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Max Blumenthal: Expulsion and Revulsion in Israel

10:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Editor’s Note: Max Blumenthal and his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel will be featured in FDL’s Book Salon November 2nd. Philip Munger aka Edward Teller will host.

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

An unidentified visitor in the Negev Desert village of Umm Al Hiran

In case you hadn’t noticed, Israel has been in the news a lot lately. After all, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the U.N. in the midst of an Iranian “charm offensive,” just as presidents Obama and Rouhani were having the first conversation between Iranian and American heads of state since Jimmy Carter’s day, and gave the usual hellfire sermon. He said Israel would, if necessary, “stand alone,” implicitly threatening to launch an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities without Washington’s support (an act that is, in reality, increasingly unlikely), and generally acted like the odd man out. Soon after, he made a comment reflecting his ignorance of life among the Iranian young — “If the people of Iran were free, they could wear jeans, listen to Western music, and have free elections ” — and the next thing you knew, indignant Iranian tweets were going up along with photosof jeans and Western music albums. And so another round of news stories hit the wires.

Only one problem: just about all the “Israeli” news here is focused on its future policy toward Iran, and remarkably little of it on the way Israel continues to eat up Palestinian lands and displace Palestinians on the West Bank and elsewhere, or the way in which Israeli control over so much of the West Bank is stunting the Palestinian economy. Fortunately, Max Blumenthal, who previously slipped inside the Republican Party and produced a bestselling book, has spent four years researching the on-the-ground realities of Israel. Today, he offers us a powerful, if grim, glimpse of just where Israel has been and where it’s heading, the sort of up-close-and-personal reporting you’re not likely to see in the American mainstream media (not, at least, since President Obama tried — and failed — to get the Israelis to stop building new settlements and other housing on Palestinian or contested lands). But think of today’s TomDispatch post as just a snapshot. The full picture can be found in Blumenthal’s new blockbuster of a book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. It’s an odyssey of a trip into a largely unknown Israel and a remarkable, as well as riveting, piece of reportage. Tom

The Desert of Israeli Democracy
A Trip Through the Negev Desert Leads to the Heart of Israel’s National Nightmare
By Max Blumenthal

From the podium of the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seamlessly blended frightening details of Iranian evildoing with images of defenseless Jews “bludgeoned” and “left for dead” by anti-Semites in nineteenth century Europe. Aimed at U.S. and Iranian moves towards diplomacy and a war-weary American public, Netanyahu’s gloomy tirade threatened to cast him as a desperate, diminished figure. Though it was poorly received in the U.S., alienating even a few of his stalwart pro-Israel allies, his jeremiad served a greater purpose, deflecting attention from his country’s policies towards the group he scarcely mentioned: the Palestinians.

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Michael Klare: A Future in Arms

8:39 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A mid-air refueling of a fighter plane

Stratotankers, like the one shown here refueling a jet, were recently sold to the Israeli military.

Imagine for a moment that in 2010, China’s leaders had announced a long-term, up to $60 billion arms deal with an extreme Islamic fundamentalist regime in the Middle East, one that was notoriously repressive to women and a well-known supporter of the Taliban.  Imagine as well that the first $30 billion part of that deal, involving 84 advanced jet fighters, was sealed in 2011, and that, since then, the sales have never stopped: several kinds of helicopters, artillery, armored personnel carriers, upgraded tanks, surface-to-air missile systems, even possibly a litoral combat vessel, among other purchases.  Then include one more piece of information in the mix.  In 2013, China added in “an advanced class of precision ‘standoff munitions’” — missiles that could be fired from those previously purchased advanced jet fighters.

Given all this, we would know what to think.  It would be just the sort of thing you might expect from an unscrupulous, retrograde communist regime with no values whatsoever, one willing above all else to keep the production lines of its weapons makers humming.  Washington would long ago have denounced such dealings in no uncertain terms.  In fact, such a scenario is utterly fantastic and essentially unimaginable — for China.  But it happens to be a perfectly accurate description of the lucrative relationship that American arms makers and the Pentagon have with Saudi Arabia, a country Washington has promoted and sold weaponry to as if there were no tomorrow.

And that’s just to dip a toe into the strange world of the global arms “trade,” though in recent years it’s become something closer to a U.S. monopoly in straightforward dollar terms.  Now, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left and an expert on energy and also on that bizarre “trade,” offers a glimpse into its latest grim set of wrinkles — new sales that might signal a twenty-first-century revival of the Cold War. Tom

The Cold War Redux? 
Are Washington, Moscow, and Beijing Using the Global Arms Trade to Create a New Cold War? 
By Michael T. Klare

Did Washington just give Israel the green light for a future attack on Iran via an arms deal?  Did Russia just signal its further support for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime via an arms deal?  Are the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans all heightening regional tensions in Asia via arms deals?  Is it possible that we’re witnessing the beginnings of a new Cold War in two key regions of the planet — and that the harbingers of this unnerving development are arms deals?

International weapons sales have proved to be a thriving global business in economically tough times.  According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), such sales reached an impressive $85 billion in 2011, nearly double the figure for 2010.  This surge in military spending reflected efforts by major Middle Eastern powers to bolster their armories with modern jets, tanks, and missiles — a process constantly encouraged by the leading arms manufacturing countries (especially the U.S. and Russia) as it helps keep domestic production lines humming.  However, this familiar if always troubling pattern may soon be overshadowed by a more ominous development in the global arms trade: the revival of far more targeted Cold War-style weapons sales aimed at undermining rivals and destabilizing regional power balances.  The result, inevitably, will be a more precarious world.

Arms sales have always served multiple functions.  Valuable trade commodities, weapons can prove immensely lucrative for companies that specialize in making such products.  Between 2008 and 2011, for example, U.S. firms sold $146 billion worth of military hardware to foreign countries, according to the latest CRS figures.  Crucially, such sales help ensure that domestic production lines remain profitable even when government acquisitions slow down at home.  But arms sales have also served as valuable tools of foreign policy — as enticements for the formation of alliances, expressions of ongoing support, and a way to lure new allies over to one’s side.  Powerful nations, seeking additional allies, use such sales to win the allegiance of weaker states; weaker states, seeking to bolster their defenses, look to arms deals as a way to build ties with stronger countries, or even to play one suitor off another in pursuit of the most sophisticated arms available.

Throughout the Cold War, both superpowers employed weapons transfers as a form of competition, offering advanced arms to entice regional powers to defect from each other’s alliance systems or to counter offers made by the other side.  Egypt, for example, was convinced to join the Soviet sphere in 1955 when provided with arms the West had refused to deliver.  In the late 1970s, it moved back into the American camp after Washington anted up far better weapons systems.

In those years, the Americans and the Soviets also used arms transfers to bolster key allies in areas of strategic confrontation like the Middle East.  Washington armed Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran when it was still ruled by the Shah; Russia armed Iraq and Syria. These transfers played a critical role in Cold War diplomacy and sometimes helped tilt the scales in favor of decisions to go to war.  In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, for example, Egypt, emboldened by an expanded arsenal of Soviet antitank missiles, attacked Israeli forces in the Negev desert.

In the wake of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the commercial aspect of arms sales came to the fore.  Both Washington and Moscow were, by then, far more interested in keeping their military production lines running than in jousting for advantage abroad, so emphasis was placed on scoring contracts from those with the means to pay — mainly the major oil producers of the Middle East and Latin America and the economically expansive “tigers” of Asia.  Between 2008 and 2011, the CRS ranked the leading purchasers of conventional arms in the developing world this way: Saudi Arabia, India, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Egypt, and Venezuela.  Together, these six countries ordered $117 billion in new weaponry.

Arms Sales Take a New Path

Only recently has some version of great power dueling and competition started up again, and in the early months of 2013 it seems to be gaining momentum.  Several recent developments highlight this trend:

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Ira Chernus: The Mideast Surprise of 2013?

7:42 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

The future has its surprises.  Even the most farseeing among us, even the seers of the U.S. Intelligence Community, are — for better or worse — regularly caught off-guard by what tomorrow has to offer.  Take the murderous acts of two disturbed young men.  No, not Adam Lanza, but Jared Loughner wielding his Glock semi-automatic pistol with its 33-round extended magazine, and James Holmes with his “semiautomatic variation of the military’s M-16 rifle, a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, and at least one .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol.”

The attempted assassination of a member of the House of Representatives in Tucson in January 2011 and the mayhem and killings in a movie house in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012 shocked the nation.  Each time, the president comforted an unnerved public, while a downsizing media leapt at the opportunity to focus on a single eyeball-gluing event for days on end (undoubtedly the cheapest way to go).  When it comes to the coverage of slaughter-by-gun in America these days — from teddy bear memorials to religious services, first responders to final burials — you can almost do it by the numbers, with a rolodex already filled with grief counselors, psychologists, gun experts, religious figures, and the like.

If you had to guess, you might have said that no two events were more likely to put the issue of guns and gun control back on the American agenda — and of course you would have been wrong.  Afterwards, if you had read the experts and the pundits, you would have known that the issue of gun control was as dead as any of the victims of those massacres and off the American agenda for years, if not forever.  The polls assured us of the same.  The conclusion seemed clear enough: American innocents could die en masse at the hands of disturbed guys with access to powerful weaponry and the public would still prefer fewer controls on weapons.

All that held true until a disturbed young man, who had killed his gun-hobbyist (possibly gun-obsessive) mother and then employed a rifle that the New York Times described as “a semiautomatic… that is similar to weapons used by troops in Afghanistan,” massacred 20 small children, a school principal, and five staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, a (gun-loving) Connecticut community.

Once again, we had days of obliterating media coverage, with the usual experts, pundits, and rites, including a community in shock, grieving, and pulling itself together, and of course President Obama comforting its citizens with “the whole world watching.”  Once again, mindboggling facts about gun-selling and gun-ownership in this country began making the rounds: there are only 14,000 more gas stations than federally licensed firearms dealers in the United States (143,839 to 129,817); more than nine times as many dealers as McDonalds (14,098); and by conservative estimate, 3.3-3.5 million of the AR-15-style rifle used by Lanza have been produced for domestic use since 1986 in the U.S.

This time, however, something different happened, something no one had expected or predicted, that, in fact, everyone knew was inconceivable: the polls showed sudden, spasmic surges of support for stricter gun laws (an overnight 18% rise in the latest CBS poll, for example).  Suddenly, gun control was on everyone’s agenda, a ban on assault weapons on lips all over Washington (and backed by the president), and movement in the air.  In such a heavily armed and fear-ridden country, all of this may not, in the end, add up to a hill of beans (or ammo) in policy terms, but it remains striking nonetheless.

Looking ahead, the lesson is simple enough: when it comes to 2013, take the predictions of the pundits with a grain of salt.  Ignore everyone who knows that the usual will be the norm and make a New Year’s wish for the surprises that, looking backward, litter history.  One possibility that not a pundit anywhere in the U.S. mainstream is likely to consider at the moment: that next year, for the first time in memory, the U.S. and Israel, as TomDispatch regular and professor of religious studies Ira Chernus suggests, may be genuinely at odds, and that Washington may, at long last, move to put the brakes on Israeli settlement expansion into Palestinian lands. Tom

Are the U.S. and Israel Heading for a Showdown? No One Thinks So, But It Just Might Happen By Ira Chernus

Here’s the question no one is asking as 2012 ends, especially given the effusive public support the Obama administration offered Israel in its recent conflict with Hamas in Gaza: Will 2013 be a year of confrontation between Washington and Jerusalem?  It’s on no one’s agenda for the New Year. But it could happen anyway.

