Freitag, Oktober 26, 2007

What's Wrong and What's Right...and What Is Necessary

Reality has intruded quite a bit over the last several weeks, and I have been negligent in posting anything here.

Part of my sloth has been due to external factors, but my general disgust with the idiocies of modern life have also led me to be some recalcitrant in posting.

But today, whilst reading the FT, I came across this from Philip Stephens.


Time for a fisking...

George W. Bush warns that Iran's nuclear ambitions threaten world war three. Vice-president Dick Cheney speaks of "serious consequences" unless Tehran falls into line. Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat, says we are already fighting world war four against Islamist radicalism. As someone in the Hollywood movie said, it is time for the rest of us to be afraid, very afraid.

Afraid, though, of what? Of Tehran's nuclear programme? Or of the possibility that Mr Bush, in the darkening twilight of his presidency, is preparing to launch a preventative military strike. The answer is both.

You see, this is where Mr. Stephens goes wrong from the beginning. What is not to be feared is the Iranian nuclear program: that in and of itself is merely a technical development. The nuclear genie is forever out of the bottle, and there is no way to put it back in.

What we should despair of - fear is the wrong word here, since that is exactly what Iran wants us to do: fear it - is not capabilities, but rather intentions. If Mr. Stephens were to have paid attention to the basic fundamentals of what he should have learned from his sources - intelligence analysis - then he would understand the fundamental difference between capabilities and intentions. Good Lord, the whole pre-invasion problem with Iraq were all about this problem: we knew that Saddam Hussein, a fundamentally flawed and evil human being, had proven his intentions in regards to weapons of mass destruction, having used them against the Iranians and against citizens of his own country. What drove people to distraction was what his capabilities were: he did his very, very best to ensure that the only logical conclusion was either to pretend that there was no intent or to acknowledge that his intent was so real that enormous efforts were undertaken to obfuscate the true state of capabilities.

If there is something to be afraid of, it is that Iran will finesse the international political scene in order to obtain and use nuclear weapons. The thing to be afraid of is terrorists with nukes; the thing to be afraid of is what the terrorists want.

The big story, you might think, should be the menace to regional and global security posed by Iran's development of the technology that would give it nuclear weapons. This, after all, is not a nice regime. You do not have to be an apologist for Washington to note that Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president, has spoken of wiping Israel from the face of the globe. Nor to notice Tehran's unapologetic sponsorship of terrorism. The regime's human rights record is the wrong side of appalling.

Now, why isn't this the big story? Because of the effing liberals and useful idiots - those who were useful idiots during the Cold War are those who are just as useful to the enemies of the West in the War On Terrorism - that dominate the media and who refuse to make it The Big Story. The lack of focus on the real problem - that the regime in Iran brutally represses its own, is dominated by religious fanatics who want us all to live as if we were in the 7th century, and whose attitude towards women is nothing less than abysmal - is deliberate and with malice aforethought: if the problem isn't on the other side - and it is! - then the problem must be on our side.

Which it isn't.

Yet the White House once again seems hell-bent on being outwitted in the court of global opinion; and, maybe, on making a strategic miscalculation that could make the war in Iraq look like a sideshow.

Oddly enough, here I am in partial agreement: the single largest failure of the Bush administration has been its inability to communicate.

On the other hand, it's not nearly that the White House is being outwitted: it's rather that it isn't bothering. This is a legitimate griping point, but not the one that Mr. Stephens is trying to make.

The real point is that only one side is making propaganda and trying to fight for the minds of its own opponents: that is, in this case, the other side. The problem is that the press is so blind to its own inadequacies and incompetence that it takes obvious, self-serving propaganda at face value and gives it the veneer of respectability that leads the uninformed reader to accept propaganda as being something other than it is.

Speculation about a US-backed Israeli or a direct American attack on Iran's nuclear installations has ebbed and flowed for several years. In the immediate aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussein, "Iran next" was the stock refrain of the Washington hawks. The bellicose rhetoric was stilled for a time by Iraq's descent into chaos. But it has never gone away, even as some of the most ardent advocates of another war in the Middle East have left the administration. Only the other day I heard John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, say he was sure that Mr Bush would do "the right thing".

Of course it's not gone away: Iran was specifically - and quite correctly, too - on the "Axis of Evil" with its support of terrorism and its hidden programs for weapons of mass destruction. That's why "it has never gone away": Iran has not changed its tune.

