Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Bush at War Again?

A flurry of reports (see, for example, Joseph Cirincione, Seymour Hersh and the Washington Post) have appeared in recent days indicating that the Bush administration is seriously considering military strikes in an attempt to halt Iran’s alleged covert nuclear weapons program. Administration officials have countered by stressing their commitment to a diplomatic solution to the crisis. However, judging from recent speeches, administration officials seem to be preparing Congress and the American public for the possibility of military action. More worrying is the fact that the military and intelligence communities are engaged in extensive war gaming and that many insiders consider military action against Iran to be very possible. To foreigners the idea of air strikes or covert operations against Iran seems incomprehensible. Indeed, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, desperate to demonstrate that his government does not endorse such action, characterized reports about possible strikes as “completely nuts.” However, the world needs to take the Bush administrations preparations very seriously, not only because the President is fully capable of ordering an attack against Iran, but also because the consequences would be catastrophic. Foreign observers often fail to appreciate how profoundly 9/11 impacted Bush’s national security team. Already inclined to aggressive nationalism, a Manichean worldview and unilateralism, 9/11 greatly heightened the administration’s threat perception and their willingness to pre-emptively or even preventively attack perceived threats to American national security. These traits, combined with a dose of neo-conservative zeal for spreading democracy, close ties to the oil industry and a deep commitment to defend Israel, make Iran the perfect villain for the Bush team. It almost goes without saying that an American attack on Iran would be foolish. Anxious to avoid the fate of Iraq’s centralized, ill-disguised nuclear program in 1981, which Israeli warplanes destroyed, the Iranian government has dispersed and fortified its nuclear facilities, making a successful air strike doubtful. Even in the event of a successful attack, the effects would be counterproductive. Iran’s program would be slowed, but almost certainly reconstituted. Reformers in Iran, already beleaguered, would be completely marginalized. In fact, the government’s nuclear program is popular in Iran. Iranians are strongly nationalistic, and an attack would destroy the substantial goodwill most Iranians have for America and rally the public in support of the government. Finally, American relations with the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, already poor, would be obliterated. The Bush administration has been content to pursue a diplomatic solution to the Iran question, while simultaneously preparing to attack if negotiations fail. Helpfully, European governments have, for once, been unified and consistently engaged, pushing a multilateral, non-military approach to the problem. However, Tehran seems determined to obtain nuclear weapons and unwilling to make meaningful concessions. While there is still time left before diplomatic options are exhausted, President Bush’s term ends in 2008 and it is doubtful that he will pass what he considers to be a massive national security threat on to his successor. It is essential that the world take the Bush administration’s military preparations seriously and do every possible to derail them. The alternative really does not bear thinking about.

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