AMERICA Iran and
irrationality By Tom Engelhardt
With newspapers like the Washington Post
talking of cutting back on foreign bureaus, they
are taking the route that television news followed
long ago, shedding bureaus like so much flaky
skin. Anyone in the United States who loves his or
her daily dose of news in print should be dismayed
at the thought of news bureaus abroad closing.
It's just another way in which US isolation is
likely to increase, as Americans' bubble world, so
prized by the
administration of President
George W Bush, continues to morph into something
On the brighter side,
though, assigning more reporters to "broad topics"
rather than individual countries, as some papers
plan, might have an unexpectedly salutary effect.
After all, one of the strangest aspects of the
news in the Bush years has been its unwillingness
to connect regional or global dots. In most cases,
foreign reporting has consisted of stories about
only one country (at most two) at a time.
Not so long ago, we lived in a world that
the media regularly told us was being connected in
ever more complex ways - think of all that
reporting on globalization in the 1990s. But for
the past several years, "just disconnect" might
have been the reigning news motto.
read about the Iraq war, you get Iraq, and
generally little else. No Turkey, no Israel, few
Syrians, no Saudis, nor Egyptians. Reports on
America's little Afghan war give you Afghanistan,
but certainly nothing about the fighters that,
according to Syed Saleem Shahzad of Asia Times
Online, the resurgent Taliban, based in Pakistani
border areas, have been sending to Iraq for
training in the new ways of guerrilla warfare (see
Taliban's Iraq-style spring is
sprung, March 15).
You would never
know from stories in the US press that Iran
bordered Afghanistan, or that both India and
Russia have complex interests and connections
there. And forget about the 'stans of Central
Asia. Why exactly this has been so, I leave others
to analyze. That it has left major papers
strangely demobilized when it comes to offering us
Americans a picture of our world and so in an
unequal contest with the Bush administration is
hard to deny.
After all, the
administration's top officials have had a vision
of US geopolitical dominance that has been nothing
if not grandly global in nature. In their version
of the Great Game, they seldom even bother to deal
with one country at a time - often, as in Iraq, to
It wasn't by happenstance
that they named their "war" of choice the Global
War on Terror (GWOT) or that they regularly label
the Iraq war not a war at all but a "theater" in
their GWOT. In military, political or energy
terms, they have never hesitated to connect the
dots in a vast region they once termed the "arc of
instability" - basically, the planet's oil
heartlands - into patterns of imperial dominance.
Where newspaper reporting saw individual
countries that happened to have enormous oil or
natural-gas reserves, the current US
administration has, from the beginning, seen
global energy flows. In many ways, Bush's top
officials seemed to recognize no traditional
boundaries at all. No wonder they were surprised
by an insurgency largely based on gut feelings
about national sovereignty.
As we now
know, they hit Iraq running in March 2003. They
were determined to make it to Baghdad without
looking back; leave their prize Iraqi, Ahmad
Chalabi, in charge; and turn their attention
elsewhere, especially to Syria and Iran. When it
came to those two countries, they were ready to
connect the dots in person and, if need be, by
force of arms. They thought they could make
"regime change" a regional, and then global, way
Okay, it didn't quite work out.
Instead, they ran into a
three-year-going-on-endless roadblock. But they've
never stopped thinking in these terms. The
invasion of Iraq was a stunning gamble. There's no
reason to believe that, in a pinch, an
administration still made up of many of the same
figures wouldn't take another.
administration planners framed that initial gamble
brilliantly, in part by moving assertively into
the vacuum of non-connection that was then the
mainstream US media. With their own propaganda
organs such as Fox News and right-wing talk radio
in tow, they began to connect the dots as they
pleased, and very publicly.
those lines drawn between, say, the September 11
attackers and Saddam Hussein, or weapons of mass
destruction (WMD) and an axis of evil, or Saddam's
supposed WMD arsenal, African "yellowcake"
uranium, and possible future mushroom clouds
rising over US cities - but this part of the story
you all remember well. In doing so, they largely
determined the limits of, and nature of, what
"debate" there was in the US media from September
12, 2001, to March 20, 2003.
all over again in Ira... They were of
course ascendant in that period, which would seem
to explain a lot. But here's the strange thing:
the Bush administration is now in the dumps and
the president's ratings are again heading for
something like freefall.
