begin to discover its strategic miscalculation.

The United States spent decades cultivating Islamists, manipulating and double-crossing them, cynically using and misusing them as Cold War allies, only to find that it spawned a force that turned against its sponsor, and with a vengeance. Like monsters imbued with artificial life, radical imams, mullahs, and ayatollahs stalk the landscape, thundering not only against the United States but against freedom of thought, against secular science, against nationalism and the left, against women's rights. Some are terrorists, but far more are just medieval-minded religious fanatics who want to turn the calendar back to the seventh century.


The United States found political Islam to be a convenient partner during each stage of America's empire-building project in the Middle East, from its early entry into the region to its gradual military encroachment, to its expansion into an on-the-ground military presence, and finally to the emergence of the United States as an army of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For more on some related aspects of these questions, see my essay, "Enemies of Our Own Creation."

I want to offer the following passage from the Introduction as well, because it connects to a theme I've discussed at some length, our national myth and the racism it entails. Dreyfuss writes:
From FDR on, leading U.S. politicians were prisoners of misguided stereotypes. They seemed entranced by the almost other-worldly appearance of their Arab interlocutors. FDR, after meeting Ibn Saud, returned to Washington and "could not shake the image of the hawk-like Saudi monarch, ensconced in a gold chair and surrounded by six slaves." Harry Truman, two years later, described a leading Saudi official as a "real old biblical Arab with chin whiskers, a white gown, gold braid, and everything." And Eisenhower dismissed the Arabs as "a very uncertain quantity, explosive and full of prejudices." The official record is full of such uninformed stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims by U.S. officials. For the next sixty years, the handful of American Arabists who actually knew something about the Middle East would try to combat those stereotypes. But they would fail.

The American attachment to a romanticized fantasy of Arab life and a racist-fed, religious disdain for the Arabs' supposed heathenism proved a deadly combination when the time came for America to engage itself politically and militarily in the Middle East. Perhaps those stereotypes led American policy makers to see Muslims as fierce warriors. Perhaps they believed that the fanaticism of their religious tenets would lead them to resist atheistic communism. Perhaps it was the notion that in southwest Asia the traditional religious establishment was a bulwark of the status quo. But it never dawned on U.S. officials that Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood were a qualitatively different phenomenon from the comprador clerical establishment. Certainly, as the Cold War progressed, the big enemy, the USSR, and its alleged accomplice, Arab nationalism, seemed to have a common enemy: Islam.
Toward the end of his Introduction, Dreyfuss summarizes the argument against the endorsement of a worldwide war held by the U.S. foreign policy establishment -- a view, I very sadly note, that is not restricted to the right side of the spectrum. As Dreyfuss describes in detail throughout his book, and as many others have noted, the basic assumptions underlying our foreign policy are shared by both Democrats and Republicans. As I have often stressed, it is a Western perspective, that finds its most dangerous expression -- because it is the most warlike and has the most terrible weapons at its disposal -- in the United States.

Dreyfuss states:
A war on terrorism is precisely the wrong way to deal with the challenge posed by political Islam.

That challenge comes in two forms. First, there is the specific threat to the safety and security of Americans posed by Al Qaeda; and second, there is a far broader political problem created by the growth of the Islamic right in the Middle East and South Asia.

In regard to Al Qaeda, the Bush administration has willfully exaggerated the size of the threat it represents. It is not an all-powerful organization. It cannot destroy or conquer America, and it does not pose an existential threat to the United States. ...

Using the U.S. military in conventional war mode is not the way to attack Al Qaeda, which is primarily a problem for intelligence and law enforcement. The war in Afghanistan was wrongheaded: It failed to destroy Al Qaeda's leadership, it failed to destroy the Taliban, which scattered, and it failed to stabilize that war-torn nation more than temporarily, creating a weak central government at the mercy of warlords and former Taliban gangs. Worse, the war in Iraq was not only misguided and unnecessary, but it was aimed at a nation that had absolutely no links to bin Laden's gang--as if, said an observer, FDR had attacked Mexico in response to Pearl Harbor. The ham-handed use of the armed forces against a nonstate actor like Al Qaeda is useless and self-defeating.


The larger problem, that of the growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and Asia, is far more complicated.

Naturally, the first problem is related to the second. Unless the Islamic right is stopped, it is possible that Al Qaeda could resuscitate itself.


So what can the United States do to turn down the heat? To lower the political temperature underneath the Islamist movement?

First, the United States must do what it can to remove the grievances that cause angry Muslims to seek solace in organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Not all of these grievances, of course, are caused by the United States, and not all of them can be softened or ameliorated by U.S. actions. At the very least, however, the United States can take important steps that can weaken the ability of the Islamic right to harvest recruits. ...

Second, the United States must abandon its imperial pretensions in the Middle East. That will require the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, the dismantling of U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf and facilities in Saudi Arabia, and a sharp reduction in the visibility of the U.S. Navy, military training missions, and arms sales. Many U.S. diplomats who have worked in the region know that the provocative U.S. presence in the Middle East fuels anger and resentment. The United States has no claim to either the Persian Gulf or the Middle East, whose future economic ties and political relationships can and must be determined solely by the leaders of the region's states, even if it redounds to the detriment of U.S. interests.

Third, the United States must refrain from seeking to impose its preferences on the region. Since 2001, the United States has done incalculable damage by demanding that the "greater Middle East" conform to American visions of democracy. To be sure, for the more radical idealists in the Bush administration, Bush's call for democracy in the Arab world and Iran is seen primarily as a pretext for more intrusive U.S. involvement in the region. Even taken at face value, however, the initiative ignores the fact that the nations of the Middle East must find democracy at their own pace and in their own time. ...

And fourth, the United States must abandon its propensity to make bellicose threats directed at nations in the Middle East, including those--such as Iran and Sudan--that are still under Islamist rule. The wave of Islamism may not yet have crested. Other nations may succumb to its tide before it recedes, since it is a force that has gathered momentum for decades. But the United States must get used to the fact that threats of force and imperial-sounding diktats strengthen Islamism. They do not diminish it.
The alternative to our present course, one that brings us again and again to the brink of wars that might be altogether incomprehensible in terms of the destruction they will unleash, is very clear, even obvious. But it requires that our leaders and the U.S. foreign policy establishment at least begin to question the assumptions under which they have operated for many decades, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Thus far, they have adamantly refused to do so.

And so we stand on the precipice once again. If it is "our war," that is only because we have chosen it -- and because we accept and, in the worst cases, even cheer for the immense devastation that will inevitably ensue. Yes, we have enemies, and yes, we must fight them. But not this way, which is the way we have always done so.

For if one thing is absolutely, irrefutably clear at this dreadful moment in history, it is that our conventional and traditional way of fighting these battles and of trying to control and transform the world does not work. The death and destruction, from Afghanistan to Iraq, possibly to the entire Middle East and beyond, is terrible to behold. Yet we refuse to reconsider our premises, or to contemplate a new direction.

We had damned well better do so now. It's much, much later than we think.