Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
Disclaimer: In accordance with title 17 u.s.c. section 107, this material is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.
The Sir! No Sir! Blog has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is the Sir! No Sir! Blog endorsed or sponsored by the originator. Links are provided to allow for verification of authenticity.
This article, by Alan Koenig, was publishedin the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate, February 2009
“I admire President Nixon’s courage. It is difficult for me to understand . . . why people are still criticizing his foreign policy — for example, the bombing in Cambodia.” — Lt. John McCain, 1973
“Collective guilt is . . . partly constituted by individual shame.” — Peter Forrest
In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s exhilarating victory, many on the Left are wondering how much of their agenda he’ll fight for, and as the early exaltations cool, progressives and militant liberals are staking positions, mustering arguments, and searching for the pressure points necessary to impel President Obama to hold war crimes trials for the Bush administration’s most appalling deeds. How far President Obama is willing to go in battling the inertia of a political culture that never seems willing to confront the sins done in its name is not yet clear, but the early signs don’t look promising. As Newsweek recently reported, “Despite the hopes of many human-rights advocates, the new Obama Justice Department is not likely to launch major new criminal probes of harsh interrogations and other alleged abuses by the Bush administration.”
As far back as July, Cass Sunstein, an informal Obama advisor, set off progressive alarms by warning The Nation magazine that war crimes prosecutions against the Bush administration might set off a “cycle” of criminalizing public service, and that only the most “egregious” crimes should be pursued. Faced with such early hedging, those dedicated to pursuing war crimes against American officials must fight a two-front war: the first against those timid moderates within the center-left who shy away from the political costs of war crimes prosecutions, and the second against the reactionary nationalism of the American right, which still needs to be persuaded as to the moral necessity of such a campaign.
Integral to both fronts will be a task requiring unusual imagination and finesse, framing the issues surrounding war crimes in such a way that a majority of the American public feels a collective sense of responsibility to redress them. Developing a narrative to inspire the American public to hold war crimes for its own elected officials treads on some exceedingly difficult ideological terrain, for there are no readily accessible frames to incorporate such a dark history of America into a positive sense of contemporary patriotism. An effort to introduce the public to the repressed regions of its historical consciousness all at once would shut down discussion. What, for instance, is the worst atrocity America has perpetrated since World War II? The question doesn’t inspire easy conversation; even asking can invite reproach for being rude, jarring, perhaps challenging to one’s patriotism. There’s no polite way to ease into those vile parts of American historical memory that most citizens don’t dwell on as they go about their days. Many people, however, on some level of consciousness, are aware and that might be the place to start.
Students from the seventies onward have graduated from liberal arts colleges having learned the whole Leftist litany of American war crimes and atrocities, and that horrific history is extremely depressing to ponder: coups, assassinations, massive bombing campaigns against neutral South East Asian countries, Central American death squads, ad nauseum. What is one to do with this knowledge? Or, more importantly, what is one to do with it upon realizing that the public doesn’t want to hear about—and our politicians don’t want to deal with—our shameful history of atrocities?
In puzzling through this dilemma, the genocide scholar Ernesto Verdeja uses an important distinction between public knowledge and acknowledgment first made by NYU’s Thomas Nagel. While the raw information about official complicity and culpability is readily available in a robust historical record, Verdeja sees the difficulty of pursuing higher justice less in the dissemination of that knowledge than the moral awareness that follows.“The problem,” he told me in a recent interview, is not public ignorance, rather it is
“the assumption by many human rights activists and critics of the administration that knowledge equals acknowledgement; in other words, that when people know how bad things are, they will ‘do something’ about it, or demand that something be done. Acknowledgement implies moral awareness, a willingness to reflect on the moral consequences of actions and behavior and take responsibility—or demand accountability—for the commission of violations.”
Until that connection is developed on an explicitly moral basis, all sorts of crimes can fall through the cracks—and already have.
Back in December of 2000, while the Supreme Court was still deliberating over who would be our next president, Bill Clinton took a farewell tour through South East Asia. As a diplomatic gesture, Clinton released previously classified Air Force data to the Cambodian government about the true extent and targets of the so-called “secret” bombing campaign conducted by the Johnson and Nixon administrations. According to an article written by two members of the Yale Genocide Studies program for The Walrus, the tonnage of bombs dropped on neutral Cambodia was five times greater than previously realized, and exceeded the combined tonnage of bombs dropped on both Germany and Japan during World War II—including the two atomic bombs: “Previously, it was estimated that between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed by the bombing. Given the fivefold increase in tonnage revealed by the database, the number of casualties is surely higher.”
Though Clinton’s revelatory report was briefly covered, no major news media or watchdog group paid sustained attention to the new bombing figures or what the moral implications might be. What does it mean that massacres on an industrial scale can be committed by American democracy and the perpetrators go…unpunished? Or, like Henry Kissinger, are feted as the wise old men of America’s foreign policy establishment? There’s a certain futility in posing these questions. Since Vietnam, there has been no place to go with a politics that seeks justice for American war crimes at the highest levels of the government. To broach these topics is to touch upon larger questions of democratic culpability and national shame, and avoiding such themes has been a political no-brainer. Shame does not sell in American politics.
Indeed, in America, the cachet of war crimes can even provide fleeting glamour. Against the wishes of much of the Army brass, President Nixon pardoned Lt. William Calley, the officer convicted in a military tribunal of the command responsibility for mass rape and slaughter of hundreds of defenseless old men, women and children in Vietnam’s My Lai massacre. Calley, while awaiting trial, appeared in an issue of Esquire; the cover shot showed him in dress uniform, grinning like a demonic chipmunk while holding a lapful of Asian children. According to Time magazine, after details emerged about the atrocity during his trial—and his own soldiers testified that he personally shot a child attempting to crawl out of a trench of corpses—Calley was flooded with thousands of letters of support, personal checks, and flowers. Though controversial, the President’s decision to commute his sentence proved popular, as an overwhelming 79 percent of Americans polled disapproved of Calley’s conviction. Upon being partially pardoned, Calley enjoyed a brief stint as a minor celebrity, a far right rallying figure and lecturer, before slipping into wealthy obscurity.
The journalist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens notes a somewhat similar phenomenon in the career of Henry Kissinger, in that the hints of shamelessness and past atrocities adds a bit of bad boy swagger or frisson to Kissinger’s persona. It’s the kind of buzz that’s good for both cocktail parties and TV appearances with Jay Leno, and the ancient guru’s reputation remains exalted enough that this year’s first presidential debate showed both candidates’ efforts to claim his ideas as closer to their own brand of foreign policy. Even Hitchens’s endeavors to popularize Kissinger’s crimes have run afoul of this bizarre resiliency, providing another cautionary tale of thwarted accountability. Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a concise and scathing indictment of the former Secretary of State, was released in May of 2001 and was soon followed by a by-the-book BBC documentary. The charges range widely: sabotaging President Johnson’s peace negotiations in Vietnam; cynically leading the Nixon administration’s escalation of bombings throughout Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; plotting the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in Chile; complicity with the Greek Colonel’s regime and their nefarious machinations in Cyprus; tacitly backing Pakistan’s genocidal civil war against Bangladesh; and giving the go-ahead to Suharto’s atrocity-ridden invasion of East Timor. Written to inflame moral outrage, Hitchens’s slim book portended a long campaign, but 9/11 ripped apart American politics and Hitchens broke with his narrow vision of the American Left in order to embrace the Bush administration and its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After five years of praising various “Pentagon intellectuals” (and somehow missing the presence of Kissingerians like L. Paul Bremer and John Negroponte throughout the administration), Hitchens was devastated to discover in late 2006 that Bush still took advice from the old monster himself. Kissinger still had the ear of the president. “Will we never be free of the malign effect of this little gargoyle?” Hitchens wailed in a Slate column.
Aside from the relatively rare Hitchensian amputation of Leftist sentiment and sense, and those limp moderates fearing a cycle of prosecutions for unspecified future crimes, Leftists concerned about American war crimes must trim another untidy feather of their own right wing; a Left interventionism that grew up in Bosnia and Kosovo and flew on to Iraq. Not all Left interventionists took this bellicose flight path, but a predominate form of Liberal hawkishness arising in the ’90s focused on the exigency of foreign atrocities at the price of forgetting the dark side of American military might, and too many ended up supporting the crusades of the Bush administration with too few caveats. The Canadian parliamentarian Michael Ignatieff, a prototypical Liberal Hawk, wrote in The Warrior’s Honor, that for the interventionist the mid-90s NATO incursions into Bosnia were:
“a theater of displacement, in which political energies that might otherwise have been expended in defending multiethnic society at home were directed instead at defending mythic multiculturalism far away. Bosnia became the latest bel espoir of a generation that had tried ecology, socialism, and civil rights only to watch all these lose their romantic momentum.”
