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Friday, July 10, 2009

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Hey John,

I wrote about the Obama administration's repeated insistence Iran has an active nuclear weapons program -- despite the IAEA and his own Director of National Intelligence saying otherwise -- in a recent piece for Antiwar.com you might be interested in.

What I personally find most amazing about our progressive president's intelligence distortions, though, is that I have not seen a single one of the liberal groups that got all hot and bothered by the Bush administration's lies about Iranian WMDs call him on it. While that's not altogether surprising, obviously, it is telling.

I really don't get where this is headed. Any attack on Iran, whether by Israel or the US, is going to blow back on US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will only confirm Iran's legitimate need for nuclear weapons to deter US/Israeli attacks while strengthening the position of the hardest of Iranian hardliners. So why ratchet up the rhetoric when you can clearly see that the only logical follow-up is to so something that's completely crazy and counterproductive?

Unless the plan is simply to keep us in a permanent state of war, without regard for the consequences for millions of civilians, and even our own troops. Then it all makes perfect sense.

Not again. The same talking points are being used.

Can we all agree that something major is in store for us this coming September and fall?

Can we all agree that something major is in store for us this coming September and fall?

I always figured it was the Generals holding Bush back from attacking Iran, because they didn't want to fight a three-front war, and Iran, unlike all the other countries we have invaded recently, actually has the ability to fight back.

I don't see how any of those calculations change by September. By the end of 2010, of course, the US is supposed to have withdrawn from Iraq, and if that happens, a couple of hundred thousand US troops would presumably be less vulnerable to counter-attack, loosening one of the restraints on a possible US attack on Iran. But that still leaves lots of other factors that would make a US attack on Iran a military blunder reminiscent of Hitler's decision to invade Russia.

Luckily the American government wouldn't ever do anything hideously stupid...

But that still leaves lots of other factors that would make a US attack on Iran a military blunder reminiscent of Hitler's decision to invade Russia.

One can only wish that Americans could just, if only for a day, a week, a month, feel the sinking fear and hopelessness that Germans must have felt as they realized that all those lightning victories they cheered for over enemies too weak to even merit much consideration had reaped consequences in the form of millions of murderously angry Russians steamrolling their way to the Fatherland. Other than some extreme paranoiacs on the right who probably spend all their time quaking under their beds with a shotgun in hand, no one has ever had to consider for a second that there's anyone out there who could actually, physically wreak vengeance on us.

Luckily the American government wouldn't ever do anything hideously stupid...

Good point, but I have to think that something prevented the US from attacking Iran while Bush was still president, and I can't imagine what that something could be except one or two not-crazy people on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. God knows moral considerations or the opinions of the American people were not factors.

Charles: Thanks for the pointer. I'd agree that the silence from liberal groups on this is a measure of how they've self-muzzled with Obama.

SteveB: Any attack on Iran, whether by Israel or the US, is going to blow back on US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan...

The attack that seems most likely to me is a one-off set of Israeli airstrikes against various targets in Iran, and I don't think that's likely to produce significant blowback in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it would produce quite a lot of blowback in terms of international opinion, though (since it would be utterly unjustified and outrageous), and that's the main thing stopping it at this point.

So why ratchet up the rhetoric when you can clearly see that the only logical follow-up is to so something that's completely crazy and counterproductive?

I'd say there's a lot going on here: groupthink, Obama having painted himself into a corner when he adopted/endorsed the dominant narrative on Iran during the campaign, an even more insane Israeli government having taken control, the habit of the use of force, and so on.

The real problem is that there's ultimately no way to enforce the current U.S. policy without the threat of an attack, and yet (as you say) actually attacking Iran would be a very bad idea. Unless Obama shows the good sense and courage to change the policy (which seems unlikely), he'll have no choice but to keep brandishing the stick.

I remember reading a transcript of a phone call between Lyndon Johnson and a member of his cabinet on the subject of Vietnam, and how Johnson admitted that he didn't think Vietnam was worth the life of a single American soldier and that he didn't have a clue what to do next (all while he was publicly projecting an image of certainty in the nobility of our mission and confidence in an eventual US "victory")

My sense from that transcript was that Johnson couldn't allow himself to draw the obvious conclusion that the only answer was for the US to withdraw, and so he felt trapped even though it was through his own words and actions that he had backed himself into a corner - all while ignoring the door marked "get the hell out" that was at his back.

It's an example I try to keep in mind whenever I'm tempted to think that US leaders base their actions on rational calculations of self-interest. Sometimes (maybe most of the time?) completely irrational factors, like the "groupthink" and "buying into the dominant narrative" that John mentions, cause them to do things that are just fucking insane.