The rising tempo of speculation is easily explained. The starting point is the political timetable. If Mr Bush does intend to act, he has to do so soon. The window of opportunity for an attack, the conventional wisdom has it, will close next summer. Even this president cannot take the nation into another war of choice once the 2008 election campaign is under way.

Conventional wisdom, dear Mr. Stephens, is, to put it bluntly, an ass. Conventional wisdom thinks that the War On Terrorism isn't really a war since it doesn't have a country to fight against, and "everyone" knows that you can only fight wars with another country. Oh how tiny and limited Conventional Wisdom is: it must be, to be conventional.

This ticking political clock coincides with a hardening view in Washington, and in one or two European capitals, that coercive diplomacy has done nothing to shake Iran's resolve to acquire the means to make the bomb.

Oh, and there are those who do not see reality, which is that there has been nothing that has shaken the Iranian government's resolve to acquire the means to make the bomb? It's not that coercive diplomacy hasn't worked, it's much more that NOTHING has worked: the Iranians smile and laugh to themselves about how dumb the West really is in not stopping Iran. There are things that can be done: no one has the stomach - except for the US - to actually do them.

What might they be? Things like what the US did today: declare the Revolutionary Guards to be a terrorist organization and treat them so, encouraging banks not to do business with them and isolating them. That is a clear and straight-forward start. Other things that can be done are trade embargoes: the Germans are so afraid of losing business that they won't go along with that, and the Russians apparently don't believe that the Iranian government has the intent that it so clearly lays out.

The apparent demotion of Ali Larijani as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator seems to speak to the same conclusion. Mr Larijani has been as firm as any in Tehran about Iran's right to pursue nuclear enrichment, but he has also been willing to talk. Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, we might conclude, means it when he says the nuclear dossier is closed.

And? What does that mean to Mr. Stephens?

It means nothing: instead of seeing it as what it is (a clear demonstration of the contempt that the Iranian government has for the mere idea that it should even talk with the West about the issue) the problem is simply ignored.

Russia's Vladimir Putin's objections to further UN sanctions has likewise strengthened the hand of those who say that diplomacy has run its course. Earlier this year Iran outflanked the so-called European Union 3 – Britain, France and Germany – by opening direct talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Now Mr Putin is blocking another UN resolution.

The role of the Russians here is more complex than you might think: first, they obviously do not believe the rhetoric; second, it is of great usefulness for the Russians that the US bear the brunt and burden of confrontation (the Russians truly believe in zero-sum gaming); third the Russians, based on their disbelief of the rhetoric and the intentions, see wonderful business opportunities. Right now, the Russians are playing the role that Lenin thought the capitalists would play, of selling to the revolutionaries the rope that would be used to hang them when the revolution comes. The alternative is rather less appealing: that Russia is more than pleased to allow Iran to gain the upper hand in the region as a regional power, including the deliberate destruction of Israel, in order to do business with the regime.

Nervousness about US intentions, meanwhile, has been heightened by speculation that Mr Bush could treat Iran's support for Shia militias in Iraq as a casus belli. A Senate motion, co-sponsored by Mr Lieberman, calls for the Revolutionary Guards to be designated a terrorist organisation. That could provide the president with the political cover to bomb training camps within Iran.

At what point, Mr. Stephens, do you recognize a casus belli? When it comes up to your house and slaps you in the face whilst molesting your wife?

The Revolutionary Guards' is a material accessory to terror acts that have killed thousands. The Revolutionary Guards does nothing without the direction of the Iranian government, hence there is a direct involvement of Iran in the internal affairs of Iraq that have led to the deaths of thousands.

Mr. Stephens, Iran's support for Shia militias in Iraq is a casus belli. It's what Iran wants. Otherwise they wouldn't be doing it.

The calculation, if you could call it that, would be that such attacks would destabilise Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and, in the best case, see him toppled. Logic suggests the reverse: an upsurge of nationalist sentiment would bolster support for the regime. For some people, though, logic does not count.

Now, Mr. Stephens, here is where you go terribly wrong: those that you see as not counting on logic is not President Bush, but rather the Iranians: they want the war. That is not logical, but is driven by a chiliastic religion that wants the apocalypse. Barring that, it wants to dominate the region.

The thing I find most striking in conversations with western officials is simply how little is known about Iran: about the power balance within the regime, the dynamics of the nuclear programme and, critically, how far that programme has progressed.