Many of those Left hawks, like Ignatieff, who joined forces with neocon intellectuals over the “bel espoir” of Bosnia, rode that “romantic momentum” all the way to the Iraq War—only to later recant. (Ignatieff finally retracted his own support in 2007). Some of these Left hawks, in the first years of the Iraq War, got flirtatiously close to supporting the efficacy of torture as a means to combat a greater evil. In 2005, Hitchens praised Terrorism in the Grip of Justice, a ghoulish Iraqi TV-reality show featuring the renunciations of various battered insurgents and terrorists—some of whom, as the journalist Peter Maas has reported, turned up dead after their confessions were broadcast. Hitchens, while acknowledging in Slate that “the possibility exists that other confessions are either staged or coerced,” and that “[the] United States could not have put any of these people on television, because the Geneva Conventions forbid the exhibiting of prisoners,” nevertheless boldly concluded: “[in] my opinion, at any rate, the elected Iraqi authorities are well within their rights in using this means of propaganda.” Evidently snuff films are wrong for America, but some exceptions can be made for allied countries on the battlefront. For his part, Ignatieff wondered in The New York Times in early 2004 to what degree “[to] defeat evil, we may have to traffic in evils: indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations, targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war,” before disavowing torture much more forcefully in The Prospect in 2006. Regeneration of liberal energies and policies starts at home and has a lot of housecleaning to do before it can confidently travel abroad. While the lesson may be learned, that doesn’t mean it won’t have to be repeated.
Aware of such fissures, how can the Left cultivate the moral awareness necessary to bring more attention to war crimes and call their perpetrators to justice? When it comes to questions of collective shame, the American media environment has always been awful, and since the rise of right-wing radio, FOX News and the trogosphere, the Left must contend with an even more amplified caricature of the shrieking liberal. Condemned by the Right for an apparent lack of sound bite patriotism, and for only harping on the ugly side of American politics that no one wants to see, the Left lacks a compelling frame to raise such dire issues, and it has been a surefire recipe for political disaster when it comes to electoral politics. John Kerry touched this third rail when the Bush campaign merely reminded voters of Kerry’s youthful participation in the Winter Soldier Project, a protest group in which the young Lieutenant acted as a spokesman for veterans who publicly admitted to atrocities in Vietnam. Attacked in the Swift Boat ads, Kerry could never construct a convincing narrative that bridged his youthful anti-war activism and his evolution into a bland US Senator, and his campaign sunk between those contradictions. Indeed, Kerry appeared so spooked by attacks on his past denunciations of American atrocities that he never made Abu Ghraib a major campaign issue.
Clearly then, American queasiness over confronting war crimes doesn’t have to emerge solely from the unhealed scars of the ’60s and ’70s in order to be politically perilous. In June of this year, Major General Anthony Taguba, the officer tasked with investigating the Bush administration’s culpability in the Abu Ghraib horror, publicly accused the sitting president of war crimes in a preface to a Physicians for Human Rights report. Taguba’s bold, declarative statement of guilt once more pointed to the gap between knowledge and acknowledgement:
“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
Now, if you were a foreign journalist covering American politics you might think this political bombshell would searingly seal the gap between knowledge and acknowledgement and become a major issue dividing the nation in the 2008 election. No such luck. Taguba’s report received little sustained attention, and though candidate Obama critiqued Bush for his torture policies and vowed to end them, he was protected on his right flank by John McCain’s rhetorically similar position, and Obama never combined the words war crimes and prosecution in the same sentence. After all, he wanted to win. Having won, his administration will have to decide whether Taguba’s unequivocal statement rises to the standard of what Sunstein labeled “egregious” enough for prosecution.
A potential frame that is truly interested in “change” may reside not in the standard repertoire of Leftist tactics, but deeper in America’s Christian heritage—if moral awareness is to breach the stultifying cloud of cheap patriotism. Some genocide scholars, like Verdeja, remain cynical about the ability of the Left to strengthen its own resolve and win over the American public as to the necessity of pursuing war crimes. “The Left can’t touch these people [perpetrators],” he asserts. “The Right will have to do it, for only Nixon can go to China. It will take a rising, younger generation of conservatives. This has to be a self-critique within the Right, has to be a movement from the Right and this can only happen after a schism.” If there is to be a schism, and that looks tantalizingly apparent, there must be some way for the Left to win over the schismatics, the whole gamut from anti-war libertarians like Justin Raimondo to social conservatives truly concerned with moral values—perhaps like the conservative intellectuals Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat.
The renowned Christian political theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in his Moral Man and Immoral Society, recognized the value of patriotism but cautioned that American Christians must put their first allegiance above any worldly nation bounded by geography and time and dedicate themselves to the community of Christ. Niebuhr preached the necessity of using power to confront evil, but the wielder of that power must be constantly aware, as if through spiritual exercise, of how easily power corrupts and how badly it is perceived by those it is used against, no matter the moral claims. Christians must fight against the profound selfishness and delusion that accompany patriotism, and guard constantly against the imperial impulse that so easily flows from national self-righteousness. Obviously, this is not Sarah Palin’s Christianity, but the potential tools to bridge the gap between public knowledge and acknowledgement could reside in the broadly ecumenical Christian theology practiced by the majority of Americans. Leftists interested in advancing the moral imperative of bringing war crimes trials home would be negligent to overlook these opportunities. Conceptions of shame and redemption are present all throughout most Christian denominations, and a first step to utilizing them would be familiarity, while a second lays in making such appeals to audiences that claim to hold them. Successful examples of progressive moral movements run all throughout American history from the abolitionists to Martin Luther King Jr. and shouldn’t be forgotten in a more secular age.
If this really is a bridge too far, a rearguard strategy would be a prophylactic one of simply ending criminal policies such as torture, even if their perpetrators go unpunished. Verdeja notes that Americans
“have no history or stomach to put our leaders on trial for this sort of behavior, and clearly there will never be an international tribunal to hold them accountable. Nevertheless, it is important that we don’t simply assume that nothing can be done: we need to continue forcefully discussing and criticizing these policies, with the aim of putting an end to them under the new administration.”
By this logic, bruiting about the sins of war crimes, even if we never hold actual trials, could focus moral awareness to a degree that future crimes can be prevented at conception. A public campaign of shaming would be needed, and while it would require a new cultivation of moral awareness, it’s the least we could do.
If, however, the bridge between knowledge and acknowledgement is never built on Christian ethics, and waiting for a new generation on the Right willing to countenance criminal prosecution is futile, and promises of future abstention are not preventative enough, then maybe a thought experiment is in order. What if the Left were to encourage President Obama to just pull the trigger: institute war crimes tribunals for past officials through constitutional means and just eat the backlash as the price of higher justice? After all, if “we are the change we’ve be waiting for,” then who are the reactionary politicians—or what really are the political considerations—to say otherwise? As Niebuhr himself noted:
“Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises. The democratic method of resolving social conflict, which some romanticists hail as a triumph of the ethical over the coercive factor, is really much more coercive than at first seems apparent.”
There are many forms of coercion. Coercion wielded through democratically attained political power, constitutionally undertaken and with a full Niebuhrian awareness of its dangers—though never an unalloyed good—may be a necessary one. Arrest and prosecution are forms of legal coercion, and if the longstanding critique is that the Left never knows how to wield power to protect or enact what it holds dear, then demanding the exercise of our political power on an issue of such import and moral clarity would be a strong proclamation of political arrival. It might even provide “change we can believe in,” as other progressive causes could be weighed in relation to the shame not solely of war crimes, but of poverty, inequality, or that of our vast and reprehensible prison-industrial complex. The precursor to this legal and political clash between conscience and power is that the moral exigency of prosecuting war crimes rises to the level of social conflict. The payoffs for such a mobilization and contestation might not be all bad. After all, nothing helps to advance previously resistant conceptions of shame quite like a conviction.
Maybe. While tempting, such an optimistic scenario cannot account for the shock waves sure to follow from the psychic detonation of seeing a former President of the United States in the dock. Or looking bewildered in a prison jumpsuit. This would be so startling, so previously unimaginable, that there’s no telling how the public would react or what the political reverberations might be. While a great precedent in terms of the power of the constitution, many Americans would view it as an assault on patriotism, on the pervasive view that America is fundamentally good. Would such an astonishing event be seen by the majority as a great cleansing, a release from past sins, or an egregious national humiliation enforced by a puritanical few?
It would be the emotional equivalent of regicide, and while our political ancestors, the British, beheaded their king only once in their history, they’ve been pretty uptight about it ever since. If we successfully pressed for war crimes trials for America’s former leaders, we’d have to accept the consequences that go along with a brand of justice for which the public is not yet prepared. Perhaps then, the best way to prepare would be start small, a few degrees of distance from the present regime. Henry Kissinger still breathes in freedom and that could be corrected.
This editorial, by Howard Zinn, was originally published in the Boston Globe, July 17, 2008
BARACK OBAMA and John McCain continue to argue about war. McCain says to keep the troops in Iraq until we "win" and supports sending more troops to Afghanistan. Obama says to withdraw some (not all) troops from Iraq and send them to fight and "win" in Afghanistan.
For someone like myself, who fought in World War II, and since then has protested against war, I must ask: Have our political leaders gone mad? Have they learned nothing from recent history? Have they not learned that no one "wins" in a war, but that hundreds of thousands of humans die, most of them civilians, many of them children?
Did we "win" by going to war in Korea? The result was a stalemate, leaving things as they were before with a dictatorship in South Korea and a dictatorship in North Korea. Still, more than 2 million people - mostly civilians - died, the United States dropped napalm on children, and 50,000 American soldiers lost their lives.
Did we "win" in Vietnam? We were forced to withdraw, but only after 2 million Vietnamese died, again mostly civilians, again leaving children burned or armless or legless, and 58,000 American soldiers dead.
