This week Joe Lieberman reprised a role he played so well in 2002. He paved the way for another needless and tragic war by outmaneuvering his Democratic colleagues on the Senate floor. This time he forced them to pass an amendment that seems reasonable on the surface, but which lays the groundwork a a new attack that could turn pro-Western Iranians into anti-American terrorists. It passed just as a new poll confirms that the Iranian leadership's policies are wildly unpopular with their own people.
Lieberman's 2002 "Rose Garden" appearance with Bush - where he endorsed the authorization for war in Iraq without further changes - destroyed ongoing negotiations to limit the President's war options that were taking place between Democrats like John Kerry and Republicans like Richard Lugar. (Kerry described that move - a betrayal of genuine bipartisanship - in our 2006 conversation.) Now he's done it again.
The Lieberman amendment sets the nation up for a Gulf of Tonkin moment - one that can be used to justify military strikes against Iran, with the President reassuring the nation that he has bipartisan support. It was worded in such a way that voting against it would have been political suicide for Senators.
Does that scenario sound familiar?
The amendment sounds reasonable enough on its face. (Text is here.) It asks for bimonthly reports from the military regarding "external support or direction provided to anti-coalition forces by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran or its agents ... the strategy and ambitions in Iraq of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran; and .... any counter-strategy or efforts by the United States Government to counter the activities of agents of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Iraq."
It was a shrewdly worded document. Any Democrat who voted against it would have opened him- or herself up to accusations that of being afraid to face the facts about Iranian involvement in Iraq. And we know that Iran is involved in Iraq in certain ways. After all, it's been invited there - by the very government our troops are sacrificing themselves to defend. In fact, the Iraqi government is so close to its Shi'ite neighbor that it quickly invited it to open an embassy in Baghdad.
Predictably, the Lieberman measure passed 97-0. But it's not the reporting requirements themselves that are dangerous - it's the amendment's language. It lists a hodgepodge of undocumented and inflammatory accusations before stating that "the murder of members of the United States Armed Forces by a foreign government or its agents is an intolerable and unacceptable act of hostility against the United States by the foreign government in question." (See "Update," below.) These are words that invite an act of war against Iran, even in the absence of clear evidence of involvement.
The amendment doesn't just ask for intelligence on Iranian activity. It requires ongoing reports on proactive U.S. efforts against alleged Iranian efforts, placing political pressure on our military to become more active against Iran. Word in Washington is that top military leaders are resisting an attack on Iran, saying we lack the resources. This is a great way to lean on the generals to change their minds.
Meanwhile, a poll of Iranians released by a bipartisan anti-terror group, Terror Free Tomorrow, shows results that will startle casual observers (but not those who follow the Middle East closely). As Director Ken Ballen writes, "80% of Iranians favor Iran offering full international nuclear inspections and a guarantee not to develop or possess nuclear weapons in return for outside aid. Moreover, close to 70% of Iranians also favor normal relations and trade with the U.S."
"More telling," Ballen adds, "over 79% of Iranians support a democratic system instead, in which the supreme leader, along with all leaders, can be chosen and replaced by a free and direct vote of the people."
Terror Free Tomorrow's only agenda is reducing worldwide terrorism, and the message is clear: An attack on Iran would turn its essentially pro-Western population against us, creating yet another breeding ground for anti-American terrorists. Diplomacy, not war, is the right move now - to avoid war, to promote regime change, and to prevent the further spread of terrorism. Yet war has become more likely, and diplomacy even more improbable, because the Senate was outmaneuvered yet again by Lieberman and his Administration allies.
As in the Soviet sphere, diplomacy does more than just reduce threats to world peace - although it certainly does that. It can also lead to regime change more effectively than violence does. That's why detente led to the fall of Communism. That's the lesson of recent history, and the lesson of the last five years is even more stark: Attacking a nation without just cause radicalizes its own people and destabilizes the region. Worldwide terrorism is up dramatically in the last five years, and the original Al Qaeda has become stronger since we invaded Iraq.
It's time to paraphrase George Santayana: "Those who would ignore current events are doomed to repeat them." It's not too late to prevent a disastrous attack on Iran, but time is growing short. And current events may repeat themselves very soon.
*UPDATE: The words "of hostility" were deleted from this sentence in the final amendment language, and the following clause was added: " (d) Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize or otherwise speak to the use of Armed Forces against Iran." I consider the former change all but immaterial, and the new clause is so weakly phrased that it leaves the door to violence - especially aerial attack - wide open. Others may feel differently, but this amendment as modified still appears to add considerably to a climate that favors military action.