Monday, March 26, 2007

Iran-Britain conflict shows the dangers of our ongoing presence in Iraq

The "debate" over whether to withdraw our troops constantly highlights the dangers of leaving but almost completely ignores the dangers of staying.

Glenn Greenwald

Mar. 24, 2007

The ongoing presence of 150,000 troops in the middle of Iraq, under the direction of this administration, entails grave risk of escalation beyond Iraq, whether deliberately or unintentionally -- a fact that is almost completely ignored in our "debate" over whether to withdraw troops. The seizure this week of 15 British sailors by Iran illustrates how grave those risks are.

As expected, the British immediately claimed that its ship was in Iraqi waters, while the Iranians claimed it had entered Iranian waters. One of the great tragedies of the last several years is how little credibility the U.S. and its most loyal foreign government have in light of their conduct concerning Iraq. While no rational person would believe Iranian claims without corroborating evidence, no rational person would simply assume the British were telling the truth either. Both sides are still insisting on their original stories:

Asked about the statement, a British diplomat in Tehran said: "We still maintain they were in Iraqi waters when they were picked up."

Tehran earlier on Saturday condemned what it called "Britain's illegal infiltration of Iranian waters," the ISNA news agency reported.

The only independent evidence on this conflict available thus far -- at least that I've seen -- is this:
But the boundary has long been in dispute around the 125-mile-long channel -- known in Iran as Arvandrud, Farsi for the Arvand River. Saddam Hussein canceled the 1975 treaty five years later and invaded Iran, triggering an eight-year war. Virtually all of Iraq's oil is exported through a terminal near the mouth of the channel.

The Iraqi military commander of the country's territorial waters cast doubt on claims the Britons were in Iraqi waters.

"We were informed by Iraqi fishermen after they had returned from sea that there were British gunboats in an area that is out of Iraqi control," Brig. Gen. Hakim Jassim told AP Television News in the southern city of Basra. "We don't know why they were there. And these British troops were besieged by unknown gunboats, I don't know from where," he said.

Fars News, the semi-official news agency of the Iranian Government, set forth these claimed facts:
British marines currently in custody of Iran were fully aware of their presence in the Iranian waters and the recordings by devices in the British vessels confirm the fact.

An informed source told FNA that the British Marines who inspected vessels in north western Persian Gulf in the territorial waters of the Islamic Republic of Iran, were arrested by the border guardsmen of the Islamic Republic on charges of having trespassed the borders of Iran and transferred to the mainland for providing more explanations concerning their aggressive measure.

American media reports on this incident were rife with speculation that the Iranian seizure of the British ship was connected to the imminent U.N. meeting on Iran's nuclear program, suggesting that Iran had provoked the incident. So typically, CBS News' headline is this: "Iran Nabs British Soldiers in Iraq Waters" -- as though that is established, unchallengeable fact -- and the article then framed the story almost entirely from the perspective of the British, with virtually no indication that there was another version of events:
Iranian naval vessels seized 15 British sailors who had boarded a ship suspected of smuggling cars in the Persian Gulf off the Iraqi coast on Friday, officials said . . .

The British Navy personnel were "engaged in routine boarding operations of merchant shipping in Iraqi territorial waters," and had completed a ship inspection when they were accosted by Iranian vessels, Britain's Defense Ministry said.

As usual, our national media runs to the government -- in this case the British government -- hears its version, and then prints it as fact. Of course, it might be the case that the Iranians are at fault here and the seized ship was in Iraqi waters, but it seems at least plausible, if not more likely at this point, that the provocative party was Britain. Obviously, every country has a right -- an obligation -- to defend its territory from invasion, which is what an unauthorized incursion into a country's maritime territory is.

There is almost certainly all sorts of unseen strategizing and motivations on all sides driving this incident, and there are almost certainly no angels here. But it really is notable that when Britain and Iran issue conflicting accounts of what occurred on a matter this significant, one's instinct is to remain agnostic about who is telling the truth absent objective evidence. Given the joint record of the U.S. and Britain over the last four years, what other assumption is rational?

That is a rather compelling, and depressing, indicator of just how far American and British credibility has fallen, and there is no pleasure in having to view every claim from one's own government with such complete skepticism. Quite the opposite. But what other rational approach is there in light of their complete lack of credibility, accounted for by their continuous willingness to lie about all matters, large and small?

Beyond the issue of credibility, this incident potently illustrates the very serious dangers of our ongoing occupation of Iraq. With Western troops in Afghanistan, a huge American military presence in Iraq, and escalating rhetoric from this administration about Iran, the Iranians feel besieged and encircled.

This is the second time that Iranians have seized British sailors while claiming that they were in Iranian waters (the first was in 2004). But the situation is obviously far more combustible now. There have been multiple provocations over the last several months aimed directly at Iran. Situations of exactly this type have spawned wars -- intended, unintended and everything in between -- countless times in history. And the game here is being played by governments whose competence and judgment are very much in doubt on multiple levels. It is hard to overstate the dangers.

