The encirclement of Iran

Thousands of US troops are deploying to Israel. The Israeli military announced it as a major missile defense exercise with its ally. The reason for this “defense” preparation is the big, scary country on the other side of the Middle East.

CBS news reports the Israeli military as saying the drill had been long anticipated and was unrelated to recent events. The article explained the drill would take place “as tension between Iran and the international community escalates”, as if Iran is defiantly taking on the world, rather than being pummeled into submission. If we are not sure who the aggressor is in this conflict, let us review the facts.

  • Iran is, at present, surrounded by US military bases. If everyone in your neighbourhood were armed to the teeth and yelling about how dangerous you were, would you feel threatened?
  • In recent years, the US has invaded and occupied two of those neighbours, Afghanistan and Iraq, for all the same reasons it may want to occupy Iran. Iran has oil; it is strategically located; it is a manufactured enemy; Americans do not know anything about the country except that it’s evil, and will thus give the green light to their politicians.
  • Israelis have been subjected for years to media bombardment about the perils of an Ahmadinejad-led, nuclear-armed Iran. There seems to be broad consensus in the Israeli right wing and other circles that the Islamic Republic cannot wait to “wipe Israel off the map”. Again, the enemy is largely manufactured and sold by elites who want more war.

John Tirman of the MIT Center for International Studies points out the “peculiar” time for the march to war: the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Is it time for Operation Iranian Liberation? The foolishness with which the US stumbled into Iraq in 2003 is repeating itself.

Politicians in the US and Israel are screaming about the need to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran attacks the countries with the two most dangerous militaries in the world. The think tanks, who said US troops would be treated as liberators and that the oil would pay for the war, and media commentators, who did not question the government’s assessments of the threat from Iraq, are helping bring public opinion in line once again.

The US and the EU (“the international community”) are ramping up economic sanctions (but why?). Most recently, EU politicians have willingly endangered the European economy by moving toward choking Mediterranean countries’ oil supplies. Paul Stevens of Dundee University in Scotland says that Greece, which imports 30 percent of its oil from Iran, would be pushed off the cliff on which it is already perched. “It would utterly destroy the Greek economy.” Tough enough sanctions on Iran will not stop it from producing a nuclear weapon, which is, in fact, a very rational exercise for a state expecting to be attacked. (In fact, Iran has been under attack for thirty years. They may, however, repeat the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as the sanctions on Iraq did to that country during the 1990s.

Needless to say, full-blown war with Iran would be devastating. The war on Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of people and rendered the country intractably unstable for a long time to come for no other reason than to please the Washington power elite. And what is the desired outcome? National security? Can national security ever be achieved by waging endless wars? No, suggest the history of Israel and the 9/11 attacks. The entire Middle East and Central Asia could be engulfed in war.

Warmakers are not merely shortsighted, though. They understand the consequences. More devastation, more instability, more religious extremism, more terrorism, more pain: these are all foreseen and desired outcomes. More instability in western Asia will mean two things that keep the powerful happy: higher oil and gas prices, and more enemies to fight and justify more military intervention. If the elites can benefit, the war with Iran will no longer be clandestine, and millions of people could die as a result.

Why war is wrong, part 2: counting the costs

When, after many battles past,
Both, tired with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! Taxes, widows, wooden legs and debt. — Samuel B. Pettengill

Your money is going toward killing people you do not know. The War on Terror, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the War on Drugs, the drone wars… Can we awaken from this nightmare yet? Can we at least stop paying for wars that are bankrupting us? Unfortunately, as with everything governments do, we do not have a choice.

The full costs are hard to count. Modern governments finance wars with debt, which means we will be paying for many years to come. When we are shown the costs of wars, we usually only see the direct budgetary costs. As such, it is widely reported that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost about $1 trillion. Though a truly enormous figure in itself, the one trillion statistic obscures the money the warmakers cannot account for, the costs of treatment and pensions for soldiers, compensation to the families of the over 6000 US troops killed (not much compensation for Iraqi or Afghani families, though) and debt financing. The war in Iraq almost definitely made oil prices rise by at least $10 a barrel. The actual figure for the costs of the war may well be over $3 trillion. Three trillion dollars. Barack’s first defense budget came to $685.1b, which means it grew, and hit $708.3b for 2011, which means it is growing. Oh, and $20b has been spent just on air conditioning, but wars in the desert will require that. It is also going toward military bands, but only to the tune of a billion dollars a year.

A keynesian might say that this money has been well spent because it has stimulated the economy. No, it hasn’t. It can’t. It has dragged down the economy with higher debt, higher oil prices, higher costs to veterans, fewer jobs, higher interest rates and trillions of dollars diverted from the productive sector of the economy to the destructive government sector. The wars exacerbated the economic crisis in which the US is still entangled. But if even keynesianism worked, how do we account for the money that is missing?

