Iran Clock Is Ticking
congressional Democrats test how far they should go in challenging
George W. Bush’s war powers, the time may be running out to stop Bush
from ordering a major escalation of the Middle East conflict by
Military and intelligence sources continue
to tell me that preparations are advancing for a war with Iran starting
possibly as early as mid-to-late February. The sources offer some
differences of opinion over whether Bush might cite a provocation from
Iran or whether Israel will take the lead in launching air strikes
against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But there is growing alarm among military
and intelligence experts that Bush already has decided to attack and
simply is waiting for a second aircraft carrier strike force to arrive
in the region – and for a propaganda blitz to stir up some pro-war
sentiment at home.
One well-informed U.S. military source
called me in a fury after consulting with Pentagon associates and
discovering how far along the war preparations are. He said the plans
call for extensive aerial attacks on Iran, including use of powerful
Another source with a pipeline into
Israeli thinking said the Iran war plan has expanded over the past
several weeks. Earlier thinking had been that Israeli warplanes would
hit Iranian nuclear targets with U.S. forces in reserve in case of
Iranian retaliation, but now the strategy anticipates a major U.S.
military follow-up to an Israeli attack, the source said.
Both sources used the same word “crazy” in
describing the plan to expand the war to Iran. The two sources, like
others I have interviewed, said that attacking Iran could touch off a
regional – and possibly global – conflagration.
“It will be like the TV show ‘24’,” the
American military source said, citing the likelihood of Islamic
retaliation reaching directly into the United States.
Though Bush insists that no decision has
been made on attacking Iran, he offered similar assurances of his
commitment to peace in the months before invading Iraq in 2003. Yet
leaked documents from London made clear that he had set a course for
war nine months to a year before the Iraq invasion.
In other words, Bush’s statements that he
has no plans to "invade" Iran and that he’s still committed to settle
differences with Iran over its nuclear program diplomatically should be
taken with a grain of salt.
There is, of course, the possibility that
the war preparations are a game of chicken to pressure Iran to accept
outside controls on its nuclear program and to trim back its regional
ambitions. But sometimes such high-stakes gambles lead to
miscalculations or set in motion dynamics that can't be controlled.
‘You Will Die’
The rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq is seen as another factor pressing on Bush to act quickly against Iran.
Other sources with first-hand knowledge of
conditions in Iraq have told me that the U.S. position is even more
precarious than generally understood. Westerners can’t even move around
Baghdad and many other Iraqi cities except in armed convoys.
“In some countries, if you want to get out
of the car and go to the market, they’ll tell you that it might be
dangerous,” one experienced American cameraman told me. “In Iraq, you
will be killed. Not that you might be killed, but you will be killed.
The first Iraqi with a gun will shoot you, and if no one has a gun,
they’ll stone you.”
While U.S. war correspondents in most
countries travel around in taxis with “TV” taped to their windows,
Western journalists in Iraq move only in armed convoys to and from
specific destinations. They operate from heavily guarded Baghdad hotels
sometimes with single families responsible for security since outsiders
can't be trusted.
The American cameraman said one European
journalist rebelled at the confinement, took off on her own in a cab –
and was never seen again.
Depression also is spreading among U.S.
intelligence officials who monitor covert operations in Iraq from
listening stations sometimes thousands of miles away. The results of
these Special Forces operations have been so horrendous that morale in
the intelligence community has suffered.
The futility of the Iraq War also is
contributing to professional cynicism. Some intelligence support
personnel are volunteering for Iraq duty not because they think they
can help win the war but because the hazard pay is high and life in the
protected Green Zone is relatively safe and easy.
Once getting past the risks of the Baghdad
airport and the dangerous road into the city, U.S. civilian government
personnel ensconce themselves in the Green Zone, which amounts to a
bubble of U.S. creature comforts – from hamburgers to lounging by the
pool – separate from the world of average Iraqis who are mostly barred.
Cooks are brought in from other countries out of the unstated concern that Iraqis might poison the food.
That American officials have come to view
a posting in Iraq as a pleasant career enhancer – rather than a vital
national security mission for the United States – is another sign that
the war is almost certainly beyond recovery.