All of the withdraw hysterics love to paint the most alarmist picture of all of the possible dangers which might occur upon our withdrawal, but they almost always ignore the dangers of our continued occupation. We endlessly hear about the chaos that will result if we withdraw, but what of the grave dangers of staying? Just as was true with the initial 2002/2003 "debate" over whether to invade Iraq -- where we were subjected to an endless litany of nightmare scenarios if we did not invade, while the dangers of invading were all but ignored -- the analysis now from withdraw-opponents and their media enablers is almost always similarly one-sided.

One can debate whether the Bush administration at this point is more malicious or inept. That's probably a close call. But it's also a close call as to which is more dangerous when we have a bulging and growing military force smack in the middle of Iraq, while tensions with Iran grow on many different levels.

It seems clear that the administration does not intend -- and, given the President's weakened state, is surely unable -- to obtain Congressional authorization to commence a new war against Iran. But "unintended" escalation resulting from incidents like this is quite easy to foresee, and -- the administration at least would argue -- no authorization would be required to react. In all events, what seems beyond reasonable dispute is the fact that many of the gravest dangers from allowing the administration to remain in Iraq are receiving very little attention in our national "debate" over whether to withdraw.

UPDATE: In his February 17, 2003 speech definitively setting forth the case against invading Iraq, Howard Dean warned:

We have been told over and over again what the risks will be if we do not go to war.

We have been told little about what the risks will be if we do go to war.

That is precisely what is happening now. We are endlessly subjected to shrill descriptions of nightmare scenarios if we leave. But we hear virtually nothing about the nightmare scenarios from staying. The "debate" over withdraw now might seem cosmetically different from the one we had in 2003 over whether to invade, but the fundamentals are unchanged. The same people who drove the debate then are driving it now. The same manipulative techniques are used with little check from the national media. And that is why we're staying -- and staying and staying.

UPDATE II: For our nation's warmongers, no cause is too small for a new war. As Cernig notes, John McCain today recommends that "Britain should threaten 'very decisive action.'" That, as Cernig notes, is "diplo-speak for military action. War." Instapundit is encouraging merely a "naval blockade."

And it's worth recalling that Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan declared back in April, 2001 that the U.S. had suffered a "humiliating" defeat at the hands of China because the Bush administration was forced to negotiate and apologize in order to secure the release of American pilots. "They held our troops hostage until we said, 'Uncle,'" whined the two neocons, invoking the standard themes of dominance, humiliation and submission which govern their world. Even back then, pre-9/11, our country was plagued (without fully realizing it) with things and people like this -- from Kristol and Kagan's article: "As Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer and others have said, China must now pay a price for its appalling and bellicose behavior." They are permanent war advocates perpetually in search of causes for new wars.

UPDATE III: At the new National Review blog called "The Tank" (that's really tough - they must mean business over there), J. Peter Pham asks: "did Iran just declare war on the Coalition?" Meanwhile, in a NR feature article, Mario Loyola suggests that Iran may very well be telling the truth about what happened here, and that this incident was the by-product of efforts by the U.S. and Britian to provoke Iran into war -- justifiably, in Loyola's view (needless to say):

It wouldn't surprise me if the Iranians were actually responding, in this case, to a carefully planned provocation of our own. As Churchill said, sometimes the truth is so precious that she must be attended by a bodyguard of lies. . . .

The gloves are coming off. And the risk-calculation here is: If someone gets nervous and starts shooting, the timing would be more auspicious now for us than for the Iranians. Therefore, it only makes sense that American and British naval units operating in the Gulf would be in a more forward-leaning and aggressive posture than the Iranians.

It wouldn't surprise me if the British sailors were detained because the British did something to make the Iranians really angry. Khamanei dramatically upped the ante this week. We probably raised. And they probably raised back. The stakes in this nuclear-poker game just got a little higher.

So the U.S. and Britain are deliberately provoking Iran in a "nuclear-poker game" and then lying about what they are up to, and Loyola thinks that's all great. A whole new war -- it's all so exciting and pulsating.

One can dismiss people like this if one wants, but their views have been far closer to what the White House ends up doing than anyone else's, and the one lesson that everyone ought to have learned by now is that there is no such thing as an idea too extremist or dangerous to be beyond the ken of Bush and company. It is simply fact that, beginning in 2001, one can read what the most wild-eyed neoconservatives say in order to know what Cheney and his comrades are thinking prior to the time they ultimately act.

UPDATE IV: Some background information about the aforementioned Mario Loyola:

In 2005 and 2006, he served as a consultant for communications and policy planning at the Department of Defense, where he prepared speeches and op-eds for senior officials, assisted in the final preparation and roll-out of the 2005 National Defense Strategy, and worked on global energy and China issues with the policy planning staff.
That makes sense on all sorts of levels, since Loyola is arguing today that: (1) Britain and the U.S. may be purposely provoking Iran into war-producing conflicts, (2) Britain and the U.S. may very well be lying about what they did here, and (3) those are both great things. It sounds like he fit in perfectly at the Bush Pentagon (h/t via email: Jonathan Miller).

In his latest post, Loyola excitedly cites all of the incidents this week which he thinks (and obviously hopes) suggest imminent conflict with Iran -- not merely, as he says, at the U.N., but more gloriously, "on the waters of the Persian Gulf."

(Updated above - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

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