Cakewalk to (Baghdad) Tehran
By Eli Clifton and Ali Gharib May 17, 2011
Imagine there’s a Middle Eastern country with a history of rocky relations with the United States. Washington hawks insist the country poses a threat to both the United States and its allies. They undertake a PR campaign demonizing the country’s polity and make cocksure claims about its imminent acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. They also make dubious claims tying the country to the perpetrators of the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. The country’s name starts with the letters I – R – A. What country comes to mind?
Iraq and Iran both fit the profile.
In Iraq, years of pro-war drumbeating were kicked into high gear after 9/11, culminating in the 2003 invasion and occupation—and subsequent bloody civil war—based on inaccurate claims of WMD production and ties to Al Qaeda. The war came with enormous costs in blood and treasure, as well as loss of U.S. prestige and credibility—not to mention the price paid by Iraq.
Undeterred by these costs, many of the same people who led the push for regime-change in Baghdad now have their sights set on Tehran. Using the same playbook they used for Iraq, these hawks are again selling U.S. military strikes as a sort of “cakewalk.”
Few high-profile American commentators have openly called for a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran, but many of those who have are neoconservatives pundits, among them Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin  and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) Reue lMarc Gerecht . Others still, such as the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Michael Rubin, have called for assassinating Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But moving public opinion toward war is not based solely on crowing for an attack. Rather, a network of neoconservative think tanks, pressure groups, and individuals—many of whom are fervid “pro-Israel” ideologues—is endeavoring to develop a number of parallel anti-Iran advocacy campaigns, some of which are based on legitimate human rights issues and concerns stemming from the opacity of Iran’s nuclear program.
Despite the apparent legitimacy of some of their talking points, these hawks typically push harsh measures with hysterical and overblown analysis. Take, for example, the constant dire predictions about Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s lack of transparency has opened the door to rank speculation, but little solid evidence supports the repeated contentions that Iran is on the verge of breaking out with a nuclear weapon.
Neoconservative rhetoric on Iran often mirrors that of the movement’s allies on the Israeli right, particularly in the Likud Party, whose hardline stance on Iran dates back some two decades.
Israeli hawks began homing in on Iran in earnest shortly after the First Gulf War, which reduced the regional threat posed by Iraq. Israeli leaders perpetually set nuclear deadlines for Iran that come and go without consequence. As Salon’s Justin Elliott has written: “According to various Israeli government predictions over the years, Iran was going to have a bomb by the mid-90s—or 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2005, and finally 2010. More recent Israeli predictions have put that date at 2011 or 2014.”
This Israeli soothsaying is usually accompanied by a plea for the West to put forward a “credible military threat” against the Islamic Republic. As an opposition leader in 2006, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared Iran to Nazi Germany: “It's 1938 and Iran is Germany.” Recently, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), a key beneficiary of “pro-Israel” campaign contributions, mirrored the comparison, calling Iran’s central bank the “21st-century equivalent of the bankers to the Nazis.”
Netanyahu, along with his neoconservative allies in the United States, also pressed for a war against Iraq. During his first stint as prime minister, Netanyahu was advised by a group of neoconservatives to unseat Saddam Hussein. The 1996 policy paper, called “Clean Break,” was drafted for the IASPS by, among others, analysts from WINEP, JINSA, and eventual George W. Bush administration officials Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser. Israel’s effort to “shape its strategic environment,” the authors wrote, “can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.” Ironically, considering that Hussein’s overthrow led to an Iran-friendly Iraq, the authors proposed that toppling Hussein would strategically weaken Iran.
The Al Qaeda Connection
Six years after “Clean Break”, when neoconservatives seized on 9/11 to press for removing Hussein from power, Netanyahu penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed called “The Case for Toppling Saddam.” Netanyahu made comparisons to the rise of Nazi Germany and warned of what would have happened on 9/11 if Al Qaeda had possessed nuclear weapons. Just over a week after the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he wrote:
Sept. 11 alerted most Americans to the grave dangers that are now facing our world. Most Americans understand that had al Qaeda possessed an atomic device last September, the city of New York would not exist today. They realize that last week we could have grieved not for thousands of dead, but for millions.