It’s true that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process appears dead in the water. No matter how much Barack Obama might have wanted that prize, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rebuffed him at every turn.  The president appears to have taken it on the chin, offering more than the usual support for Israel and in return getting kloom (as they say in Hebrew).  Nothing at all.

However, the operative word here is “appears.” In foreign affairs what you see — a show carefully scripted for political purposes — often bears little relation to what you actually get.

While the Obama administration has acceded to the imagery of knee-jerk support for whatever Israel does, no matter how outrageous, behind the scenes its policies are beginning to look far less predictable. In fact, unlikely as it may seem, a showdown could be brewing between the two countries. If so, the outcome will depend on a complicated interplay between private diplomacy and public theater.

The latest well-masked U.S. intervention came in the brief November war between Israel and Gaza. It began when Israel assassinated a top Hamas leader deeply involved in secret truce talks between the supposedly non-communicating foes.

Destructive as it was, the war proved brief indeed for one reason: the American president quickly stepped in. Publicly, he couldn’t have sided more wholeheartedly with Israel. (It felt as if Mitt Romney had won, not lost, the election.)  In private, though, as he pressured Egyptian President Morsi to force Hamas to a truce, he reportedly pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just as hard.

The truce agreement even had an Obama-required twist.  It forced Israel to continue negotiating seriously with Hamas about easing the blockade that, combined with repeated destructive Israeli strikes against the Palestinian infrastructure, has plunged Gaza so deep into poverty and misery. Talks on the blockade are reportedly proceeding, though wrapped in the deepest secrecy. It’s hard to imagine Israel upholding the truce and entering into a real dialogue to ease the blockade without significant pressure from Washington.

Washington is also deeply involved in the tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) in the West Bank. When P.A. president Mahmoud Abbas asked the U.N. General Assembly to accord Palestine observer status, Israel publicly denounced any such U.N. resolution. The Obama administration wanted to offer a far softer resolution of its own with Israeli approval. The Israelis gave in and sent a top official to Washington to negotiate the language.

In the end, the U.S. had no success; the stronger resolution passed overwhelmingly. Israel promptly retaliated by announcing that it would build 3,000 additional housing units in various settlements on the West Bank. To make the response stronger, the Israeli government indicated that it would also make “preliminary zoning and planning preparations” for new Israeli settlements in the most contentious area of the West Bank, known as E1. Settlements there would virtually bisect the West Bank and complete a Jewish encirclement of Jerusalem, ending any hope for a two-state solution.

Washington Can Lay Down the Law

There is a history of the Israeli government publicly announcing settlement expansions for symbolic political effect, and then, under U.S. pressure, pursuing only limited construction or none at all. Some observers suspect Netanyahu is now playing the same game.

As the New York Times reported, “For years, American and European officials have told the Israelis that E1 is a red line. The leaked, somewhat vague, announcement… is a potent threat that may well, in the end, not be carried out because the Israeli government worries about its consequences.” Prominent Israeli columnist Shimon Shiffer was more certain. “Netanyahu,” he wrote, “does not plan to change the policies of his predecessors, who assured the Americans Israel would not build even one house in problematic areas” like E1.

Maybe that’s why Netanyahu sounded so tentative on the subject in an interview: “What we’ve advanced so far is only planning [in E1], and we will have to see. We shall act further based on what the Palestinians do.” Israeli officials admitted to the New York Times that the move on E1 was “symbolism against symbolism.”

But several European nations took the E1 threat seriously and responded with unusually sharp criticism. Some Israeli insiders claimed that Obama’s hidden hand was at work here, too. The American president, they speculated, gave the Europeans “the green light to respond with extreme measures… The European move is essentially an American move.”  If so, it was all done in private, of course.  (The White House publicly denied the claim.)

However Peter Beinart, editor of the Open Zion page at the Daily Beast and author of The Crisis of Zionism, claims administration officials have told him that such behind-the-scenes maneuvering is Obama’s new strategy. Publicly, Washington will “stand back and let the rest of the world do the confronting. Once the U.S. stops trying to save Israel from the consequences of its actions, the logic goes, and once Israel feels the full brunt of its mounting international isolation, its leaders will be scared into changing course.”

As Beinart suggests, international isolation is what worries Israelis most. A cut-off of U.S. military aid would be troubling indeed but in itself hardly fatal, since Israel already has the strongest military in the Middle East and a sizeable military-industrial-high-tech complex of its own.

What Israel needs, above all, from the U.S. is diplomatic support to protect it from international rejection, economic boycotts, and a diplomatic tsunami that could turn Israel into a pariah state. Political analysts have long assumed that any Israeli leader who loses the protection of the U.S. would pay the price at the polls.

That’s why some insiders, like Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, think Obama can “lay down the law” to Israel on E1 — behind closed doors, of course. The influential Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer puts the situation in the simplest of terms: “It is clear who is boss.”

Obama’s New Diplomatic Weapon

The rules of Israel’s political game, however, may also be changing. And that’s a key to understanding why 2013 could be the year of confrontation between the leaderships of the two countries. Netanyahu has allied his Likud party with the strongest party to its right, Yisrael Beitenu. To seal his victory in the upcoming election on January 22nd, he’s put his political fate in the hands (or talons) of his country’s hawks.

If he wins (which everyone assumes he will), he’ll have to satisfy those hawks — and they don’t care about shrewd secret bargaining or holding on to allies. What they want, above all, are public displays of unilateral strength made with much fanfare, exactly like the recent settlement-expansion announcement and the accompanying threat to turn E1 into an Israeli suburb. Many observers have suggested that the primary audience was Netanyahu’s new, ever-more-right-wing partners. Plenty of them still don’t trust him, especially after the ceasefire in Gaza under pressure from Washington.

Most analysts saw the Israeli announcement as a public punishment of the Palestinians for their success at the U.N. The BBC’s Kevin Connolly had a different interpretation: Israeli hawks felt that letting the U.N. vote pass without some strong response “would be seen as a sign of weakness.”

Israeli political life has always been haunted by a fear of weakness and a conviction that Jews are condemned to vulnerability in a world full of anti-Semites eager to destroy them. The hawks’ worldview is built upon this myth of insecurity. It demands instant retaliation so that Jews can show the world — but more importantly themselves — that they are strong enough to resist every real or (more often) imagined threat.

To keep the show going, they must have enemies. So they seek out confrontations and, at the same time, “actually welcome isolation,” as the venerable Israeli commentator Uri Avnery says, “because it confirms again that the entire world is anti-Semitic, and not to be trusted.” 

“For the sake of his target voter,” writes another Israeli columnist, Bradley Burston, “it’s in Netanyahu’s direct interest for the world to hate Israelis” and for Obama to be “fed up and furious with Israel. That is, at least until Election Day.”

Obama owes the Israeli prime minister nothing after the recent U.S. election season in which Netanyahu practically campaigned for Mitt Romney and publicly demanded that the U.S. threaten an attack on Iran –- a demand that the administration publicly rebuffed.  The president might finally be fed up, and so in a mood to ratchet up private pressure on the Israelis.

If Obama is planning to put more heat on them, he will undoubtedly wait until after their election. Then, in the late winter months of 2013, before spring comes and Netanyahu can revive the possibility of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, the president might well provoke a showdown.

He has good reason. If he can secure a definitive halt to settlement expansion, he can bring the Palestinians back to the table with a promise to press Israel to negotiate seriously for a two-state solution. In a chaotic region where the U.S. seems to be losing ground weekly, Washington could score sizeable foreign policy points, especially in improving relations with regional powers Turkey and Egypt.

And faced with Netanyahu’s new post-election government, Obama would find himself with a new diplomatic weapon in his arsenal. Suppose — an administration aide might suggest to an Israeli counterpart — the U.S. publicly reveals that it’s allowing, perhaps even pushing, other nations to isolate Israel.

Some Israeli hawks would undoubtedly welcome the chance to proclaim Obama as Israel’s greatest enemy and demand that Netanyahu resist all pressure. But Israeli centrists — still a large part of the electorate — would be dismayed, or worse, at the thought of losing Washington as their last bulwark against international rejection. The fear that Israel could become a pariah state, blacklisted, embargoed, and without its lone invaluable ally would be a powerful incentive. They’d insist that Netanyahu show flexibility to avoid that fate.

Netanyahu would find himself caught in a political battle he could never hope to win. To avoid such a trap, he might well risk yielding in private to U.S. pressure, with the understanding that the two allies would publicly deny any change in policy and the U.S. would continue to offer effusive public support. (The Israelis could always find some bureaucratic excuse to explain a halt — even if termed a “delay” — to settlement expansion.)

Battle on the Home Front

That prospect should be tempting for Obama, but he has domestic political risks of his own to weigh.

There’s a common misconception that the administration worries most about “the Jews.” The latest polls, however, show 73% of U.S. Jews supporting Obama’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nearly as many want him to propose a specific plan for a two-state solution, even if it means publicly disagreeing with Israel. Nor is there too much reason to worry about Jewish money, since most Jewish contributors to the Democrats are liberals who are pro-Israel but also pro-peace.

Nor are Christian Zionists the big problem. They do have some clout in Washington, but not enough to make Obama fear them.

The administration’s main worry is undoubtedly the Republican Party and especially its representatives in Congress. Recent polls by CNN, the Huffington Post, and Pew indicate that Republicans are roughly twice as likely as Democrats to take Israel’s side, while Democrats are about five times as likely to sympathize with Palestinians. Men, whites, and older people are most likely to support Israel unreservedly in the conflict.

In the U.S. presidential campaign, Republicans were eager to play on the traditional American belief in Israel’s insecurity: an innocent victim surrounded by vicious Arabs eager to destroy the little Jewish state. Obama, the GOP charged, had “thrown Israel under the bus.”

But the issue never gained real traction, an indication that the domestic political climate may be changing. Another small sign of change: a relatively weak measure threatening a cutoff of funding to the Palestinians, which in the past would have sailed through Congress, recently died in the Senate.

If Obama and the Democrats come out of the “fiscal cliff” process looking strong, they will feel freer to put real pressure on Israel despite Republican criticism. The more they can keep that pressure hidden from public view, while mouthing all the old “we stand with Israel” clichés, the more likely they are to take the risk.

In such a situation, Israeli right-wingers might well give their GOP allies enough evidence to rip off the mask. Then, Obama would have to speak more candidly to the American people, though his honesty would surely be well tempered with political spin.

Our goal, he might say, has always been to make Israel secure, something long ago achieved. We’ve ensured that Israel maintains such a huge military advantage over its neighbors, including its Iron Dome missile defense system, that it is now effectively safe from any attack. And we’ll continue ensuring that Israel maintains its military superiority, as we are required to do by law.

But now at long last, he would continue, we are showing our friendship in a new way: by bringing Israel and its Palestinian neighbors to the negotiating table so that they can make peace. Israelis shouldn’t have to live eternally in a fortress. We refuse to condemn them to that kind of future. We are instead taking steps to help them be free to flourish in a nation that is genuinely secure because it has made peace. Some may call it tough love, but let everyone understand that it is an act of love.

Whether Obama believed such talk or not would hardly matter. Public theater deftly meshed with private diplomacy is the key to peace. And confrontation in 2013 could be the first step on the path toward it.