Another experienced observer of conflicts
around the world told me that Bush’s new idea of putting small numbers
of U.S. troops among Iraqi government forces inside police stations
represents an act of idiocy that is sure to get Americans killed.
Conditions in Iraq have so deteriorated –
and animosity toward Americans has so metastasized – that traditional
counterinsurgency strategies are hard to envision, too.
Normally, winning the hearts and minds of
a target population requires a commitment to move among the people and
work on public action projects, from building roads to improving the
judicial system. But all that requires some measure of political
goodwill and personal trust.
Given the nearly four years of U.S.
occupation and the devastation that Iraq has suffered, not even the
most talented American counterinsurgency specialists can expect to
overcome the hatred swelling among large segments of Iraqi society.
Bush’s “surge” strategy of conducting more
military sweeps through more Iraqi neighborhoods – knocking down doors,
gunning down hostile Iraqis and dragging off others to detention camps
– is not likely to assuage hard feelings.
So, facing slim odds in Iraq, Bush is
tempted by the allure of escalation, a chance to blame the Iranians for
his Iraq failure and to punish them with air strikes. He might see that
as a way to buy time, a chance to rally his pro-war supporters and a
strategy for enhancing his presidential legacy.
But the consequences both internationally
and domestically – from possible disruption of oil supplies to
potential retaliation from Islamic terrorists – could be devastating.
Yet, there is a sense of futility among
many in Washington who doubt they can do anything to stop Bush. So far,
the Democratic-controlled Congress has lagged behind the curve,
debating how to phrase a non-binding resolution of disapproval about
Bush’s “surge” of 21,500 troops in Iraq, while Bush may be opening an
entirely new front in Iran.
According to intelligence sources, Bush’s
Iran strategy is expected to let the Israelis take a lead role in
attacking Iran's nuclear facilities in order to defuse Democratic
opposition and let the U.S. intervention be sold as defensive, a case
of a vulnerable ally protecting itself from a future nuclear threat.
Once American air and naval forces are
committed to a new conflict, the Democrats will find it politically
difficult to interfere at least in the near future, the thinking goes.
A violent reaction from the Islamic world would further polarize the
American population and let Bush paint war critics as cowardly,
disloyal or pro-terrorist.
As risky as a wider war might be, Bush’s
end game would dominate the final two years of his presidency as he
forces both Republican and Democratic candidates to address issues of
war and peace on his terms.
On Jan. 10, the night of Bush’s national
address on the Iraq War, NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert made a
striking observation about a pre-speech briefing that Bush and other
senior administration officials gave to news executives.
“There’s a strong sense in the upper
echelons of the White House that Iran is going to surface relatively
quickly as a major issue in the country and the world in a very acute
way – and a prediction that in 2008 candidates of both parties will
have as a fundamental campaign promise or premise a policy to deal with
Iran and not let it go nuclear,” Russert said. “That’s how significant
Iran was today.”
So, Bush and his top advisers not only
signaled their expectation of a “very acute” development with Iran but
that the Iranian issue would come to dominate Campaign 2008 with
candidates forced to spell out plans for containing this enemy state.
What to Do?
The immediate question, however, is what,
if anything, can Congress and the American people do to head off Bush’s
expanded war strategy.
Some in Congress have called on Bush to
seek prior congressional approval before entering a war with Iran.
Others, such as Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, have asked Bush to
spell out how expansive he thinks his war powers are.
"I would suggest respectfully to the
President that he is not the sole decider," Specter said during a
Senate hearing on war powers on Jan. 30. "The decider is a shared and
But Bush and his neoconservative legal
advisers have made clear that they see virtually no limits to Bush's
"plenary" powers as Commander in Chief at a time of war. In their view,
Bush is free to take military actions abroad and to waive legal and
constitutional constraints at home because the United States has been
deemed part of the "battlefield."
Nothing short of a direct congressional
prohibition on war with Iran and a serious threat of impeachment would
seem likely to give Bush more than a moment’s pause. But congressional
Republicans would surely obstruct such measures and Bush might well
veto any law that was passed.
Still, unless Congress escalates the
confrontation with the President – and does so quickly – it may be too
late to stop what could become a very dangerous escalation.
[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Logic of a Wider Mideast War.”]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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