Again, we have a failure of intelligence, in all manners of what that word means...the question is why? The reason is that the intelligence communities, such that they are, are all running amok, with their own agendas and own goals: the failure here is two-fold. On the one hand you do have a failure of leadership, which, however, is understandable, give the difficulties in cleaning house at a time of war, when you need the intelligence the most; on the other hand, the institutions - first and foremost the CIA, but also the FBI and the NSA - were pushed to be this way by President Bush's predecessor, who wanted it that way...

A little while ago I heard one such official discuss the state of knowledge gleaned by various intelligence agencies. The Israelis thought Tehran was two years from acquiring the bomb; but they had been saying two years for as long as this official could remember. The Russians suggested that Iran was as much as a decade away from mastery of all the necessary technology. As for the US and the big European agencies, three to six years seemed to be a rough consensus. In other words, the spooks, once again, are being forced to make judgments while wearing blindfolds.

Welcome to the world of intelligence, where ten analysts have two dozen opinions. Why? Because HumInt continues to be very weak and underdeveloped. Again, this is not merely the fault of the intelligence communities, but also of the environment that they work in.

There is a similar lacuna of understanding of the political power balance. Take Mr Larijani's troubles. Do they signal that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has won a struggle with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, over control of the nuclear dossier? Or has a visible backlash against the move – it now seems Mr Larijani will keep a place in the Iranian nuclear delegation – delineated the limits of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's authority?

This is a corollary of the lack of intelligence on the technical side: understanding the Wiley Oriental Gentleman is an unpleasant task at best and trying to explain what the situation is to those profoundly uninterested - which are the usual decision makers - with all the nuances and distinctions is an academic exercise at best.

Diplomacy has not yet been exhausted. Russia's position is more subtle than it sounds. For all the pleasure he takes in discomfiting the US, Mr Putin has more to fear from a nuclear-armed Iran. In any event, the US decision to leave it to the EU3 to do all the talking with Tehran has ensured that real negotiations have never properly started.

I see: when the US acts unilaterally, it is condemned, but when the US requests that the EU3 talk, that means that the Iranian government doesn't need to take them seriously. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

The US has yet to play its highest card: an offer, comparable to that made to, and accepted by, North Korea, of a comprehensive refashioning of the strategic relationship between the US and Iran. Unless and until that bargain is explored, it will never be clear whether Tehran could be persuaded to eschew the nuclear course.

Sorry, that card has been played a number of times, both in private and in public: the US has never tired of saying that if Iran were to change its policies, then talks could start.

Iran is on the line here: the US has standing issues with Iran, starting with, but not ending there, the illegal and reprehensible hostage-taking of US diplomatic personnel. An apology from Tehran would work wonders here.

Mr Bush is not alone in framing a simple choice between Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons and war. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has said much the same. It is a false choice. Even putting aside the chaos that would ensue from Tehran's certain retaliation against any attack, the likely consequence of such thinking is war and a nuclear-armed Iran.

It's one possible consequence. If the US and France were to attack Iran seriously, Iran could be back in the 7th century as its leaders so dearly
desire. 100 days of unlimited air warfare aimed at minimizing civilian casualties with a maximum of infrastructure destruction would do the job, coupled with a concerted propaganda campaign to ensure that the Iranian population understands that this is done with great regret and that once the Religious government is deposed and put into jail/against the wall, that the US will be happy to help Iran rejoin the community of responsible nations and rebuild.

It's not that such actions are absolutely necessary or that they are even desirable: it's much more that they may become necessary to avoid a greater evil. We've seen that this has worked in Iraq: Saddam Hussein was, objectively, a greater evil than what the Iraqis have gone through since then, a fact that has been lost in merciless criticism that the occupation of Iraq has generated.

Last month, at a conference hosted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation's Washington office, one of those present recalled being taught by Henry Kissinger at Harvard. China had just tested the bomb and a fellow student suggested that the answer was a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear installations. And just how frequently should the US repeat the exercise? Mr Kissinger asked in response. Mr Bush might ask himself the same question.

The proper answer to that question, sad to say, is "As often as is necessary". It was the proper answer back then and it is the proper answer now.

Before y'all jump on me as some sort of warmonger: the question regarding China was as legitimate now as it was back then. The difference was that you had people judging the intent as well as the capabilities, and they came to the historically verified conclusion that the Chinese were rational actors and that their intent could be analyzed and measured.