In October 2009, the Inspector General of the US Department of Defense released a report that exposed various “significant deficiencies” in Pentagon balance sheets from fiscal years 2004 to 2008. The Department of Defense has never been audited. But by examining the various internal audits that have been carried out, along with the opaque system of contracting, the report uncovered more than $1 trillion in unsupported account entries.The Senate Finance Committee wrote a report a year later that took the Pentagon to task for its “total lack of fiscal accountability” for “leaving huge sums of the taxpayers’ money vulnerable to fraud and outright theft.” Fraud and theft are typical of all governments; but not all governments can raise and waste a trillion dollars and not have to face the guillotine. And since a democracy’s only real way to hold anyone at all to account is elections, the unelected bureaucrats at the departments have little to fear.

One example of this wastage is the $6.6b in cash the Pentagon for some reason thought it wise to fly in a plane over to Iraq. It has presumably been stolen, but who knows? How could any organisation, especially one that is barely accountable to anyone, account for all the trillions of dollars it goes through? It is too big and too opaque to audit. The role of special interests in taking your money to spread war is well documented. (Here is a primer.) If you need an example of profligate handouts to war contractors, consider this: even after the scandal of the missing trillion dollars, the Pentagon requested another trillion to operate the fleet of Lockheed F-35s. Where do they get all this money from? They steal it from the private sector through taxation. Do you know how many hospitals that money could build for war victims? How many people we could educate with that money? Can the government ever stop spending and let us try?

In War Is a Racket, Major General Smedley Butler begins “[War] is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

Only insiders benefit, of course, and they make big money. As such, they have a major interest in keeping wars going and lying to everyone about why they must. According to Butler, at least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the first World War.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

He goes on to outline the financial interests that guided pre-WW2 Allied policy from supporting to opposing Japan, and how the costs of war and expansion are borne by taxpayers. Foreign involvement from 1898 saw the origin of the debt crisis that the US is struggling with today. Smedley details the enormous earnings of various corporations from WW1, some of whom produced things that were never used. Aside from the probable fact that today’s wars are more costly and more groups have their hands out, little has changed.

The main imperialist powers will naturally be the richest ones. States with liberalised economies have strong economies. Oppressive states do not have free economies and thus have trouble sustaining wars. Only a state with a strong economy could afford to keep a powerful military machine going indefinitely. The US went through Vietnam and survived to learn nothing from it; the USSR lost the war in Afghanistan and collapsed.

Military powers continue to spend countless sums developing new weapons that make killing easier and more efficient. The contractors make big money, with Lockheed Martin coming out on top, pocketing $36b from the US government in 2010 alone. Though the government contracting business is a somewhat opaque process, we see big corporations making tens of billions from governments who like war as a way to suck the people’s money from them and enlarge their own budgets. They ostensibly aim at eliminating civilian casualties, but in the wars they fight, insurgents, terrorists or whoever your enemy is blend with civilians, and the proportion of civilian casualties to bad guys has not gone down. Pilots still bomb or gun down people on the ground from thousands of feet in the air and get called brave heroes by the politicians benefiting from the war.

So inside the US, the current imperial power, is very liberal, and as such its economy is strong. However, because it is able to project its power, it does so, to disastrous effect for large parts of the rest of the world. The American people believe in the freedom the US has internally and want the best for others, so they are easily won over to illiberal wars by promises to free the people of their dictator. But the differences between the countries the US (and now NATO) goes to war with are not moral ones. The rich countries simply have the power to project themselves into other people’s affairs, they can get away with it because only voting keeps them in check (and foreign policy does not hold voters’ attention), and the countries they pick on are so weak—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen—they could not possibly put up a real fight.

Libya is a case in point. Barack did not ask Congress for permission to go to war, even though he is required to do so according to the Constitution. (I like the US Constitution but it does not seem to be much more than a piece of paper anymore.) Barack’s people said the war would last “days, not weeks”, and it lasted six months. The interveners’ original mandate was a no-fly zone to protect people that was soon expanded without authorisation from the Security Council to picking sides, assassination and regime change. On May 13, after nearly two months of fighting, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the war had cost $750m. It doesn’t seem like a lot for an organisation that spent $3t on Iraq, but then that figure is an official government figure and probably includes only the costs of bullets, missiles and fuel, not the planes themselves, the salaries of the soldiers, the money for the rebels, the post-conflict reconstruction (if there is any), and whatever else we do not know about. And the interveners were quick to recognise the rebel forces as government, which means a) there was no consultation of the people (so at least the decision was democratic), b) the world will be expected to look away when the rebels, now the good guys, commit atrocities, and c) the rebels will be pliable to the demands of foreign governments (which will presumably mean no-bid contracts to their oil friends). Is this self-determination for the Libyan people?

That said, for the sake of fairness, the war is over and Qaddafi is gone, which might be the best outcome we could have expected, and some credit must go to NATO. Even though this post condemns war, it seems to me wise to judge events on their eventual outcomes. If Libya becomes much freer and more prosperous as a result of NATO intervention, it may have been worth it. If history is anything to go by, Libya will not be much better off after Qaddafi.

