Iran and the Echo Chamber of History
Originally Published in the June 2012 Issue of Empirical
“History” said Stephen “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
The twentieth century saw unprecedented examples of organized violence directed by states against other states that increasingly caused their civilian populations to suffer on an enormous scale. The trajectory of this apparent pattern, while never constant enough to be considered predictable, saw an alarming rise in civilian deaths as a proportion of those killed during the major wars engaged in by Western powers.
The First World War produced a concentration of fatalities among soldiers conscripted to the cause of their kings and politicians, with around 4-30% of the deaths belonging to civilians (the figures vary widely depending on whether you include fatalities not caused by fighting, such as starvation). The vast scale of the atrocities of the Second World War meant that figure leapt to between 50-and 70%; in the course of the Vietnam War, the colossal violence resulted in the death toll leading to 60-80% civilian fatalities. If you include the savage bombing of Cambodia in the picture, one finds that the toll touches on the highest estimates.
It seems the pattern has not ceased to edge meander upwards. In the war in Iraq, according to some reports, up to 90% of those killed were civilians. This apparent feature of Western “progress” has run parallel to the increasing success, effectiveness, and sophistication of the public relations industry in conveying politically useful messages to an electorate. One of the results of this, it seems, is that popular opinion regarding war has become less of a decisive factor in determining the likelihood of conflict.
This was the case in the build-up to the Iraq war in Britain, where overwhelming popular opposition to the war was of little consequence; and 63% preference for a diplomatic solution opposed to war among the American public, seemed to be unheeded by the Bush administration.
Examining the picture in the wider view of history, the recourse to war by the United States and her allies has, since the days of the First World War, been a common refrain in dealing with issues of strategic importance, regardless of the body count.
“Never again,” they said soberly after that so-called “great” war of 1914-1917, a conflict that many of my British ancestral countrymen were told “would be over by Christmas” after its outbreak. In its wake, four years later, there followed the ugly realpolitik and fatal greed of the treaty of Versailles, the failure of the League of Nations, the Great Depression; the rise of Hitler; thence, the next war – with its unforgettable consequences.
That forgotten man of history, Justice Robert H. Jackson, the American judge presiding over the deep horrors of the Nuremburg trials, spoke out against wars of aggression as “the supreme international crime,”, differing from others in that it encompasses “the evil of the whole,”, referring to the responsibility of the aggressor for the conflict they started.
He also reflected, with a kind of devastating foresight, on how, by passing judgement on the Nazi atrocities for such belligerence, the victors of the Second World War were, in fact, obliged to act with distinction.
Two key statements of this kind made by Jackson at Nuremberg should, in the opinion of this writer, be memorized by every student of American history. In prosecuting Nazi officers, most notably Goebbels, for their atrocities committed during the Second World War, Jackson poignantly declared: “our [America’s] position is that no grievances or policies will justify resort to aggressive war.” Adding that such a method of warfare “is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy.”
During the trial, Jackson, referring to the Nazi criminals he was helping to prosecute, reflected: “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”
Generations later, albeit 15 years after the open wound of Vietnam had been fumblingly sealed, President George Bush, Sr. declared, without irony: “America stands where it always has, against aggression, against those who would use force to replace the rule of law.” His remarks were made on the eve of the First Gulf War, launched in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
A mere two years prior, Iraq’s conflict with Iran had concluded; the longest conventional war of the century, borne from Baghdad’s aggression against her neighbor, justified on the most unconvincing of pretexts, and supported by the Reagan administration (with Bush’s consent).
US support for Saddam Hussein during this period was quite explicit, and very generous: the US provided Iraq with several billion dollars worth dollars’ worth of economic aid, the sale of dual-use technology, military intelligence, Special Operations training for Iraqi troops, and in some instances, provided direct military support to Iraq.
The Iran-Iraq war was launched in the same year – 1980 - that Hussein was made an honorary citizen of Detroit, and during a time when he was reciprocally generous: dispensing financial support from his vast oil wealth to American businesses, and employing lobbying groups (in this case, van Kloberg & Associates), just as Ahmed Chalabi would do before the more recent war in the gulf.
Rumsfeld, as is well known, was dispatched to Baghdad to shake hands with his future antagonist; less known is that he visited in a friendly capacity the day the UN reported that Iraq had used mustard gas and a nerve agent against Iranian troops, to discuss continued partnership between the two nations.
Years later, after the Second Gulf War launched in 2003, Saddam Hussein was captured and finally stood trial for crimes that he committed for the most part during the Iran-Iraq war. Hussein was eventually hung for the killing of 148 people in the Dujail region of Iraq in response to an assassination attempt by a local in 1982.
