Is Olmert bumbling his way to war with Iran?
Even if the Democrats could be relied on to hold the line against insane military adventurism against Iran — and, frankly, listening to their leading lights I have my doubts — that’s unlikely to make any difference to the question of whether or not Iran is attacked. That’s because nobody even among the hawks is talking about a full-blown ground invasion; they’re talking about a series of air strikes that will supposedly destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. And you only have to go back to President Clinton’s 1998 cruise missile strikes on an aspirin factory in Sudan and a patch of dust Afghanistan to remember that the first Americans hear about such attacks will be after the fact.
By then, of course, it will be too late. U.S. intel and even the Israelis know that the best such strikes can hope to achieve would be to delay Iran’s nuclear program by a year or two. But it will also prompt a chain of events throughout the Middle East that will plunge the region into a war that leaves U.S. influence — and Israel’s prospects of survival — diminished. The Iranians will hit back, of course, in Iraq, and elsewhere. And the U.S. will be compelled to hit back, creating the pattern for a long war of bloody attrition.
One reason it won’t be debated publicly because it’s based on a fallacy promoted by a calculated campaign of hysteria by Israel’s leadership. Iran, right now, has no nuclear weapons program that anyone knows of — the Israelis however have opted to paint the very idea of uranium enrichment in Iran, quite legal under the NPT, into the first stanza of a new Holocaust. Israel’s demand that Iran be stopped, by force if necessary, from establishing the nuclear fuel cycle allowed under the NPT is untenable, I’ve argued elsewhere — the idea that any nation in the Middle East that creates the infrastructural capability to challenge Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region (creates the infrastructure that would allow this choice rather than actually pursue weapons) must face military sanctions is absurd and unsustainable. The only way to resolve this problem is to normalize relations in the region to create a basis for stability. But that’s not the way the Israeli or U.S. leadership sees it, which is why we’re heading for confrontation despite the U.S. election results.
Seymour Hersh, in a new New Yorker piece, explores the chances of a weakened Bush administration attacking Iran, and finds them to be pretty good. And one of the most revealing aspects of his piece is the fact that the Administration has been told by U.S. intelligence that there is, in fact, no evidence of a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program.
The Administration’s planning for a military attack on Iran was made far more complicated earlier this fall by a highly classified draft assessment by the C.I.A. challenging the White House’s assumptions about how close Iran might be to building a nuclear bomb. The C.I.A. found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program running parallel to the civilian operations that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
And in replay of the pre-Iraq war game, the White House hawks — led by Dick Cheney, who was always far more dangerous than Rumsfeld [EM] are rejecting the evidence and probably rallying bureaucratic power in a battle to override the intel community. Hersh again:
A current senior intelligence official confirmed the existence of the C.I.A. analysis, and told me that the White House had been hostile to it. The White House’s dismissal of the C.I.A. findings on Iran is widely known in the intelligence community. Cheney and his aides discounted the assessment, the former senior intelligence official said. “They’re not looking for a smoking gun,” the official added, referring to specific intelligence about Iranian nuclear planning. “They’re looking for the degree of comfort level they think they need to accomplish the mission.” The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency also challenged the C.I.A.’s analysis. “The D.I.A. is fighting the agency’s conclusions, and disputing its approach,” the former senior intelligence official said. Bush and Cheney, he added, can try to prevent the C.I.A. assessment from being incorporated into a forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate on Iranian nuclear capabilities, “but they can’t stop the agency from putting it out for comment inside the intelligence community.” The C.I.A. assessment warned the White House that it would be a mistake to conclude that the failure to find a secret nuclear-weapons program in Iran merely meant that the Iranians had done a good job of hiding it. The former senior intelligence official noted that at the height of the Cold War the Soviets were equally skilled at deception and misdirection, yet the American intelligence community was readily able to unravel the details of their long-range-missile and nuclear-weapons programs. But some in the White House, including in Cheney’s office, had made just such an assumption—that “the lack of evidence means they must have it,” the former official said.
Iraq all over again, in other words.
