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Bush's Dangerous Wishful Thinking

By Nat Parry
May 23, 2005

In Iraq, George W. Bush has demonstrated an old truism of geopolitics – wishful thinking mixed with bellicose rhetoric makes for a deadly cocktail, as it certainly has for tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 1,600 U.S. soldiers. The question now is: can the U.S. political system wean itself from an addiction to this poisonous brew of swagger and delusion?

So far, the Bush administration shows no sign of getting on the wagon and looking at the facts with a clear eye. Instead, it’s still talking tough and demanding that everyone concentrate on the few glimmers of progress amid the death and destruction.

“We don’t have an exit strategy,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld boasted during a trip to Iraq on April 12. “We have a victory strategy.”

Yet, on the ground in Iraq, the violence gets worse. A U.S. offensive called Operation Matador, near the Syrian border, was met by fierce Iraqi resistance, decimating one Marine unit. Insurgents also carried out a wave of car bombings that left about 450 Iraqis dead, including many police and government soldiers.

American analysts also seem to have missed much of the significance of Iraq’s Jan. 30 election. In part, it was a vote by the Shiite majority to consolidate its new political dominance over the formerly powerful Sunni minority. But the vote also was a repudiation of the U.S.-handpicked leaders closely associated with the occupation.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and other Iraqis in the U.S.-installed government were trounced at the polls by the United Iraqi Alliance, whose platform called for “a timetable for the withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq.” Delays in forming a new government and lack of a withdrawal schedule were factors in the new wave of violence.

Grim Assessment

Meanwhile, prospects for a stable Iraqi government – or a near-term defeat of the insurgency – still don’t seem promising. Breaking with the official optimism in a briefing to New York Times reporters, American military commanders “gave a sobering new assessment” of the war. One officer said the U.S. military might have to remain in Iraq for “many years,” the Times reported. [NYT, May 19, 2005]

Yet, despite the grim present and the daunting future, there is almost no talk inside the U.S. political establishment about demanding a formal review of the situation or for contemplating a withdrawal.

Instead, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed an $82 billion spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pushing the total price tag to about $300 billion and far exceeding spending on many major domestic programs. For instance, the federal government has earmarked only $6.7 billion for job training for the entire fiscal year 2005.

As the unanimous Senate vote revealed, the Democrats have decided not to challenge Bush’s Iraq policies. Even Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, who rose to prominence in 2002 by opposing the Iraq invasion, has argued that there is no alternative but to pursue the war until victory.

“Now that we’re there, we’re there and we can’t get out,” Dean told an audience in Minneapolis in April. “The president has created an enormous security problem for the United States where none existed before. But I hope the president is incredibly successful with his policy now that he’s there.”

“Hope,” of course, has been the one consistent element of the U.S. policy in Iraq. To espouse realism has always been deemed political suicide. [For more of our coverage about the lack of realism, see “Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down,” “Sinking in Deeper,” “Neocon Amorality,” “Bush’s Neocons Unbridled” or “Bush’s Kiss of Death.”]

British Memo

The continued absence of a vigorous U.S. debate about the war is especially remarkable considering the recent publication of a British government memo revealing that Bush had made up his mind to invade Iraq in July 2002, contradicting longtime White House claims that Bush was then pursuing a diplomatic solution in good faith.

The document summarized a July 23, 2002, meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top security advisers, reviewing a visit to Washington by the head of Britain’s MI-6 intelligence service.

The memo said, “Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD,” despite a weak case that Hussein’s government was a threat to regional or world security. The highly classified memo, which was leaked during the British parliamentary elections, stated that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com's "For Bush, Iraq Lies Are Fundamental."]

While this memo was explosive in Britain, it has received only modest attention in the United States. The administration brushed it aside with bland denials and major U.S. news outlets treated it like old news. A survey by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that U.S. newspapers ran relatively few articles about the memo and buried them on inside pages. There was even less coverage in the broadcast media.

Not only is the U.S. political establishment resistant to reexamining the war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, there remains a stubborn refusal to rethink some of the basic assumptions of Bush’s War on Terror, namely that it can rely predominantly on military force, mass detentions and “public diplomacy,” essentially image polishing that has little credibility in the Islamic world.