Ira Chernus is a TomDispatch regular and professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  He is the author, among other works, of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin and the online collection “MythicAmerica: Essays.” He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.

Copyright 2012 Ira Chernus

Juan Cole: The Iran Conundrum

6:25 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Negotiators for Iran, the U.S., Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany are to meet in Turkey this Friday, face to face, for the first time in more than a year. There are small signs of possible future compromise on both sides when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program (and a semi-public demand from Washington that could be an instant deal-breaker). Looking at the big picture, though, there’s a remarkable amount we simply don’t know about Washington’s highly militarized policy toward Iran.

Every now and then, like a flash of lightning in a dark sky, some corner of it — and its enormity and longevity — is illuminated. For example, in 2008, the New Yorker’s indefatigable Seymour Hersh reported that the previous year Congress had granted a Bush administration request for up to $400 million “to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran,” including “cross-border” operations from Iraq. Just recently, Hersh offered a window into another little part of the U.S. program: the way, starting in 2005, the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command spent years secretly training members of M.E.K., an Iranian opposition-group-cum-cult that’s on the State Department’s terror list, at a Department of Energy site in the Nevada desert.

Similarly, from time to time, we get glimpses of the U.S. basing and naval build-up in the Persian Gulf, which is massive and ongoing. As for the skies over Iran, last year the Iranians suddenly announced that they had acquired — downed, they claimed (though this was later denied by the Americans) — an advanced U.S. spy drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel. Indeed, they had the photos to prove it. Until then, there had been no publicity about American drones flying over Iranian territory and initially the U.S. military claimed that the plane had simply strayed off course while patrolling the Afghan border.

Last week, however, a range of typically anonymous officials leaked to Washington Post reporters Joby Warrick and Greg Miller the news that the CIA’s drone surveillance program over Iran was more than three years old, large-scale, and itself just part of an “intelligence surge” focused on that country. According to their sources, “The effort has included ramped-up eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, formation of an Iran task force among satellite-imagery analysts, and an expanded network of spies.” In addition, under former CIA Director Leon Panetta, “partnerships” were built “with allied intelligence services in the region capable of recruiting operatives for missions inside Iran.”

Such reports and leaks give us at least the bare and patchy outlines of a concerted military, covert action, spying, surveillance, and propaganda program of staggering proportions (and that’s without even adding in the Israeli version of the same, which evidently includes the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists). All of this, we have to believe, is but part of an even larger set of intertwined, militarized operations against a modest-sized regional power with relatively limited military capabilities. It’s a program that we’re sure to know less about than we think we do, filled with what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would have called “known unknowns” as well as “unknown unknowns.”

TomDispatch regular Juan Cole, who runs the always invaluable Informed Comment website, does a remarkable job of offering us a full-scale picture of the complex economic underpinnings of the present Iran-U.S.-Israeli crisis and the unnerving dangers involved. But for the full, grim story of Washington’s campaign against Tehran, we are reliant either on the next Bradley Manning, a future WikiLeaks, or declassification of the necessary documents in time for our grandchildren to grasp something of the folly of our moment. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Cole discusses the consequences of sanctions on Iran, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Why Washington’s Iran Policy Could Lead to Global Disaster
What History Should Teach Us About Blockading Iran

By Juan Cole

It’s a policy fierce enough to cause great suffering among Iranians — and possibly in the long run among Americans, too. It might, in the end, even deeply harm the global economy and yet, history tells us, it will fail on its own. Economic war led by Washington (and encouraged by Israel) will not take down the Iranian government or bring it to the bargaining table on its knees ready to surrender its nuclear program. It might, however, lead to actual armed conflict with incalculable consequences.

The United States is already effectively embroiled in an economic war against Iran. The Obama administration has subjected the Islamic Republic to the most crippling economic sanctions applied to any country since Iraq was reduced to fourth-world status in the 1990s. And worse is on the horizon. A financial blockade is being imposed that seeks to prevent Tehran from selling petroleum, its most valuable commodity, as a way of dissuading the regime from pursuing its nuclear enrichment program.

Historical memory has never been an American strong point and so few today remember that a global embargo on Iranian petroleum is hardly a new tactic in Western geopolitics; nor do many recall that the last time it was applied with such stringency, in the 1950s, it led to the overthrow of the government with disastrous long-term blowback on the United States. The tactic is just as dangerous today.

Iran’s supreme theocrat, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly condemned the atom bomb and nuclear weapons of all sorts as tools of the devil, weaponry that cannot be used without killing massive numbers of civilian noncombatants. In the most emphatic terms, he has, in fact, pronounced them forbidden according to Islamic law. Based on the latest U.S. intelligence, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has affirmed that Iran has not made a decision to pursue a nuclear warhead. In contrast, hawks in Israel and the United States insist that Tehran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program is aimed ultimately at making a bomb, that the Iranians are pursuing such a path in a determined fashion, and that they must be stopped now — by military means if necessary.

Putting the Squeeze on Iran

At the moment, the Obama administration and the Congress seem intent on making it impossible for Iran to sell its petroleum at all on the world market. As 2011 ended, Congress passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that mandates sanctions on firms and countries that deal with Iran’s Central Bank or buy Iranian petroleum (though hardship cases can apply to the Treasury Department for exemptions). This escalation from sanctions to something like a full-scale financial blockade holds extreme dangers of spiraling into military confrontation. The Islamic Republic tried to make this point, indicating that it would not allow itself to be strangled without response, by conducting naval exercises at the mouth of the Persian Gulf this winter. The threat involved was clear enough: about one-fifth of the world’s petroleum flows through the Gulf, and even a temporary and partial cut-off might prove catastrophic for the world economy.

In part, President Obama is clearly attempting by his sanctions-cum-blockade policy to dissuade the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from launching a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He argues that severe economic measures will be enough to bring Iran to the negotiating table ready to bargain, or even simply give in.

In part, Obama is attempting to please America’s other Middle East ally, Saudi Arabia, which also wants Iran’s nuclear program mothballed. In the process, the U.S. Department of the Treasury has even had Iran’s banks kicked off international exchange networks, making it difficult for that country’s major energy customers like South Korea and India to pay for the Iranian petroleum they import. And don’t forget the administration’s most powerful weapon: most governments and corporations do not want to be cut off from the U.S. economy with a GDP of more than $15 trillion — still the largest and most dynamic in the world.

Typically, the European Union, fearing Congressional sanctions, has agreed to cease taking new contracts on Iranian oil by July 1st, a decision that has placed special burdens on struggling countries in its southern tier like Greece and Italy. With European buyers boycotting, Iran will depend for customers on Asian countries, which jointly purchase some 64% of its petroleum, and those of the global South. Of these, China and India have declined to join the boycott. South Korea, which buys $14 billion worth of Iranian petroleum a year, accounting for some 10% of its oil imports, has pleaded with Washington for an exemption, as has Japan which got 8.8% of its petroleum imports from Iran last year, more than 300,000 barrels a day — and more in absolute terms than South Korea. Japan, which is planning to cut its Iranian imports by 12% this year, has already won an exemption.

Faced with the economic damage a sudden interruption of oil imports from Iran would inflict on East Asian economies, the Obama administration has instead attempted to extract pledges of future 10%-20% reductions in return for those Treasury Department exemptions. Since it’s easier to make promises than institute a boycott, allies are lining up with pledges. (Even Turkey has gone this route.)

Such vows are almost certain to prove relatively empty. After all, there are few options for such countries other than continuing to buy Iranian oil unless they can find new sources — unlikely at present, despite Saudi promises to ramp up production — or drastically cut back on energy use, ensuring economic contraction and domestic wrath.

What this means in reality is that the U.S. and Israeli quest to cut off Iran’s exports will probably be a quixotic one. For the plan to work, oil demand would have to remain steady and other exporters would have to replace Iran’s roughly 2.5 million barrels a day on the global market. For instance, Saudi Arabia has increased the amount of petroleum it pumps, and is promising a further rise in output this summer in an attempt to flood the market and allow countries to replace Iranian purchases with Saudi ones.

But experts doubt the Saudi ability to do this long term and — most important of all — global demand is not steady. It’s crucially on the rise in both China and India. For Washington’s energy blockade to work, Saudi Arabia and other suppliers would have to reliably replace Iran’s oil production and cover increased demand, as well as expected smaller shortfalls caused by crises in places like Syria and South Sudan and by declining production in older fields elsewhere.

Otherwise a successful boycott of Iranian petroleum will only put drastic upward pressure on oil prices, as Japan has politely but firmly pointed out to the Obama administration. The most likely outcome: America’s closest allies and those eager to do more business with the U.S. will indeed reduce imports from Iran, leaving countries like China, India, and others in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to dip into the pool of Iranian crude (possibly at lower prices than the Iranians would normally charge).

Iran’s transaction costs are certainly increasing, its people are beginning to suffer economically, and it may have to reduce its exports somewhat, but the tensions in the Gulf have also caused the price of petroleum futures to rise in a way that has probably offset the new costs the regime has borne. (Experts also estimate that the Iran crisis has already added 25 cents to every gallon of gas an American consumer buys at the pump.)

Like China, India has declined to bow to pressure from Washington. The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which depends on India’s substantial Muslim vote, is not eager to be seen as acquiescent to U.S. strong-arm tactics. Moreover, lacking substantial hydrocarbon resources, and given Singh’s ambitious plans for an annual growth rate of 9% — focused on expanding India’s underdeveloped transportation sector (70% of all petroleum used in the world is dedicated to fuelling vehicles) — Iran is crucial to the country’s future.

To sidestep Washington, India has worked out an agreement to pay for half of its allotment of Iranian oil in rupees, a soft currency. Iran would then have to use those rupees on food and goods from India, a windfall for its exporters. Defying the American president yet again, the Indians are even offering a tax break to Indian firms that trade with Iran. That country is, in turn, offering to pay for some Indian goods with gold. Since India runs a trade deficit with the U.S., Washington would only hurt itself if it aggressively sanctioned India.

A History Lesson Ignored

As yet, Iran has shown no signs of yielding to the pressure. For its leaders, future nuclear power stations promise independence and signify national glory, just as they do for France, which gets nearly 80% of its electricity from nuclear reactors. The fear in Tehran is that, without nuclear power, a developing Iran could consume all its petroleum domestically, as has happened in Indonesia, leaving the government with no surplus income with which to maintain its freedom from international pressures.

Iran is particularly jealous of its independence because in modern history it has so often been dominated by a great power or powers. In 1941, with World War II underway, Russia and Britain, which already controlled Iranian oil, launched an invasion to ensure that the country remained an asset of the Allies against the Axis. They put the young and inexperienced Mohammed Reza Pahlevi on the throne, and sent his father, Reza Shah, into exile. The Iranian corridor — what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “the bridge of victory” — then allowed the allies to effectively channel crucial supplies to the Soviet Union in the war against Nazi Germany. The occupation years were, however, devastating for Iranians who experienced soaring inflation and famine.

Discontent broke out after the war — and the Allied occupation — ended. It was focused on a 1933 agreement Iran had signed with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) regarding the exploitation of its petroleum. By the early 1950s, the AIOC (which later became British Petroleum and is now BP) was paying more in taxes to the British government than in royalties to Iran for its oil. In 1950, when it became known that the American ARAMCO oil consortium had offered the king of Saudi Arabia a 50-50 split of oil profits, the Iranians demanded the same terms.