Did we win in the first Gulf War? Not really. Yes, we pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, with only a few hundred US casualties, but perhaps 100,000 Iraqis died. And the consequences were deadly for the United States: Saddam was still in power, which led the United States to enforce economic sanctions. That move led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, according to UN officials, and set the stage for another war.
In Afghanistan, the United States declared "victory" over the Taliban. Now the Taliban is back, and attacks are increasing. The recent US military death count in Afghanistan exceeds that in Iraq. What makes Obama think that sending more troops to Afghanistan will produce "victory"? And if it did, in an immediate military sense, how long would that last, and at what cost to human life on both sides?
The resurgence of fighting in Afghanistan is a good moment to reflect on the beginning of US involvement there. There should be sobering thoughts to those who say that attacking Iraq was wrong, but attacking Afghanistan was right.
Go back to Sept. 11, 2001. Hijackers direct jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing close to 3,000 A terrorist act, inexcusable by any moral code. The nation is aroused. President Bush orders the invasion and bombing of Afghanistan, and the American public is swept into approval by a wave of fear and anger. Bush announces a "war on terror."
Except for terrorists, we are all against terror. So a war on terror sounded right. But there was a problem, which most Americans did not consider in the heat of the moment: President Bush, despite his confident bravado, had no idea how to make war against terror.
Yes, Al Qaeda - a relatively small but ruthless group of fanatics - was apparently responsible for the attacks. And, yes, there was evidence that Osama bin Laden and others were based in Afghanistan. But the United States did not know exactly where they were, so it invaded and bombed the whole country. That made many people feel righteous. "We had to do something," you heard people say.
Yes, we had to do something. But not thoughtlessly, not recklessly. Would we approve of a police chief, knowing there was a vicious criminal somewhere in a neighborhood, ordering that the entire neighborhood be bombed? There was soon a civilian death toll in Afghanistan of more than 3,000 - exceeding the number of deaths in the Sept. 11 attacks. Hundreds of Afghans were driven from their homes and turned into wandering refugees.
Two months after the invasion of Afghanistan, a Boston Globe story described a 10-year-old in a hospital bed: "He lost his eyes and hands to the bomb that hit his house after Sunday dinner." The doctor attending him said: "The United States must be thinking he is Osama. If he is not Osama, then why would they do this?"
We should be asking the presidential candidates: Is our war in Afghanistan ending terrorism, or provoking it? And is not war itself terrorism?
This long analysis, by Elliot Cohen, was published by World Can't Wait, June 19, 2008.
John McCain has long been a major player in a radical militaristic group driven by an ideology of global expansionism and dominance attained through perpetual, pre-emptive, unilateral, multiple wars. The credo of this group is "the end justifies the means," and the end of establishing the United States as the world's sole superpower justifies, in its estimation, anything from military control over the information on the Internet to the use of genocidal biological weapons. Over its two terms, the George W. Bush administration has planted the seeds for this geopolitical master plan, and now appears to be counting on the McCain administration, if one comes to power, to nurture it. The Road Map to War
The blueprint for this "new order" was drafted in February 1992, at the end of the George H.W. Bush administration when Defense Department staffers Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis Libby and Zalmay Khalilzad, acting under then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, drafted the Defense Planning Guidance (DPG). This document, also known as the "Wolfowitz Doctrine," was an unofficial, internal document that advocated massive increases in defense spending for purposes of strategic proliferation and buildup of the military in order to establish the pre-eminence of the United States as the world's sole superpower. Advocating pre-emptive attacks with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, it proclaimed that "the U.S. must show the leadership necessary to establish and protect a new order that holds the promise of convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests." The document was also quite clear about what should be the United States' main objective in the Middle East, especially with regard to Iraq and Iran, which was to "remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region's oil." The Wolfowitz Doctrine was leaked to The New York Times and The Washington Post, which published excerpts from it. Amid a public outcry, President George H.W. Bush retracted the document, and it was substantially revised.
The original mission of the Wolfowitz Doctrine was not lost, however. In 1997, William Kristol and Robert Kagan founded The Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a nongovernment political action organization that sought to develop and advocate for the militant, geopolitical tenets contained in the Wolfowitz Doctrine. PNAC's original members included Wolfowitz, Cheney, Khalilzad, Libby, John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, Donald Rumsfeld, William J. Bennett, and other soon-to-be high officers in the Bush administration. McCain's Ties to PNAC
John McCain's connection to PNAC can be traced back to before its formation in 1997. In fact, he was president of the New Citizenship Project, founded by Kristol in 1994. This organization was parent to PNAC, and served as its chief fundraising organ.
McCain also worked cooperatively with PNAC and Wolfowitz in attempting to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. In 1998, he co-sponsored the Iraq Liberation Act—drafted by PNAC—which decreed "regime change" in Iraq to be U.S. policy, and which appropriated $97 million in U.S. military aid to the Iraqi National Congress (INC). The INC was a group of anti-Hussein Iraqi militants whose purpose was to instigate a national uprising against Hussein. It was led by Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi informant whose subsequent faulty intelligence—claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaida—was used to sell the Iraq war to the American public. In 2004, in response to accusations that he deliberately misled U.S. intelligence agencies, Chalabi glibly stated, "We are heroes in error."
McCain also was co-chair (with Sen. Joseph Lieberman) of The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI). Established by PNAC in late 2002, this committee continued to finance Chalabi's INC with millions of taxpayer dollars, until shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when it was discontinued. In 2004, McCain became a signatory of PNAC, ironically signing on to a PNAC letter condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy for its return to the "rhetoric of militarism and empire." McCain has accordingly been a foot soldier for PNAC from its inception, and, although this organization is no longer in existence, its ideology and its signatories (many of whom now serve as advisers to the McCain presidential campaign) are still very much active. The Master Plan In September 2000, prior to the presidential election that year, PNAC carefully formulated its chief tenets in a document called Rebuilding America's Defenses (RAD). This document, which was intended to guide the incoming administration, had a substantial influence on the policies set by the Bush administration and is likely to do the same for a McCain administration if McCain becomes president. Here are some of the recommendations of the RAD report: Fighting and winning multiple, simultaneous major wars
Among its core missions was the rebuilding of America's defenses sufficient to "fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars." And it explicitly advocated sending troops into Iraq regardless of whether Saddam Hussein was in power. According to RAD, "While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein."
The RAD report also admonished, "Iran may well prove as large a threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf as Iraq has. And even should U.S.-Iranian relations improve, retaining forward-based forces in the region would still be an essential element in U.S. security strategy given the longstanding American interests in the region." Therefore, it had both Iraq and Iran in its sight as zones of multiple, simultaneous major wars for purposes of advancing "longstanding American interests in the region"—in particular, its oil.
McCain's recent chanting of "bomb, bomb, bomb; bomb, bomb Iran" to the beat of an old Beach Boys tune, his suggestion that the war with Iraq might last 100 years and his recent statement that the war in Afghanistan might also last 100 years—all of these pronouncements are clearly in concert with the PNAC mission to "fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars."
RAD also stressed the need to have additional forces equipped to handle ongoing "constabulary" duties such as enforcement of no-fly zones and other operations that fell short of full theater wars. It claimed that unless the military was so equipped, its ability to fight and win multiple, simultaneous wars would be impaired. Along these same lines, McCain has recently stated, ‘'It's time to end the disingenuous practice of stating that we have a two-war strategy when we are paying for only a one-war military. Either we must change our strategy—and accept the risks—or we must properly fund and structure our military.'' Designing and deploying global missile defense systems
RAD also emphasized, as an additional core value, the need to "transform U.S. forces to exploit the ‘revolution in military affairs.' " This included the design and deployment of a global ballistic missile defense system consisting of land-, sea-, air- and space-based components said to be capable of shielding the U.S. and its allies from "limited strikes" in the future by "rogue" nations such as Iraq, North Korea and Iran.
Along these lines, McCain has maintained that a ballistic missile defense system was "indispensable"—even if this meant reneging on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 at the expense of angering the Russians. Unfortunately, while RAD acknowledged the "limited" efficacy of such a weapons system (presumably because it cannot realistically provide a bulletproof shield, especially against large-scale missile attacks), neither it nor McCain addressed the problem that deployment of such a system could be destabilizing: It could encourage escalation, instead of de-escalation, of ballistic missile arsenals by nations that fear becoming sitting ducks, and might even provoke a pre-emptive strike. Further, there is still the question of whether the creation of such costly, national defense shields is even technologically feasible. The use of genocidal biological warfare for political expediency
Not only did RAD advocate the design and deployment of defensive weaponry, it also stressed the updating of conventional offensive weapons including cruise missiles along with stealthy strike aircraft and longer-range Air Force strike aircraft. But it went further in its offensive posture by envisioning and supporting the use of genotype-specific biological warfare. According to RAD, "… advanced forms of biological warfare that can ‘target' specific genotypes may transform biological warfare from the realm of terror to a politically useful tool." In this chilling statement, a double standard is evident. In the hands of al-Qaida, such genocidal weapons would belong to "the realm of terror," but in those of the U.S., they would be "politically useful tools." Rejection of the United Nations
PNAC's double standard is also inherent in its rejection of the idea of a cooperative, neutral effort among the nations of the world to address world problems, including the problem of Iraq. "Nor can the United States assume a UN-like stance of neutrality," states the RAD report. "The preponderance of American power is so great and its global interests so wide that it cannot pretend to be indifferent to the political outcome in the Balkans, the Persian Gulf or even when it deploys forces in Africa. Finally, these missions demand forces basically configured for combat." Accordingly, a McCain administration founded on a PNAC platform of self-interested exercise of force would oppose giving the United Nations any central role in setting and implementing foreign affairs policy. Control of space and cyberspace
PNAC's quest for global domination transcends any literal meaning of the geopolitical, and extends also to the control, rather than the sharing, of outer space. It also has serious implications for cyber freedom. Thus the RAD report states, "Much as control of the high seas—and the protection of international commerce—defined global powers in the past, so will control of the new ‘international commons' be a key to world power in the future. An America incapable of protecting its interests or that of its allies in space or the ‘infosphere' will find it difficult to exert global political leadership. ... Access to and use of cyberspace and the Internet are emerging elements in global commerce, politics and power. Any nation wishing to assert itself globally must take account of this other new ‘global commons.' "
There is a difference between protecting the Internet from a cyber attack and controlling it. The former is defensive while the latter is offensive. But RAD also advocated going on the offensive. It stated that "an offensive capability could offer America's military and political leaders an invaluable tool in disabling an adversary in a decisive manner."