The Bush administration has rebuffed serious multilateral approaches that would take aim at the underlying causes of terrorism, such as economic inequality, Western exploitation of Arab oil reserves and the repression of Palestinian nationalism.

Instead, Bush has added to the Muslims’ list of grievances, with the rising death toll in Iraq and violations of the human rights inside the sprawling worldwide network of U.S. detention centers. Many Arabs were repulsed, too, by the London Sun’s publication of photos showing Saddam Hussein in his underpants – images apparently taken by U.S. military photographers.

Nuclear Proliferation

Bush also has shown rigidity in his approach toward the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran – again placing tough-guy rhetoric ahead of practical strategies.

Many observers warn that North Korea is on the verge of testing its first nuclear weapon, and Iran has recently declared that it intends to resume its nuclear enrichment program, which could lead to a collapse of the talks Iran has been holding with France, Germany and Britain, known as the EU-3.

The U.S. claims that Iran’s nuclear program has military intentions, but has maintained a hands-off approach to the negotiations between Iran and the EU. In exchange for giving up its nuclear program, Iran has sought regional security guarantees, as well as guarantees it could someday join the World Trade Organization.

Only Washington could provide these guarantees. So, by staying disengaged, the Bush administration has either intentionally or inadvertently sabotaged chances for success, possibly to demonstrate that the European method of multilateral diplomacy doesn’t work in dealing with “rogue states.” A European diplomat involved with the talks claimed the Americans were trying to “torpedo the process.”

Some Europeans have noted that American neoconservatives are itching to use more force for “regime change” in the Muslim world. After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the question for some administration officials was whether the U.S. should go “left or right,” to Syria or Iran. Some joked that “real men go to Tehran.”

Bush has fed these war suspicions even while supposedly discouraging them. Responding to questions about a possible assault on Iran, Bush said, “This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. And having said that, all options are on the table.”

Air Strikes?

One option on the table might be the use of air strikes against Iranian nuclear and missile facilities.

According to the think tank GlobalSecurity.org, there are perhaps two dozen suspected nuclear facilities in Iran. The 1000-megawatt nuclear plant Bushehr might be one target of potential strikes. The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center claims that the spent fuel from this facility would be capable of producing 50 to 75 bombs. Other potential targets include suspected nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said Iran is taking the threat of a U.S. attack seriously, but added that he does not expect it, considering the difficulties the U.S. has encountered in Iraq.

“We must always be ready because the threats could become concrete,” Khatami said. “But practically, I don’t think such an attack can happen because the Americans’ experience in Iraq was very bitter.”

Yet, there are indications that American forces already have begun covert military operations against the Iranian regime. According to veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, the Bush administration has been carrying out secret reconnaissance missions in Iran to learn about nuclear, chemical and missile sites in preparation for possible air strikes.

These missions have been taking place since the summer of 2004 and involved “extensive planning” for a possible attack, Hersh reported in an article in the New Yorker magazine. “The goal is to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids,” he wrote.

But even limited strikes carry enormous risks. A U.S. cruise missile attack could be countered by sophisticated anti-ship missiles that Iran has installed on the Island of Abu Musa in the Strait of Hormuz. In the event of an attack, the Strait of Hormuz could be shut down, potentially blocking Persian Gulf-bound oil tankers and causing oil prices to skyrocket past $100 per barrel.

“It is almost certain that an attack by Israel or the United States [on Iran’s nuclear facilities] would result in immediate retaliation,” according to an analysis by the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

A likely retaliatory response, the Monterey Institute said, includes an immediate Iranian counterattack on Israel and U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf, as well as intensified efforts to destabilize Iraq and promote all-out confrontation between the United States and Iraq’s Shiite majority.

The scenarios provided by the U.S. government are not much more optimistic. As Newsweek reported in September 2004, “the CIA and [Defense Intelligence Agency] have war-gamed the likely consequences of a U.S. pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. No one liked the outcome. As an Air Force source tells it, ‘The war games were unsuccessful at preventing the conflict from escalating.’”

