Cotton-Picking Minds

When I first heard Tom Cotton talk, I knew he was a dangerous man. He was not only ambitious—he spent only one term in the House of Representatives before deciding he could defeat Democrat Mark Pryor in Arkansas’ 2014 U.S. Senate race—but he was a Harvard lawyer and an Army veteran who knew how to politically exploit his military exploits and take warmongering to new heights.

 The 37-year-old senator isn’t shy about his I-ain’t-waitin’ ambition:

Some people say I’m a young man in a hurry. They’re right.

That quote is from a New Republic article published in January in which the author, David Ramsey, offered this description of Cotton given by Ed Kilgore, a progressive writer:

“[H]e manages to be a True Believer in the most important tenets of all the crucial Republican factions. He’s adored by Neocons, the Republican Establishment, the Tea Folk, the Christian Right, and most of all by the Con-Con cognoscenti that draw from both these last two categories.”

If that isn’t bad enough, Ramsey offered more:

Cotton…has been called the “party’s most aggressive next-generation advocate for military action overseas.” For Cotton, the Iraq War was a “just and noble war”; on foreign policy, he has said, “George Bush largely did have it right.” Cotton argues for an aggressive, interventionist military posture abroad, more defense spending, and an executive branch empowered on matters of national security. Pick a topicSyria, Iran, Russia, ISIS, drones, NSA snoopingand Cotton can be found at the hawkish outer edge of the debate, demanding a continuation or escalation of the Cheney line more consistently and vociferously than nearly any of his peers.

That was written in January. This same Tom Cotton is now the leader of saboteurs in the U.S. Senate who are trying like hell to get the United States into a real war with Iran. By now you have heard all about Cotton’s “Open roy blunt signature on tom cotton letterLetter,” signed by 47 Republican senators (including Missouri’s Roy Blunt) and addressed to “the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The letter, as far as I can tell, is completely unprecedented in American history. For all of its posturing about educating the Iranians on how our constitutional system works, it was obviously designed to make right-wingers here in the United States aware that Republicans are doing all they can to blow up the negotiations between the Obama administration and the leaders of Iran over how best to prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon—without spilling the blood of American soldiers.

President Obama responded to all the reactionary bluster this way:

I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition.

The President is wrong, of course. The coalition between American hard-liners and Iranian hard-liners is not “unusual,” especially given the pathological hatred for Obama among conservative Republicans. Nor is it “ironic” for right-wingers to want “to make common cause” with other right-wingers in Iran.

Irony is defined as “a situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected.” Republican reactionaries, led by a warmonger like Tom Cotton, appealing to Iranian reactionaries in a theocratic state is exactly what I expected.

So, Senator Cotton’s letter and its Roy Blunt-endorsed message is not ironic, Mr. President. It’s par for the very sad and strange course of contemporary Republican politics.

Donkey Shame

Rather than boycott a controversial appearance by the Israeli prime minister, most Democrats plan to be there when Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to a joint session of Congress on March 3.

If that’s not bad enough, Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin invited Netanyahu to a closed-door meeting with Democrats in order to, they said, “maintain Israel’s dialogue with both political parties in Congress.” Netanyahu said no thanks, amazingly claiming that to meet with Democratic senators “could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit.”

The truth is, of course, that there is no “misperception” of partisanship related to Netanyahu’s visit. It is clearly quite partisan. Speaker John Boehner invited him to speak so that he could dope-slap President Obama in front of Americans and undermine any potential deal with Iran over its nuclear weapons aspirations.

And if Netanyahu were to meet with Democratic senators, that would piss off his Republican benefactors in Congress, who sometimes have a hard time understanding that Israel is not our fifty-first state, or, like some Democrats, have a hard time telling the difference between Israeli interests and our own.

We all should keep in mind that if we fail to make a deal with Iran, if we fail to find a diplomatic way to keep them from developing nuclear weapons, that may quite likely mean war at some point. And a U.S. war against Iran seems to be what Netanyahu, and some Republican members of Congress, want for us and our future.