The latest Pew
poll gives President Bush a 33% approval rating,
leaving him heading for depths of unpopularity
previously reached only by Richard Nixon in his
pre-Watergate moment. And that's not the worst of
it. The president's strongest suit, handling
terror, has plummeted as well, to 42%, an 11-point
drop since January; while his once-cherished
trustworthiness sits at a paltry 40%.
the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll,
Americans said they "prefer Democratic control of
Congress after the mid-term elections" by 50% to
37%; and, perhaps more striking, "a congressional
candidate urging the withdrawal of all US troops
from Iraq within a year would gain favor by 50% to
35% ... while one advocating staying 'as long as
necessary' would lose favor by 43% to 39%".
And it's not as if matters are going
peachily elsewhere, either. In Iraq, for instance,
everything seems to be plummeting (except civilian
death tolls) - and that includes, for instance,
electricity availability and oil production.
And yet, give the administration credit.
By connecting those dots (while the media
generally do not), it has been able, despite its
position of increasing weakness, to continue to
frame, and so drive, the debate, such as it is, in
the United States.
circumstances, this is nothing short of miraculous
- the latest example being the way the
administration has both escalated and
contextualized the nuclear crisis with Iran (with
a goodly helping hand from that country's
fundamentalist President Mahmud Ahmadinejad)
simply by following - almost without contradiction
in the press - a well-trodden Iraqi path.
On a visit to Washington recently, Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, remembering the
run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, commented,
"It looks so deja vu, you know. I don't believe we
should engage in something which might become
What's deja vu,
of course, is the way the administration has been
assertively connecting its chosen Iranian dots to
other dots of its choice. In the first of a new
wave of Iraq speeches (before the hawkish
Foundation for the Defense of Democracies), Bush
spoke of how the Iranians were sending the makings
for advanced IEDs (improvised explosive devices,
or roadside bombs) into Iraq to kill Americans.
("Some of the most powerful IEDs we're seeing in
Iraq today include components that came from Iran.
Our director of national intelligence, John
Negroponte, told the Congress, 'Tehran has been
responsible for at least some of the increasing
lethality of anti-coalition attacks by providing
Shi'a militia with the capability to build
improvised explosive devices'" in Iraq.)
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
accused the Iranians of "dispatching the Al-Quds
Division of its Revolutionary Guard to 'stir
trouble inside Iraq'". Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice declared Iran the "central banker
for terrorism" in the Middle East as well as the
single most dangerous threat to the United States
on the planet.
And just last week, the
administration released its latest version of the
US National Security Strategy, reiterating its
belief in "preventive war", threatening a future
Iran-US "confrontation", and ramping up that
relatively impoverished, fractious, mid-sized
regional power with enormous oil and natural-gas
reserves into a near Cold War-level public enemy
No 1. Its key line was, "We may face no greater
challenge from a single country than from Iran."
And Rice began running with it instantly.
Every one of these statements, as well as
a drumbeat of others in recent weeks, is at best
questionable; a number such as the IED charges are
probably ludicrous. (Juan Cole at Truthdig.com
writes, "The guerrillas in Iraq are militant
Sunnis who hate Shi'ites, and it is wholly
implausible that the Iranian regime would supply
bombs to the enemies of its Iraqi allies.") But
all of these claims and assertions have one thing
in common - a familiar ring to them from the
run-up to the invasion of Iraq. This is especially
true, of course, of the various charges about
Iran's nuclear program.
When it comes to
Iranian WMD, no serious analyst claims that the
country could possibly produce a nuclear weapon
for, at best, years; yet at this moment many signs
indicate the possible launching of a massive
"preventive" US air attack on Iranian nuclear
facilities, some in heavily populated urban areas,
and undoubtedly Iranian air defenses as well, this
year or early in 2007.
For those in the
media who claim that the US military is too
overstretched for such a campaign, think again.
This is true only of the army, which probably
would not be used. Despite a recent upsurge in air
attacks in Iraq, the air force and especially the
navy are quite underutilized right now and
reputedly raring to show their stuff. On the other
hand, unlike Iraq, which was in 2003 a toothless,
fifth-rate power incapable of harming Americans,
the Iranians do have a multitude of ways of
striking back - including at the 130,000 US troops
just across the border in tumultuous Iraq.