The AIOC was initially adamant that it would not renegotiate the agreement. By the time it softened its position somewhat and began being less supercilious, Iran’s parliamentarians were so angry that they did not want anything more to do with the British firm or the government that supported it.

On March 15, 1951, a democratically elected Iranian parliament summarily nationalized the country’s oil fields and kicked the AIOC out of the country. Facing a wave of public anger, Mohammed Reza Shah acquiesced, appointing Mohammed Mosaddegh, an oil-nationalization hawk, as prime minister. A conservative nationalist from an old aristocratic family, Mosaddegh soon visited the United States seeking aid, but because his nationalist coalition included the Tudeh Party (the Communist Party of Iran), he was increasingly smeared in the U.S. press as a Soviet sympathizer.

The British government, outraged by the oil nationalization and fearful that the Iranian example might impel other producers to follow suit, froze that country’s assets and attempted to institute a global embargo of its petroleum. London placed harsh restrictions on Tehran’s ability to trade, and made it difficult for Iran to convert the pounds sterling it held in British banks. Initially, President Harry Truman’s administration in Washington was supportive of Iran. After Republican Dwight Eisenhower was swept into the Oval Office, however, the U.S. enthusiastically joined the oil embargo and campaign against Iran.

Iran became ever more desperate to sell its oil, and countries like Italy and Japan were tempted by “wildcat” sales at lower than market prices. As historian Nikki Keddie has showed, however, Big Oil and the U.S. State Department deployed strong-arm tactics to stop such countries from doing so.

In May 1953, for example, sometime Standard Oil of California executive and “petroleum adviser” to the State Department Max Thornburg wrote U.S. ambassador to Italy Claire Booth Luce about an Italian request to buy Iranian oil: “For Italy to clear this oil and take additional cargoes would definitely indicate that it had taken the side of the oil ‘nationalizers,’ despite the hazard this represents to American foreign investments and vital oil supply sources. This of course is Italy’s right. It is only the prudence of the course that is in question.” He then threatened Rome with an end to oil company purchases of Italian supplies worth millions of dollars.

In the end, the Anglo-American blockade devastated Iran’s economy and provoked social unrest. Prime Minister Mosaddegh, initially popular, soon found himself facing a rising wave of labor strikes and protest rallies. Shopkeepers and small businessmen, among his most important constituents, pressured the prime minister to restore order. When he finally did crack down on the protests (some of them staged by the Central Intelligence Agency), the far left Tudeh Party began withdrawing its support. Right-wing generals, dismayed by the flight of the shah to Italy, the breakdown of Iran’s relations with the West, and the deterioration of the economy, were open to the blandishments of the CIA, which, with the help of British intelligence, decided to organize a coup to install its own man in power.

A Danger of Blowback

The story of the 1953 CIA coup in Iran is well known, but that its success depended on the preceding two years of fierce sanctions on Iran’s oil is seldom considered. A global economic blockade of a major oil country is difficult to sustain. Were it to have broken down, the U.S. and Britain would have suffered a huge loss of prestige. Other Third World countries might have taken heart and begun to claim their own natural resources. The blockade, then, arguably made the coup necessary. That coup, in turn, led to the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini a quarter-century later and, in the end, the present U.S./Israeli/Iranian face-off. It seems the sort of sobering history lesson that every politician in Washington should consider (and none, of course, does).

As then, so now, an oil blockade in its own right is unlikely to achieve Washington’s goals. At present, the American desire to force Iran to abolish its nuclear enrichment program seems as far from success as ever. In this context, there’s another historical lesson worth considering: the failure of the crippling sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990s to bring down that dictator and his regime.

What that demonstrated was simple enough: ruling cliques with ownership of a valuable industry like petroleum can cushion themselves from the worst effects of an international boycott, even if they pass the costs on to a helpless public. In fact, crippling the economy tends to send the middle class into a spiral of downward mobility, leaving its members with ever fewer resources to resist an authoritarian government. The decline of Iran’s once-vigorous Green protest movement of 2009 is probably connected to this, as is a growing sense that Iran is now under foreign siege, and Iranians should rally around in support of the nation.

Strikingly, there was a strong voter turnout for the recent parliamentary elections where candidates close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dominated the results. Iran’s politics, never very free, have nevertheless sometimes produced surprises and feisty movements, but these days are moving in a decidedly conservative and nationalistic direction. Only a few years ago, a majority of Iranians disapproved of the idea of having an atomic bomb. Now, according to a recent Gallup poll, more support the militarization of the nuclear program than oppose it.

The great oil blockade of 2012 may still be largely financially focused, but it carries with it the same dangers of escalation and intervention — as well as future bitterness and blowback — as did the campaign of the early 1950s. U.S. and European financial sanctions are already beginning to interfere with the import of staples like wheat, since Iran can no longer use the international banking system to pay for them. If children suffer or even experience increased mortality because of the sanctions, that development could provoke future attacks on the U.S. or American troops in the Greater Middle East. (Don’t forget that the Iraqi sanctions, considered responsible for the deaths of some 500,000 children, were cited by al-Qaeda in its “declaration of war” on the U.S.)

The attempt to flood the market and use financial sanctions to enforce an embargo on Iranian petroleum holds many dangers. If it fails, soaring oil prices could set back fragile economies in the West still recovering from the mortgage and banking scandals of 2008. If it overshoots, there could be turmoil in the oil-producing states from a sudden fall in revenues.

Even if the embargo is a relative success in keeping Iranian oil in the ground, the long-term damage to that country’s fields and pipelines (which might be ruined if they lie fallow long enough) could harm the world economy in the future. The likelihood that an oil embargo can change Iranian government policy or induce regime change is low, given our experience with economic sanctions in Iraq, Cuba, and elsewhere. Moreover, there is no reason to think that the Islamic Republic will take its downward mobility lying down.

As the sanctions morph into a virtual blockade, they raise the specter that all blockades do — of provoking a violent response. Just as dangerous is the specter that the sanctions will drag on without producing tangible results, impelling covert or overt American action against Tehran to save face. And that, friends, is where we came in.

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is available in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Cole discusses the consequences of sanctions on Iran, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

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Copyright 2012 Juan Cole

Noam Chomsky: Imperial Hegemony and Its Discontents

7:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

On Tuesday, Part 1 of Noam Chomsky’s piece on American decline, “‘Losing’ the World” was posted at this site. It can be read by clicking here. Now, Part 2 begins. When you’re done, you might check out Chomsky’s earlier TomDispatch piece, “Who Owns the World?” which could be considered a companion to this one. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Chomsky offers an anatomy of American defeat in the Greater Middle East, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

The Imperial Way
American Decline in Perspective, Part 2

By Noam Chomsky

In the years of conscious, self-inflicted decline at home, “losses” continued to mount elsewhere. In the past decade, for the first time in 500 years, South America has taken successful steps to free itself from western domination, another serious loss. The region has moved towards integration, and has begun to address some of the terrible internal problems of societies ruled by mostly Europeanized elites, tiny islands of extreme wealth in a sea of misery. They have also rid themselves of all U.S. military bases and of IMF controls. A newly formed organization, CELAC, includes all countries of the hemisphere apart from the U.S. and Canada. If it actually functions, that would be another step in American decline, in this case in what has always been regarded as “the backyard.”

Even more serious would be the loss of the MENA countries — Middle East/North Africa — which have been regarded by planners since the 1940s as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” Control of MENA energy reserves would yield “substantial control of the world,” in the words of the influential Roosevelt advisor A.A. Berle.

To be sure, if the projections of a century of U.S. energy independence based on North American energy resources turn out to be realistic, the significance of controlling MENA would decline somewhat, though probably not by much: the main concern has always been control more than access. However, the likely consequences to the planet’s equilibrium are so ominous that discussion may be largely an academic exercise.

The Arab Spring, another development of historic importance, might portend at least a partial “loss” of MENA. The US and its allies have tried hard to prevent that outcome — so far, with considerable success. Their policy towards the popular uprisings has kept closely to the standard guidelines: support the forces most amenable to U.S. influence and control. Read the rest of this entry →

Tom Engelhardt: Iran Through the Looking Glass

7:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(photo: kevinwburkett, flickr)

(photo: kevinwburkett, flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Iranian Aircraft Carriers in the Gulf of Mexico
It Can’t Happen Here

By Tom Engelhardt

Exclusive: New Iranian Commando Team Operating Near U.S.

(Tehran, FNA) The Fars News Agency has confirmed with the Republican Guard’s North American Operations Command that a new elite Iranian commando team is operating in the U.S.-Mexican border region. The primary day-to-day mission of the team, known as the Joint Special Operations Gulf of Mexico Task Force, or JSOG-MTF, is to mentor Mexican military units in the border areas in their war with the deadly drug cartels.  The task force provides “highly trained personnel that excel in uncertain environments,” Maj. Amir Arastoo, a spokesman for Republican Guard special operations forces in North America, tells Fars, and “seeks to confront irregular threats…”

The unit began its existence in mid-2009 — around the time that Washington rejected the Iranian leadership’s wish for a new diplomatic dialogue. But whatever the task force does about the United States — or might do in the future — is a sensitive subject with the Republican Guard.  “It would be inappropriate to discuss operational plans regarding any particular nation,” Arastoo says about the U.S.

Okay, so I made that up.  Sue me.  But first admit that, a line or two in, you knew it was fiction.  After all, despite the talk about American decline, we are still on a one-way imperial planet.  Yes, there is a new U.S. special operations team known as Joint Special Operations Task Force-Gulf Cooperation Council, or JSOTF-GCC, at work near Iran and, according to em>Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog, we really don’t quite know what it’s tasked with doing (other than helping train the forces of such allies as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia).

And yes, the quotes are perfectly real, just out of the mouth of a U.S. “spokesman for special-operations forces in the Mideast,” not a representative of Iran’s Republican Guard.  And yes, most Americans, if they were to read about the existence of the new special ops team, wouldn’t think it strange that U.S. forces were edging up to (if not across) the Iranian border, not when our “safety” was at stake.

Reverse the story, though, and it immediately becomes a malign, if unimaginable, fairy tale.  Of course, no Iranian elite forces will ever operate along the U.S. border.  Not in this world.  Washington wouldn’t live with it and it remains the military giant of giants on this planet.  By comparison, Iran is, in military terms, a minor power. Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Sandy Tolan, The Occupation That Time Forgot

6:56 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

"israeli-wall" by Wall In Palestine on flickr

"israeli-wall" by Wall In Palestine on flickr

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

 

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I’m reminded of how Chinese premier Zhou EnLai supposedly answered a question in 1972 about the significance of the French Revolution. “Too early to tell,” was his reputed reply; and though he may never have said it, how true it is that the major events of our world carom through history in ways that remain unpredictable even hundreds of years later.  How then to arrive at an assessment of the Arab Spring — and now far harsher Summer and Fall — of 2011, other than to say that it has proven monumental?

Perhaps all that can or should be said is that history’s surprises have their joys (as well as horrors), and that the young people who propelled the Arab Spring, toppling some regional autocrats and tyrants, challenging others, and leaving still others shaken, offered genuine hope (Yes, We Can!) in a region where it had been a scarce commodity.  Their many and complex uprisings and serial demonstrations have clearly destabilized significant parts of the Middle East that had been in a kind of deadly stasis.  Who knows what will shake out from it all?  At this early date, however, one of the losers from these cascading events seems to be the ever more right-wing government of Israel which — as its autocratic allies in the region totter or fall — has been left in a state of growing isolation and anxiety.