All these invasions send a clear message to states like North Korea that have or are developing nuclear weapons: keep them. Nuclear weapons are a highly rational statist enterprise. It is fundamentally out of the question to attack a country with a nuclear weapon because it might use it. So North Korea, Iran and whomever else the US and Israel talk tough about, hold on tight to your nukes if you want to hold on to your regime.

Only spending by an organisation with an unlimited budget could have produced the nuclear bomb. North Korea could never have built such a bomb from scratch. Only a democracy could. Only a democracy has the money and the ability for scientific openness, and yet the ability to appropriate billions of dollars (in 1940s money) for secret projects. And for the incalculable sum spent on research and development to gain an advantage in killing others, the advantage often does not even last until the end of the war, because another state can steal secrets or develop its own special killing machines.

You do not benefit from war. You only lose. Imperialists benefit, as they get to control more and more territory; military hardware firms benefit from generous contracts; civilians, soldiers and so on do not benefit. Unfortunately, those people are mostly sheep. Every society has a few “deep thinkers” and a large number of “sheep thinkers”. Sheep thinking not only limits our imagination; it could have enormous consequences. In Nuremberg Diary, Gustave Gilbert recounts a conversation he had with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, who revealed a deep understanding of the ability of the elites to control the sheeplike masses.

Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?…But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

History shows innumerable examples of the public’s approval of or even pushing for war. So often the elites throw the war into the open because of some high political squabble and make everyone think they need to go to war. As the idea of war mixes and churns in political discourse, in the media and in the minds of the people, it soon becomes a given that we must go to war. After all, we are under attack.

Terrorism is overblown? You bet it is

Weeki Wachee Springs--Potential Terrorist Target

Is the threat of terrorism overblown? Could it be? I am still studying the American public’s answers to that question, but to scholars who study it, there is little doubt. The infinitesimal odds of dying in a terrorist attack are rarely made clear to many Americans, but if they were they could cast some doubt on the usefulness of the Department of Homeland Security (national security through colour code), the truthiness of political discourse and how threatening al-Qaeda actually is. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them is clear and sensible thought for a world of headless chickens.

John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University, who also wrote “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons” for the journal International Security a couple of years before the Soviet Union collapsed, begins his book by throwing out empty rhetoric about “the age of terror” in which we live and ushers in some perspective. Statistically, including 9/11, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s is similar to the number killed by deer or allergies to peanuts. One is more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist, and yet our reactions to the one successful terrorist attack on American soil have been so absurd that after invading two countries and killing hundreds of thousands, the American public still fears another surprise attack.

This attack could take the form of nuclear weapons, perhaps from the ever-present boogeymen of Iran or North Korea. But as Mueller points out in Foreign Policy (and in Overblown), terrorists’ exploding nuclear weapons all over the place is almost impossible. We have been afraid of them for more than 60 years, and since then not one has gone off accidentally, been sold to a terrorist or found its way to Manhattan. Chemical and biological weapons, too, fail the terrorist test: they are simply too difficult to develop and wield with any effectiveness. And why would they? The 9/11 hijackers had no WMDs because they did not need them.

And yet, the panic over nuclear or WMD terrorism, or any other kind, was high for years following 9/11. On Feb 11, 2003, FBI chief Robert Mueller told the Senate Committee on Intelligence “the greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet identified” and claimed somehow to know that “al-Qaeda maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning.” When he went back to the committee two years later, he never mentioned the secret FBI report that said that after more than three years of intense hunting, the agency had not found a single terrorist sleeper cell in the US, even though the 2002 intelligence estimate said there were up to 5000 terrorists connected somehow to al-Qaeda. Perhaps this oversight was induced by paranoia, as was presumably that which led George Bush to talk about nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein in the same breath.

The media have contributed generously to the terror potluck. Politicians and bureaucrats have an incentive to issue vague warnings from time to time in case there is an attack and they are accused of not preventing it. In Mueller’s words, “[s]ince 9/11 the American public has been treated to seemingly endless yammering in the media about terrorism. Politicians and bureaucrats may feel that, given the public concern on the issue, they will lose support if they appear insensitively to be downplaying the dangers of terrorism.” It is as if each news program, each politician, each government spokesperson baits his competitors into saying more about terrorism, how wonderful America is, and how bad our enemies are going to get it. But our enemies are not the only ones who have suffered at our hands.