However, state control of cyberspace for political purposes can have serious implications for the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. The Bush administration has already engaged in mass illegal spying on the phone and e-mail messages of millions of Americans through its National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program. As a result of copying these messages and depositing them into an NSA computer database, it began to assemble a massive "Total Information Awareness" computer network. The FBI has also begun to develop and integrate such personal data with a biometric database that includes digital iris prints and facial images. Combine this with other computerized databases including credit card information, banking records and health files, and the result is an incredible ability to exercise power and control over anyone deemed by a political leader to be an "adversary"—including journalists, political opponents and others who might not see eye to eye with the administration.
In concert with the PNAC mission of control over cyberspace, McCain has supported making warrantless spying on American citizens legal. When asked if he believed that Bush's warrantless surveillance program was legal, McCain responded, "You know, I don't think so, but why not come to Congress? We can sort this out. ... I think they will get that authority, whatever is reasonable and needed, and increased abilities to monitor communications are clearly in order."
Consistent with his conviction that such extended powers should be granted to the president, McCain has also recently voted for Senate Bill S.2248, which vacates substantial civil liberties protections included in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In contrast to the 1978 FISA, S.2248 would allow the president, acting through the attorney general, to spy on the phone and e-mail communications of Americans without individual court warrants or the need to judicially show probable cause.
Despite the fact that McCain has said that Bush's NSA spying program was not legal, he has also supported granting retroactive legal immunity to the telecommunication companies (such as AT&T and Verizon) that helped Bush illegally spy on millions of Americans. This means that he has openly admitted that the Bush administration acted unlawfully in eavesdropping on Americans' phone and e-mail messages, while at the same time opted for taking away their legal right to redress this violation. And this unequivocally means that McCain is prepared to allow executive authority to trump the rule of law. Meet the McCain Team
Given John McCain's firm allegiance to the core missions of PNAC, it should come as no surprise that many of the old PNAC guard have shown up as foreign policy advisers in McCain's current presidential campaign, and are likely re-emerge as high officials in his administration if he becomes president. Here are snapshots of some of these potential members of a McCain Cabinet, giving their PNAC profiles, their advisory capacities in the McCain 2008 presidential campaign, and their politics. William Kristol Editor and founder of Washington-based political magazine, Weekly Standard. PNAC co-founder. Foreign policy adviser. Has consistently been wrong in his foreign policy analyses regarding Iraq. For example, on March 5, 2003, he stated, "I think we'll be vindicated when we discover the weapons of mass destruction and when we liberate the people of Iraq." Robert Kagan Served in State Department in Reagan administration on Policy Planning Staff. PNAC co-founder. Foreign policy adviser. Has defended global expansionism by claiming it is an American tradition: "Americans' belief in the possibility of global transformation—the ‘messianic' impulse—is and always has been the more dominant strain in the nation's character." Randy Scheunemann Former adviser to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Co-director and executive director of Committee for Liberation of Iraq. Defense and foreign policy coordinator. With regard to recent National Intelligence Estimate finding that Iran discontinued its nuclear weapons program in 2003, stated "a careful reading of the NIE indicates that it is misleading." And he claimed that the NIE harmed our efforts to achieve a "greater diplomatic consensus" to crack down on Iran. James Woolsey Director of CIA, Clinton administration, 1993-1995. (Reported to have met only twice with Clinton during time as CIA chief.) PNAC signatory. Energy and national security adviser. Speaking to a group of college students in 2003 about Iraq, he stated that "… the United States is engaged in World War IV." Described the Cold War as the third world war. Then said, "This fourth world war, I think, will last considerably longer than either World Wars I or II did for us. Hopefully not the full four-plus decades of the Cold War." John R. Bolton Former U.S. ambassador to U.N. (Nomination to U.N. rejected by Senate, but George W. Bush put him in place on a recess appointment. Name floated for possible secretary of state for McCain. PNAC director. Ardent supporter of McCain for president in 2009. Publicly derided the United Nations: In 1994, he stated "there is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that's the United States, when it suits our interest, and when we can get others to go along." Advocates attacking Iran. Robert B. Zollick President, World Bank. PNAC signatory. Announced in 2006 he would be joining McCain presidential campaign for domestic and foreign policy but instead replaced Wolfowitz as president of World Bank in 2007. Has touted virtues of corporate globalization under the rubric of "comprehensive free trade." But as Kevin Watkins, head researcher for Oxfan, stated, he pays no heed to the effects of the "blind pursuit of US economic and corporate special interests" on the world's poor. Gary Schmitt American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (home to other PNAC members including Wolfowitz and Pearle.) PNAC director. Foreign policy adviser. Defended warrantless eavesdropping on Americans by claiming that Constitution "created a unitary chief executive. That chief executive could, in times of war or emergency, act with the decisiveness, dispatch and, yes, secrecy, needed to protect the country and its citizens." Richard L. Armitage Former deputy secretary of state in George W. Bush administration. PNAC signatory. Foreign policy adviser. By his own admission, was responsible for leaking CIA agent Valerie Plame's CIA identity to the press. Allegedly involved in Iran-Contra affair during Reagan administration. Max Boot Council on Foreign Relations. PNAC signatory. Foreign policy adviser. Stating that U.S. should "unambiguously ... embrace its imperial role," has advocated attacking other Middle East countries in addition to Iraq and Iran, including Syria. Said McCain's "bellicose aura" could "scare the snot out of our enemies," who "would be more afraid to mess with him" than with other then-potential presidential candidates. Henry A. Kissinger President Nixon's secretary of state. Embraces expansionist power politics. Consultant. Played major role in secret bombings of Cambodia during Nixon administration as well as having had alleged involvement in covert assassination plots and human rights violations in Latin America. What's in Store for Us if McCain Becomes President
That McCain has surrounded himself with such like-minded advisers who support the narrow PNAC agenda speaks to his unwillingness to hear and consider alternative perspectives. In fact, six out of 10 civilian foreign advisers to McCain are PNAC veterans. Even the newly appointed deputy communications director of the McCain campaign, Michael Goldfard, has been a research associate for PNAC. A die-hard adherent of the "unitary authority" of the chief executive, he recently stated that the framers of the United States Constitution advocated an "executive with near dictatorial power in pursuing foreign policy and war."
Add to this list other major PNAC figures such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pearle, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Dick Cheney who would probably play a significant role in a McCain administration and it is clear in what direction this nation would be moving.
A McCain administration would be likely to:
Invest incredible amounts of money in sustaining multiple, simultaneous wars overseas at the expense of neglecting pressing concerns at home, including the economy, health care, the environment and education.
Stockpile nuclear weapons, while seeking to prohibit its adversaries from having them.
Attempt to shield the U.S. with a multilayered missile defense system based on land, at sea, in the air and in space, while demanding that nations that are not its allies become sitting ducks.
Strive to develop more potent chemical and biological weapons—not to mention the genotype-specific variety, while at the same time claiming to be fighting a "war on terror."
Legalize "Total Information Awareness"—going through all Americans' phone calls, e-mail messages and other personal records without needing probable cause.
Take control of the Internet, globally using it as an offensive political weapon—while claiming to be spreading democracy throughout the world.
Dispense with checks and balances in favor of the "unitary executive authority" of the president.
Alienate nations that refuse to join our war coalitions.
Deny that there is (or can be) a United Nations.
A McCain administration would rule by fear, perceive right in terms of military might and subscribe to the idea of "do as I say and not as I do." As a consequence, instead of rebuilding the image of America as a model of justice and civility, it would further sully respect for this nation throughout the world.
This article, by Michael Hirsh, was first published in Newsweek, July 21, 2008
Barack Obama is taking heat for hinting that he might refine his 16-month timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But a forthcoming Pentagon-sponsored report will recommend an even steeper drawdown in less time, NEWSWEEK has learned. If adopted, the 300-page report by a defense analysis group at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., could transform the debate about Iraq in the presidential election.
Expected to be completed in about a month, it will recommend that U.S. forces be reduced to as few as 50,000 by the spring of 2009, down from about 150,000 now. The strategy is based on a major handoff to the increasingly successful Iraqi Army, with platoon-size U.S. detachments backing the Iraqis from small outposts, with air support. The large U.S. forward operating bases that house the bulk of U.S. troops would be mostly abandoned, and the role of Special Forces would increase.