I think this is one of the reasons I objected in an earlier thread to Chomsky's claim that the US actually "won" the Vietnam war. The implication is that someone in the US power structure did some sort of cost-benefit calculation that showed that demonstrating what happens to you if you resist the US (millions of your people dead) was worth the cost to the US (because we know that the cost to the Vietnamese doesn't matter). Chomsky is certainly the epitome of rationality, is he projecting that rationality onto others who aren't acting rationally at all?

Chomsky's position isn't nearly that black and white. If you want the definitive statement of it, read section 1.2 of After the Cataclysm ("The United States in Vietnam: A Partial Victory"), in which he talks about the ways various U.S. goals failed and succeeded, and why he considers it on balance to have been a partial victory.

Also, U.S. planners did talk about the threat of a demonstration effect. That doesn't mean that everything was planned down to the last detail and went exactly as expected, of course.

...aren't acting rationally at all...

Again, too black and white. I don't think U.S. actions in Vietnam were entirely irrational, any more than U.S. actions toward Iran now are. They're just irrational from a viewpoint that prioritizes peace over power.

They're just irrational from a viewpoint that prioritizes peace over power.

I'd say they're irrational even if the only consideration is what advances US power, even if the human consequences and moral considerations are given no weight at all.

Consider the US invasion of Iraq, for example. Ignore a million dead Iraqis and 5,000 or so dead Americans and the trillions of dollars squandered (which decision-makers don't care about, because it's not their money and lots of it finds its way into the pockets of their friends). Still, what you have is a war that demonstrates to the world that the planet's most powerful military can be fought to a standstill by a ragtag insurgency using old artillery shells wired to cell phones. That, and the tying-down of the US military which allowed a flowering of resistance in the US' own back yard. Against these, "control of mideast oil" is offered as a counterbalance, but it's not clear that, in the end, the US will have any greater "control" or access to Iraqi oil than China has. I can't see any cost-benefit calculation, no matter how heartless, that can make this one seem rational.

Ditto Afghanistan. A long-term drain on the US' ability to strike at will anywhere in the world, for a country of almost no strategic or economic value. People talk about pipelines, but that strikes me as an after-the-fact justification, driven by the need to find some rational basis for US actions. In fact, an irrational need for vengeance, combined with an irrational ability to cut ones losses, explains the whole thing perfectly.

You're speaking from hindsight, though; none of what's happened in Iraq was guaranteed from the start, or at least not guaranteed had it been handled by someone other than the vicious idiots who were in charge. I don't think it makes sense to judge the rationality of the goals on the basis of the results (even if those results were predictable to someone outside the standard ideological frame). And I'd also say that the narrative you're offering is far too idealized; I don't at all agree that the planet's most powerful military has been fought to a standstill in Iraq, or even significantly inconvenienced, for example. The fiasco in Iraq hasn't been military, but political.

I don't think it makes sense to judge the rationality of the goals on the basis of the results...

Good point; rational decision-making doesn't mean people can't make mistakes. But I also think there was a big dose of irrationality in the "greeted as liberators" belief, since it clearly contradicts all of human history, and the history of Iraq in particular.
But Afhganistan, I think, is a better example of irrational decision-making. The world's sole superpower suffered a humiliating attack by a dozen guys with box-cutters, and how could it respond? Clearly, they had to respond with the only tools they had, even though nobody could see any way this might work out.

I don't at all agree that the planet's most powerful military has been fought to a standstill in Iraq, or even significantly inconvenienced...

It might be good to check with Hugo Chavez, or Mahmoud Amadinejad, or Kim Jong Il about that. All were potential targets for US aggression, and all could sleep a bit easier once the US became entangled in Iraq. Once military forces is employed and its limitations become evident, your ability to get your way through threats and bluster is greatly diminished. Iran, for example, was sufficiently concerned after the US invasion of Afghanistan to make a diplomatic offer of significant concessions (an offer the US rejected). Now, they see no reason to concede anything to the US.

If all you really meant by "fought to a standstill" is "kept occupied for a few years," I'd agree, and I'd agree that that prevented the U.S. from pursuing additional military adventures. That doesn't mean it taught us or anyone else that military force is ineffective, though.

I don't see Afghanistan as any more irrational than Iraq—less so, actually. Trying to root out and kill the people who attacked you is a perfectly rational response, especially when the country in question is being run by a bunch of lawless, vicious thugs who're actively shielding them (and quite possibly assisted them in the first place). Immoral, illegal, and even unlikely to be successful (depending on the definition of "success"), sure, but not irrational.

Once military forces is employed and its limitations become evident, your ability to get your way through threats and bluster is greatly diminished.