9/11 has cost money. Nearly $10b per year is spent on airport security, not including Homeland Security’s $50b budget. A sense of urgency to protect every possible terrorist target has meant a big increase in government spending with the usual billion dollar riders tacked on to each bill. (Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs, in the photo above, was happy to receive funding for preventive counterterrorism. Fortunately, his water park has not yet been a victim.) Visa restrictions have kept out scientists, engineers and businesspeople who could have helped the US economy. But never mind those costs: they are for security. No price is too high for a colour-coded warning system. The true costs of 9/11 are in the wars that would not have been politically possible without it. Hundreds of billions will have been spent on Afghanistan and at least three trillion will have gone toward Iraq after it is all over. Surely if those wars have saved lives and prevented terrorism, they are good wars. But all accounts say they have not.

9/11 has cost lives. One estimate is that more than 1000 people died between September 11 and December 31 of 2001 after they canceled planned trips by plane and took their cars instead. Another study found that in the same time period, 17% of Americans outside New York continued suffering shell shock. More obviously are the two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, which have claimed thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis in the name of nebulous ideals, false security warnings and failed intelligence.

Professor Mueller provides refreshing views not only of the present unwarranted panic but of historically parallel ones too. Pearl Harbour was described by observers at the time as catastrophic, devastating, crushing, “the greatest military and naval disaster in our nation’s history”. More realistically, however, it was an inconvenience. A colossal overreaction ensued in which a hundred thousand Americans were killed for the loss of 2403 in the initial attack. 120,000 Japanese people, two-thirds of them American citizens, were sent to detention camps without trial. Much more historical analysis provided in Overblown describes additional speculative fears and their consequences that, with hindsight, were exceedingly foolish.

John Mueller is part of a line of thinkers, from sociologists and other scholars to Michael Moore and George Carlin, who explain the destructive effects of the fact that, in the latter’s words, Americans panic easily. From Afghanistan and Iraq to freedom at home, this panic has for years led to the trading of lives and liberties for the illusion of security. Professor Mueller does not touch on the less obvious effects of 9/11 that we are dealing with to this day. For instance, while I believe the Iraq War would not have happened without 9/11, I also believe it is the continued fear of al-Qaeda and militant Islam and the Middle East and anyone who wears a turban that is pushing some Americans toward war with Iran. The mentality seems to be, “You think 9/11 was bad? When Iran gets a nuclear weapon…” Such a belief is only speculation, though. Overblown offers a much-needed clearer-headed response to terrorism than to try to blow it up.

Greens, nukes, fears: untangling Iran

Iran is not a place easy to explain in a few sentences, or even in a few books. As those who observe (rather than avert their eyes from) Iran can tell you, it is a land of contrasts. It is simultaneously a democracy and a theocratic dictatorship. Its Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) is highly reactionary. Its president spouts silly racist slurs against Israel and Jews while ignoring the fact that Iran’s own Jewish population is a protected minority. Naturally, Iran poses us questions many feel must be answered soon. To reduce the dangers from the falsehoods typically circulated in our media, better understanding of Iran would be beneficial.

Twelve months ago, I cautioned against too much wishful thinking regarding Iran’s election and its Green Movement. People living outside Iran, many of whom do not know anything about the country, were quick to pounce on the claim that Iran’s election was fraudulent. Not long after, two scholars went through all widely-published accusations and discredited them. As the Green Movement protesters picked up steam, many well-meaning Americans and Europeans rooted for whom the media told them were the good guys. The news from Iran was so difficult to ascertain that the hopeful relied on rumours as much as reporting. Twitter was the frequently-quoted medium that was apparently being used by the Green Movement to coordinate their actions. However, as Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post, “Twitter’s impact inside Iran is zero…. Here, there is lots of buzz, but once you look… you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.” Outsiders believed, for example, that Oxfordgirl, a Twitter profile, was, in her own words, “almost coordinating people’s individual movements” by cell phone on days of protests. She presumably hoped no one would mention that the Iranian government shut down cell phone networks on days of protests. It also made little sense for all the supposed protesters to tweet in English when they were in Iran. Oxfordgirl gained great publicity for herself, but did little to aid protesters.

The Green Movement was disappointing to those praying that Iran would collapse in on itself or undergo a democratic revolution. However, a revolution is not what all of its members were fighting for. The Greens have been better described as a civil rights movement than a revolutionary one. Siavash Saffari, a scholar at the University of Alberta, points to the various forms that protest in Iran has taken since last year’s election: a recent general strike in Iran’s Kurdish area, demands from labour organisations for rights and vigorous debate among Iranians about Iran’s direction. Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at Colombia University, deplores the support the well-meaning crowd gave the Greens as typical, ignorant, self-indulgent Orientalism that is more likely to hurt relations with Iran than give the movement the support it needs. Twisted perceptions built up the Green Movement into something it was not and disillusion with it was inevitable. Only sober thinking will help us understand enough about Iran to make wise decisions regarding its nuclear programme.

Frankly, I am opposed to my having any power over another state’s goals, but the belief among Americans that the world’s business is America’s business is not about to go away. But perhaps the demonisation of Iran, its branding as a fanatical Muslim state desperate to get nuclear weapons so it can wipe Israel off the map could be dispelled with a little clarity. Iran is not Nazi Germany. It is not about to invade its neighbours or attempt to obliterate Israel. In fact, it probably could not if it wanted. In spite of its president’s posturing, Iran’s military budget is smaller per capita than any other state in the Gulf beside the UAE (an ally of the US). To whom does it pose a threat?