We now know that not only has Netanyahu been selectively leaking misleading details about our negotiations with Iran, but during his 2012 U.N. speech—the one in which he wielded a weird cartoon bomb drawing worthy of The Road Runner Show—Netanyahu misrepresented the truth about how close Iran is to making a nuclear bomb. He told the world then:

“By next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move[d] on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

Except that top-secret documents leaked to the press show that Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, believed at that time that Iran “does not appear to be ready” to enrich uranium “to higher levels.” And because that is Netanyahu’s  home-controlled source of intelligence on the matter, he clearly knew what the intelligence assessment was and chose to mislead the world about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Worse than that, Netanyahu has played this game since 1992. Back then, twenty-three years ago, he said Iran was three to five years away from nuclear weaponry. And according to the Christian Science Monitor, Republicans also joined in the hysteria:

The same alarm bells were already ringing in Washington, where in early 1992 a task force of the House Republican Research Committee claimed that there was a “98 percent certainty that Iran already had all (or virtually all) of the components required for two or three operational nuclear weapons.”

Thus it is that some people have been pushing us in the direction of war with Iran for some time now. And we should be able to count on Democrats in Congress having President Obama’s back when he is trying to avoid such an outcome by using diplomacy to find a solution to the potential problem of a nuclear armed Iran.

But we apparently can’t count on that, as it appears that most Democrats will legitimize Netanyahu’s untimely speech to Congress by showing up and listening to him. The right-wing prime minister is clearly trying to undermine President Obama’s foreign policy—a policy that thankfully includes the principle that war is the last resort—and Democrats shouldn’t help him do so.

However, on March 3, they will sit and listen and some will applaud, as Netanyahu essentially tells us why avoiding war with Iran is a bad idea.

“We Want War!” Say Republicans And, Sadly, A Few Democrats

It’s a strange world in which two Fox “News” hosts are more critical of Speaker John Boehner’s unseemly invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu than is President Obama’s Chief of Staff.

Last week, the Speaker, against protocol and against decency and against our national interests, invited the Israeli Prime Minister to soon address Congress about what both Boehner and Netanyahu see as a misguided attempt to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. The Speaker never told the White House in advance, and Netanyahu, up for reelection at home, didn’t bother to notify the State Department that he would accept the invitation. Boehner and Netanyahu are essentially undermining the efforts of the Obama administration to keep us out of another war. For most Republicans, Israeli interests appear to be more important than our own.

Worse than that, a few Democrats are also trying to get us into an honest-to-goodness war. Last week, after Obama’s State of the Union address, in which the President clearly stated that he would veto any legislation designed to interfere with his delicate negotiations with Iran (Republicans and some Democrats want to pile on additional sanctions), Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said,

The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.

I want to remind you: that wasn’t said by a creepy, crazy-eyed Fox “News” host. It was uttered by a Democrat. In the U.S. Senate.

It isn’t clear to me exactly why that reckless statement would exit the lips of a Democrat, while President Obama and John Kerry are trying to bring a peaceful end to a crisis involving Iran, Israel, and nuclear weapons. But it is a foolish and dangerous statement that is made more foolish and dangerous by the fact that Republicans, who most certainly trust Netanyahu more than the President of the United States, are in charge of Congress and won’t hesitate to do all they can to get us involved in a hot war with Iran, all on the advice of the Israeli Prime Minister.

And speaking of war and misguided Democrats, on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday Diane Feinstein essentially joined warmonger John McCain in calling for more “special operations” troops on the ground in, uh, Yemen. Yes, Yemen. She thinks we need “more than just advisers” there. That’s called panic, folks. Feinstein also hinted that more troops may be needed in other hot spots:

BOB SCHIEFFER: And then, to go back to the Middle East just quickly, do you envision we might have to put more ground troops — or have to put ground troops back into the Middle East?

FEINSTEIN: Well, this is one thing that I have tried to follow carefully, particularly with respect to Syria.

And I don’t see what we’re doing making a difference. So, I think we need to relook at this. And if we are going to tolerate Assad, as McCain said — and I tend to agree — looks like is the case, that’s a problem.