He was never been tried for the crimes against humanity he committed with the assistance of companies from the United States, using mustard gas to murder his own people in Halabja oin the Kurdish north of Iraq. The number killed in that incident far exceeds those killed in Dujail. It is not difficult to have suspicions why he was not held accountable for that atrocity.
Also in 1982, the White House legally removed Iraq’s status as a nation supporting terrorism, enabling Hussein to begin to, quite literally, develop weapons of mass destruction in order to better prosecute the country’s war with Iran. It also allowed for sales of chemical precursors used in chemical weapons to Hussein from US firms, with the results referred to above. Among other items sold, including a wide range of arms, were materials that were almost certainly used to construct weapons of mass destruction.
In 1984, Reagan declared a familiar sounding “war against terrorism,” and accordingly banned arms sales and, passed legislation that froze the assets of listed terrorist organizations. Meanwhile, diplomatic and military support for Saddam Hussein continued – in fact, arms sales to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war continued in order to fund terrorist groups in Nicaragua in an assault on the democratically elected government.
The highest international legal authority, the International Court of Justice, condemned American actions as constituting the “unlawful use of force” and the violation of treaties signed by the country.
The U.S response was to heighten its proxy assault on Nicaragua (aggression by any yardstick), with bipartisan support, and Jackson’s words helpfully kidnapped from mainstream media discourse on the subject. Human rights groups’ reports observed at this time that the US issued attacks on the Central American country, including direct offenses against civilian infrastructure like medical clinics and farms.
Much later, with the worst of his crimes behind him, Iraq’s alleged possession of WMDs, drove this infant century’s most bloody war yet into birth.
Returning to the end of World War Two, even as Jackson was pursuing justice to the detriment of former Nazis, American, and British post-war planning had incorporated the poison of thinly veiled aggressive war into post-war policy, and had taken some of the most ardent “poisoners” of the collapsed enemy regimes under their wing.
First the British, and then the US, backed a repressive regime in Greece that had to fight off rebellious internal resistance with extreme venality, installing a pliant ruling elite as the Allies had in post-Mussolini Italy (the Nazi sympathizer King Emmanuel and the fascist army veteran, Field Marshall Bagdolio).
Former SS intelligence figures such as Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon,” were used by the CIA to spy on post-war France in order to weed out communists. So, too, Reinhard Gehlen, who oversaw German intelligence on the Eastern Front during the war, who was re-employed by the US State Department to supervise clandestine Nazi units in their on-going, US-backed operations against Russia from within the Soviet state itself. Needless to say, immunity from prosecution for atrocities in the case of Barbie was a part of this cold war act of expediency – at least temporarily.
In 1945, in Korea, the post-liberation government was swept aside at the orders of the US, and allowed pro-Axis Japanese police a freehand to revisit their war-time oppression in order to maintain the power of an approved repressive new ruler. In the small island of Cheju near Korea, more than 30,000 rebellious citizens were killed in a crackdown on popular working-class resistance to the regime.
George Kennan, the highly influential head of State Department planning department, wrote in 1948 a document known as “Policy Planning Sstudy 23,”which explained the thinking of senior policy planners regarding such examples of post-Nuremberg foreign policy.
“We have 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population,” he declared in the paper. “Our real task is to devise a pattern of relationships that permit us to maintain this position of disparity…We must cease to talk about vague… and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization.”
The tone of high-level discussions on foreign policy as documented in the internal record (for those that look) may have become more sophisticated since Kennan’s day, but the theme of policy planning has differed little since the aftermath of the world’s worst war.
From Iraq to Iran: looking backwards to understand the next war?
Jumping forward six decades and more, over a trail of war-wreaked human debris to, Western realpolitik and foreign policy that mock Jackson’s words, we march this year to the possibility of a bloody regional war in the Middle East directed by the US and Israel against Iran and her allies.
The last great war in the Middle East, has just “ended” next door to where this one might begin.
The doctrine of “preventative war” (even less legal according to the Geneva conventions than pre-emptive war) in the new age of terror, helped to launch the war with Iraq; at a cost to the US taxpayer of nearly one and half trillion dollars, at the very least 114,000 civilians dead, and the lives thousands of American soldiers.
A variation on the Bush doctrine of preventative war may be used to launch a war with Iran too.
Put very roughly, the weak end of the case for bombing Iran centers on the fear that an irrational nuclear armed Iran may use the bomb, regardless of the consequences. The most troubling plausible threat scenario involves terrorist acquisition of a weapon through insider infiltration of Tehran’s nuclear program.