To Israel? To the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the best trained militaries in the world, with its nuclear arsenal and its ability to crush any military in the Middle East? I have discussed the infinitesimal likelihood Iran will attack Israel elsewhere. In my opinion, Israel is far more likely to use nuclear weapons on Iran than vice versa. Israel has been involved in numerous wars, large and small, since its founding in 1948. Iran has spent most of the last hundred and fifty years fighting colonialist oppression, and has not once in that time invaded a neighbour. Given their records, who is more likely to fire on whom?

Iran’s government is often accused of funding and supplying arms to Hamas. This support is then employed as an excuse not to talk to Iran, or Hamas as the case may be. However, former senior British diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock said in an interview with the BBC that Hamas is not politically tied to Iran. On a logical level, if Iran is supplying Hamas with arms, it is a sign of Iran’s weakness, not its strength. Hamas has no tanks, no aircraft, no ships, no artillery, no missiles besides Qassam rockets, which are so weak that of the nearly 10,000 fired at Israel in the past decade, just over 20 have actually killed anyone. It is well known that Iran supports Hezbollah (though that support recently came in the form of reconstruction aid, as Iran helped rebuild Lebanon after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war), but like Hamas, Hezbollah poses little threat to Israel’s existence. Meanwhile, the Badr Corps, a key US ally in Iraq, was once part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The US government has designated the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation (even though it has never engaged in terrorism) and the Badr Corps a pillar of Iraq’s democracy.

In 2003, the US led an invasion of Iraq based partly on the testimony of a few exiled Iraqis and orientalist scholars who assured Americans they would be treated as liberators. Their Iranian counterparts and many of the same “experts” are providing Americans with the same lies in an attempt to lead the US into yet another foolish foreign adventure. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, who backed the invasion of Iraq, warns with his dispensable eloquence that Iran’s leaders might follow through on Ayatollah Kharrazi’s threat to establish a Greater Iran in Bahrain and the UAE. Such people have some difficulty in understanding people in other parts of the world because they are not able to put themselves in the shoes of those from other cultures. They believe that all the world’s people want democracy, which to them means political parties and a constitution. But Juan Cole, who has lived in and studied the Muslim world for many years, says that among Muslims he has met, democracy means freedom from foreign oppression. As ironic as it may seem, this revelation means that dictatorship would be viewed more favourably by Muslims than American-backed political competition. Iran, having suffered all manner of foreign intervention, is no exception.

Iran is probably developing a nuclear weapon, and its leaders will probably continue to promise violence. But a look at the evidence says there is little reason to worry that Iran’s leaders’ threats are worth heeding. What are we so afraid of? Listening to an adversary? Fortunately, the truth is available to all of us, waiting to be found, ready to disprove any of the fears that could warrant war with Iran.

Iran is Nazi Germany and other fairy tales

Benny Morris is one of Israel’s so-called “new historians”, a group of relative misfits in Israeli academia who dared, in the 1980s, to contradict the traditional narratives about the birth of Israel. He was one of the first to shatter the once widely accepted belief in Israel that hundreds of thousands Palestinians had left their homes in 1948 (the Nakba) because invading Arab armies told them to (in fact, it was because of Jewish violence). He has written several books since then and generally stuck to the facts. He has been considered pro-Palestinian and left-wing (refusing to serve in the West Bank during the first Intifada), but for the past decade or so he has become more of an ideologue, showing his true nationalist credentials.

Most recently, Morris wrote an opinion piece for the LA Times called “When Armageddon lives next door“. In it, he argues that President Barack is turning his back on Israel at a time when it is in mortal danger from Iran. Because Iran’s president has announced publicly that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, and because Iran seems to be building a nuclear bomb, Morris concludes that the US and Israel must attack Iran.

As with many like-minded people, Morris likens Iran with Nazi Germany. He reminds us that the international community did not take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late. Barack is too busy “obsessing over the fate of the ever-aggrieved Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip” and not spending enough time threatening Iran with military force. He says that Iran’s primary goal with its nuclear weapon is to destroy Israel. Engagement with Iran has failed and the US must either attack Iran itself or at least give Israel the green light to do so itself. “[T]he clock,” Morris warns us, “is ticking.”

Unfortunately, Benny Morris has been spending too much time reading Israeli newspapers and not enough time studying Iran. Morris’s article was written not by a historian but by an ideologue attempting to scare Americans into favouring war on Iran. His first mistake is his belief that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the power to fire nuclear weapons at Israel. As Reza Aslan, who does study Iran, asserts, the president of Iran is effectively powerless. It is not the president but the mullahs who will decide on the use of Iran’s nuclear weapons, or any weapons. The president talks tough about Israel, but given the menacing climate among the Israeli press, Israeli public opinion and Israeli government statements, he would look cowardly not to. Iranians presumably voted for him (at least the first time) because hardliners are the choice of people who feel under threat of war. Moreover, Morris has committed the Poli Sci 101 fallacy in believing that, because a politician says something he is bound to put it into action.