Let me remind you what “McCain said” just before Feinstein appeared on the program. He began by saying that President Obama and his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough “have lost touch with reality.” Then he got to the point of his gazillionth appearance on Sunday television:

MCCAIN: I agree with the director of British intelligence, MI5, who gave a speech last week saying that these young people mainly from other countries that are now in Iraq and Syria will — are a direct threat to the United States of America and Great Britain.

So there is no strategy. It is delusional for them to think that what they’re doing is succeeding. And we need more boots on the ground. I know that is a tough thing to say and a tough thing for Americans to swallow, but it doesn’t mean the 82nd Airborne. It means forward air controllers. It means special forces. It means intelligence and it means other capabilities.

And for them to say we expect them to do it on their own, they’re not doing it on their own. And they are losing.

In case you missed his point, he later reiterated:

In the Middle East, we have got to have boots on the ground.

Whenever you hear someone say that, you are hearing the tempered version of, “Let’s get this war party started!”

While we all should be concerned about what is happening in Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere in the region, and while we all should acknowledge that Israel has reason to worry about an existential threat from Iran, we have to keep our wits about us and not panic and jump, boots first, into two more bleeping wars. Our air attacks on ISIL fighters are helping to keep them in check, whether right-wingers in Congress or war-hungry pundits blabbing on TV want to admit it. And it is unclear what will happen in Yemen, since the Shiite rebels—who apparently don’t want to take over the country—aren’t exactly al Qaeda supporters. In fact, we just killed three more al Qaeda terrorists with drone strikes in Yemen today. Yes. I said today, after all the panic on Sunday’s talk shows.

As a much more sober Fareed Zakaria pointed out on Sunday, we have to keep all of this in perspective. He showed this graphic, based on data from the Global Terrorism Database:

Fareed Zacharia and CNN graphic

Now, if that isn’t enough, look at this graphic, which I pulled from the Global Terrorism Database website:

global terrorism database

Those colored beams represent the number of terrorist attacks in 2013 and the relative deaths associated with them. Look at us and look at other places around the world. We should keep all of this in mind, even as we understand that we are not isolated from what is going on elsewhere. We do have to pay attention to what is happening around the world and do what we can to fight terrorism, Islamist or otherwise. But boots-on-the-ground warfare should be the last resort, not the first.

Thankfully, John McCain lost the election in 2008. Thankfully, Bob Menendez and Dianne Feinstein are in the Senate and not the White House. Thankfully, Republicans only control Congress and can only throw rhetorical rocks at President Obama. And, thankfully, we have a man at the helm who doesn’t tend to panic and get nervous and want to start putting American troops on the ground everywhere, when things start to look a little scary.

And, more important, President Obama understands that there is a big difference between American foreign policy and the foreign policy of a right-wing prime minister of Israel, who seems hell-bent on getting the United States involved in a war with Iran, before all the attempts at diplomacy have played out.

Kid Romney

In order to become president, Mitt Romney saddled up a snake and began campaigning against Barack Obama on the low road, mostly by insinuating that Mr. Obama wasn’t quite American enough for the American people.

Now, after last night, Romney has ditched the snake and got even lower to the ground.

In one of the most cynical moves possible, and from a man who wants to be the leader of the most powerful country in the world, Mitt Romney released a statement to the press last night at about ten o’clock, a statement that was, according to Politico, “initially embargoed until the 9/11 anniversary was officially over” at midnight.

That statement, released before all the facts were known about what happened in Libya and Egypt—we now know our U.S. ambassador to Libya and three staffers were killed—read:

I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi.  It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.

Ah. That disgusting and irresponsible and unpatriotic and purely political statement follows precisely the narrative that the right-wing has been telling about Mr. Obama, ever since Sarah Palin accused him of “paling around with terrorists.” Mr. Obama, you see, not only pals around with domestic terrorists, he has sympathy for terrorists in faraway lands. He goes about the world “apologizing” for America. Why? Because he’s not one of us.

What triggered Romney’s amateurish response was a statement released by the U.S. embassy in Cairo, a statement condemning a “film” that is not only amateurish on a Romney-like scale, but according to The Wall Street Journal,

was directed and produced by an Israeli-American real-estate developer who characterized it as a political effort to call attention to the hypocrisies of Islam. It has been promoted by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor whose burning of Qurans previously sparked deadly riots around the world.