The report's conclusions have been discussed inside Secretary Robert Gates's Defense Policy Board, a body of outside experts. And they've found favor with some former members of the Iraq Study Group, such as former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. "That's basically the approach we thought made sense--embedding some of our forces at smaller outposts, transferring major combat to the Iraqis," says Panetta.
Like the Study Group, this report also calls for a regional diplomatic effort complementing negotiations with the Iraqi tribes, which echoes the previous recommendations of such analysts as John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. "Even with a small leavening of American troops the Iraqis perform quite well," he says.
The biggest problem: Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw the surge, is said to oppose the recommendations, according to a Defense contractor who is privy to the discussions. Asked about the report, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told NEWSWEEK that Gates "feels the most important military advice he gets is from his commanders on the ground." As the next head of Central Command, Petraeus will soon have responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan too, which could change his views on troop deployments and the new report. Spokesman Col. Steve Boylan says Petraeus "is focused on Iraq at this point and will continue to be."
The following was originally posted, by Gurng E Gene, to Disaffected and it Feels So Good, July 8, 2008
Winning in Iraq is when US Soldiers no longer have to occupy the country. However, this is a cynical answer because the US isn't going to leave Iraq despite the demands of Nouri al-Maliki that Iraq wants a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops to be attached to a security agreement. Of course, the American People can't agree to such an artificial timetable for withdrawal.
After all as Super War proponent Der Max Boot recently offered up at Commentary Magazine:
In order to build on the success that General Petraeus and his soldiers have had, we need to maintain a long-term commitment in Iraq-for 100 years if need be, as John McCain has said.
The Surge has worked.
No it hasn't...
Yes it has!
No! It! Hasn't!
The Surge was nothing less than another shell game. The Surge was touted as a success even before it happened. As violence spiked and more Americans died in 2007 than any other year of the Occupation The Surge was working. As US service members deaths dropped (thankfully!) The Surge worked.
The fact is it doesn't matter.
In my first blog post a year ago I postulated the Occupation of Iraq is more akin to the US invasion and Occupation of the Philippine Islands than Vietnam.
In a hundred years no one's going to remember the hundreds of thousands killed and maimed. No one will remember the 3 Marines killed by a Suicide Bomber or the 30 or so Iraqi unpersons after The Surge worked and the Enemy in Anbar Province was neutralized. And we'll have Iraqis working as barbers and cooks and cleaners here in America!
But, for many of those who've served the Occupation of Iraq is forever.
This article, by Nancy Benac, was distributed by the Associated Press, July 1, 2008
Brandon Ziegler served two tours in Iraq and wears a bracelet inscribed with the name of an Army buddy who never made it home. Jim Morin saw action in both Iraq and Afghanistan and has lost several friends to the war in Iraq, the latest just a month ago.
Both say their choice in the 2008 presidential election is clear: For Ziegler, it will be John McCain; for Morin, it will be Barack Obama.
Those viewing the presidential race through the lens of military service can see it entirely differently: The desire to quickly get out of Iraq is balanced against the hope to see the country stabilized; respect for one candidate's storied military history is weighed against another's relative youth; concern about the war's drain on the U.S. Treasury is measured against the wish for expanded benefits for new veterans.
Sizing up the candidates as the nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Friday in South Carolina laughs and predicts "it's going to be an interesting summer." Put him in the undecided column.
McCain, with a family tradition of military service and his own history as a Vietnam prisoner of war, holds natural appeal for members of the military and for veterans. An AP-Yahoo News poll conducted last month, found that veterans favored McCain over Obama 49 percent to 32 percent, while the two candidates ran about even in the population as a whole. Three-fourths of veterans in the survey thought McCain would be a good leader of the military, compared with one-fourth who thought likewise of Obama.
Nonetheless, dissatisfaction with the course of the war under President Bush and with the treatment of veterans returning home has given Obama, who did not serve in the armed forces, an opening with military voters and veterans. So does his appeal to younger people.
That Obama donated at least $200 to a presidential campaign this election cycle, Obama has collected more than $327,000 from those identifying themselves as military personnel, while McCain has collected $224,000, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by The Associated Press.
But it is in the voices of recent veterans and, to a lesser extent, of those still serving in the military, that the McCain vs. Obama debate comes alive although most active-duty personnel are loath to air their views publicly because they are discouraged from mixing in politics.
Friday, who retired last year after serving as the top command sergeant major at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, said he doesn't want either candidate to take his vote for granted, based on his race or his career.
"I don't want anyone to think that because he (Obama) is of the African-American heritage that he automatically has my vote, or that McCain will get it because I was in the military," said Friday, who is black.
Friday, 49, added that he understands what McCain meant when he said the United States could have troops in Iraq for 100 years, but he doesn't necessarily support the statement. Still, he predicted, "We will be in Iraq until death do we part."
Such talk rankles Sgt. Kenyon Ralph, 24, of San Diego. Ralph, a Marine reservist who served in Iraq twice, is a member of Iraq Veterans Against The War, and is backing Obama.
Ralph, who once was a registered Republican and twice voted for Bush, says he gradually turned against the war and now can't bring himself to vote for someone who supports keeping troops in Iraq.
"What did he say? One hundred years or something," Ralph said of McCain. "We've got five down and 95 more years to go."
Sgt. Maj. Brent Dick, a 35-year-old career soldier stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas, hasn't decided whom he'll vote for in November, but he agrees with McCain's stance on Iraq.
"I favor staying there until we are done with our mission," said Dick. He said the candidates' plans for Iraq will be one deciding factor in his vote but the weakening economy also is a huge concern.
Dick, who served in Afghanistan, said McCain's military service and his time as a prisoner of war are pushing him toward the senator from Arizona.
"I think that means something for their character," said Dick, interviewed as he and his 8-year-old son got ready to play golf on a recent afternoon at the Fort Bliss golf course.
Not far away, standing outside his off-post home after work, Darrell Warren, a 41-year-old staff sergeant at Fort Bliss, said he's also on the fence, but leaning the other way.
"I'm a Democrat," said Warren, who served three tours in Iraq. He said that while the war will be an issue for him in picking a president, he doesn't see military service as a must.
"They don't necessarily have to have served in the military to know about it," he said.
Ziegler, interviewed in the library at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania after attending a night class, sees three reasons to vote for McCain entwined in the Republican's military service: He connects to McCain as a war veteran, believes it makes sense during wartime to have a president who's served, and says McCain's POW history speaks to the quality of his character.
As for Obama, says Ziegler: "He's new and he's young. He's got what seem like new ideas. I don't think now's the right time for that, being that we are in Iraq."
By contrast, Morin, whose 10 years in the military included four years as a West Point cadet, thinks Obama has the most "comprehensive solutions to complex problems" in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also said he was disappointed by McCain's opposition to an expansion of the GI bill that would offer full military scholarships for those who serve three years in the military.
"I have a lot of respect for McCain," says Morin. "Everyone in the military is going to tell you that." But then he adds: "I don't think he has anything new to offer. His mind-set is really stuck maybe in the Vietnam era, and the conflicts we're facing now have nothing to do with Vietnam."
Richard Topping, a former Army legal officer who spent more than five years on active duty, said McCain's military record is impressive, but he finds the senator's open-ended commitment to Iraq troubling.
"I care far more about the economy, which has me leaning left this election," said Topping, who works as a Justice Department attorney. "Time for new people and new ideas here in D.C."
McCain has plenty of brass speaking out for his candidacy: While active-duty military personnel are expected to keep out of politics, more than 100 former generals and admirals have endorsed the Republican candidate.
Richard Kohn, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the gap between military and civilian attitudes and culture, said that while members of the military, particularly the officer corps, in recent decades have favored Republicans, the enlisted force is much more politically balanced. And Kohn said there are signs that "the shine has probably worn off the Republican brand to some degree among the military," in part because of discontent with Bush over foreign policy and veterans' issues.
In what may be one sign of the trend, individuals who identified themselves as members of the uniformed services have donated 38 percent of their dollars to Democratic candidates, party committees and leadership PACs so far this election cycle, compared with 22 percent during the 2000 campaign overall, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks political campaign money
Iraq Veterans Against the War’s Summer of Solutions 2008
We are American Military Veterans and Active Duty Service Members representing a large population of the military and veteran community who demand an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq by US military and US corporate forces. Currently our politicians in both major parties have failed our country's troops and citizens by first, allowing the fraudulent invasion of Iraq and second, supporting the continued US occupation. We have served our nation in a time of war and we continue to serve the United States citizens by holding our government accountable and persuading our leaders to use our brothers and sisters in arms only in necessary just action when all peaceful solutions are exhausted. Our duty to this great nation has not ended. We are Iraq Veterans Against the War, and we are still defending America.
Americans sent Democrats to Congress to end the war in Iraq, but two years later, we are no closer to a withdrawal. We expect them to follow through. Republicans have long said they were the party that stands by the troops, but returning veterans are not receiving the care we deserve. We expect them to match their words with action.
The time has come to hold our leaders responsible for their rhetoric. To do this, IVAW is holding actions at both the DNC and RNC to demand that they respond to IVAW as to how they are going to achieve an end to the occupation of Iraq, provide adequate care and benefits for returning veterans, and due reparations for the Iraqi people.