When it comes to the Iranian nuclear
program in particular, the Bush administration has
been nothing short of brilliant in connecting only
those dots that put it in the worst possible
light, while isolating it from every other nuclear
program on Earth, from what Jonathan Schell has
dubbed the global "atomic archipelago".
this, top administration officials continue to
prove themselves unbelievably competent; in part
because, without those "broad topics" to cover,
the media - with rare exceptions - have proved so
abysmally incompetent in creating more reasonable
patterns on their own.
But let's, for a
moment, imagine a Washington Post reporter taken
from the South Asia bureau and assigned to an
overarching global nuclear beat. Let's imagine
that he or she started with India, a country that,
unlike Iran, would be in thorough violation of the
nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), had it
ever signed on.
With a major military
program and now nuclear-armed, it has come to the
brink of nuclear war more than once with its
nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan. The US president,
of course, just visited India and offered it a
non-proliferation-whacking sweetheart deal on
nuclear fuel and technology.
Next door is
nuclear-armed Pakistan, a shaky military regime
and US ally that has lost control of some of its
border regions to the Taliban, elements of
al-Qaeda and a growing fundamentalist opposition
that, should it ever come to power, would find
itself instantly in possession of a full-scale
Skip Afghanistan (nothing
but warlords and opium) and you've made it to
Iran, whose nuclear program, begun with US help in
the days of the shah and continued with secret aid
from US ally Pakistan, is now in question. Then
jump over to Israel, which, like India, has never
signed on to the NPT and possesses (but refuses to
acknowledge publicly) a near-civilization-busting
arsenal of 200-300 nuclear weapons.
can read the US press for months at a time without
the slightest mention of the Israeli nuclear
arsenal, though the as yet non-existent Iranian
one dominates the front pages day after day.
Finally, that Post reporter might take a
glance at the country charging Iran with nuclear
crimes worthy of a future full-scale assault, the
United States. (You can also hunt the US press
practically in vain for any discussion of the
Iranian nuclear "arsenal" in the context of the US
In fact, the Bush administration has
been intent on expanding and "modernizing" the
United States' already staggering nuclear arsenal
of almost 10,000 weapons, while putting new
nuclear weapons on the drawing board and dreaming
about how to use "tactical nukes" in future "rogue
wars" against countries like Iran.
Meanwhile, the Soviet arsenal decays and
the relatively small Chinese one remains fairly
stagnant. According to scholars Keir A Lieber and
Daryl G Press in the latest issue of Foreign
Affairs magazine ("The rise of US nuclear
primacy"), the Bush administration has by now come
close to achieving a Cold War dream state: nuclear
dominance. "Today, for the first time in almost 50
years," they write, "the United States stands on
the verge of attaining nuclear primacy. It will
probably soon be possible for the United States to
destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia
or China with a first strike." When you try to
connect a few of these dots, a possible future
Iranian "bomb", while still unpalatable, takes on
a somewhat different look and you have to wonder
about the US administration's threats of war.
Or let's imagine a reporter from some
other downsizing newspaper being pulled from the
disappearing Paris bureau and given the "history
of the Bush administration in the Middle East"
archival beat. Might not that broad-topic
journalist pull together the
deja-vu-all-over-again aspect of America's present
Iran buildup and, connecting just a few dots, make
something of it?
In fact, Robert Dreyfuss
has already done this chillingly at Tompaine.com,
pointing out everything from the "brand-new Office
of Iranian Affairs at the State Department, which
looks suspiciously like a step toward creating the
Iraq war planning office at the Pentagon called
the Office of Special Plans" to the Chalabi-like
Iranian exiles gathering in Washington and the new
talk of a "coalition of the willing".
former Paris bureau reporter might even have
noticed a deja vu that Dreyfuss missed: these
days, as in the run-up to the Iraq war, there is
much connect-the-dots analysis (and some
reporting) that steps outside the
administration-defined Iranian box, but it's
almost all on the Internet, and so, as in 2002-03,
when it comes to Iran, most Americans see little
It's an indication of the
administration's success in driving the media
before it and making its Iran agenda the agenda of
the US people that, in a recent poll, "Some 27% of
respondents cite Iran as Washington's greatest
menace - three times the percentage who ranked it
at the top of foreign threats just four months
ago." A recent Zogby poll revealed that, while
surprising numbers of Americans are now thoroughly
sick of Bush's war in Iraq, 47% of Americans
nonetheless favor some kind of military action,
"preferably along with European allies, to halt
Iran's nuclear program".