The possibility is, of course, terrifying, but then so is the more credible threat that a drone-battered and less strategically significant Pakistan might do the same, given its far greater Islamist and Taliban presence. The notorious Pakistani scientist, A. Q. Khan, shared nuclear secrets with Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, China and Iran. He was accused of doing just this by the US in 2004 – and confessed as much.
It emerged not long after that Khan’s “nuclear” tour was in fact ordered and monitored by Pakistan’s military and government – a highly unsettling fact, albeit not well known. As popular anti-American sentiment in the country hits the roof, Pakistan remains “the most dangerous state in the world” according to prominent scholars. Accordingly, in the view of many security experts, Pakistan is the world’s greatest nuclear threat; however, it remains both un-invaded by the United States and an example of a country that has a concentration of terrorism-prone groups that have not accessed Islamabad’s weapons. Tellingly, American engagement on this issue, as with North Korea, has been incomparable with that of Tehran’s suspected nuclear program: i.e., pragmatism over jingoism.
Returning to Israeli-Iranian tensions, in the view of current Israeli Minister of Strategic affairs, Moshe Ya’alon: “Tehran should face a dilemma – whether to have a bomb or to survive” (he actually said this, just before the turn of the year).
The Jewish state’s President, Shimon Peres, in a typically more reserved style, averred that military action was looking increasingly more likely than a diplomatic solution a few weeks prior to Ya’alon’s statement. He added that the international community must do “whatever it takes” to stop the march toward the bomb.
Writing authoritatively in the Atlantic in 2010, Jeffrey Goldberg foresaw the nature of an Israeli strike against Iran’s facilities, and its consequences. His measured predictions ran as follows: Israel will “bomb the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, the formerly secret enrichment site at Qom, the nuclear-research center at Esfahan, and possibly even the Bushehr reactor … regardless of whether they succeed in destroying Iran’s centrifuges and warhead and missile plants, or whether they fail miserably to even make a dent in Iran’s nuclear program—they stand a good chance of changing the Middle East forever.”
Goldberg continued that the attack also could result in: “lethal reprisals…a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity.” To which Goldberg breathlessly adds the threat of “causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973”; and “of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks.”
The last head of Israel’s respected intelligence services, Mossad, Meir Dagan, agrees about how high the stakes are: “I’m concerned about possible mistakes and I prefer to speak out before there is a catastrophe” he said on the Israeli television program “Uvda’ in December. “I have to assume that the level of destruction, paralysis of everyday life, and Israeli death toll would be high,” he opined.
Prior to Dagan’s statement, the serving Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, had predicted that “A [potential] war [with Iran] is no picnic, but in any scenario there won’t be 50 thousand or 5,000 or even 500 dead [Israelis]” as a result. “It’ll be over by Christmas” comes to mind.
The assessment of Iran’s military threat in popular Western media coverage since November has hinged on the findings of the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The New York Times reported, alarmingly, on the day following the release of the IAEA paper that the IAEA “have amassed a trove of new evidence that, they say, makes a ‘credible’ case for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”
The New York Times article, and many parallel media reports, put many of those concerned about an Iranian bomb on heightened alert. Seymour Hersh, by contrast, pointed out in a piece in the New Yorker that many serious commentators actually did not take the IAEA report to say anything especially new, despite the super-heated coverage in the press.
He records the statements of Robert Kelley, former director of the IAEA and veteran expert in the field who found nothing novel in the latest publication on Iran. Kelley remarked that most of the information was simply “old news,”, that most informed journalists were already aware of, adding,: “I wonder why this same stuff is now considered ‘new information’ by the same reporters.”
Kelley’s insights did not stop there. Having read the report carefully, he concluded that hundreds of pages of material [referred to in the report] appears to come from a single source: a laptop computer, allegedly supplied to the I.A.E.A. by a Western intelligence agency, whose provenance could not be established [the summary is Hersh’s].”
From that perspective, the IAEA report may not have, in fact, provided solid grounds to be building the case for an attack on Iran; one that could qualify as a breach of international law if undertaken with serious question marks still hanging in the air, the consequences of which would be almost certain to lead to violent retaliation by Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah.
What is also interesting to note is how the tone of the report differs significantly to others produced by the former director of the IAEA – currently one of Egypt’s leading political lights, ElBaradei. While ElBaradei was concerned about the situation, his reactions were measured and his reputation was (outside of Washington) formidable – testified to by his Nobel pPrize inof 2005. The newly - inaugurated director, ElBaradei’s replacement, with close ties to the US, was (and is) Yukiya Amano, who was described, in his former capacity at the IAEA, by an internal US diplomatic memo in 2009 as being “solidly in the U.S. court on every strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”
The conclusion that Hersh came to after investigating his New Yorker piece was that the IAEA paper was a “political document.”