IVAW is calling meetings with the Democratic and Republican Nominees during their conventions in Denver and Minneapolis. As veterans and active duty soldiers, we expect them to listen to our concerns about the occupation of Iraq and the treatment of veterans. Honoring veterans means more than making speeches about us – it means listening when we talk.
At these meetings we will present them with evidence and testimony collected as part of Winter Soldier. We will ask the nominees to sign a pledge to support specific steps to achieve our three points of unity: end the occupation of Iraq, provide adequate benefits for veterans, and reparations for the Iraqi people to help them rebuild their country.
As veterans who have served honorably, we expect an audience with the next leader of our country. After years of service, we deserve the chance to meet with the next commander in chief.
And if the nominees will not come to meet with us, we will go to them.
This investigation, by Seymour Hersh, was originally published in the New Yorker, July 7, 2008
Late last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership. The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations. They also include gathering intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program.
Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. United States Special Operations Forces have been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with Presidential authorization, since last year. These have included seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and taking them to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of “high-value targets” in the President’s war on terror, who may be captured or killed. But the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have now been significantly expanded, according to the current and former officials. Many of these activities are not specified in the new Finding, and some congressional leaders have had serious questions about their nature.
Under federal law, a Presidential Finding, which is highly classified, must be issued when a covert intelligence operation gets under way and, at a minimum, must be made known to Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and the Senate and to the ranking members of their respective intelligence committees—the so-called Gang of Eight. Money for the operation can then be reprogrammed from previous appropriations, as needed, by the relevant congressional committees, which also can be briefed.
“The Finding was focussed on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change,” a person familiar with its contents said, and involved “working with opposition groups and passing money.” The Finding provided for a whole new range of activities in southern Iran and in the areas, in the east, where Baluchi political opposition is strong, he said.
Although some legislators were troubled by aspects of the Finding, and “there was a significant amount of high-level discussion” about it, according to the source familiar with it, the funding for the escalation was approved. In other words, some members of the Democratic leadership—Congress has been under Democratic control since the 2006 elections—were willing, in secret, to go along with the Administration in expanding covert activities directed at Iran, while the Party’s presumptive candidate for President, Barack Obama, has said that he favors direct talks and diplomacy.
The request for funding came in the same period in which the Administration was coming to terms with a National Intelligence Estimate, released in December, that concluded that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons in 2003. The Administration downplayed the significance of the N.I.E., and, while saying that it was committed to diplomacy, continued to emphasize that urgent action was essential to counter the Iranian nuclear threat. President Bush questioned the N.I.E.’s conclusions, and senior national-security officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, made similar statements. (So did Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee.) Meanwhile, the Administration also revived charges that the Iranian leadership has been involved in the killing of American soldiers in Iraq: both directly, by dispatching commando units into Iraq, and indirectly, by supplying materials used for roadside bombs and other lethal goods. (There have been questions about the accuracy of the claims; the Times, among others, has reported that “significant uncertainties remain about the extent of that involvement.”)
Military and civilian leaders in the Pentagon share the White House’s concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but there is disagreement about whether a military strike is the right solution. Some Pentagon officials believe, as they have let Congress and the media know, that bombing Iran is not a viable response to the nuclear-proliferation issue, and that more diplomacy is necessary.
A Democratic senator told me that, late last year, in an off-the-record lunch meeting, Secretary of Defense Gates met with the Democratic caucus in the Senate. (Such meetings are held regularly.) Gates warned of the consequences if the Bush Administration staged a preëmptive strike on Iran, saying, as the senator recalled, “We’ll create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America.” Gates’s comments stunned the Democrats at the lunch, and another senator asked whether Gates was speaking for Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. Gates’s answer, the senator told me, was “Let’s just say that I’m here speaking for myself.” (A spokesman for Gates confirmed that he discussed the consequences of a strike at the meeting, but would not address what he said, other than to dispute the senator’s characterization.)
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chairman is Admiral Mike Mullen, were “pushing back very hard” against White House pressure to undertake a military strike against Iran, the person familiar with the Finding told me. Similarly, a Pentagon consultant who is involved in the war on terror said that “at least ten senior flag and general officers, including combatant commanders”—the four-star officers who direct military operations around the world—“have weighed in on that issue.”
The most outspoken of those officers is Admiral William Fallon, who until recently was the head of U.S. Central Command, and thus in charge of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, Fallon resigned under pressure, after giving a series of interviews stating his reservations about an armed attack on Iran. For example, late last year he told the Financial Times that the “real objective” of U.S. policy was to change the Iranians’ behavior, and that “attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice.”
Admiral Fallon acknowledged, when I spoke to him in June, that he had heard that there were people in the White House who were upset by his public statements. “Too many people believe you have to be either for or against the Iranians,” he told me. “Let’s get serious. Eighty million people live there, and everyone’s an individual. The idea that they’re only one way or another is nonsense.”
When it came to the Iraq war, Fallon said, “Did I bitch about some of the things that were being proposed? You bet. Some of them were very stupid.”
The Democratic leadership’s agreement to commit hundreds of millions of dollars for more secret operations in Iran was remarkable, given the general concerns of officials like Gates, Fallon, and many others. “The oversight process has not kept pace—it’s been coöpted” by the Administration, the person familiar with the contents of the Finding said. “The process is broken, and this is dangerous stuff we’re authorizing.”
Senior Democrats in Congress told me that they had concerns about the possibility that their understanding of what the new operations entail differs from the White House’s. One issue has to do with a reference in the Finding, the person familiar with it recalled, to potential defensive lethal action by U.S. operatives in Iran. (In early May, the journalist Andrew Cockburn published elements of the Finding in Counterpunch, a newsletter and online magazine.)
The language was inserted into the Finding at the urging of the C.I.A., a former senior intelligence official said. The covert operations set forth in the Finding essentially run parallel to those of a secret military task force, now operating in Iran, that is under the control of JSOC. Under the Bush Administration’s interpretation of the law, clandestine military activities, unlike covert C.I.A. operations, do not need to be depicted in a Finding, because the President has a constitutional right to command combat forces in the field without congressional interference. But the borders between operations are not always clear: in Iran, C.I.A. agents and regional assets have the language skills and the local knowledge to make contacts for the JSOC operatives, and have been working with them to direct personnel, matériel, and money into Iran from an obscure base in western Afghanistan. As a result, Congress has been given only a partial view of how the money it authorized may be used. One of JSOC’s task-force missions, the pursuit of “high-value targets,” was not directly addressed in the Finding. There is a growing realization among some legislators that the Bush Administration, in recent years, has conflated what is an intelligence operation and what is a military one in order to avoid fully informing Congress about what it is doing.
“This is a big deal,” the person familiar with the Finding said. “The C.I.A. needed the Finding to do its traditional stuff, but the Finding does not apply to JSOC. The President signed an Executive Order after September 11th giving the Pentagon license to do things that it had never been able to do before without notifying Congress. The claim was that the military was ‘preparing the battle space,’ and by using that term they were able to circumvent congressional oversight. Everything is justified in terms of fighting the global war on terror.” He added, “The Administration has been fuzzing the lines; there used to be a shade of gray”—between operations that had to be briefed to the senior congressional leadership and those which did not—“but now it’s a shade of mush.”
“The agency says we’re not going to get in the position of helping to kill people without a Finding,” the former senior intelligence official told me. He was referring to the legal threat confronting some agency operatives for their involvement in the rendition and alleged torture of suspects in the war on terror. “This drove the military people up the wall,” he said. As far as the C.I.A. was concerned, the former senior intelligence official said, “the over-all authorization includes killing, but it’s not as though that’s what they’re setting out to do. It’s about gathering information, enlisting support.” The Finding sent to Congress was a compromise, providing legal cover for the C.I.A. while referring to the use of lethal force in ambiguous terms.
The defensive-lethal language led some Democrats, according to congressional sources familiar with their views, to call in the director of the C.I.A., Air Force General Michael V. Hayden, for a special briefing. Hayden reassured the legislators that the language did nothing more than provide authority for Special Forces operatives on the ground in Iran to shoot their way out if they faced capture or harm.
The legislators were far from convinced. One congressman subsequently wrote a personal letter to President Bush insisting that “no lethal action, period” had been authorized within Iran’s borders. As of June, he had received no answer.
Members of Congress have expressed skepticism in the past about the information provided by the White House. On March 15, 2005, David Obey, then the ranking Democrat on the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee, announced that he was putting aside an amendment that he had intended to offer that day, and that would have cut off all funding for national-intelligence programs unless the President agreed to keep Congress fully informed about clandestine military activities undertaken in the war on terror. He had changed his mind, he said, because the White House promised better coöperation. “The Executive Branch understands that we are not trying to dictate what they do,” he said in a floor speech at the time. “We are simply trying to see to it that what they do is consistent with American values and will not get the country in trouble.”
Obey declined to comment on the specifics of the operations in Iran, but he did tell me that the White House reneged on its promise to consult more fully with Congress. He said, “I suspect there’s something going on, but I don’t know what to believe. Cheney has always wanted to go after Iran, and if he had more time he’d find a way to do it. We still don’t get enough information from the agencies, and I have very little confidence that they give us information on the edge.”