The Arab Spring has evidently even offered a kind of confused and bedraggled hope to a Palestinian not-exactly-state, the Palestinian Authority, about as powerless as an entity could be, which is heading this week for the U.N. to do it’s-not-quite-clear-what.  Its decision signals, at least, the utter bankruptcy of the former “road map” to peace in the region — there are no roads, only checkpoints and obstacles, and as for maps, the Israelis control them.  The zombie-style “negotiations” Washington has long been brokering in the region are now officially dead, no matter how many diplomats rush from one capital to another. Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Ira Chernus, Is Palestine America’s Next Vietnam?

1:28 pm in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t been alone in playing for time when it comes to American policy, that’s for sure.  (Think, for instance, of our Afghan War commander General David Petraeus.)  But Netanyahu played out the pre-election months with some skill and much shuffling of feet, as he officially pondered Obama administration proposals to reinstitute a settlements freeze in return for copious concessions.  All the while, of course, West Bank building has been ramping up, as the 2010 elections crept ever closer.  Now, it’s happened and let’s be blunt: it’s a good moment for him and his policies — in Washington.  The new crew of Republicans who were swept into Congress seem to consider fealty to him and his right-wing government the sine qua non of political life.

Right now, for the prime minister, 2012 looks even brighter.  So don’t expect lots of compromises at the negotiating table (that nobody’s even close to these days) from Netanyahu and company.  Still, despite the look of things, despite the rightward drift in both Israel and the United States, there are unexpected undertows in both places, which make politics in Washington and Tel Aviv (and let’s not forget Ramallah) remarkably unpredictable, as TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus explains.  (By the way, catch him discussing the American Jewish community and the struggle for peace in the Middle East in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

*****

Will the GOP’s Victory Energize Mideast Doves?
Every Action Provokes a Reaction

By Ira Chernus

Palestine as America’s next Vietnam? Like all historical analogies, it’s far from perfect. We aren’t about to send the U.S. Army to the West Bank or Gaza to kill and die in a war that can’t be won.  Where else in the world, though, is American weaponry and political power so obviously used to suppress a Viet Cong-like movement of national liberation (a bill the Taliban hardly fit)?

And what other conflict is as politically divisive as the Israeli-Palestinian one? More than the Afghan War, the struggle at the heart of the Middle East evokes the kind of powerful passions here that once marked the debate over Vietnam, pitting hawks against doves. Not that the progressive media are yet portraying it that way. They’re more likely to give us an increasingly outdated picture of an all-powerful Jewish “Israel lobby,” which supposedly has a lock on U.S. policy and dominates the rest of us.

In fact, when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, the political landscape is far more complex, fluid, and unpredictable. Yes, the election day just past saw a wave of hawkish Republicans with a penchant for loving Israel to death swept into Congress, but the hawks’ amplified voice is also likely to energize a growing alliance of doves.

Religious Hawks vs. Religious Doves

This election was not a Jewish triumph. Most of the GOP congressional hawks (if they aren’t from Florida) come from constituencies with only a sprinkling of Jews. They seem eager to make Israel a symbolic test case, as if supporting the hard-line Israeli government against Obama administration “betrayal” proves their strength in protecting America.

In the wake of November 2nd, a prominent Israeli columnist wrote that Republicans believe in “patriotism, Judeo-Christian Values, national security… and associating Arabs and Muslims with terrorism… a worldview that is usually consistent with pro-Israel sentiments.”  Those are certainly “pro-Israel sentiments” as defined by the old Israel lobby that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt analyzed so sharply. That lobby still wields plenty of power with its loud media megaphone, and it will welcome the recent success of its flag-waving, fear-mongering GOP allies.

Here’s a new reality, however: The hawkish Israel lobby is no longer the true face of the Jewish community. According to midterm exit polls, most American Jews stuck with their traditional loyalty to the Democratic Party and, far more important, they are visibly developing a new idea of what it means to be pro-Israel. Today, three-quarters of American Jews want the U.S. to lead Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution; nearly two-thirds say they’d accept Obama administration pressure on Israel to reach that goal.

Republicans entering Congress will learn what I recently heard a Jewish congressman explain. Few non-Jewish legislators pay close attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. When it comes up, they usually turn to their Jewish colleagues for advice. Once, the Jews they consulted were likely to simply parrot the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) line. Now they’re likely to say, “Well, AIPAC says this, but J Street says that. You decide.”

J Street is the most prominent player in the dovish, newly developing coalition that already represents the views of most Jews. When Barack Obama invited top Jewish leaders to the White House in the summer of 2009, the heads of two smaller organizations, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, were at the table too. These are the most visible voices for American Jews who don’t want to see their own government enabling Israeli governmental policies that they oppose.

The Christian community is split into competing lobbies as well, with hawks led by Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and doves by Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).  CUFI makes more noise and gets more press attention. But CMEP is an impressive coalition of 22 national church groups, including some of the largest denominations and the nation’s largest umbrella organization of Protestants, the National Council of Churches.

Then there are doves, both Jewish and Christian, who promote direct action rather than political lobbying as the route to change. The movement to use boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to pressure Israel to change its policies on the Palestinians didn’t really take off until the Presbyterian Church endorsed the concept. More Christian groups have now joined this campaign, as has Jewish Voice for Peace, among other Jewish groups. Such direct protest also gets plenty of support from left-leaning doves not moved by any religious faith.

So far this alliance has not mounted the massive demonstrations that were a hallmark of Vietnam-era doves. The new strength of the hawks in Congress, however, might someday provoke the doves to take to the streets.

Elite Doves vs. Elite Hawks

As in the Vietnam era, today’s policy debate has not been restricted to groups of outsiders.  It’s reaching deep into the foreign policy establishment. Top editors of the New York Times recently visited Israel, talked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and came home to write an editorial putting most of the blame on the Israeli leader.  They urged him to renew the moratorium on expanding settlements and immediately settle on the borders of a Palestinian state.

Just two days after election day, when everyone else was still talking domestic politics, the Times gave Bill Clinton op-ed space to say that “everyone knows what a final agreement would look like” — a coded message from the secretary of state’s husband to the Jewish state’s prime minister that it’s time to end the occupation, withdraw settlements, and share Jerusalem. Two former national security advisors, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, have publicly urged Barack Obama to “outline the basic parameters for a Palestinian state” — a coded message to the president that it’s time for a U.S.-imposed solution in the Middle East (assumedly based on Clinton’s parameters).

Of course, the elite hawks are fighting back. Neoconservatives (whose obituaries are always premature) have created an international alliance that calls itself “The Friends of Israel Initiative.” With friends like these, the doves claim, Israel doesn’t need enemies.

The elite debate extends into U.S. military and intelligence communities which have worked closely with Israel for decades. It’s a safe bet that there are powerful hawks in those circles who don’t want to put pressure on Israel because it might jeopardize those relationships. But top military leaders have been issuing warnings in private and in public about the dangerous consequences the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have for U.S. interests in the region, and implying that the president should be pressuring Israel to bring the conflict to an end.

Both hawks and doves have found jobs in the Obama administration. “The question of how much the United States is offering [Israel], and what it is asking for in return, is being fiercely debated within the White House and the State Department,” the New York Times reported — which is undoubtedly one reason that the administration has been bobbing and weaving on Israel and Palestine with no clear policy direction in sight.

Another reason is the political risk involved. Though domestic issues dominated this year’s campaign season, the Republicans still stake their claim on being the party of tough guys, and they look for every opportunity to paint the Democrats as soft on national security. If Obama wavers on Israel, the GOP is ready to pounce and he knows it.

Republicans are always eager to run against “the ‘60s,” and efforts to move Israel to the peace table have become yet another symbol of “the ‘60s” in the GOP imagination.  It’s no coincidence that, just after he won the Florida Senate race, the Tea Party’s rising star Marco Rubio announced that he was packing for a trip to Israel.

On the other hand, a president stymied in the domestic sphere is always tempted to make his historical mark with major foreign policy initiatives where he has more freedom. As Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now points out, this president will be criticized for abandoning his original demands on the Israelis just as much as for pursuing them, so he might as well “double down on his Middle East peace efforts.”  If he does that, the doves will have Obama’s back. And a triumph at the peace table could shift attention away from the morass of Afghanistan in just the way Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China overshadowed the continuing slaughter in Vietnam.

An Unpredictable Complex System

There’s one more interesting analogy between the present Middle Eastern conflict and Vietnam. Both have triggered the passions of hawks and doves who otherwise would not pay much attention to foreign affairs. Every day, a few more doves start asking why the U.S. suppresses the Palestinian urge for national liberation and self-determination.

From there, it’s just a short step to asking other questions: Why does the Obama administration echo Israel’s frightening but unproven claims about “the Iranian threat” and leave so much room for talk of war? Why does the U.S. continue to demonize Hamas, rebuffing its efforts to moderate its stand and resume a truce with Israel? Why do government and media figures so regularly reduce the endless complexities of the Middle East to a simple morality tale of good guys against bad guys? And how can that enhance the security of the American people?

Just as during the Vietnam War years, such questions about U.S. policy in one region lead to even larger questions about the American stance in the world — and sooner or later, some of those questioners will dare call it imperialism. Any victory for the doves on the question of policy toward Israel will also be a victory in the ongoing struggle between competing visions of foreign policy, and no one can say where the growing movement of doves might lead.

In fact, no one can say anything with any degree of certainty about the future of this issue. It is now what the Vietnam debate once was: a complex, perhaps even chaotic, system, where every action provokes reaction.

Will a more Republican-leaning Congress change policy?  Perhaps.  But who knows exactly how?  The more the hawks push, the bigger and more appealing the target they offer to the doves. As the issue only polarizes, ever more American Jews may feel pushed out of their tactful silence.

We could end up with a new media picture entirely: gentile hawks urging Israel to maintain its hard-line stance versus a Jewish community leaning toward compromise and peace. Under those circumstances, the average citizen, who figures that Jews know best about Israel, might be unlikely to sympathize with the hawks.

That’s not a prediction, just one among many possibilities in a complex system that’s inherently unstable and so unpredictable. In other words, there’s no reason for doves to feel powerless. Election Day 2010 may look like a victory for the hawks, but it could turn out to be a step toward their long-term defeat.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.  Catch him discussing the American Jewish community and the struggle for peace in the Middle East in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Ira Chernus

Tomgram: Tony Karon, The Bomb-Iran Debate From Hell

1:07 pm in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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[Book update for TomDispatch readers: As of now, you can read my latest work, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s, on the Apple iPad.  Just visit the Apple store by clicking here.  Alternately, you can download it to your Kindle by clicking here, or simply buy the superannuated Gutenberg version by clicking here.  If you buy either the Kindle version or the ye-olde-paper book at Amazon.com via the links above, or any other TD book link, this website gets a small percentage of your purchase, which means you support us without paying an extra cent.  In addition, don’t miss the most recent review of my book at Foreign Policy in Focus.  (“Full of potency is [Engelhardt’s] combined cultural and political critique of the U.S. imperial war culture that has permeated our nation. People in the United States are blind, perhaps intentionally, to the empire their country has assembled. Such a reminder of its true nature and cost, both to people in the United States and to those affected by it around the world, is invaluable…”) Finally, if you want to catch me discussing the book and other war issues of our moment, check out the radio show Culture Shocks (one of many radio interviews I’ve been doing of late).]