Nevertheless, U.S. officials continue the bellicose rhetoric. “The missiles haven’t yet been fired, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be if the Iranians don’t stop their attempt to develop nuclear weapons,” said Dan Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel.

European Approach

The possibility of military action against Iran also has caused worries in Europe. As German president Gerhard Schroeder told the World Economic Forum, “The last thing we need is another military conflict.”

Rather than relying primarily on military force to deal with threats, the Europeans have promoted a combination of international law, diplomacy and multilateralism, a so-called “global approach” that “insists on the respect, development and effective implementation of international multilateral treaties and conventions to ban or to minimize the recourse to and development of WMD.”

In a European Security Strategy issued in December 2003 after the invasion of Iraq, some of the key methods advanced by the EU involved strengthening multilateral agreements on WMD proliferation; reinforcing export controls; working towards the criminalization of activities that lead to proliferation; and financially supporting efforts conducted by multilateral institutions like the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organization.

“Proliferation may be contained through export controls and attacked through political, economic and other pressures while the underlying political causes are also tackled,” the EU said.

One component of the strategy is to lead by example, and to promote confidence-building by showing that European countries are serious about their own international non-proliferation obligations. Toward this end, the document calls for all EU member states to ratify and implement the Additional Protocols of the IAEA.

Complementing the European Security Strategy, the EU also has issued a Strategy Against Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. This document credits international treaty regimes and export controls in slowing the spread of WMD, but acknowledges that a number of states continue to seek such weapons.

“The possession of nuclear weapons by States outside the NPT,” the document said, “risks undermining non-proliferation and disarmament efforts.” Countering proliferation therefore “must be a central element in the EU’s external action,” and in doing so, the EU “must use all instruments and policies at its disposal.”

In advancing its comprehensive strategy, the EU is offering an alternative to the doctrine of “pre-emptive war” put forth by the Bush administration. Although the European Security Strategy does not say so explicitly, its adoption can be seen as a response to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the U.S. National Security Strategy that was issued by the Bush administration in September 2002.

The U.S. strategy document celebrated America’s unparalleled power and called for direct military intervention against security threats. “The only path to peace and security is the path of action,” the Bush administration report stated. [For an early critique of Bush's pre-emptive war strategy, see Consortiumnews.com's "Bush's Grim Vision."]

Unintended Consequences

The invasion of Iraq was the grand send-off for this doctrine. The “shock and awe” bombing campaign was meant to put “rogue states” on notice that if they did not submit to U.S. dictates regarding weapons programs, they could face similar consequences.

But the Iraq War has had unintended consequences. Since Saddam Hussein had, in fact, complied with international demands that he rid himself of WMD and even accepted UN inspectors, the U.S.-led invasion sent a signal to other “rogue states” that compliance didn’t guarantee a nation’s safety.

Indeed, Hussein looked foolish. He failed to defend his country; he watched thousands of Iraqis, including his two sons, die; he was humiliated after his capture, including being photographed in his underpants; and he may well end up dangling from a noose.

So what’s the lesson for the rulers of Iran or North Korea? One logical conclusion would seem to be: press ahead with nuclear or other WMD programs with the hope that those fearsome weapons might deter a U.S. invasion.

Plus, the U.S. military has found itself bogged down in Iraq, limiting its options for dealing with Iran and North Korea now. That gives a strong incentive for those two governments to move quickly, thus accelerating the potential for nuclear proliferation, not slowing it.

Bush’s unilateralist foreign policy also has served as an incentive for the EU to fashion and promote its own foreign policy. The Europeans are showing their own sense of urgency in trying to create a viable alternative to Bush’s confrontational approach, thus possibly diminishing U.S. international standing in the long run.

Whether or not an EU alternative is possible remains to be seen. In the face of both U.S. belligerence and intransigence from Iran and North Korea, there may be no viable short-term means to stop nuclear proliferation or to prevent the spread of terrorism.

But the European approach at least provides a theoretical alternative for American policymakers who might wish to reconsider their strategy rather than to continue on an intoxicating binge of wishful thinking and tough talk.

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