None of the four Democrats in the Gang of Eight—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, and House Intelligence Committee chairman Silvestre Reyes—would comment on the Finding, with some noting that it was highly classified. An aide to one member of the Democratic leadership responded, on his behalf, by pointing to the limitations of the Gang of Eight process. The notification of a Finding, the aide said, “is just that—notification, and not a sign-off on activities. Proper oversight of ongoing intelligence activities is done by fully briefing the members of the intelligence committee.” However, Congress does have the means to challenge the White House once it has been sent a Finding. It has the power to withhold funding for any government operation. The members of the House and Senate Democratic leadership who have access to the Finding can also, if they choose to do so, and if they have shared concerns, come up with ways to exert their influence on Administration policy. (A spokesman for the C.I.A. said, “As a rule, we don’t comment one way or the other on allegations of covert activities or purported findings.” The White House also declined to comment.)
A member of the House Appropriations Committee acknowledged that, even with a Democratic victory in November, “it will take another year before we get the intelligence activities under control.” He went on, “We control the money and they can’t do anything without the money. Money is what it’s all about. But I’m very leery of this Administration.” He added, “This Administration has been so secretive.”
One irony of Admiral Fallon’s departure is that he was, in many areas, in agreement with President Bush on the threat posed by Iran. They had a good working relationship, Fallon told me, and, when he ran CENTCOM, were in regular communication. On March 4th, a week before his resignation, Fallon testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that he was “encouraged” about the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regarding the role played by Iran’s leaders, he said, “They’ve been absolutely unhelpful, very damaging, and I absolutely don’t condone any of their activities. And I have yet to see anything since I’ve been in this job in the way of a public action by Iran that’s been at all helpful in this region.”
Fallon made it clear in our conversations that he considered it inappropriate to comment publicly about the President, the Vice-President, or Special Operations. But he said he had heard that people in the White House had been “struggling” with his views on Iran. “When I arrived at CENTCOM, the Iranians were funding every entity inside Iraq. It was in their interest to get us out, and so they decided to kill as many Americans as they could. And why not? They didn’t know who’d come out ahead, but they wanted us out. I decided that I couldn’t resolve the situation in Iraq without the neighborhood. To get this problem in Iraq solved, we had to somehow involve Iran and Syria. I had to work the neighborhood.”
Fallon told me that his focus had been not on the Iranian nuclear issue, or on regime change there, but on “putting out the fires in Iraq.” There were constant discussions in Washington and in the field about how to engage Iran and, on the subject of the bombing option, Fallon said, he believed that “it would happen only if the Iranians did something stupid.”
Fallon’s early retirement, however, appears to have been provoked not only by his negative comments about bombing Iran but also by his strong belief in the chain of command and his insistence on being informed about Special Operations in his area of responsibility. One of Fallon’s defenders is retired Marine General John J. (Jack) Sheehan, whose last assignment was as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command, where Fallon was a deputy. Last year, Sheehan rejected a White House offer to become the President’s “czar” for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “One of the reasons the White House selected Fallon for CENTCOM was that he’s known to be a strategic thinker and had demonstrated those skills in the Pacific,” Sheehan told me. (Fallon served as commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific from 2005 to 2007.) “He was charged with coming up with an over-all coherent strategy for Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and, by law, the combatant commander is responsible for all military operations within his A.O.”—area of operations. “That was not happening,” Sheehan said. “When Fallon tried to make sense of all the overt and covert activity conducted by the military in his area of responsibility, a small group in the White House leadership shut him out.”
The law cited by Sheehan is the 1986 Defense Reorganization Act, known as Goldwater-Nichols, which defined the chain of command: from the President to the Secretary of Defense, through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and on to the various combatant commanders, who were put in charge of all aspects of military operations, including joint training and logistics. That authority, the act stated, was not to be shared with other echelons of command. But the Bush Administration, as part of its global war on terror, instituted new policies that undercut regional commanders-in-chief; for example, it gave Special Operations teams, at military commands around the world, the highest priority in terms of securing support and equipment. The degradation of the traditional chain of command in the past few years has been a point of tension between the White House and the uniformed military.
“The coherence of military strategy is being eroded because of undue civilian influence and direction of nonconventional military operations,” Sheehan said. “If you have small groups planning and conducting military operations outside the knowledge and control of the combatant commander, by default you can’t have a coherent military strategy. You end up with a disaster, like the reconstruction efforts in Iraq.”
Admiral Fallon, who is known as Fox, was aware that he would face special difficulties as the first Navy officer to lead CENTCOM, which had always been headed by a ground commander, one of his military colleagues told me. He was also aware that the Special Operations community would be a concern. “Fox said that there’s a lot of strange stuff going on in Special Ops, and I told him he had to figure out what they were really doing,” Fallon’s colleague said. “The Special Ops guys eventually figured out they needed Fox, and so they began to talk to him. Fox would have won his fight with Special Ops but for Cheney.”
The Pentagon consultant said, “Fallon went down because, in his own way, he was trying to prevent a war with Iran, and you have to admire him for that.”
In recent months, according to the Iranian media, there has been a surge in violence in Iran; it is impossible at this early stage, however, to credit JSOC or C.I.A. activities, or to assess their impact on the Iranian leadership. The Iranian press reports are being carefully monitored by retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, who has taught strategy at the National War College and now conducts war games centered on Iran for the federal government, think tanks, and universities. The Iranian press “is very open in describing the killings going on inside the country,” Gardiner said. It is, he said, “a controlled press, which makes it more important that it publishes these things. We begin to see inside the government.” He added, “Hardly a day goes by now we don’t see a clash somewhere. There were three or four incidents over a recent weekend, and the Iranians are even naming the Revolutionary Guard officers who have been killed.”
Earlier this year, a militant Ahwazi group claimed to have assassinated a Revolutionary Guard colonel, and the Iranian government acknowledged that an explosion in a cultural center in Shiraz, in the southern part of the country, which killed at least twelve people and injured more than two hundred, had been a terrorist act and not, as it earlier insisted, an accident. It could not be learned whether there has been American involvement in any specific incident in Iran, but, according to Gardiner, the Iranians have begun publicly blaming the U.S., Great Britain, and, more recently, the C.I.A. for some incidents. The agency was involved in a coup in Iran in 1953, and its support for the unpopular regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi—who was overthrown in 1979—was condemned for years by the ruling mullahs in Tehran, to great effect. “This is the ultimate for the Iranians—to blame the C.I.A.,” Gardiner said. “This is new, and it’s an escalation—a ratcheting up of tensions. It rallies support for the regime and shows the people that there is a continuing threat from the ‘Great Satan.’ ” In Gardiner’s view, the violence, rather than weakening Iran’s religious government, may generate support for it.
Many of the activities may be being carried out by dissidents in Iran, and not by Americans in the field. One problem with “passing money” (to use the term of the person familiar with the Finding) in a covert setting is that it is hard to control where the money goes and whom it benefits. Nonetheless, the former senior intelligence official said, “We’ve got exposure, because of the transfer of our weapons and our communications gear. The Iranians will be able to make the argument that the opposition was inspired by the Americans. How many times have we tried this without asking the right questions? Is the risk worth it?” One possible consequence of these operations would be a violent Iranian crackdown on one of the dissident groups, which could give the Bush Administration a reason to intervene.
A strategy of using ethnic minorities to undermine Iran is flawed, according to Vali Nasr, who teaches international politics at Tufts University and is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Just because Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan have ethnic problems, it does not mean that Iran is suffering from the same issue,” Nasr told me. “Iran is an old country—like France and Germany—and its citizens are just as nationalistic. The U.S. is overestimating ethnic tension in Iran.” The minority groups that the U.S. is reaching out to are either well integrated or small and marginal, without much influence on the government or much ability to present a political challenge, Nasr said. “You can always find some activist groups that will go and kill a policeman, but working with the minorities will backfire, and alienate the majority of the population.”
The Administration may have been willing to rely on dissident organizations in Iran even when there was reason to believe that the groups had operated against American interests in the past. The use of Baluchi elements, for example, is problematic, Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. clandestine officer who worked for nearly two decades in South Asia and the Middle East, told me. “The Baluchis are Sunni fundamentalists who hate the regime in Tehran, but you can also describe them as Al Qaeda,” Baer told me. “These are guys who cut off the heads of nonbelievers—in this case, it’s Shiite Iranians. The irony is that we’re once again working with Sunni fundamentalists, just as we did in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties.” Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is considered one of the leading planners of the September 11th attacks, are Baluchi Sunni fundamentalists.
One of the most active and violent anti-regime groups in Iran today is the Jundallah, also known as the Iranian People’s Resistance Movement, which describes itself as a resistance force fighting for the rights of Sunnis in Iran. “This is a vicious Salafi organization whose followers attended the same madrassas as the Taliban and Pakistani extremists,” Nasr told me. “They are suspected of having links to Al Qaeda and they are also thought to be tied to the drug culture.” The Jundallah took responsibility for the bombing of a busload of Revolutionary Guard soldiers in February, 2007. At least eleven Guard members were killed. According to Baer and to press reports, the Jundallah is among the groups in Iran that are benefitting from U.S. support.
The C.I.A. and Special Operations communities also have long-standing ties to two other dissident groups in Iran: the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, known in the West as the M.E.K., and a Kurdish separatist group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK.
