12/18/2012 06:44 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Beltway Fantasies About China, Iran and Israel

I would like to refer to an example of Beltway conformity to make a larger point about US foreign policy. Recently, in an academic setting, I heard a Washington think tank analyst talking about US foreign policy. Courtesy prevents me from mentioning his name or institution but his talk was a textbook caricature of the kowtowing created by the revolving door system between think tanks and positions of power within administrations. A similar revolving door exists between academia and the Beltway. He talked at great length about China and Obama's pivot to the Pacific without once mentioning the containment of China, a key aspect of the relationship between the rivals and partners, the U.S. and China, known as "Chinamerica." Michael Klare, a scholar who mostly deals with energy issues, analyzes this containment in an article aptly entitled "Playing with Fire" which appeared in the left-wing as well as the conservative press. China, of course, is no gentle superpower and, contrary to what Bush senior announced, there is no "kinder gentler America." In geopolitics things are complex and blaming one side in a conflict often means that this complexity is ignored.

The most striking part of the presentation was the one-sided and frankly ideological discussion of Iran. Iran's supposed nuclear bomb was first presented as almost a certainty. Both American and Israeli secret service analysts dispute the fact that Iran has such a bomb or is even close to getting one. The speaker, however, was arguing that maybe the U.S. would have to intervene in a war against Iran if Israel started hostilities. His rhetoric fed the prejudice, not based upon geopolitical analysis, that Israel could be the tail that wags the American dog.

There was no mention of the fact that Iran is already under attack in a quasi-war, though the speaker did refer to the Stuxnet virus. Drones and the cooperation with MEK (Mojahedin-e Khalq), the just formerly-designated terrorist group that the U.S. only recently struck off its list of terrorist groups went unmentioned. After a challenge from the audience, the speaker admitted that Iran could not use a nuclear bomb even if it had one. Yet he claimed that the political theater around this possibility made sense for if Iran had a bomb then Turkey and Saudi Arabia would want one. Clearly the copy-cat effect and the nuclearization of the region are key factors but the speaker did not refer to the elephant in the Middle east area: Israel's nuclear bomb.

Groups that claim to be Israel's friends argue along similar lines and do not consider Netanyahu's UN cartoon ludicrous. Iran, both candidates to the election agreed, is a major threat to peace and security. Yet all this talk about Iran's danger is bad political theater which resembles the bad play about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Iran's regime is not palatable, the leaders of that country rigged the 2009 elections, Ahmadinejad often makes incendiary remarks and organizes holocaust-denying conferences. Does that mean Iran is a danger to the US and/or Israel? No, for Iran spends very little on defense, is therefore militarily very weak and knows it. There might be an inverse relationship between weakness and bragging on the part of its putative leader. If Iran had a nuclear bomb it could not use it. Indeed even a far more volatile country, Pakistan, which has a nuclear bomb, does not use it either against India or against the U.S. even when the U.S. repeatedly violates its sovereignty and kills innocents in drone strikes.

Groups and individuals outside the Beltway and its sounding boards who do care about peace, and therefore peace in Israel and the Middle East, think in totally different terms. Jewish Voice for Peace (disclosure: though not American, I sign some of their letters) or Rabbi Lerner or journalist Seymour Hersch make a point about reporting about the complexity of the geopolitical situation in that region of the world. They do not confuse the ugliness of a regime with its possible danger on the international stage. The focus on Iran and the quasi-war against this country are not justified by a real danger that country might pose. Unless the danger is defined as the danger of an example. If Iran had a bomb it might be immune from attacks of the Iraq type. In other words, Iran would achieve what North Korea, another ugly regime, already has: protection from full-scale war and would therefore enjoy prestige among Muslims, even Sunni Muslims.

One of the subtlest books on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is Robert Dreyfuss' Devil's Game: How the U.S. Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. Dreyfuss is no admirer of fundamentalist Islam, he traces the history of U.S. actions which led to the rise of the very groups which the U.S. and others in the West have to contend with now. The Iraq debacle, based on big lies about weapons of mass destruction which then became big lies about democratization, might be followed by another episode of backlash-fostering Iran bashing. In 2005 Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian Nobel Prize winner and a feminist opposed to the regime, published, with Hadi Ghaemi, an op-ed in the New York Times entitled "The Human Rights Case Against Attacking Iran". The points made close to eight years ago remain valid: if democracy and human rights are what the U.S. wants in Iran then it should not attack the country but support the local groups that fight for these values.

In the long term Israel can only benefit from the victory of such groups in Iran, a victory which military intervention would make impossible. The U.S. and the West should reinforce the peace camp within Iran, exactly the opposite of what saber-rattlers are doing right now.

As the strongest military power in the region, and the only nuclear power, Israel should assume its responsibilities in the fight for peace. In the same way as human rights groups in Iran are the best voice of reason concerning the future of the country, Israeli voices for peace, a small minority now, are the most sensible. Friends of Israel are those who speak the truth, not just to power but to all, and know that who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. The U.S. military clearly balks at a full-scale intervention in Iran and made this clear to the Israeli PM. Now is the time for Obama to go back to a strategy of dialogue even if the regime in Iran is far from democratic or ideal. In 2003 Iran proposed a peace deal to the U.S. which spurned it. So the regime proved it could be pragmatic and interested in peace.

To play domestic political games, it might be useful to have a new bugbear to replace communism or Iraq and to draw attention away from the immobility on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but for analysts to adopt official lines is a denial of research. Think tanks don't think, they propagandize. If all the cards are on the table, it does not mean that one sides with Iran against Israel, on the contrary, fighting for truth here is also fighting for peace and the security of all the countries of the Mideast. Obama should go back to the 2003 proposal and combine it with the 2002 Saudi proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not because Iran, an official enemy, or Saudi Arabia, a very problematic friend, are led by nice leaders but because the ideas to move forward toward peace and security for all already exist. Uri Avnery, the former Knesset member and gush shalom more generally often make similar points. The Beltway parrots do not serve the cause of truth or justice. If Obama and his future secretary of state want to think outside the box the resources are there.