For Star Trek fans, the news is grim.  Some set of maniacs on planet Earth is ready to take all the pleasure out of that low-budget TV show and its ensuing set of big-budget movies.  They are actually planning someday to manufacture phasers, ones large enough to vaporize incoming missiles and others small enough to be hand-held and, if not vaporize, then inflict terrible pain.  Sooner or later, they expect to beam them down to this planet and set them to work. 

Oh, sorry, those aren’t maniacs; they’re the weaponizers at defense giant Raytheon (in conjunction with the U.S. military).  As the National, the English-language newspaper of the United Arab Emirates, reported recently, Raytheon is in an arms race with Boeing to produce such weaponry perhaps for the coming decade.

One of the strangest aspects of these last years when two administrations, the U.S. intelligence community, and the American media have focused on, obsessed about, speculated wildly about, and generally chewed over a single potential proliferation story — Iran’s nuclear program — is how little other weapons proliferation stories even qualify as news. I’m excepting, of course, the usual alarums over possible nuclear weapons developments in North Korea, Syria, and the like.  And I’m certainly not referring here to the estimated 200 to 400 nuclear weapons in Israel’s undeclared arsenal that hardly rate a peep in our media. 

I’m thinking about us.  We are, after all, the numero uno weapons proliferator on the planet.  I’m thinking about — to pick a few weapons systems almost at random — the U.S. Air Force’s next generation bomber, an advanced "platform" slated for 2018; or the truly futuristic bomber, "a suborbital semi-spacecraft able to move at hypersonic speed along the edge of the atmosphere," on the drawing boards for 2035.  I’m talking about the coming generations of ever more powerful, ever more independent pilot-less drones which the Air Force is now planning out until 2047.

As with the drones today, the story of those Raytheon “phasers,” large and small, if they ever come on line, will be reasonably predictable.  Ever since the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, the world has been experiencing an arms race of one.  A single great power, the United States, continues to develop new weapons technology, often for the distant future, that is staggeringly advanced and strikingly destructive (potentially reaching, in some cases, an almost nuclear level of local devastation).  It continues to act, that is, as if it were still in an arms race with another threatening superpower.  Once our latest wonder weapon is developed, whatever it may be, it is sooner or later sold to allies — after all, we now control almost 70% of what’s still dubbed the “global arms trade – while other states rush to develop their own versions of the same.  (Just last week, for instance, Iran proudly unveiled its first “drone bomber.”)  Sooner or later, such weaponry will predictably drop down to the level of non-state groups.  Just wait for the first "suicide" drone to hit something American, or the first terrorist to unsheathe a “phaser” on some airplane.  Then, of course, a drone or phaser proliferation panic will set in, “rogue states” will be threatened for having the nerve to develop such weapons, and we will redouble our anti-drone or anti-phaser research, while our media discusses appropriately aggressive actions that need to be taken ASAP. 

Hence, Iran’s present nuclear adventure (which, by the way, began in 1957, thanks to the Eisenhower administration’s Atoms for Peace program).  As you read TomDispach regular Tony Karon’s deconstruction of the present “debate” over whether to bomb Iran back to the pre-nuclear age, take a second to wonder why there is no media debate over whether to bomb the U.S.  After all, we are the planet’s foremost weapons proliferator; we have a reputation for using what we produce and parceling it out as well; and, as it happens, we’re still investing money in improvements to our vast nuclear arsenal.  Tom

Two Minutes to Midnight? 
Cutting Through the Media’s Bogus Bomb-Iran Debate 

By Tony Karon

America’s march to a disastrous war in Iraq began in the media, where an unprovoked U.S. invasion of an Arab country was introduced as a legitimate policy option, then debated as a prudent and necessary one. Now, a similarly flawed media conversation on Iran is gaining momentum.

Last month, TIME’s Joe Klein warned that Obama administration sources had told him bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities was "back on the table."  In an interview with CNN, former CIA director Admiral Mike Hayden next spoke of an "inexorable" dynamic toward confrontation, claiming that bombing was a more viable option for the Obama administration than it had been for George W. Bush. The pièce de résistancein the most recent drum roll of bomb-Iran alerts, however, came from Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly.  A journalist influential in U.S. pro-Israeli circles, he also has access to Israel’s corridors of power. Because sanctions were unlikely to force Iran to back down on its uranium enrichment project, Goldberg invited readers to believe that there was a more than even chance Israel would launch a military strike on the country by next summer. 

His piece, which sparked considerable debate in both the blogosphere and the traditional media, was certainly an odd one.  After all, despite the dramatics he deployed, including vivid descriptions of the Israeli battle plan, and his tendency to paint Iran as a new Auschwitz, he also made clear that many of his top Israeli sources simply didn’t believe Iran would launch nuclear weapons against Israel, even if it acquired them.

Nonetheless, Goldberg warned, absent an Iranian white flag soon, Israel would indeed launch that war in summer 2011, and it, in turn, was guaranteed to plunge the region into chaos. The message: the Obama administration better do more to confront Iran or Israel will act crazy.

It’s not lost on many of his progressive critics that, when it came to supporting a prospective invasion of Iraq back in 2002, Goldberg proved effective in lobbying liberal America, especially through his reports of "evidence" linking Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Then and now, he presents himself as an interlocutor who has no point of view.  In his most recent Atlantic piece, he professed a "profound, paralyzing ambivalence" on the question of a military strike on Iran and subsequently, in radio interviews, claimed to be "personally opposed" to military action.

His piece, however, conveniently skipped over the obvious inconsistencies in what his Israeli sources were telling him.  In addition, he excluded perspectives from Israeli leaders that might have challenged his narrative in which an embattled Jewish state feels it has no alternative but to launch a quixotic military strike.  Such an attack, as he presented it, would have limited hope of doing more than briefly setting back the Iranian nuclear program, perhaps at catastrophic cost, and so Israeli leaders would act only because they believe the "goyim" won’t stop another Auschwitz. Or as my friend Paul Woodward, editor of the War in Context website, so brilliantly summed up the Israeli message to America: "You must do what we can’t, because if you don’t, we will."

Goldberg insists that he is merely initiating a debate about how to tackle Iran and that debate is already underway on his terms — that is, like its Iraq War predecessor, based on a fabricated sense of crisis and arbitrary deadlines.

Last Friday, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration had convinced Israel that there was no need to rush on the issue.  Should Iran decide to build a nuclear weapon (which it has not done), it would, administration officials pointed out, quickly make its intentions clear by expelling the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors who routinely monitor its nuclear work, and breaking out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  After that, it would still need another year or more to assemble its first weapon.

In other words, despite Goldberg’s breathless two-minutes-to-midnight schedule, there’s no urgency whatsoever about debating military action against Iran. And then, of course, there’s the question of the very premises of the to-bomb-or-not-to-bomb “debate.”  Perhaps, after all these years of obsessive Iran nuclear mania, it’s too much to request a moment of sanity on the issue of Iran and the bomb.  If, however, we really have a couple of years to think this over, what about starting by asking three crucial questions, each of which our debaters would prefer to avoid or ignore?

1. Does the U.S. have a right to launch wars of aggression without provocation, in defiance of international law and an international consensus, simply on the basis of its own suspicions about another country’s future intentions?

Or to put it bluntly, as former National Security Council staffers Flint Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have: Does the U.S. have the right to attack Iran because it is enriching uranium?

The idea that the U.S. has the right to take such a catastrophic step based on the fevered imaginations of Biblically inspired Israeli extremists — Goldberg has previously suggested that Prime Minister Netanyahu believes Iran to be the reincarnation of the Biblical Amalekites, mortal enemies the ancient Hebrews were to smite — or simply to preserve an Israeli monopoly on nuclear force in the Middle East is as bizarre as it is reckless. Even debating the possibility of launching a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities as a matter of rational policy, absent any Iranian aggression or even solid evidence that the Iranian leadership intends to wage its own version of aggressive war, gives an undeserved respectability to what would otherwise be considered steps beyond the bounds of rational foreign policy discussion.

Perhaps someone in our media hothouse could take just a moment to ask why, outside of the United States and Israel, there is no support — nada, zero, zip — for military action against Iran. In Goldberg’s world, this may be nothing more than the eternal beast of anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head in the form of disdain for the rise of yet another Amalek/Haman/Torquemada/Hitler. A more sober reading of the international situation would, however, suggest that most of the international community simply doesn’t share an alarmist view of what Iran’s nuclear program represents.

Indeed, it is notable that, in Goldberg’s world, Arabs and Iranians never get to speak. The Arabs, we are told, secretly want Israel or the U.S. to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities out of fear that the acquisition of nuclear weapons would embolden their Persian rivals.  They are, so the story goes, just not able to say so in public. Of course, when Arab leaders do publicly express their opposition to the idea of another war being launched in the Middle East, they are ignored in the Goldberg-led debate.

Similarly, their rejection of Washington’s long-held premise that Israel’s special security must be exempted from any discussion of the creation of a nuclear-free Middle East remains outside the bounds of the Iran-debate story. And don’t expect to see any mention of the authoritative University of Maryland annual survey of Arab public opinion either.  After all, it recently reported that, contrary to claims of an Arab world cowering under the threat of Iranian nukes, 57% of the Arab public actually believe a nuclear-armed Iran would be good for the Middle East!

The idea that Iran’s regime might exist for any purpose other than to destroy Israel is largely ignored as well. Bizarrely enough, Iranians don’t actually feature much in the American “debate” at all (beyond citations of Mad-Mullah-like pronouncements by some Iranian leaders who wish Israel would disappear). The long, nuanced relationship between Israel and the Islamic Republic, as explained by Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, is simply ignored. So, too, is every indication Iran’s leaders have given that they have no intention of attacking Israel or any other country. In fact, in the Goldberg debate, domestic politics in both the U.S. and Israel is understood as an important factor in future decisions; Iran, with the Green Movement presently suppressed, is considered to have no domestic politics at all, just those Mad Mullahs.

2. Even if Iran were to acquire the means to build a nuclear weapon, would that be a legitimate or prudent reason for launching a war?

If Iran is actually pursuing the capability to build nuclear weapons, its leaders would be doing so in response to a strategic environment in which two of its key adversaries, the U.S. and Israel, and two of its sometime friends/sometime adversaries, Russia and Pakistan, have substantial nuclear arsenals. By all sober accounts, Iran’s security posture is primarily focused on the survival of its regime. Some Israeli military and intelligence officials have been quoted in Israel’s media as saying that Iran’s motivation in seeking a nuclear weapon would be primarily to head off a threat of U.S. intervention aimed at regime change.

Most states do not pursue weapons systems as ends in themselves, and most states are hardwired to prioritize their own survival. It is to that end that they acquire weapons systems — to protect, enhance, or advance their own strategic position, or up the odds against more powerful rivals. In other words, the conflicts that fuel the drive for nuclear weapons are more dangerous than the weapons themselves, and the problem of those weapons can’t be addressed separately from those conflicts.

An Iran that had been bombed to destroy its nuclear power program would likely emerge from the experience far more dangerous to the U.S. and its allies over the decades to come than an Iran that had nuclear weapons within reach. The only way to diminish the danger of an escalating confrontation with Iran is to address the conflict between Tehran and its rivals directly, and seek a modus vivendi that would manage their conflicting interests.

