02/14/2007 11:34 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is it "Meddling" to Open a Bank in Baghdad? Is it "Meddling" for the U.S. to Occupy Iraq?

Today's media weasel word is "meddling." As in, the Bush Administration has accused Iran of "meddling" in Iraq.

This weasel word is extremely dangerous, because it's being used to conflate two very different accusations:

Accusation One: the government of Iran is supplying weapons to Shiite militias for use in attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.

Accusation Two: the government of Iran is attempting to influence the government of Iraq by engaging in legal, peaceful activities that governments around the world routinely practice in attempting to influence countries in which they perceive that they have an interest: advice, economic assistance, military aid, strengthening of commercial relations, and so on.

If you can get people to refer to both accusations with the same weasel word, then perhaps you can get people to think the two accusations are the same. Then you can offer evidence for the second "accusation" as evidence for the first accusation. This would be particularly useful if, as is widely acknowledged, you have failed to present evidence for the first accusation.

The fact that the Bush Administration has presented no evidence that the government of Iran has supplied weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq for use in attacks on U.S. troops has been noted by Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times, Dafna Linzer at the Washington Post, and Farah Stockman and Thanassis Cambanis at the Boston Globe, among many others.

That the word "meddling" is being used to conflate these two very different accusations is strikingly demonstrated by comparing two recent articles. In a New York Times article on January 29, under the headline "Iranian Reveals Plan To Expand Role Inside Iraq," James Glanz wrote:

Iran's ambassador to Baghdad outlined an ambitious plan on Sunday to greatly expand its economic and military ties with Iraq -- including an Iranian national bank branch in the heart of the capital -- just as the Bush administration has been warning the Iranians to stop meddling in Iraqi affairs.

Iran's plan, as outlined by the ambassador, carries the potential to bring Iran into further conflict here with the United States, which has detained a number of Iranian operatives in recent weeks and says it has proof of Iranian complicity in attacks on American and Iraqi forces.

The ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, said Iran was prepared to offer Iraq government forces training, equipment and advisers for what he called ''the security fight.'' In the economic area, Mr. Qumi said, Iran was ready to assume major responsibility for Iraq reconstruction, an area of failure on the part of the United States since American-led forces overthrew Saddam Hussein nearly four years ago.

Note that in the first paragraph, Iran's plan to expand "economic and military ties" is portrayed as contradicting the Bush administration's warning to "stop meddling." Thus, expanding military and economic ties equals "meddling." Note, in particular, opening a bank "in the heart of" Baghdad is singled out as a significant provocation. (I don't claim any expertise in banking, but I reckon if you are going to open a bank somewhere, the "heart of the capital" would be a reasonable place to do it.)

Note further that according to the article, Iran's plan, as outlined by the ambassador, carries the potential to bring Iran into further conflict with the United States. The article is not saying that Iran is going to be in conflict with the U.S. because of something it is doing that it is not saying that it is doing. The article is saying that Iran is going to be in conflict with the U.S. because it is going to do what it says it is going to do: expand economic and military ties with the Iraqi government, that is, engage in activities that sovereign governments routinely engage in.

On Monday, under the headline "Joint Chiefs chairman sees no evidence of meddling by Iran's regime," Jonathan Landay of McClatchy News wrote

A day after the U.S. military charged Iran's government with shipping powerful explosive devices to Shiite Muslim fighters in Iraq to use against American troops, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday that he hasn't seen any intelligence to support the claim.

So, according to this headline, "meddling" equals "shipping weapons for use against American troops."

In 2004, Juan Cole warned, "For the United States to assume that they can stop Iran from being influential in Iraq is silly." According to James Glanz, this is exactly what the Bush Administration is trying to do.

But there's no way you could whip up public sentiment in the United States for risking American lives for the "silly" proposition that the U.S. should stop Iran from being influential in Iraq. So you have to conflate "having influence" with "attacking American troops."

Last, but certainly not least - discussing whether Iran is "meddling" in Iraq begs the question: was it "meddling" for the United States to invade and occupy Iraq, "an illegal act that contravened the UN charter," as Kofi Annan pointed out?

I think not. The word "meddling" is far too mild for what the United States has done to Iraq.

-Robert Naiman, Just Foreign Policy, February 14, 2007


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