Some believe that the Administration is less likely to go to war after its chastening in the election, and because Iraq is such a disaster. This is what Richard Armitage argues to Hersh. Others see the appointment of Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld as a sign of the reassertion of adult supervision. Then again, others among Hersh’s sources fear that Gates could be being set up to be the new Colin Powell, brought in to add credibility to a policy train he can’t stop.
The neocons are still hard at work, insisting that the only way Iraq can be salvaged would be to punish Iran. And their notion that Iran is somehow responsible for the turmoil in Iraq remains part of administration conventional wisdom. They’re also pushing the idea that Iran is something Bush will have to do before he leaves office, trying to push the buttons of his Churchillian fantasies to goad him into this disastrous course of action.
But the most dangerous element of the equation, I believe, is the hysteria being cultivated by the Israelis. Hersh mentions that Israel is telling the U.S. they have human intelligence on Iran developing trigger devices for a nuclear bomb, but U.S. intelligence is unable to verify these claims. More worrying, however, is the public campaign being waged by Israeli leaders. Olmert warns American Jewish leader that Israel has come to a “pivotal moment” at which its survival depends on confronting Iran. Bibi Netanyahu (the Newt Gingrich of Israeli politics; a discredited crank who manages to grab headlines only by uttering alarmist rubbish) warns darkly that its 1938 all over again. (Memo to Mark Foley: You ought to try this, it could be a surefire route to political rehabilitation…)
This fevered scaremongering is all about Israeli domestic politics, as Aluf Benn explains. Benn writes:
“A weak prime minister who is dropping in the opinion polls suddenly found himself faced with Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Effi Eitam, who are politicizing the issue, and with a public that does not have faith in the prime minister due to his lack of security experience,” senior officials in Jerusalem explained. ”Olmert is under attack for not being able to deal with the Qassam rockets, so he is under pressure and is moving away from the low-profile approach,” they added. These officials also said that the Iranian issue had been taken out of their hands and had been placed on podiums and television shows. Therein lies Olmert’s problem: After he made his bold statements, Netanyahu’s warnings that Israel is faced with a situation similar to that faced by European Jewry when threatened by Hitler in 1938, and Shimon Peres’ description of Ahmadinejad as “a Farsi-speaking Hitler,” the moment of truth for Israel’s political leadership is nearing. The public will justifiably want to know what has been done to prevent the threat to its existence posed by Iran, and to stop the possible mass exodus of Jews from Israel, as described by Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh. Domestic pressure calling for military action will intensify.
The problem is even more pronounced in the U.S. because of the default positions on Israel in the political mainstream, which tend to echo the most hawkish positions on the Israeli spectrum. Olmert is a weak character who has shown little grasp of the requirements of statesmanship, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help start a war by insisting that Iran represents an immediate, mortal threat to Israel — and making action against Iran the litmus test of American politicians’ loyalty to the Jewish State.
Already you have President Bush saying he’d “understand” if Israel attacked Iran. Could this be a replay of the Lebanon war in which the Americans goaded the Israelis into a military disaster? Obviously, the Israelis wouldn’t act without a U.S. green light — they’d have to overfly Iraq to get to Iran, remember.
But Israeli leaders like Netanyahu may be overestimating Israel’s capacity to militarily deal with the Iran challenge. The intelligence is murky, and the likely retaliation far more devastating than anything Iraq could muster when Israel bombed its facilities in 1981.
No, this would have to be done by the Americans to ensure success — whatever that means. Sober heads in Washington have recognized that the path of confrontation is a disaster, and that the only way to deal with the challenge a rising Iran represents in the Middle East is to move to engage with it and normalize relations. Sober voices in Israel are saying the same thing.
But as Aluf Benn warns, “The challenge Olmert has set for himself is not a simple one. But the more his warnings intensify, the more difficult he will find it to back down and convince the public that we can live with an Iranian bomb. Therefore, we can assume that the confrontation is moving closer.”
Olmert showed in the summer that he’s a hapless amateur. Now he’s painting himself into a corner in a game in which the stakes are far higher. And given the naivete and right-wing ignorance that prevails in Washington on any matter concerning Israel, I’d say that means we’re entering an exceedingly dangerous period.