The movie’s trailer was uploaded to YouTube and, according to “Pastor” Jones, “further reveals in a satirical fashion the life of Muhammad.” In other words, it pokes fun at the Muslim prophet, which by design is meant to inflame passions in the Middle East and make Jones, and his Israel-before-America friends, heroes to a weird cult of Christians who hate all forms of Islam.

Some radicals in the region, taking the bait from America’s haters, morphed the homemade film into a Hollywood blockbuster that was purposely released on 9/11 in order to insult Islam. So, we can conclude that there are idiots everywhere, some even willing to kill in the name of their religion.

The embassy statement, the one Romney said showed sympathy to those who attacked our “diplomatic missions,” was actually released before—repeat, before—those deadly attacks occurred. Romney jumped the gun, just to reinforce the narrative about the president, and made himself look the fool.

For the record, here is the entire statement:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others

The Obama administration made it clear this statement, released “shortly after noon” on Tuesday, according to The New York Times, was not authorized by the White House. And the Times also made the point that Romney was “apparently unaware of the timing of the first embassy statement.” Unaware? Yes, that pretty much describes Romney’s foreign policy consciousness.

As I said, the politics played by Romney on Tuesday night is disgusting enough, but what is serious about all this is what is happening in Israel, particularly how it appears that Benjamin Netanyahu is conspiring with his long-time friend Mitt Romney to push Barack Obama out of the White’s House and push the United States into a war with Iran.

Netanyahu, pissed off that President Obama and Hillary Clinton are trying to keep us out of a shooting war with Iran, launched what even Fox “News,” citing an Israeli newspaper, called,

an unprecedented critique of the U.S. government and others over their stance on the Iranian nuclear program…

Unprecedented, indeed. Netanyahu said:

The world tells Israel ‘wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.

Wait? Patience? Who needs patience when we are talking about getting America into yet another war in the Middle East? Huh?

If one were to survey right-wing media in this country, one would think that the Israelis were all of one mind on the subject of what to do about Iran. But that is far from true. Opinion is divided in that country about how to proceed. But Netanyahu, an American right-winger’s dream of an Israeli prime minister, is doing his best to slyly disrespect President Obama and force the United States to either act on its own to attack Iran or act in concert with Israel to try to destroy its nuclear facilities.

What is scary about Romney and the conservative intelligentsia here in the United States, is that these people are willing to outsource our foreign policy to Netanyahu and the Israelis. Apparently we don’t have interests in the region such that we can act—or not act for God’s sake—on our own without the permission of the Israelis. That is not only scary, it is, uh, un-American.

Romney’s foreign policy advisor, Robert O’Brien, said this on Tuesday, in response to the Obama campaign’s willingness to push Mr. Obama’s many foreign policy successes:

It doesn’t surprise me that they’re raising foreign policy because it’s another distraction from the Administration’s terrible economic record. They’re going from one shiny object to the next.

Yes, to Romney and his campaign, foreign policy is a distraction, a shiny object, a toy to be played with one minute and then discarded the next. And given what Romney did on Tuesday night, the American people should treat Mr. Romney like the naive foreign policy child he is and send him to his room on November 6.

This stuff is too serious to leave to the kids.


[Reuters photos]

Media Failures And The “Inevitable” War With Iran

I know most of the talk today is about the allah-awful GOP presidential primary campaign, where the candidates are all trying to out-Neanderthal each other, but I want to forward something to you that has real substance to it, as well as real consequences, something that highlights the propaganda being fed to Americans about the Iran-nuke controversy.

This past Sunday Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, posted on his Foreign Policy blog a critique of the job our so-called mainstream media have done relative to coverage of “the current war scare over Iran.”

And it ain’t pretty.

Here is an edited version of his “Top Ten Media Failures in the 2012 Iran War Scare“:

#1: Mainstreaming the war.  …prominent media organizations keep publishing alarmist pieces about how war is imminent, likely, inevitable, etc., this may convince the public that it is going to happen sooner or later and it discourages people from looking for better alternatives.