Second, comparing Iran with Nazi Germany is slimy, populist rhetoric with no basis in fact. Nazi Germany was a racist regime that continuously fed its people with anti-Jewish, anti-communist, anti-everyone propaganda. Iran is multicultural, and has no record of turning on its ethnic minorities. There are over 10,000 Jews in Iran, and they are allocated one seat in the Iranian parliament. Nazi Germany was, at its height, one of the major military powers of the world. Iran will probably never be one. It is relatively small, a middle income country, a third rate military power that has never expressed irredentist territorial ambitions. It is rife with internal dissent and any major actions that would lead to war would be unpopular enough at least to unseat the government.

Third, Morris claims that Barack’s attempts at engagement with Iran have failed. However, the Barack administration has not tried to appeal to Iran. Barack has generally kept Iran in a headlock and called it reaching out. I think we can forgive Iranians for not taking, say, a flurry of effort to impose sanctions on Iran as engagement. Real diplomacy is not all sticks.

Fourth, Iran is trying to position itself as a protector of Muslims in the Middle East. Given that 16% of Israeli citizens are Muslims, and that a nuclear bomb would almost inevitably strike Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest city, how could Iran attack Israel with indiscriminate weapons and continue to hope for support from coreligionists?

Finally, as I have said repeatedly, Iran poses little military threat to Israel. All the people worrying about one or two bombs that could be fired at Israel ignore the fact that Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, most of which is likely aimed at various Iranian hotspots. Israel has one of the best trained and equipped militaries in the world. And it is close partners with the preeminent military superpower of our time. A nuclear strike on Israel would be justification enough for the US to join in Israel in attacking Iran, which would soon be reduced to rubble.

Alarmist rhetoric like Morris’s shows that he has strayed from a critically thinking and sober historian to a media hack that advocates the worst policies for Israel and the world. One thing he does know, however, is that fear is a powerful lever under the feet of those unacquainted with the facts.

Barack’s foreign policy: change or continuity?

Two very learned men have recently written treatises analysing the Barack administration’s foreign policy. Tariq Ali is a socialist, a historian and an editor of the New Left Review. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a realist, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University and former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. Though these men are not actually debating each other, I have chosen to put them in a post and let them duke it out. The question before them is, does Barack Obama’s foreign policy represent a break with that of his predecessors, or a continuation of it?

Tariq has no doubt: Barack has not broken the trajectory of US imperium. The end of the disastrous Bush administration being over, we all believed change was in the air. “Rarely has self-interested mythology—or well-meaning gullibility—been more quickly exposed.” The Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), is still “the central battlefield for the imposition of American power around the world.

Zbigniew, however, is less dismissive. Though he has not scored many major successes yet, Zbigniew notes, Barack has reordered American foreign policy with respect to all of its most important features, presenting “a strategically and historically coherent worldview.” But what, in effect, has changed? Let us delve deeper.

Whither the peace process?

Both men recognise Israel as central to American foreign policy. Tariq points out that Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, carefully timed to fall between Barack’s election and his inauguration, elicited not a word from the new president about the plight of the Palestinians. In fact, he expressed sympathy for the Israelis, who vocally championed their war against “Hamas”. Barack picked the “ultra-Zionist” (Tariq’s words) Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Like every US president, Barack has called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, an end to settlement building and the renunciation of terrorism. But settlement building, which necessarily includes demolishing Arab houses in the Occupied Territories, is continuing, Palestinians are getting angrier, and peace seems as remote as ever. With no change in the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, we can expect more of the same.

Zbigniew reminds us that the reordering of Barack’s foreign policy includes the essential ideas that Islam is not the enemy and the War on Terror is not the focal point of American foreign policy anymore; and that the US will be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it has to be if the fighting is ever to end. Jews and Arabs will never achieve peace on their own. “[T]he Palestinians are too divided and too weak to make the critical decisions necessary to push the peace process forward, and the Israelis are too divided and too strong to do the same.” But Zbigniew agrees with Tariq that the push for peace, the necessary stimulus only the US government can provide, has not been forthcoming. He outlines the international consensus on the necessary conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace: no right of return for Palestinian refugees; a shared Jerusalem; a two-state solution along the 1948 partition lines but that incorporate some of the larger West Bank settlements; and American or NATO troops stationed along the Jordan River to keep the peace. Barack has publicly urged these ideas, “[b]ut so far, the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward.