In a forthright and candid interview on Democracy Now in mid-winter, Hersh’s views were amplified: the build-up to war is being prepared as “almost the same sort of, I don’t know if you want to call it
a ‘psychosis,’ but it’s some sort of a fantasy land being built up here, as it was with Iraq.”
Despite the insights of Goldberg, Dagan, Kelley, Hersh and numerous others, there appears to still be a great deal of political will in Washington to lubricate the wheels of Congress for a collision course with Tehran. Under a bill led by Senator Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, US diplomacy with Iran may be effectively criminalizsed – it has, at the time of writing, passed the House of Representatives; Santorum, Romney, Gingrich all gesture at a strike, while the embattled President Obama prevaricates.
One fact that has to be remembered above all in this dilemma that senior political and military figures in both Israel and America frankly acknowledge: that targeted strikes would only delay Iran’s nuclear capacity, not destroy it. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admitted this in November. This leads to the obvious thought: if Iran’s nuclear facilities are bombed and its nuclear capacity is not annihilated, only delayed,- surely, Iran will only develop such bombs in earnest after any attack. And if Ms. Ros-Lehtinen has her way, Congress can’t even talk to Tehran without bureaucratic delay and great difficulty.
This being so, the legacy of the last preventative war, in Iraq, bears revisiting; just as the US presence there dwindles: 100,000 civilians dead, several thousand American troops, and a cost to the taxpayer of 1.5 trillion dollars, all counted.
In order to exorcise the horrors of Vietnam and Iraq, in order not to create new scars on our infant century, may I posit that a Jacksonian form of American exceptionalism is called for, and not a return to the Kennan or Bush 43 doctrines: rather, an exercise of distinction by way of no recourse to aggression except under strict circumstances, and by committing to rule of international law.
Understanding what aggression means in the Nuremberg-era mindset is not difficult. The Victorian-era “Caroline test” was reaffirmed by Nuremberg trials as the criteria by which pre-emptive war must be judged as legitimate. The Caroline rule declared that the necessity for preemptive self–defense must be “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”
An attack on Iran, self-evidently, does not fit these criteria. If the US does not make the strike, and Israel acts unilaterally, the responsibility for the “evil of the whole” consequential aftermath arguably will have been wrought by the incaution of Netanyahu, Ya’alon or Barak. And incaution, chillingly resembling Iraq, it most certainly is if you take the insights of leading Israeli security figures seriously, who bemoan Israel’s lack of planning for post-war scenarios – other than to maintain their belligerent stance.
Nonetheless, the US and her allies will be almost certain to rush to defend the Jewish state, itself likely to face an assault from neighbors that it could not possibly do anything but respond to, further deepening any crisis. There is even the possibility that Russia and China may get involved, with highly unpredictable consequences. Russian realpolitik and self-service over Syria, highlighted by its blocking of UN Security Council resolutions and the on-going sale of arms to Assad’s butchers, indicate that Moscow are is not afraid to take controversial, indeed shameless, stances on Middle-Eastern issues.
Such a war, against a military power not only far superior to Saddam’s sanction-crushed army, but the main sponsor of the Iraqi insurgency and against the howling lessons of history will bear forth new nightmares to tackle at a time when the threat of (just about) preventable future environmental catastrophe and raging economic instability already burden the world.
With the stakes so high, with recent history so instructively nightmarish, I recall a conversation it was my honor to have with perhaps the greatest living war journalist in the world, Robert Fisk, on the nature of war. His reflection, like Jackson’s historic observation, was piercing and offers an insight into why our political representatives may play the “war card” so reflexively in moments of crisis.
Recalling how few of the modern American and British politicians responsible for Iraq had seen combat, he lamented that the resulting disconnect with the results of their decisions created a wholly false relationship with the prospect of conflict: “Instead of seeing war as what it is – the complete failure of the human spirit … it becomes a policy option.”
In the post-9/11 era, with the trainwrecked, intellectually-dishonest, rhetoric of the “war on terror” behind us, should a war with Iran–if it indeed it comes– launched on the basis of anticipatory self-defense, be acceptable without every attempt to avoid the possibility already exhausted?
If a war occurs in this manner, no doubt we will cry “never again!” from the depths of our souls as we survey its harrowed victims from this side of the reality of war. But to say this in such circumstances, surely can be forgiven only if, in doing so, we are unaware of how we mock the past, ourselves, future generations, and the tortured human spirit.
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