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Iran: The Next War?

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The following is an excerpt from Glenn Greenwald's new book, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, to be released by Crown Publishing this Tuesday. The book is available now at Amazon.

Reuters, February 23, 2007:

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Friday Iran should not show weakness
over its nuclear program, a day after Tehran ignored a United Nations deadline
to stop nuclear work which the West says could be used for making bombs.
"If we show weakness in front of the enemy the expectations will increase
but if we stand against them, because of this resistance, they will retreat."


New York Times, on former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's farewell speech to the Pentagon, December 15, 2006:

"Today, it should be clear that not only is weakness provocative," Mr. Rumsfeld
said, standing at a lectern with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney
at his side, "but the perception of weakness on our part can be provocative as
well...

"A conclusion by our enemies that the United States lacks the will or the
resolve to carry out missions that demand sacrifice and demand patience is
every bit as dangerous as an imbalance of conventional military power," Mr.
Rumsfeld said in a buoyant but sometimes emotional speech.


The simplistic and moralistic Bush mind-set -- by which even the most vexing problems and complex conflicts are reduced to a contest of "strength" in the face of Evil -- can perhaps be seen most clearly in the president's treatment of Iran. Throughout 2006, the president's Iran policy became mindlessly antagonistic, and was reduced eventually to the point where it was shaped by a handful of absolutist and moralistic premises which bordered on the cartoonish. Bush's perspective amounts to this:

Iran is governed by Evil leaders. They are the moral and practical equivalent of Hitler's Nazis. They are intent on regional, perhaps even world, domination. They are so insane and so Evil that they will attack other countries with nuclear weapons even if it means that they would then be annihilated. Particularly if they acquire nuclear weapons, they would pose a grave, imminent, and undeterrable threat to the United States. Their leaders do not fear death, and in fact crave it as a result of their religious extremism. They cannot be negotiated with because they are both Evil and deranged. The only feasible course of action with Iran is to treat it as a Nazi-like enemy, refuse to negotiate, and stop it by any means necessary, which -- due to its leaders' inability to be reasoned with -- inevitably requires "regime change," by military confrontation if necessary.

With those premises bolted into place, the Bush administration has transformed what was -- especially after the 9/11 attacks -- a rapidly improving and cooperative relationship with the Iranians into a bellicose chest-beating exercise whereby the likelihood of military confrontation of some sort increases every day. The two-dimensional Good vs. Evil framework that the president has applied to a complex and diverse Iran leaves virtually no other alternative.

Most disturbing, there is a great potential for military confrontation between Iran and the United States even if the president does not actively choose to attack. The proximity of Iran to Iraq, and the nature of the president's rhetoric make an unintentional war -- one that is sparked by miscalculation or misperception -- increasingly likely.

In December 2006, media reports of increasing U.S. military activity in the Persian Gulf aimed at Iran began to emerge. On December 21, the New York Times confirmed that "the United States and Britain will begin moving additional warships and strike aircraft into the Persian Gulf region in a display of military resolve toward Iran." The buildup includes "a second aircraft carrier and its supporting ships to be stationed within quick sailing distance of Iran by early next year."

There is no doubt that these moves were intended to signal to the Iranians (as well as to what the Times describes as "Washington's allies in the region who are concerned about Iran's intentions") that we are capable of an offensive military strike against Iran:

Senior American officers said the increase in naval power should not be viewed as preparations for any offensive strike against Iran. But they acknowledged that the ability to hit Iran would be increased and that Iranian leaders might well call the growing presence provocative.

One purpose of the deployment, they said, is to make clear that the focus on ground troops in Iraq has not made it impossible for the United States and its allies to maintain a military watch on Iran.

Throughout 2006, it was unclear whether the president's increasingly antagonistic rhetoric towards Iran was merely a political ploy to satiate his warmongering political base or whether, notwithstanding our incapacitating occupation of Iraq, the president himself really believed that war with Iran might be inevitable.

But the 2006 midterm elections did not put an end to the president's militarism towards the Iranians. Quite the contrary, once the elections were over -- and even with a clear anti-war message delivered by voters -- the president began not only sending signals that he would escalate America's military commitment to the war in Iraq but also intensify our hostile posture towards the Iranians.

* * *

Prohibited Debates

Just as all of the cartoonish demonization of the evil Saddam precluded a meaningful national debate about the consequences of invading Iraq, so, too, is the president's embrace of the same caricature of the Iranians precluding meaningful debate about our policy towards Iran. Complex questions that the U.S. must resolve regarding our overall Middle East policy are urgent and pressing. Yet, in a virtual repeat of the debate-stifling war march into Iraq, arguments which treat these matters as nothing more complex than League of Justice cartoons -- in which the Good heroes must and will defeat the Evil villains -- dominates discourse, ensuring that no meaningful debate occurs.

The fundamental problem is that as a nation we do not actually debate the real issues because they are too politically radioactive, and because the simplistic appeals to Victory over Evil obscure, by design, the genuine limits on American power and the drain these conflicts are placing on finite American resources. The real issue is whether the U.S. wants to maintain its presence and controlling influence in the Middle East and, if so, (a) why does the U.S. want to do that?, and (b) what Americans are willing to sacrifice to preserve that dominance.