Questions on Iran

The structures of both articles are similar: both begin with Israel-Palestine, close with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and right in the centre is Iran. Zbigniew calls Barack’s declared intentions to pursue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme a step in the right direction. “[H]e has basically downgraded the U.S. military option, although it is still fashionable to say that ‘all options remain on the table.’” But two questions are central to this issue. First, are the Iranians willing to negotiate? They are not about to give up uranium, but they may be persuaded not to produce the bomb. Second, are the Americans? “It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state, as a state that is not to be trusted, as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared. Doing that would simply play into the hands of the most hard-line elements in Iran. It would facilitate their appeal to Iranian nationalism, and it would narrow the cleavage that has recently emerged in Iran between those who desire a more liberal regime and those who seek to perpetuate a fanatical dictatorship.” Barack will not get what he wants with Iran by holding out one hand to shake and the other to punch.

Zbigniew expresses skepticism with sanctions, but admits they may become necessary. As a statesman, he points out that the US government should think strategically about their long term relations with Iran. Do they want Iran to become an ally once again? Or are they intent on treating it with hostility and potentially further destabilising an already unstable region? Despite all these questions, Zbigniew maintains that Barack has, so far, shown leadership on Iran.

Tariq writes from the premise that, regarding Iran policy in Washington, Israel is calling the shots. Because Iran continually (verbally) threatens Israel, and because the Israel Lobby ensures that a challenge to the Israeli monopoly on WMDs in the Middle East is intolerable, Barack has few friendly words for Persia. Barack initially considered “a forgive-and-forget dialogue with Tehran“. But when the protests began in Iran, “the opportunity for ideological posturing was too great to resist.” Barack sanctimoniously lamented the death of a protester in Tehran on the same day an American drone killed 80 civilians in Pakistan. Like George Bush, Barack is using his political capital to impose more sanctions and opprobrium on Iran. The air strikes, looming menacingly, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out, says Tariq, “if only because once the West at large—in this case not only Obama, but Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel—has pronounced any Iranian nuclear capability intolerable, little rhetorical room for retreat is left if this should materialize.” Along with Israel’s apologists, the Saudis want to cut off Iran’s influence in the Middle East and isolate it. Kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia is not new and is a clear indication that Barack has not broken with the past.

Escalation in Central Asia

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last, but not least important, of Barack’s priorities that our unwitting debaters touch on. Tariq has always been a critic of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, and sees Barack’s policies in the region as “widening the front of imperial aggression with a major escalation of violence, both technological and territorial.” In an article in 2008, Tariq takes apart the canard that Afghanistan is a “just war”, and he castigates Barack for keeping his promise to send more troops and firepower to crush the native resistance. He also takes the president to task for making no changes to the corrupt and undemocratic regime of Hamid Karzai. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Afghani guerrillas are not relenting and still control most of the country; drone attacks are up and killing more innocents; drug production is up, so global crime syndicates have an interest in continued instability in the region. In his scathing review, Tariq likens the AfPak war to Vietnam.

Zbigniew begins his section on Central Asia with “the United States must be very careful lest its engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still has primarily and most visibly a military dimension, comes to be viewed by the Afghans and the Pakistanis as yet another case of Western colonialism and elicits from them an increasingly militant response.” (I wonder if they do not already feel this way.) He does not advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan but neither recommends attempting to obliterate the resistance. The Northern Alliance and the Afghani government should be reaching out to the Taliban with concessions, attracting the ones it can and then defeating the remainder. The reality in the region “demands a strategy that is more political than military.” Barack should also strengthen the transatlantic alliance on Afghanistan and draw China in as a partner with a stake in regional stability.

Conclusions

Despite their different ideological points of view, Tariq Ali and Zbigniew Brzezinski are in agreement about one thing: Barack has not brought any big changes to the world through his foreign policy. Tariq’s thesis is that Barack has not broken with his predecessor. His rather cynical tone indicates that only the rhetoric has changed, and even the rhetoric continues to portray the typical manichean impulses of US governments: America bears a “special burden” in carrying the world; “Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering“; “The Palestinians must renounce violence“, and “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off” for American occupation. In other words, lower your expectations. The emperor has only changed his clothes.

Zbigniew propounds that, while he has restructured American foreign policy, which may lead to long term gains down the line, Barack has yet to make the changes everyone anticipates. His job will be to manage the complicated web of relationships, (if possible) break away from the domestic lobbies that his foreign policy is beholden to, and pursue the audacious vision he has set out in speeches. “[H]e has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.

My opinion is that the long term vision of a democratic and prosperous world that the US government has always claimed to pursue is so ethereal, and is causing such short term damage, that it is not worth the pain. Tariq’s article is a reminder that we must always consider our vision in light of the costs of our policies, and not simply the other way round. In this way, I agree with him. However, Tariq is not a statesman, and he does not consider the strategic side of the foreign policy equation. Zbigniew reminds Barack that he needs to effectively cultivate the strategic relationships with China, Russia and the like if he wants the US to remain the undisputed hegemon. He believes that American power can be a force for good in the world, and while I agree that it could be, it is often far more destructive than constructive. In the end, I believe that, if Barack wants to help the world, he should play to his strength, bringing people closer together, and leave the troops at home.