connecting the dots - yet again - Bush
administration-style. It's sobering that the media
learned so little from the last major round of
this in 2002-03 and are reporting the Iran crisis
only within the bounds of what the administration
cares to have debated, while Bush, Vice President
Dick Cheney and associates let the UN process on
Iran play itself out over the coming months and
prepare (possibly along with the Israelis) for a
major military strike that could lead the planet
into energy (and economic) chaos.
irrationality factor If the US
administration's top officials have proved to be
dreamers on a planetary scale and immensely
competent at setting the terms for debate in this
country, they are in so many other ways utter
incompetents. If we want to use that increasingly
common term for them, however, we have to think a
little about what it really means.
most basic level, inside their bubble world these
insular beings and their remarkably insulated
president undoubtedly believe that they are ready
to correct for errors and apply lessons learned in
Iraq to the Iran crisis, but there is one lesson
they are guaranteed not to have learned, the
simplest but most difficult one of all: know
In fact, their inability to gain
any perspective on themselves guarantees their
dangerous incompetence in the Iran crisis to come.
Imagine, for instance, that their second leading
diplomat, Ambassador to the UN John Bolton,
recently offered this assessment of the prospect
of negotiations with Iran: "I don't think we have
anything to say to the Iranians."
statement - and it could be multiplied by so many
others from Rumsfeld, Cheney and associates -
represents one aspect of their incompetence:
hubris (or call it arrogance). To that should be
added a profound belief - on this they are the
ultimate fundamentalists - in preponderant US
power, especially in its military guise, as well
as in their ability to wield it with precision and
invariably to their advantage.
the fact that they are not only the greatest
gamblers in US history, but also control freaks of
the first order, and you already have a
combustible meld of "incompetence" factors. If
they do move against Iran, they will surely be
blinded by their arrogance, overly impressed by
the power they think they wield, and ridiculously
sure of the plans they have made for various
contingencies to come.
And yet the single
thing that can be guaranteed about any air assault
on Iran is that, whatever anybody's plans may be,
events will quickly spin out of control - and that
they will then be stunned and unprepared to deal.
The result will be the "incompetence" for which
they are already well known as well as disaster
for us all.
At least one more factor
should be added to the mix: irrationality. This is
not a word we usually associate with the US
government. It's the sort of term normally left
for Arabs who are, "of course", known to be
overemotional, closer to those more primitive,
"tribal" emotions, and consequently deeply
irrational. (In the US context, by the way,
Iranians should be thought of as Arabs, even
though they aren't.)
Whatever the flaws
and mistakes of US people, they tend to assume
that they are civilized and reasonably rational.
This is why they don't worry enormously about
their singular nuclear arsenal. They know that,
unlike the many revenge-bound, irrational, rogue
regimes out there, not even the Bush
administration would, in the end, use such weapons
- even though, of course, the US is the only
country to do so to date.
While the Bush
administration may have enormously destructive
military powers at its command, it's worth
remembering that its officials are anything but
supermen and -women. Don't imagine them simply as
Machiavellian manipulators of the rest of us. They
are instead blunderers like the rest of us - only
We already know from reports
seeping out of Washington that the administration
is "riven by divisions" over, and confusions
about, its Iran policy. The box its officials have
been intent on creating to lock in the
international community, the Iranians, and the
American public may, sooner or later, come to feel
like a kind of prison to them from which the only
release, many months down the line, could appear
to involve the mad act of pulling the superpower
trigger. In other words, they may find themselves
backed into a corner of their own making.
What we face, in fact, are two
fundamentalist regimes, US and Iranian - each in
the process of overestimating the hand it is
playing; each underestimating its enemy; each in
the grip of a different kind of irrationality.
It's a frighteningly combustible mix.
those people who believe that the Bush
administration's Iran approach is just so much
saber-rattling and bluster, part of a reasonably
rational plan to create bargaining chips, or force
the Iranians to the table on more favorable terms,
should divest themselves of such fantasies. We are
on the path to madness, which also happens to be
the path to US$100-a-barrel oil and possibly some
kind of economic meltdown. Then again, dreams of
riches have often gone hand-in-hand with madness.
Why not now?
Tom Engelhardt is
editor of Tomdispatchand the
author of The End of Victory Culture. His
novel The Last Days of Publishing has
recently come out in paperback.
(Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt. Used