Disagreed again. I don't see that the ability of the U.S. to get its way through military threats has been diminished at all by what's happened in Iraq (though I also don't see that military threats have gotten the U.S. much in the past, nor even been deployed in an attempt to do so—certainly not in Iraq, where the point was to attack no matter what Iraq did).

I'd agree that there would be more hesitation on the part of elites here to deploy that level of military force now, and there'd be more international opposition as well—but I'd say the threat of force by the U.S. is still just as effective (or ineffective) as it ever was.

If all you really meant by "fought to a standstill" is "kept occupied for a few years," I'd agree, and I'd agree that that prevented the U.S. from pursuing additional military adventures. That doesn't mean it taught us or anyone else that military force is ineffective, though.

Think back to the days immediately after the end of Gulf War I, and recall the national mood: the US hadn't just won the war, it had, through its superior technology, transformed war itself. In the future, wars would be quick and painless (for us) and no one would ever dare to challenge our power. And that wasn't just the estimation of most Americans, the first Gulf War had a profound effect on the thinking of people all over the world, and vastly increased what ruling-class types like to call the "credibility" of our threats of force.

Now think about how much of that "credibility" was lost with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And all of this was easily foreseen, because 1)people tend to resist foreign military occupations, and 2) in an extended occupation, the technological advantage enjoyed by the US is neutralized. The only way to go into an invasion of Iraq thinking that the war and occupation aren't going to cripple your ability to threaten other countries is to buy into the idea that we'll be "greeted as liberators", and that, as a product of wishful thinking, is a profoundly irrational belief.

Trying to root out and kill the people who attacked you is a perfectly rational response, especially when the country in question is being run by a bunch of lawless, vicious thugs who're actively shielding them (and quite possibly assisted them in the first place)

If some guy rapes my daughter, and I go after him with a shotgun, I may think I'm justified in my actions (hell, I may be justified in my actions) but that doesn't mean I'm acting rationally. What happens after I get the satisfaction of performing Castration by Firearm? Refusing to think even one step ahead is what makes it irrational.

But anyway, what I'm mainly arguing against is the belief, common on the left, that Afghanistan is the product of colder calculation (i.e. it's a nice place to run a pipeline.) I think the driving force for this theory is the unstated assumption that there must be a rational basis for US actions. All I'm doing is pointing out that this is an assumption, and there's not a lot of evidence to support it.

I also don't see that military threats have gotten the U.S. much in the past...

Agreed. Repeating a behavior that hasn't gotten you positive results in the past, while believing it's going to give you positive results this time, is, as Bill Clinton once said, the definition of insanity. (I think he said that right before firing another dozen cruise missiles into Afghanistan.)

And all of this was easily foreseen

It was in large part because this was foreseen — by the perps themselves — that the US did not occupy Iraq after Gulf War I.

the belief, common on the left, that Afghanistan is the product of colder calculation

I suppose it depends on whether you define 'we really need to kick the shit out of someone to keep everyone distracted while we're gearing up for Iraq, and Afghanistan looks good for it' as a cold calculation or not.

Pipeline? Maybe, maybe not. But, whatever the calculation, there was never any good reason to go into Afghanistan; it was just as illegal as Iraq.

Now think about how much of that "credibility" was lost with the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The use of force was extremely effective in Iraq, and the threat of force by the U.S. remains as credible as it ever was. If anything, the U.S. gained credibility for its threats thanks to Iraq (and Afghanistan), since obviously when we say we're going to attack you, you're going to be attacked.

What Iraq did was to prove, yet again, that it's a stupendously bad idea to commit ground forces to a protracted occupation/engagement without any clear notion of what constitutes "victory".

If some guy rapes my daughter, and I go after him with a shotgun, I may think I'm justified in my actions (hell, I may be justified in my actions) but that doesn't mean I'm acting rationally.

Let's say "kills" instead, and let's say the same guy had killed another daughter and son of yours previously, and had promised that he was going to come and kill your remaining three daughters and four sons, punch your dog, and firebomb your house. And furthermore, let's say his brother-in-law, the country sheriff, and his cousin, the governor, made it clear they weren't going to lift a finger to stop him. And furthermore, let's say you were the leader of the most powerful crime syndicate in the country, and you'd never faced prosecution for any of your actions. Would it be rational to go after him then? Absolutely; in fact it'd be hard to argue that you should do anything else.

But anyway, what I'm mainly arguing against is the belief, common on the left, that Afghanistan is the product of colder calculation (i.e. it's a nice place to run a pipeline.)