#2: Loose talk about Iran’s “nuclear [weapons] program.” A recurring feature of Iran war coverage has been tendency to refer to Iran’s “nuclear weapons program” as if its existence were an established fact. U.S. intelligence services still believe that Iran does not have an active program…

#3: Obsessing about AhmadinejadA typical insertion into discussions of Iran is to make various references to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, usually including an obligatory reference to his penchant for Holocaust denial and his famously mis-translated statement about Israel “vanishing from the page of time.” …But the obsession with Ahmadinejad is misleading in several ways: he has little or no influence over Iran’s national security policy, his power has been declining sharply in recent months, and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini — who does make the key decisions — has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam.

#4: Ignoring Iranian weaknessIran is not a very powerful country at present…its defense budget is perhaps 1/50th the size of U.S. defense spending, and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. It could not mount a serious invasion of any of its neighbors, and could not block the Strait of Hormuz for long, if at all…U.S. media coverage often portrays Iran as a looming threat, without offering any serious military analysis of its very limited capabilities.

#5: Failing to ask why Iran might want a bomb. Discussions of a possible war also tend to assume that if Iran does in fact intend to get a nuclear weapon, it is for some nefarious purpose. But the world’s nine nuclear powers all obtained these weapons first and foremost for deterrent purposes (i.e., because they faced significant external threats and wanted a way to guarantee their own survival). Iran has good reason to worry: It has nuclear-armed states on two sides, a very bad relationship with the world’s only superpower, and more than three dozen U.S. military facilities in its neighborhood…

#6: Failing to consider why Iran might NOT want a bombAt the same time, discussions of Iran’s nuclear ambitions often fail to consider the possibility that Iran might be better off without a nuclear weapons capability. As noted above, Supreme Leader Khameini has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam, and he may very well mean it…

#7: Exaggerating Israel’s capabilities. this whole war scare has been driven by the possibility that Israel might feel so endangered that they would launch a preventive war on their own, even if U.S. leaders warned them not to. But the IDF doesn’t have the capacity to take out Iran’s new facility at Fordow, because they don’t have any aircraft that can carry a bomb big enough to penetrate the layers of rock that protect the facilities…and the only reason they might strike is to try to get the United States dragged in…the belief that Israel might strike on its own-may be based on a mirage.

#8: Letting spinmeisters play fast and loose with facts. Journalists have to let officials and experts express their views, but they shouldn’t let them spout falsehoods without pushing back. Unfortunately, there have been some egregious cases [Rick Santorum and Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, for example] where prominent journalists allowed politicians or government officials to utter howlers without being called on it…

#9. What about the human beings? One of the more bizarre failures of reporting on the war debate has been the dearth of discussion of what an attack might mean for Iranian civilians…most discussions emphasize the dangers of Iranian retaliation, or the impact on oil prices, instead of asking how many innocent Iranian civilians might die in the attack. You know: the same civilians we supposedly want to liberate from a despotic clerical regime.

#10. Could diplomacy work? …an underlying theme in a lot of the coverage is the suggestion that diplomacy is unlikely to work…diplomacy has yet to succeed-and it might not in any case-but it’s also never been seriously tried.

Ways To Think About Iran And The Nuke Problem

I was talking with my friend John McKnight yesterday and he made what I considered an astute observation. He said that the issue with Iran, in terms of its getting nukes that destabilize the Middle East, is like some kind of termite infestation in one’s house. The Republicans’ solution seems to be to burn the house down, which ends up with the same result as letting the termites have at it: the house is gone.

In other words, to avoid the regional destabilization that Republicans (and the Israeli’s) say a nuclear-armed Iran presents, they are willing to go in and destabilize it themselves by starting a war with Iran. Seen that way, starting a war doesn’t make much sense.

We have had on this blog some discussions on the rationality/irrationality of Iranian leaders vis-à-vis what to do about the possibility of their developing nuclear weapons, and it so happens that 60 Minutes this coming Sunday will feature ex-Mossad Chief Meir Dagan. From CBS News:

The former head of Israel’s intelligence service believes the Iranian regime is a rational one and even its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who has called for Israel to be annihilated – acts in a somewhat rational way when it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions…

he doesn’t advocate a pre-emptive Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear industry anytime soon, an attack that he said would have to be against “a large number of targets.” There is time to wait before such dire actions need to be taken.