Unfortunately, such a dialogue between Washington and Tehran has scarcely begun, even as, amid alarmist warnings, Goldberg and others insist it must be curtailed so as to avoid the Iranians “playing for time.”

3. Is Iran actually developing nuclear weapons?

No, it is not. That’s the conclusion of the CIA, the IAEA, whose inspectors are inside Iran’s nuclear facilities, and most of the world’s intelligence agencies, including the Israelis.  U.S. intelligence believes that Iran is using a civilian nuclear energy program to assemble much of the infrastructure that could, in the future, be used to build a bomb, and that Iran may also be continuing theoretical work on designing such a weapon.

Washington’s spooks and its defense establishment do not, however, believe Iran is currently developing nuclear weapons, nor that its leadership has made the ultimate decision to do so. In fact, the consensus appears to be that Iran will not weaponize nuclear material, but will stop short at "breakout capacity" — the ability, also available, for instance, to Japan, to move relatively quickly to build such a weapon. Currently, as the New York Times reported, the time frame for “breakout,” if all went well (and it might not), would be about a year, after which Iran would have enough fissile material for one bomb.  (The Israelis, by comparison, are believed to have 200 to 400 nuclear weapons in their undeclared program, the Pakistanis between 70 and 90, and the United States more than 5,000.)  In addition, a credible nuclear deterrent would require the production of not one or two bombs, but a number of them, which would allow for testing.

For ex-CIA Director Hayden, such a breakout capacity would be "as destabilizing as their actually having a weapon."  His is a logical leap that’s hard to sustain, unless you believe that it’s worth launching a war to prevent Iran from, at worst, acquiring a defensive trump card that might prevent it from being attacked.

Iran’s enrichment activities are, of course, a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions backed by sanctions. Those were imposed to demand that Iran suspend its enrichment program until it satisfied concerns raised by IAEA inspectors over its compliance with the disclosure and transparency requirements of the NPT — especially when it came to aspects of its program which have been developed in secret, raising suspicions over their future use.

Three years before North Korea was in a position to test a nuclear weapon, it had to withdraw from the NPT and kick out IAEA inspectors. Iran remains within the treaty. Even as the standoff over its nuclear program continues, renewed efforts are underway to broker a confidence-building deal to exchange Iranian enriched uranium for fuel rods produced outside the country to power a Tehran reactor that produces medical isotopes.

None of this will be easy, of course. The two main parties are trying to impose their own, mutually exclusive terms on any deal: Washington wants Iran to forego its treaty-guaranteed right to enrich its own uranium because that also gives it the potential means to produce bomb materiel; Iran has no intention of foregoing that right. Such longstanding pillars of foreign policy sobriety as Senator John Kerry  and Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, have publicly deemed the U.S. position untenable.

To suggest that Iran’s present nuclear program represents the security equivalent of a clock ticking down to midnight is calculated hysteria that bears no relation to reality. Ah, says Goldberg, but the point is that the Israelis believe it to be so. Yes, replies former National Security Council Iran analyst Gary Sick, now at Columbia University, but the Israelis and some Americans have been claiming Iran is just a few years away from a nuclear weapon since 1992. 

The premises of the debate just initiated by Goldberg’s piece are palpably false.  More important, they are remarkably dangerous, since they leap-frog over the three basic questions laid out above and move straight on to arguing the case for war amid visions of annihilation. This campaign of panic is not Goldberg’s invention.  It’s been with us for a long time now.  Goldberg is just the present vehicle for an American conversation initiated by others, among them those known in the Bush years as neocons, who have long been dreaming of war with Iran and  are already, as Juan Cole recently indicated, planning for such a war under a future Republican administration, if not sooner.

Similarly, among Israelis, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in particular, believes that Americans are politically feeble-minded; he said as much to a group of Israeli settlers in a video that surfaced recently: "I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in [our] way.”

Through Goldberg, the Israeli leader and his aides are seeking to "move America in the right direction" with dark tales of Auschwitz and Amalekites, and of Netanyahu himself as a hostage, in the Freudian sense, to a fierce and unforgiving father who won’t tolerate any show of weakness in the face of perceived threats to the Jews. Goldberg’s sources, including Netanyahu, make it perfectly clear that they don’t believe Iran would attack Israel. Instead, they warn that an Iranian nuclear weapon would embolden Hamas and Hizballah, although the logic there is flimsy indeed.  After all, if Iran would not attack Israel on its own with a nuclear weapon, why would it do so to defend its insurgent allies?

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has suggested that a nuclear-armed Iran would prompt the best and brightest Israelis to emigrate, because they are clever people who can make a good life for themselves anywhere in the world. Indeed, and they have been doing exactly that for many years now.  Some 750,000 Israeli Jews now live abroad — one in every six Israelis — precisely because anti-Semitism is no longer a threat to Jewish life in most of the industrialized world. None of this has anything to do with an Iranian bomb. It has to do with the frustration of Israel’s leadership that 63% of the world’s Jews have chosen to live elsewhere.

Despite Goldberg’s panic-inducing prediction, there are plenty of reasons to believe that, for all its bluster and threat, Israel won’t, in fact, bomb Iran next year — or any time soon. But would the Israelis like to see the United States take on their prime regional enemy? You bet they would. Indeed, Netanyahu continually insists that the U.S. has an obligation to take the lead in confronting Iran.

It’s patently clear in Goldberg’s piece that the Israelis are trying to create a climate in which the U.S. is pressed onto the path of escalation, adding more and more sanctions, and keeping "all options on the table" in case those don’t work.

In an excellent commentary that dismantles the logic of Goldberg’s argument, David Kay — the American who served as an UNSCOM arms inspector in search of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after the U.S. invasion — suggests that:

"Israel is engaged in psychological warfare with the Obama administration — and it only partly concerns Iran… [B]eyond Iran, of probably greater importance to the current Israeli government is avoiding the Obama administration pushing it into a choice between settlements and territorial arrangements with the Palestinians that it is unwilling to make and permanent damage to its relationship with the U.S. Hyping the Iranian nuclear program and the need for early military action is a nice bargaining counter… if the U.S. wants to avoid an imminent Israeli strike, it must make concessions to Israel on the Palestinian issues."

Creating a sense of crisis on the Iran front, narrowing U.S. options in the public mind, and precluding a real discussion of U.S. policy towards Iran may serve multiple purposes for various interested groups. Taken together, however, they reduce all discussion to one issue: when to exercise that military option kept "on the table," given the unlikeliness of an Iranian surrender. The debate’s ultimate purpose is to plant in the public mind the idea that a march to war with Iran, as Admiral Hayden put it on CNN, "seems inexorable, doesn’t it?"

Inexorable — only if the media allows itself to be fooled twice.

Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME.com where he analyzes Middle Eastern and other conflicts. He also blogs on his own website Rootless Cosmopolitan.

Copyright 2010 Tony Karon

Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, Giving Up On Victory, Not War

7:55 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

If you ever needed convincing that the world of American “national security” is well along the road to profligate lunacy, read the striking three-part “Top Secret America” series by Dana Priest and William Arkin that the Washington Post published last week.  When it comes to the expansion of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), which claims 17 major agencies and organizations, the figures are staggering.  Here’s just a taste: “Twenty-four [new intelligence] organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips, and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008, and 2009. In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11.”

More striking yet, the articles make clear (admittedly a few years late) that no one has a complete picture of the extent of the American intelligence quagmire — from its finances (announced at $75 billion but, the authors assure us, significantly higher) to its geography, its output (the 50,000 top-secret reports it churns out yearly that no one has time to read or track), its composition, or even its office space.  (“In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001.”) And keep in mind that all of this and more was created not to keep track of or fight a series of covert wars with another major imperial power like the Soviet Union, but to track and hunt down a rag-tag terrorist outfit with a couple of thousand members, including modest-sized groups in countries like Yemen and small numbers of individual wannabe terrorists like the “underwear bomber.”  In much of this, as anyone who bothers to scan front-page headlines knows, the IC has been remarkably unsuccessful.  Such staggeringly out-of-control expansion should, of course, be a major scandal, but along with our constant wars, it’s already so much a part of the new national security norm that the publication of the Post series is unlikely to have any significant effect.    

All this has, in turn, been driven by Fear Inc.  To fuel its profitable if cancerous growth, it has vastly exaggerated the relatively minor and largely manageable danger of Islamic terrorism — since 9/11, above shark attacks but way below drunken-driving accidents — among the many far more serious dangers this country faces.  If the IC actually worked as an effective intelligence delivery system, we would be a Mensa among states.  But how could such a proliferation of overlapping agencies and outfits, aided and abetted by a burgeoning privatized, mercenary version of the same, provide “intelligence”? With more than two-thirds of all intelligence programs militarized and overseen by the Pentagon, itself driven to paroxysms of spending and expansion since 2001 (despite the fact that all major military challengers to the U.S. are long gone), labeling this morass “intelligence” should be considered a joke.  However absurd, though, don’t expect any of those organizations or agencies to disappear any time soon.  They’re ours for the duration.    

It’s into such national security institutional madness that Andrew Bacevich, author of the bestselling The Limits of Power, strides in his latest work, to be published this week, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.  It is the single best source for understanding how Washington came to garrison the planet, intervene regularly in distant lands, and turn war-making — and not even successful war-making at that — into an American norm.  It’s simply a must-read.  Think of today’s TomDispatch post as a little introduction to just a few of that book’s themes. (And while you’re at it, catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses his new book by clicking here, or to download it to your iPod, here).Tom

The End of (Military) History? 
The United States, Israel, and the Failure of the Western Way of War 
By Andrew J. Bacevich

“In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history.”  This sentiment, introducing the essay that made Francis Fukuyama a household name, commands renewed attention today, albeit from a different perspective.

Developments during the 1980s, above all the winding down of the Cold War, had convinced Fukuyama that the “end of history” was at hand.  “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea,” he wrote in 1989, “is evident… in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” 

Today the West no longer looks quite so triumphant.  Yet events during the first decade of the present century have delivered history to another endpoint of sorts.  Although Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal, the Western way of war has run its course.

For Fukuyama, history implied ideological competition, a contest pitting democratic capitalism against fascism and communism.  When he wrote his famous essay, that contest was reaching an apparently definitive conclusion. 

Yet from start to finish, military might had determined that competition’s course as much as ideology.  Throughout much of the twentieth century, great powers had vied with one another to create new, or more effective, instruments of coercion.  Military innovation assumed many forms.  Most obviously, there were the weapons: dreadnoughts and aircraft carriers, rockets and missiles, poison gas, and atomic bombs — the list is a long one.  In their effort to gain an edge, however, nations devoted equal attention to other factors: doctrine and organization, training systems and mobilization schemes, intelligence collection and war plans. 

All of this furious activity, whether undertaken by France or Great Britain, Russia or Germany, Japan or the United States, derived from a common belief in the plausibility of victory.  Expressed in simplest terms, the Western military tradition could be reduced to this proposition: war remains a viable instrument of statecraft, the accoutrements of modernity serving, if anything, to enhance its utility.  