But Americans during the Bush presidency have had no significant, constructive discussion of whether the U.S. has any real interests in continuing to exert dominance in the Middle East, primarily because doing so requires a debate about the role of oil and our commitment to Israel, both of which are strictly off limits, as the president himself told us in a January, 2006 speech:

The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it. They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people. And they know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right.

It may be the case that the U.S. should seek to preserve its influence in the Middle East. Perhaps we want to control oil resources or assume primary responsibility for ensuring a steady and orderly world oil market. Or perhaps we want to commit ourselves to defending Israel as the only real outpost of Middle Eastern democracy and/or an ally of one degree or another in protecting our vital strategic interests, if any, in that region.

There are coherent (if not persuasive) arguments, pro and con, for all of those positions, but these issues have been embargoed by social and political orthodoxy, and no examination of them is allowed (if one wants to continue to be heard in the mainstream). So we dance around the real questions and are stuck with superficial and contrived "debates" about what we are actually doing -- about all the new Hitlers and the "Evil" we must confront and our need to be Churchill instead of Chamberlain -- all of which obscures our choices, our limits and basic reality.

If preserving our dominance of the Middle East is a goal we want to prioritize, then we would need to decide what sacrifices we are willing to bear in order to reach it. We must determine whether and how we will massively expand our military, the increase in indiscriminate force we are willing to accept, and how we are going to pay for our imperial missions. Because as long as we are committed to dominating that region, we are going to be engaged in a long and likely endless series of brutal wars against religious fanatics and various nationalists who simply do not want us there and are willing to fight to the death -- making all sorts of sacrifices themselves -- to prevent us from dominating their countries.

Yet we lack the willingness -- and perhaps the ability -- to make the sacrifices necessary to maintain imperial dominion over that region. The president has literally pretended that this is not the case by insisting on our divine entitlement to magical victory over Evil, and depicting those who claim otherwise as people who hate the troops and do not want to win.

The damage done to the United States by the Bush administration over the last six years is truly severe. It is fundamental damage, and it requires much, much more than some tinkering around the edges. America urgently needs to debate and re-examine the core premises of our foreign policy and our role in the world. That, in turn, requires a willingness to transcend the taboos and most sacred orthodoxies and to dispense with the Manichean delusions that have substituted for rational debate.

* * *

The war advocates who unquestionably still have the president's ear sought to transform the debate (prompted by the ISG Report) over whether we should negotiate with Iran into an argument that Iran is our real enemy. And they believe that Iran is our Enemy not only in Iraq, but generally, and that Iran should therefore be attacked, not negotiated with. Dismissing out of hand these wild-eyed, war-loving elements who are wholly detached from reality is tempting, but they continue to occupy places of high influence with the president (both inside and outside of the White House).

Worse, there are convincing signs that the president is one of them, i.e., that he now irreversibly shares their worldview that war with Islamic Extremism requires a progressive series of wars with various states, the next of which is Iran. Beyond doubt, if the president is convinced that some sort of military action is necessary or even warranted, nothing -- not public opinion nor his supposed lame duck status nor the sheer insanity of the proposal -- is going to stop him.

Few things have been as disturbing as the president's now implacable belief - which he has been decreeing with increased frequency -- that he is the modern-day Harry Truman, fighting a necessary war even in the face of widespread opposition from weak and blind people in his own country and around the world, but that he is destined to be vindicated by history. And, as he sees it, the more he fights against anti-war headwinds and the bolder he is in the risks he takes, the greater his vindication will be.

By 2007, it was alarmingly clear that geopolitical considerations do not determine what the U.S. will do vis-a-vis Iran. The president's personality does.

And even if the president and/or his top advisors are less than clear about their intent with regard to Iran, it may not matter. Military build-ups of this sort, plainly aimed at one country in particular, can easily produce miscalculations or lead to unintended provocations. That danger is heightened incalculably when one of the parites to the increasing tensions has 150,000 troops occupying a country that borders the other one.

There are myriad constitutional questions about the type of Congressional authorization which would be required in order for the president to act militarily against Iran. But those would almost certainly be swept aside -- as most constitutional dilemmas have been -- by an administration that would claim that it already has such authorization either "inherently" or as a result of Iran's involvement in our war in Iraq. If the president were really intent on war with Iran, it is very difficult to envision Congressional Democrats, or really anything else, stopping him.

When the president declared in early 2002 that Iran was "Evil," it all but sealed the fate of U.S.-Iranian relations for the duration of his presidency. The president's Manichean prison precludes him from following any course other than unmitigated belligerence once he embraces that moralistic premise, and indeed, nothing -- not a deeply unpopular war in Iraq, nor the stinging repudiation of his policies by the American voters, nor the Baker-Hamilton Commission -- has convinced him to change course even slightly with regard to Iran. He placed himself, or allowed himself to be placed, inside the suffocating confines of this Manichean prison, and despite the grave dangers and great harm it has engendered, he appears to have no ability, and worse, no incentive, to find an alternative for the last two years of his presidency.

The preceding is an excerpt from Glenn Greenwald's new book, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, to be released by Crown Publishing this Tuesday. The book is available now at Amazon. Reprinted by permission of Glenn Greenwald/Crown Publishers. All rights reserved.