That sounds pretty much like what President Obama has said, no?

In any case, there was a good discussion on these issues on Morning Joe this morning between the great NBC News reporter, Richard Engel, and Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran from the Carnegie Endowment:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

For yet another view on the rationality/irrationality of the Iranian regime, consider (and read) Paul Pillar’s article in the Washington Monthly, “We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran.” Pillar first starts with the obvious:

Those in the United States who genuinely yearn for war are still a neoconservative minority. But the danger that war might break out—and that the hawks will get their way—has nonetheless become substantial…

There are indeed good reasons to oppose Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, and likewise many steps the United States and the international community can and should take to try to avoid that eventuality. But an Iran with a bomb would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume, and a war to try to stop it from acquiring one would be less successful, and far more costly, than most people imagine.

Now, here is the heart of his analysis:

The notion that a nuclear weapon would turn Iran into a significantly more dangerous actor that would imperil U.S. interests has become conventional wisdom, and it gets repeated so often by so many diverse commentators that it seldom, if ever, is questioned. Hardly anyone debating policy on Iran asks exactly why a nuclear-armed Iran would be so dangerous. What passes for an answer to that question takes two forms: one simple, and another that sounds more sophisticated.

Here is “the simple argument”:

Iranian leaders supposedly don’t think like the rest of us: they are religious fanatics who value martyrdom more than life, cannot be counted on to act rationally, and therefore cannot be deterred…

The trouble with this image of Iran is that it does not reflect actual Iranian behavior. More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic’s rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power—in this life, not some future one…In fact, the Islamic Republic’s conduct beyond its borders has been characterized by caution. Even the most seemingly ruthless Iranian behavior has been motivated by specific, immediate concerns of regime survival.

Here is “the sophisticated-sounding argument about the supposed dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon” that mostly comes “from policy-debating intelligentsia,” who:

accepts that Iranian leaders are not suicidal but contends that the mere possession of such a weapon would make Tehran more aggressive in its region. A dominant feature of this mode of argument is “worst-casing,” [which] rests on speculation after speculation about what mischief Iran “could” commit in the Middle East, with almost no attention to whether Iran has any reason to do those things, and thus to whether it ever would be likely to do them.

The speculation includes “giving nuclear weapons or materials to a terrorist group,” which, Pillar notes, was “a selling point of the Iraq War.” But:

Nothing is said about why Iran or any other regime ever would have an incentive to do this. In fact, Tehran would have strong reasons not to do it. Why would it want to lose control over a commodity that is scarce as well as dangerous? And how would it achieve deniability regarding its role in what the group subsequently did with the stuff? No regime in the history of the nuclear age has ever been known to transfer nuclear material to a nonstate group. That history includes the Cold War, when the USSR had both a huge nuclear arsenal and patronage relationships with a long list of radical and revolutionary clients.

A former national intelligence officer now teaching at Georgetown, Pillar offers other examples of speculation that has been advanced as to a nuclear-armed Iran’s intentions and he attempts to knock them down with this reasoning:

A rich body of doctrine was developed during the Cold War to outline the strategic differences that nuclear weapons do and do not make, and what they can and cannot achieve for those who possess them. Such weapons are most useful in deterring aggression against one’s own country, which is probably the main reason the Iranian regime is interested in developing them. They are much less useful in “shielding” aggressive behavior outside one’s borders, except in certain geopolitical situations in which their use becomes plausible.

Pillar makes a most important point, one related to what Mr. Obama urged us to consider the other day:

No one knows what the full ramifications of such a war with Iran would be, and that is the main problem with any proposal to use military force against the Iranian nuclear program. But the negative consequences for U.S. interests are likely to be severe.

Some of those ramifications might include:

a regional conflagration involving multiple U.S. allies, sucking in U.S. forces far beyond the initial assault. When the Brookings Institution ran a war-games simulation a couple of years ago, an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities escalated into a region-wide crisis in which Iranian missiles were raining down on Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, and Tehran launched a worldwide terrorist campaign against U.S. interests.

The point of all this is that we need to think this one through based on more than the typical television coverage of the GOP candidates cowboy rhetoric on the issue, which seems to regard war as necessary or at least inevitable.