The real problem with this isn't the incorrect attribution of rational thought to U.S. planners, but the inability to walk and chew bubble gum. People feel the need to boil every conflict down to a single cause, and it never works that way. For instance, when Clinton bombed Yugoslavia, it came after years of people like Madeleine Albright saying that NATO had to act "out of area" or it would be "out of business". When I argued with people that that must have been a consideration in the attack and they vehemently rejected it, I'd ask: do you really think that after a decade of bleating this slogan, people like Albright suddenly forgot it the moment they had a chance to use NATO in an out-of-area action? Even if you believe the primary motivation was humanitarian, surely you must recognize that this constantly-repeated mantra must have been mooted as well in the planning meetings?

The same goes for Iraq, Afghanistan, and nearly every instance of U.S. use of force. And in my opinion, it's the inability to focus on a single goal that's sunk the U.S. in Afghanistan. Had we really just gone in, found and killed the bad guys, and gotten out, that'd be one thing. Instead, great power considerations have lead us into the usual dance of installing a puppet government, trying to control the country by proxy, keeping an eye on natural resources, looking at forward basing considerations, etc, etc. Obama has refocused it somewhat, but he continues to play the game.

So I accept that natural gas pipelines no doubt played a role in the discussions around Afghanistan, but that's not the only reason we went in. Nonetheless, I do think that secondary considerations like that are one of the main reasons we're bogged down now.

Sure, pipelines mattered, look at the map and draw the line from Khazakstan to Karachi, through Kundahar, if I remember. Rice and Conoco. Also, the heroin trade was being severly damaged by the Taliban. Think Boxer Rebellion. Plus, outflanking Iran, always the prize, as they (Ledeen?) said.

Wars are no longer fought to "win." They are fought to maintain profitablility of the MIC. I doubt the good folks at Rand ever imagined we'd win in Vietnam, which is what made Ellsberg's actions so contrarian. It was just damn good business. Look how many Sikorsky helicopters alone got chewed up--I once read over 10,000. And that was just helicopters. It's an endless debate, but I'd side with the faction that argues it wasn't until Big Business was being hurt by the radicalization of the US populace that the decision was made to end the war. Not a direct effect of protests, but a culture of protest was bad for business.

Iran takes out Israel's main enemy, now that Iraq's gone, and, from a cruise missile/profit perspective, is more 'doable' than Pakistan. Although a big ground-war in Pakistan does seem on Obama's controllers' plate, something he's made no effort to hide.

Kosovo was about mining rights, control of heroin traffic to Europe. War is always about money. Remember why TOW missiles were sold to Iran? It was a hat trick: Israeli fears about Iraqi's John Bull designed howitzers and other armor, profit for the ones doing the deal (Secord, Ghorbanifar, and their ilk), funnel cash to the terrorists er sorry freedom-fighters in Nicaragua. It was beautiful, Boland be damned.

Listen to me. Jerry Bull, not John Bull.

Wars are no longer fought to "win." They are fought to maintain profitablility of the MIC.

How do you imagine that working? Does Lyndon Johnson say to himself, in the middle of the Vietnam war, "Well, this damn war is destroying my presidency, but I've got to keep it going to satisfy the MIC?" Did George W. Bush say the same thing to himself about Iraq?

I'm not disagreeing with the effect - yes, about the only thing that wars accomplish these days is the enrichment of military contractors - but I think the whole point of our system is to remove the necessity of anybody in power having to act or think in a way that they themselves would perceive as monstrous.

Hey SteveB:

"- but I think the whole point of our system is to remove the necessity of anybody in power having to act or think in a way that they themselves would perceive as monstrous."

Not sure what you mean by that. Yoo gave Cheney his torture memos so Cheney wouldn't see a monster in the mirror? Even though the Bushites knew there were no WMDs in Iraq, they felt good about removing Bad Man Saddam? That's the whole point of our system of war and Empire? What am I missing here?

Oarwell:
I left a comment up at John's most recent posting (on Wendell Potter, the Cigna exec who came clean about the industry's dirty tricks) that expands on this point.

But my point here is that I don't think Lyndon Johnson said to himself, "I've got to keep this war going so Sikorsky can sell more helicopters." I think he said, among other things, "I can't be the first American president to lose a war,"and the Sikorsky exec then says, "We've got to pump out more helicopters to help our nation win this war - and don't we deserve a healthy profit for performing such a vital public service?" and etc.

Maybe "whole point of our system" is a bit strong (systems don't really need any "point" except self-preservation) but sure, why shouldn't Cheney ask John Yoo for a memo that makes Cheney feel even more justified in his actions? When you commit your crimes within a system, and you're at the pinnacle of that system, you won't have any problem finding subordinates to justify your actions, and who wouldn't want to see their actions justified? Cheney, I'm sure, convinced himself that everything he did was necessary to "protect the American people." And since the person doing the convincing was Dick Cheney, I'll bet Dick Cheney found him to be very persuasive.

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