Grand Illusions

That was theory.  Reality, above all the two world wars of the last century, told a decidedly different story.  Armed conflict in the industrial age reached new heights of lethality and destructiveness.  Once begun, wars devoured everything, inflicting staggering material, psychological, and moral damage.  Pain vastly exceeded gain.  In that regard, the war of 1914-1918 became emblematic: even the winners ended up losers.  When fighting eventually stopped, the victors were left not to celebrate but to mourn.  As a consequence, well before Fukuyama penned his essay, faith in war’s problem-solving capacity had begun to erode.  As early as 1945, among several great powers — thanks to war, now great in name only — that faith disappeared altogether.

Among nations classified as liberal democracies, only two resisted this trend.  One was the United States, the sole major belligerent to emerge from the Second World War stronger, richer, and more confident.  The second was Israel, created as a direct consequence of the horrors unleashed by that cataclysm.  By the 1950s, both countries subscribed to this common conviction: national security (and, arguably, national survival) demanded unambiguous military superiority.  In the lexicon of American and Israeli politics, “peace” was a codeword.  The essential prerequisite for peace was for any and all adversaries, real or potential, to accept a condition of permanent inferiority.  In this regard, the two nations — not yet intimate allies — stood apart from the rest of the Western world.

So even as they professed their devotion to peace, civilian and military elites in the United States and Israel prepared obsessively for war.  They saw no contradiction between rhetoric and reality. 

Yet belief in the efficacy of military power almost inevitably breeds the temptation to put that power to work.  “Peace through strength” easily enough becomes “peace through war.”  Israel succumbed to this temptation in 1967.  For Israelis, the Six Day War proved a turning point.  Plucky David defeated, and then became, Goliath.  Even as the United States was flailing about in Vietnam, Israel had evidently succeeded in definitively mastering war. 

A quarter-century later, U.S. forces seemingly caught up.  In 1991, Operation Desert Storm, George H.W. Bush’s war against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, showed that American troops like Israeli soldiers knew how to win quickly, cheaply, and humanely.  Generals like H. Norman Schwarzkopf persuaded themselves that their brief desert campaign against Iraq had replicated — even eclipsed — the battlefield exploits of such famous Israeli warriors as Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin.  Vietnam faded into irrelevance. 

For both Israel and the United States, however, appearances proved deceptive.  Apart from fostering grand illusions, the splendid wars of 1967 and 1991 decided little.  In both cases, victory turned out to be more apparent than real.  Worse, triumphalism fostered massive future miscalculation. 

On the Golan Heights, in Gaza, and throughout the West Bank, proponents of a Greater Israel — disregarding Washington’s objections — set out to assert permanent control over territory that Israel had seized.  Yet “facts on the ground” created by successive waves of Jewish settlers did little to enhance Israeli security.  They succeeded chiefly in shackling Israel to a rapidly growing and resentful Palestinian population that it could neither pacify nor assimilate. 

In the Persian Gulf, the benefits reaped by the United States after 1991 likewise turned out to be ephemeral.  Saddam Hussein survived and became in the eyes of successive American administrations an imminent threat to regional stability.  This perception prompted (or provided a pretext for) a radical reorientation of strategy in Washington.  No longer content to prevent an unfriendly outside power from controlling the oil-rich Persian Gulf, Washington now sought to dominate the entire Greater Middle East.  Hegemony became the aim.  Yet the United States proved no more successful than Israel in imposing its writ. 

During the 1990s, the Pentagon embarked willy-nilly upon what became its own variant of a settlement policy.  Yet U.S. bases dotting the Islamic world and U.S. forces operating in the region proved hardly more welcome than the Israeli settlements dotting the occupied territories and the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) assigned to protect them.  In both cases, presence provoked (or provided a pretext for) resistance.  Just as Palestinians vented their anger at the Zionists in their midst, radical Islamists targeted Americans whom they regarded as neo-colonial infidels. 

Stuck

No one doubted that Israelis (regionally) and Americans (globally) enjoyed unquestioned military dominance.  Throughout Israel’s near abroad, its tanks, fighter-bombers, and warships operated at will.  So, too, did American tanks, fighter-bombers, and warships wherever they were sent. 

So what?  Events made it increasingly evident that military dominance did not translate into concrete political advantage.  Rather than enhancing the prospects for peace, coercion produced ever more complications.  No matter how badly battered and beaten, the “terrorists” (a catch-all term applied to anyone resisting Israeli or American authority) weren’t intimidated, remained unrepentant, and kept coming back for more. 

Israel ran smack into this problem during Operation Peace for Galilee, its 1982 intervention in Lebanon.  U.S. forces encountered it a decade later during Operation Restore Hope, the West’s gloriously titled foray into Somalia.  Lebanon possessed a puny army; Somalia had none at all.  Rather than producing peace or restoring hope, however, both operations ended in frustration, embarrassment, and failure. 

And those operations proved but harbingers of worse to come.  By the 1980s, the IDF’s glory days were past.  Rather than lightning strikes deep into the enemy rear, the narrative of Israeli military history became a cheerless recital of dirty wars — unconventional conflicts against irregular forces yielding problematic results.  The First Intifada (1987-1993), the Second Intifada (2000-2005), a second Lebanon War (2006), and Operation Cast Lead, the notorious 2008-2009 incursion into Gaza, all conformed to this pattern. 

Meanwhile, the differential between Palestinian and Jewish Israeli birth rates emerged as a looming threat — a “demographic bomb,” Benjamin Netanyahu called it.  Here were new facts on the ground that military forces, unless employed pursuant to a policy of ethnic cleansing, could do little to redress.  Even as the IDF tried repeatedly and futilely to bludgeon Hamas and Hezbollah into submission, demographic trends continued to suggest that within a generation a majority of the population within Israel and the occupied territories would be Arab.

Trailing a decade or so behind Israel, the United States military nonetheless succeeded in duplicating the IDF’s experience.  Moments of glory remained, but they would prove fleeting indeed.  After 9/11, Washington’s efforts to transform (or “liberate”) the Greater Middle East kicked into high gear.  In Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror began impressively enough, as U.S. forces operated with a speed and élan that had once been an Israeli trademark.  Thanks to “shock and awe,” Kabul fell, followed less than a year and a half later by Baghdad.  As one senior Army general explained to Congress in 2004, the Pentagon had war all figured out:

“We are now able to create decision superiority that is enabled by networked systems, new sensors and command and control capabilities that are producing unprecedented near real time situational awareness, increased information availability, and an ability to deliver precision munitions throughout the breadth and depth of the battlespace… Combined, these capabilities of the future networked force will leverage information dominance, speed and precision, and result in decision superiority.”

The key phrase in this mass of techno-blather was the one that occurred twice: “decision superiority.”  At that moment, the officer corps, like the Bush administration, was still convinced that it knew how to win.

Such claims of success, however, proved obscenely premature.  Campaigns advertised as being wrapped up in weeks dragged on for years, while American troops struggled with their own intifadas.  When it came to achieving decisions that actually stuck, the Pentagon (like the IDF) remained clueless.

Winless

If any overarching conclusion emerges from the Afghan and Iraq Wars (and from their Israeli equivalents), it’s this: victory is a chimera.  Counting on today’s enemy to yield in the face of superior force makes about as much sense as buying lottery tickets to pay the mortgage: you better be really lucky. 

Meanwhile, as the U.S. economy went into a tailspin, Americans contemplated their equivalent of Israel’s “demographic bomb” — a “fiscal bomb.”  Ingrained habits of profligacy, both individual and collective, held out the prospect of long-term stagnation: no growth, no jobs, no fun.  Out-of-control spending on endless wars exacerbated that threat. 

By 2007, the American officer corps itself gave up on victory, although without giving up on war.  First in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, priorities shifted.  High-ranking generals shelved their expectations of winning — at least as a Rabin or Schwarzkopf would have understood that term.  They sought instead to not lose.  In Washington as in U.S. military command posts, the avoidance of outright defeat emerged as the new gold standard of success. 

As a consequence, U.S. troops today sally forth from their base camps not to defeat the enemy, but to “protect the people,” consistent with the latest doctrinal fashion.  Meanwhile, tea-sipping U.S. commanders cut deals with warlords and tribal chieftains in hopes of persuading guerrillas to lay down their arms.

A new conventional wisdom has taken hold, endorsed by everyone from new Afghan War commander General David Petraeus, the most celebrated soldier of this American age, to Barack Obama, commander-in-chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.  For the conflicts in which the United States finds itself enmeshed, “military solutions” do not exist.  As Petraeus himself has emphasized, “we can’t kill our way out of" the fix we’re in.  In this way, he also pronounced a eulogy on the Western conception of warfare of the last two centuries.

The Unasked Question

What then are the implications of arriving at the end of Western military history? 

In his famous essay, Fukuyama cautioned against thinking that the end of ideological history heralded the arrival of global peace and harmony.  Peoples and nations, he predicted, would still find plenty to squabble about. 

With the end of military history, a similar expectation applies.  Politically motivated violence will persist and may in specific instances even retain marginal utility.  Yet the prospect of Big Wars solving Big Problems is probably gone for good.  Certainly, no one in their right mind, Israeli or American, can believe that a continued resort to force will remedy whatever it is that fuels anti-Israeli or anti-American antagonism throughout much of the Islamic world.  To expect persistence to produce something different or better is moonshine. 

It remains to be seen whether Israel and the United States can come to terms with the end of military history.  Other nations have long since done so, accommodating themselves to the changing rhythms of international politics.  That they do so is evidence not of virtue, but of shrewdness.  China, for example, shows little eagerness to disarm.  Yet as Beijing expands its reach and influence, it emphasizes trade, investment, and development assistance.  Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army stays home.  China has stolen a page from an old American playbook, having become today the preeminent practitioner of “dollar diplomacy.” 

The collapse of the Western military tradition confronts Israel with limited choices, none of them attractive.  Given the history of Judaism and the history of Israel itself, a reluctance of Israeli Jews to entrust their safety and security to the good will of their neighbors or the warm regards of the international community is understandable.  In a mere six decades, the Zionist project has produced a vibrant, flourishing state.  Why put all that at risk?  Although the demographic bomb may be ticking, no one really knows how much time remains on the clock.  If Israelis are inclined to continue putting their trust in (American-supplied) Israeli arms while hoping for the best, who can blame them?

In theory, the United States, sharing none of Israel’s demographic or geographic constraints and, far more richly endowed, should enjoy far greater freedom of action.  Unfortunately, Washington has a vested interest in preserving the status quo, no matter how much it costs or where it leads.  For the military-industrial complex, there are contracts to win and buckets of money to be made.  For those who dwell in the bowels of the national security state, there are prerogatives to protect.  For elected officials, there are campaign contributors to satisfy.  For appointed officials, civilian and military, there are ambitions to be pursued.

And always there is a chattering claque of militarists, calling for jihad and insisting on ever greater exertions, while remaining alert to any hint of backsliding.  In Washington, members of this militarist camp, by no means coincidentally including many of the voices that most insistently defend Israeli bellicosity, tacitly collaborate in excluding or marginalizing views that they deem heretical.  As a consequence, what passes for debate on matters relating to national security is a sham.  Thus are we invited to believe, for example, that General Petraeus’s appointment as the umpteenth U.S. commander in Afghanistan constitutes a milestone on the way to ultimate success. 

Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?  

Washington’s refusal to pose that question provides a measure of the corruption and dishonesty permeating our politics.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.  His new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent Warhas just been published. Listen to the latest TomCast audio interview to hear him discuss the book by clicking here or, to download to an iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Andrew Bacevich