Again, I suggest reading the entire Pillar piece (he also appeared on NPR this morning with Steve Inskeep, which you can hear here).

Obama: “If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so.”

If you didn’t see it, I recommend watching President Obama’s amazing press conference on Tuesday or reading the transcript. What he said about Iran and Syria and the GOP pretenders pretending their policies—often couched in hyper-militaristic rhetoric—will solve all the world’s problems was remarkably forthright.

I confess that I have been nervous about Mr. Obama’s rejection of any kind of containment strategy, should Iran get nukes.  I worry that he has backed himself into a corner that could end up with the United States in another Middle East war.

Obama prefaced his position on this:

What we’ve been able to do over the last three years is mobilize unprecedented, crippling sanctions on Iran.  Iran is feeling the bite of these sanctions in a substantial way.  The world is unified; Iran is politically isolated.

Then he reiterated his policy and the reasons for it:

And what I have said is, is that we will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon.  My policy is not containment; my policy is to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon — because if they get a nuclear weapon that could trigger an arms race in the region, it would undermine our non-proliferation goals, it could potentially fall into the hands of terrorists.  And we’ve been in close consultation with all our allies, including Israel, in moving this strategy forward.

But Obama is cautious as ever:

At this stage, it is my belief that we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically.  That’s not just my view.  That’s the view of our top intelligence officials; it’s the view of top Israeli intelligence officials.  And, as a consequence, we are going to continue to apply the pressure even as we provide a door for the Iranian regime to walk through where they could rejoin the community of nations by giving assurances to the international community that they’re meeting their obligations and they are not pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Now, whatever one thinks of this strategy, it is sober and well thought out, and articulated by a man in control of his emotions.  He will not be bullied into a war with Iran, or, as some people who were not elected president would have it, a war with Syria.  I know I felt better after hearing his remarks.

And he had some words for his challengers, particularly Mitt Romney:

Now, what’s said on the campaign trail — those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities.  They’re not Commander-in-Chief.  And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war.  I’m reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle, and the impacts that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy.

This is not a game.  There’s nothing casual about it.  And when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we’ve been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that’s more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem.

Now, the one thing that we have not done is we haven’t launched a war.  If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so.  And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be.  Everything else is just talk.

Contrast all that to Mitt Romney’s bluster and relative recklessness, as exhibited in his speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Tuesday. After lying about Obama’s “naive outreach to Iran” and his “current policy of procrastination,” Romney said:

I will make sure Iran knows of the very real peril that awaits if it becomes nuclear. I will engage Iran’s neighbors. I will station multiple carriers and warships at Iran’s door. I will stand with the Syrian people who are being mercilessly slaughtered. I know that the fall of Assad would not only be an important victory for liberty, but also a strategic blow to Tehran.

Blah, blah, blah. But most appallingly, Romney raised up Ronald Reagan from the dead for some self-serving love:

I believe the right course is what Ronald Reagan called “peace through strength.” There is a reason why the Iranians released the hostages on the same day and at the same hour that Reagan was sworn into office. As President, I will offer that kind of clarity, strength, and resolve.

The bottom line: Elect Mitt Romney as president and the ayatollahs’ resolve will melt in his presence; their theocratic minds will bend to the Mormon’s determination. It is just that easy, isn’t it?

Except there is a profound contradiction in Romney’s strategy. He previously said,

There are some in this administration who argue that Iran’s leaders are “rational,” and that we can do business with them. The President speaks of common interests. Let me be clear: we do not have common interests with a terrorist regime. Their interest is in the destruction of Israel and the domination of the Middle East. It is profoundly irrational to suggest that the ayatollahs think the way we do or share our values. They do not.

Let me see. The ayatollahs are not rational but rationally recognized that Ronald Reagan meant business and they let go of the hostages out of fear. And these same irrational ayatollahs will somehow rationally conclude that President Mittens will blow them home to Allah, should they not see the light.

How does that work? How do irrational folks we can’t do business with and with whom we have no common interests respond rationally and do business with us out of a common interest not to get blown up?