The M.E.K. has been on the State Department’s terrorist list for more than a decade, yet in recent years the group has received arms and intelligence, directly or indirectly, from the United States. Some of the newly authorized covert funds, the Pentagon consultant told me, may well end up in M.E.K. coffers. “The new task force will work with the M.E.K. The Administration is desperate for results.” He added, “The M.E.K. has no C.P.A. auditing the books, and its leaders are thought to have been lining their pockets for years. If people only knew what the M.E.K. is getting, and how much is going to its bank accounts—and yet it is almost useless for the purposes the Administration intends.”
The Kurdish party, PJAK, which has also been reported to be covertly supported by the United States, has been operating against Iran from bases in northern Iraq for at least three years. (Iran, like Iraq and Turkey, has a Kurdish minority, and PJAK and other groups have sought self-rule in territory that is now part of each of those countries.) In recent weeks, according to Sam Gardiner, the military strategist, there has been a marked increase in the number of PJAK armed engagements with Iranians and terrorist attacks on Iranian targets. In early June, the news agency Fars reported that a dozen PJAK members and four Iranian border guards were killed in a clash near the Iraq border; a similar attack in May killed three Revolutionary Guards and nine PJAK fighters. PJAK has also subjected Turkey, a member of NATO, to repeated terrorist attacks, and reports of American support for the group have been a source of friction between the two governments.
Gardiner also mentioned a trip that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, made to Tehran in June. After his return, Maliki announced that his government would ban any contact between foreigners and the M.E.K.—a slap at the U.S.’s dealings with the group. Maliki declared that Iraq was not willing to be a staging ground for covert operations against other countries. This was a sign, Gardiner said, of “Maliki’s increasingly choosing the interests of Iraq over the interests of the United States.” In terms of U.S. allegations of Iranian involvement in the killing of American soldiers, he said, “Maliki was unwilling to play the blame-Iran game.” Gardiner added that Pakistan had just agreed to turn over a Jundallah leader to the Iranian government. America’s covert operations, he said, “seem to be harming relations with the governments of both Iraq and Pakistan and could well be strengthening the connection between Tehran and Baghdad.”
The White House’s reliance on questionable operatives, and on plans involving possible lethal action inside Iran, has created anger as well as anxiety within the Special Operations and intelligence communities. JSOC’s operations in Iran are believed to be modelled on a program that has, with some success, used surrogates to target the Taliban leadership in the tribal territories of Waziristan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But the situations in Waziristan and Iran are not comparable.
In Waziristan, “the program works because it’s small and smart guys are running it,” the former senior intelligence official told me. “It’s being executed by professionals. The N.S.A., the C.I.A., and the D.I.A.”—the Defense Intelligence Agency—“are right in there with the Special Forces and Pakistani intelligence, and they’re dealing with serious bad guys.” He added, “We have to be really careful in calling in the missiles. We have to hit certain houses at certain times. The people on the ground are watching through binoculars a few hundred yards away and calling specific locations, in latitude and longitude. We keep the Predator loitering until the targets go into a house, and we have to make sure our guys are far enough away so they don’t get hit.” One of the most prominent victims of the program, the former official said, was Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior Taliban commander, who was killed on January 31st, reportedly in a missile strike that also killed eleven other people.
A dispatch published on March 26th by the Washington Post reported on the increasing number of successful strikes against Taliban and other insurgent units in Pakistan’s tribal areas. A follow-up article noted that, in response, the Taliban had killed “dozens of people” suspected of providing information to the United States and its allies on the whereabouts of Taliban leaders. Many of the victims were thought to be American spies, and their executions—a beheading, in one case—were videotaped and distributed by DVD as a warning to others.
It is not simple to replicate the program in Iran. “Everybody’s arguing about the high-value-target list,” the former senior intelligence official said. “The Special Ops guys are pissed off because Cheney’s office set up priorities for categories of targets, and now he’s getting impatient and applying pressure for results. But it takes a long time to get the right guys in place.”
The Pentagon consultant told me, “We’ve had wonderful results in the Horn of Africa with the use of surrogates and false flags—basic counterintelligence and counter-insurgency tactics. And we’re beginning to tie them in knots in Afghanistan. But the White House is going to kill the program if they use it to go after Iran. It’s one thing to engage in selective strikes and assassinations in Waziristan and another in Iran. The White House believes that one size fits all, but the legal issues surrounding extrajudicial killings in Waziristan are less of a problem because Al Qaeda and the Taliban cross the border into Afghanistan and back again, often with U.S. and NATO forces in hot pursuit. The situation is not nearly as clear in the Iranian case. All the considerations—judicial, strategic, and political—are different in Iran.”
He added, “There is huge opposition inside the intelligence community to the idea of waging a covert war inside Iran, and using Baluchis and Ahwazis as surrogates. The leaders of our Special Operations community all have remarkable physical courage, but they are less likely to voice their opposition to policy. Iran is not Waziristan.”
A Gallup poll taken last November, before the N.I.E. was made public, found that seventy-three per cent of those surveyed thought that the United States should use economic action and diplomacy to stop Iran’s nuclear program, while only eighteen per cent favored direct military action. Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to endorse a military strike. Weariness with the war in Iraq has undoubtedly affected the public’s tolerance for an attack on Iran. This mood could change quickly, however. The potential for escalation became clear in early January, when five Iranian patrol boats, believed to be under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, made a series of aggressive moves toward three Navy warships sailing through the Strait of Hormuz. Initial reports of the incident made public by the Pentagon press office said that the Iranians had transmitted threats, over ship-to-ship radio, to “explode” the American ships. At a White House news conference, the President, on the day he left for an eight-day trip to the Middle East, called the incident “provocative” and “dangerous,” and there was, very briefly, a sense of crisis and of outrage at Iran. “TWO MINUTES FROM WAR” was the headline in one British newspaper.
The crisis was quickly defused by Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the region. No warning shots were fired, the Admiral told the Pentagon press corps on January 7th, via teleconference from his headquarters, in Bahrain. “Yes, it’s more serious than we have seen, but, to put it in context, we do interact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and their Navy regularly,” Cosgriff said. “I didn’t get the sense from the reports I was receiving that there was a sense of being afraid of these five boats.”
Admiral Cosgriff’s caution was well founded: within a week, the Pentagon acknowledged that it could not positively identify the Iranian boats as the source of the ominous radio transmission, and press reports suggested that it had instead come from a prankster long known for sending fake messages in the region. Nonetheless, Cosgriff’s demeanor angered Cheney, according to the former senior intelligence official. But a lesson was learned in the incident: The public had supported the idea of retaliation, and was even asking why the U.S. didn’t do more. The former official said that, a few weeks later, a meeting took place in the Vice-President’s office. “The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington,” he said.
In June, President Bush went on a farewell tour of Europe. He had tea with Queen Elizabeth II and dinner with Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, the President and First Lady of France. The serious business was conducted out of sight, and involved a series of meetings on a new diplomatic effort to persuade the Iranians to halt their uranium-enrichment program. (Iran argues that its enrichment program is for civilian purposes and is legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) Secretary of State Rice had been involved with developing a new package of incentives. But the Administration’s essential negotiating position seemed unchanged: talks could not take place until Iran halted the program. The Iranians have repeatedly and categorically rejected that precondition, leaving the diplomatic situation in a stalemate; they have not yet formally responded to the new incentives.
The continuing impasse alarms many observers. Joschka Fischer, the former German Foreign Minister, recently wrote in a syndicated column that it may not “be possible to freeze the Iranian nuclear program for the duration of the negotiations to avoid a military confrontation before they are completed. Should this newest attempt fail, things will soon get serious. Deadly serious.” When I spoke to him last week, Fischer, who has extensive contacts in the diplomatic community, said that the latest European approach includes a new element: the willingness of the U.S. and the Europeans to accept something less than a complete cessation of enrichment as an intermediate step. “The proposal says that the Iranians must stop manufacturing new centrifuges and the other side will stop all further sanction activities in the U.N. Security Council,” Fischer said, although Iran would still have to freeze its enrichment activities when formal negotiations begin. “This could be acceptable to the Iranians—if they have good will.”
The big question, Fischer added, is in Washington. “I think the Americans are deeply divided on the issue of what to do about Iran,” he said. “Some officials are concerned about the fallout from a military attack and others think an attack is unavoidable. I know the Europeans, but I have no idea where the Americans will end up on this issue.”
There is another complication: American Presidential politics. Barack Obama has said that, if elected, he would begin talks with Iran with no “self-defeating” preconditions (although only after diplomatic groundwork had been laid). That position has been vigorously criticized by John McCain. The Washington Post recently quoted Randy Scheunemann, the McCain campaign’s national-security director, as stating that McCain supports the White House’s position, and that the program be suspended before talks begin. What Obama is proposing, Scheunemann said, “is unilateral cowboy summitry.”
Scheunemann, who is known as a neoconservative, is also the McCain campaign’s most important channel of communication with the White House. He is a friend of David Addington, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. I have heard differing accounts of Scheunemann’s influence with McCain; though some close to the McCain campaign talk about him as a possible national-security adviser, others say he is someone who isn’t taken seriously while “telling Cheney and others what they want to hear,” as a senior McCain adviser put it.
It is not known whether McCain, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been formally briefed on the operations in Iran. At the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in June, Obama repeated his plea for “tough and principled diplomacy.” But he also said, along with McCain, that he would keep the threat of military action against Iran on the table.