Monday, June 30, 2008

Iran: The Threat

Thomas Powers in the NY Review of Books brings yet further insight into the makings of WW-III. First the escalation in foreign policy, then the escalating resistance to this movement from within the Pentagon;
At a moment of serious challenge, battered by two wars, ballooning debt, and a faltering economy, the United States appears to have lost its capacity to think clearly. Consider what passes for national discussion on the matter of Iran. The open question is whether the United States should or will attack Iran if it continues to reject American demands to give up uranium enrichment. Ignore for the moment whether the United States has any legal or moral justification for attacking Iran. Set aside the question whether Iran, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently claimed in a speech at West Point, "is hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons." Focus instead on purely practical questions. By any standards Iran is a tough nut to crack: it is nearly three times the size of Texas, with a population of 70 million and a big income from oil which the world cannot afford to lose. Iran is believed to have the ability to block the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf through which much of the world's oil must pass on its way to market.

Keep in mind that the rising price of oil already threatens the world's economy. Iran also has a large army and deep ties to the population of Shiite coreligionists next door in Iraq. The American military already has its hands full with a hard-to-manage war in Iraq, and is proposing to send additional combat brigades to deal with a growing insurgency in Afghanistan. And yet with all these sound reasons for avoiding war with Iran, the United States for five years has repeatedly threatened it with military attack. These threats have lately acquired a new edge.
Whether the threats of massive escalation materialize, or not, the consequences to the American way of life are going to be pretty much indistinguishable.
With its time in power rapidly running out, the Bush administration is mired in two frustrating wars, stretched thin militarily, living on borrowed money, and exhausted intellectually. It would be hard to name a time when the United States faced a wider range of political problems, or had better reasons to avoid additional military entanglements. Bush and Cheney concede nothing of the kind, but promise "serious consequences" for continued Iranian defiance. It is a strange fact that the locus of opposition to attack on Iran is not in Congress but in the Pentagon, where an insider told the reporter Seymour Hersh two years ago, "There is a war about the war going on inside the building." When the administration planned to add a third aircraft carrier group to the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf, the move was blocked by the then newly promoted chief of Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, who told friends that war with Iran "isn't going to happen on my watch."

Until his resignation in March, Fallon often contradicted and undermined the tough talk of the administration, speaking dismissively about the prospects of war with Iran. "Another war is just not where we want to go," he told the Financial Times. "This constant drumbeat of conflict...is not helpful and not useful," he said to al-Jazeera television. In recent months Fallon also traveled in Afghanistan and spoke at candid length with the military writer Thomas Barnett, who was working on an article for Esquire. When the article was ready to go to the printer Fallon invited an Esquire photographer to Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, to take his picture. War with Iran, yes or no, Barnett wrote, would "all come down to one man"—Fallon. The White House was not happy with Fallon's interference, Barnett reported. Washington rumor said Fallon's time was short. His removal, Barnett predicted, "may well mean that the president and vice-president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year...." A week after Barnett's piece appeared in Esquire, Gates announced that Fallon was retiring at his own request. The Esquire article had been the talk of the Pentagon nonstop; leaked stories were coming from all directions. Fallon wasn't just on his way out; Gates said he would be gone by the end of the month.

Fallon's open and outspoken resistance to the idea of war with Iran represents something new and extraordinary—maybe. It is too early to be sure. But beneath the surface of recent statements by Fallon, Gates, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, something large seems to be swelling up—resistance by the Pentagon to passive acceptance of a wider war. To see the shape of the conflict one must first accept the seriousness of both parties—the administration in making its threats to stop Iran's nuclear program, and Pentagon officials when they say a wider war would be practically difficult and strategically unnecessary.

This showdown—if it is truly taking place—has been a long time coming. Ten years ago a young Army major, H.R. McMaster, published a history of American escalation of the war in Vietnam, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. McMaster's argument, stripped to its core, was that against their own best judgment the joint chiefs passively acquiesced to White House pressure to expand the war. Johnson, with his eye on a second term, did not want to be the first American president to lose a war, and the joint chiefs did not want to run their careers aground. Despite the harshness of McMaster's conclusion his book was widely read in the Pentagon and made a deep impression on a generation of rising officers, many of them now of flag rank and in positions of responsibility.[*]
National bankruptcy with or without the reorganization and force majeure of world war is going to prove a wrenching and protracted period in the history of the republic no matter what.