Another Way To Think About Iran

Here is a headline from today’s Wall Street Journal:

Clearly, coordinated sanctions are putting pressure on Iran, but no one knows what that increased pressure will ultimately bring. In the mean time, we have the political dynamics here at home to digest and to understand and quite possibly to fear.

Michael Brenner, Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, began a piece on The Huffington Post last month with this line:

The drums are sounding for war on Iran.

He noted that “Republican presidential candidates pledge military action as soon as they cross the threshold of the White House,” and that the Obama administration accompanies its policy of “coercive sanctions” with sharp rhetoric and pressure on our allies to join us “in confrontation.” Israel, he says, is pushing “the United States into war mode.”  The media is working hard “to stoke fears in a manner reminiscent of the build-up to the Iraq invasion.”

All true, as far as I can see. What is missing, Brenner argues,

is a sober assessment of the problem and what are suitable approaches to addressing it.

The following is a brief outline of his assessment and the approaches he suggests. I would urge all readers to follow the link for more details, because what Brenner says, right or wrong, is not a point of view on the Iran dilemma that you will encounter very often, especially on television news:

1) “Iran will never forego the option of developing a nuclear capability that is crucial to their objective security needs.”

2) “Therefore, sanctions and other means short of war will not work.”

3) “The undeclared war by other means that we are conducting confirms the security imperative and solidifies a national consensus [in Iran] on the nuclear issue.

4) “Somehow neutralizing the potentially destabilizing effects of the Iranian nuclear program requires reaching a set of understandings and putting in place arrangements that satisfy the basic security interests of all parties in the Gulf region.”

5) “Talks on the nuclear question that ignore the above are doomed to failure.”

6) “To paint the Islamic Republic as the epitome of evil and to pursue a veiled strategy of regime change makes serious negotiation impossible.”

7) “This logic holds despite the Islamic Republic being a noxious regime that has abused its citizens.”

8)  “Consequently Washington’s tiptoeing to the brink of conflict puts us in the position of either backing away and thereby losing face and credibility (along with votes for Mr. Obama in November) or taking military action whose effects would be disastrous.”

Conclusion: if you feel it is imperative to deny Iran a nuclear capability, then get ready for a costly war and chaotic aftermath. More and more aggressive coercion short of military action has no hope of resolution; it could bring on war unintentionally, however. Let’s be honest about what we want and the full implications of going after it.

American post-9/11 imperial ambitions have been driven by the belief in absolute and total security. That has meant military and political domination of the Greater Middle East. In reckless pursuit of this delusional goal, our schemes have founded against the harsh realities of international life. It would be tragic if the curtain falls on a scene of a cataclysmic failure of our own making.


If you have followed the GOP primary and observed the candidates as they vandalize reason right before your eyes and ears, you rightly suspect that should one of the top dogs achieve power, a war with Iran is soon to follow.

Fortunately, there are wiser heads thinking about the problems with Iran, and Wednesday’s Morning Joe featured Bob Woodward, David Ignatius and Zbigniew Brzezinski discussing—intelligently—those problems and what even a small foreign policy misstep can mean in that part of the world, as well here at home:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Iraq And Iran, Truth And Consequences

Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was asked this morning on MSNBC what he thought about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Here is his reply:

We are beginning to face the reality of what we have accomplished, namely, that we have destabilized Iraq; we have destroyed it as a state; we have reignited sectarian conflicts; we have contributed to ethnic distinctions between the Kurds and the Iraqis. 

We have a problem on our hands, which we didn’t solve by war, and which we cannot resolve anymore because we can’t continue to war indefinitely. It is a contribution to greater middle-eastern instability. 

Even as we see that sectarian violence has increased since we left Iraq, Mr. Brzezinski notes that, 

There are some people who are overtly arguing now—overtly!—that we should start a war with Iran. I don’t think that’s going to be exactly a very constructive contribution to greater middle-east instability…starting wars in the Middle East was not the solution ten years ago and it is not a solution two or three years hence… 

If Republicans want to make Iran an election issue, Democrats should welcome it. If Republicans don’t want to make it an issue, Democrats should insist on it. If there ever is a war with Iran, it should be because we are forced into it, not because conservatives talk us into another foolish preemptive act.

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