Ali, Tariq. “President of Cant.” New Left Review 61. January-February 2010. http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2821

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “From hope to audacity: appraising Obama’s foreign policy.” Foreign Affairs 89.1 (2010): 16. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals). Web. 25 Feb. 2010. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65720/zbigniew-brzezinski/from-hope-to-audacity

Sanctions on Iran? Let’s be Daoist about it

The Menso Guide to War’s good friend President Barack is proposing sanctions on Iran. Actually, he is proposing further sanctions on Iran. The history of US sanctions on Iran goes back to the deposing of the shah and the hostage crisis of 1979. Barack thinks more sanctions would be a good way to get what he wants in the Middle East, and many Americans support him. I am afraid, however, he is wading in over his head.

The proposed bill targets Iran’s dependence on imports for gasoline. The UN Security Council has passed several resolutions condemning Iran’s enrichment of uranium, because it could use uranium to make a nuclear weapon. In fact, it may already have a nuclear weapon. More resolutions express more accepted condemnation and as such give measures like sanctions (or military action, depending what the resolutions say) more legitimacy. Iran has violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So sanctions are justified to make it stop enriching uranium, right?

Not so fast. Why does Barack want sanctions on Iran? Is it a punishment? My homegirl Hillary has said that, if the sanctions could just target the “relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran”, they could serve the US’s goals. True, it may weaken the regime financially but it would also hurt the people, as sanctions often do–think of the deepening of poverty in Iraq during the 1990s. For instance, the $2b in Citibank belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that the US government froze in 2008 will likely be made up from other assets the Guard own in Iran. Someone always ends up paying, and it is rarely the elites. The people would be pushed into the hands of the hardliners, as I argue they already have been for years since the demonisation of Iran began under Bill Clinton and got no better under George Bush. This outside push on Iran is why a fool like Ahmadinejad can get elected there in the first place. If history is any guide, the people will not turn on their government if threatened or impoverished but run to it for protection.

Will tougher sanctions force a change in policy? Do Iranians even have a right to nuclear technology? For years now, the Iranian government has made it quite clear that it will enrich uranium whether the outside world likes it or not. And why should it? It has become part of the status quo that India, Israel and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons, and though they (along with North Korea) are the only four states not party to the non proliferation treaty, they are allies of the US. Israel gets into wars all the time: in the 62 years since 1948, Israel has fought 7 wars and 2 intifadas. India and Pakistan are continually at odds with one another, and though I disagree with him on Iran, Christopher Hitchens believes the India-Pakistan conflict is the most likely of the world to turn nuclear. Meanwhile, the US is trying to isolate Iran in the kind of double standard that makes international politics the confusing mess it is. If anyone tries to force Iran to give up nuclear capability of any kind, they will look like bullies and hypocrites.

Barack is using a sizeable amount of his political capital in the Security Council drumming up support for sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, the US government talks about how much it would like to talk to Iran and gently persuade it to do the right thing, but the ayatollahs just won’t cooperate. American politicians claim to be wide open to talking to Iran but wide open to bombing it to rubble as well. These arguments play well to the same voters as believe the mindless cliche that our enemies only understand the language of force. Aside from the fact that the claim that the US government is trying to engage Iran is doubtful, how do Hillary and Barack expect the Iranians to open up when they have been pushed away for two decades? You cannot push others away with one hand and expect them to shake your other one.

There seems to be surprisingly little discussion in Washington at the moment about the consequences of putting away all sanctions on Iran. If only American political culture were less impulsive and more Daoist. Daoism considers peace first. It favours non-action, which would be a propitious innovation for a culture that feels the need to move quickly forward in any direction. Daoists remain open minded and flexible, not committed to a single way of thinking, especially after that way has failed. And it believes in relativism, that what path might be right for one may not be right for all.

Perhaps that is why the Chinese government has said that more sanctions on Iran may not be necessary right now, and that it may be prudent to wait. (In truth, I believe Chinese government ideology is pragmatism, not Daoism, but Daoism is a good way to contrast the foreign affairs of the US and China.) It has declared its preference for dialogue over punishment. The Chinese government makes a habit of stating that it is not Chinese policy to interfere in other states’ affairs. It has backed sanctions in the past because like all nuclear powers it does not want anyone new in the club. But perhaps Chinese officials have realised that there are other ways to deal with adamant people.

Why are we so afraid of a nuclear Iran? It is not as if possession of nuclear weapons makes it likely or even possible to use them. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has made them all but useless. Yet Barack has made disarmament a major part of his foreign policy.

I am looking forward to a day when Daoists run the US State Department and liberals run the Revolutionary Guard. Perhaps then we will be able to talk to each other.