Making implicit comparisons between Hussein and Al Qaeda was common when emotions ran high after 9/11, and Netanyahu’s American allies seized on the theme. Despite little proof of meaningful ties, the Weekly Standard became a clearing house for allegations of connections between Al Qaeda and Iraq in late 2001. Even when evidence seemed to indicate that Hussein had rebuffed Al Qaeda calls for assistance, Standardwriters like Stephen Hayes merely brushed aside this lack of evidence aside.
American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg was another prominent media figure who zeroed in on the alleged relationship. In the New Yorker, Goldberg repeated the talking point that Hussein could give WMDs to Al Qaeda. In reporting on alleged ties, Goldberg described an exchange with an imprisoned weapons smuggler held by Kurdish intelligence. The prisoner told Goldberg he had both direct ties to Hussein’s intelligence service and Al Qaeda, claiming to have been vetted by Al Qaeda for three weeks in Kandahar before going to Iraq. A year after Goldberg’s visit, however, a journalist from the London Observer met the smuggler and found he couldn’t describe Kandahar at all, casting doubt on his account. Nonetheless, the week Goldberg’s article came out, it was cited by then-Vice President Dick Cheney on two influential Sunday talk shows, as well as by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.
Recently, Goldberg has focused his reporting on Iran. He conferred with a select group from Israel’s security establishment, resulting in a massive piece for The Atlantic, which concluded that a “consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike” on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Goldberg’s “consensus” was disputed, but his view created a buzz around the notion of an Israeli attack and even spurred discussion of the U.S. attacking Iran.
Some hawks, however, went beyond using cherry-picked intelligence and original, if overly credulous, reporting on Al Qaeda links, and instead tried to draw dubious character profiles. In a 2002 op-ed, Cliff May, the head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, shoehorned the secular dictator Saddam Hussein into a “Jihadist framework” that obviously alluded to Al Qaeda. “Within the Jihadist framework, one can easily accommodate true religious fanatics such as Osama bin Laden as well as those like Saddam Hussein [who] have more secular backgrounds and inclinations,” wrote May.
Eight years later, May dismissed the longstanding enmity between Al Qaeda and the Islamic Republic, writing: “[T]here are two jihadi camps, one Sunni, one Shia, two sides of the same coin.” He went on to say that Iran has “goals and a strategy to achieve” Al Qaeda’s “mission.”
Considering the invasion of Iraq, it’s not difficult to see where May’s conflation of Iran and Al Qaeda is heading. Indeed, with aggressive regime change advocates like Michael Ledeen and hawks like Gerecht on staff, May has turned FDD into perhaps the most aggressive unit in the campaign for war with Iran.
Groups like FDD often employ a few consistent talking points and rhetorical attacks on those who oppose their aggressive policies. Take, for example, “reverse linkage.” While the concept of “linkage”—that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will help further U.S. national security interests in the region—has been accepted at the upper levels of the military and political establishment, neoconservatives have pushed a counter-narrative in their campaigns for war in both Iran and Iraq. Their theory is that regime change in countries which have shown hostility to Israel and the United States will help bring about Middle East peace.
In April 2002, the Foreign Policy Initiative and Project for a New American Century co-founders Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan laid out the framework for this argument in a Weekly Standard article, where they wrote of “the road that leads to real security and peace—the road that runs through Baghdad.”
Their road “through Baghdad” has proven to be illusory given the regional turmoil of the past nine years, but the argument is still finding traction, with the rhetorical “road to peace” now running through Tehran.
Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), upon returning from his first trip to the Middle East, wrote in a September 2010 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal:
[T]oppling the mullahs would be the best encouragement (other than the Palestinians’ renunciation of violence and a one-state solution) to a true peace process. Ironically, doing what Obama loathes (attacking Iran, adopting regime change as our official policy) may be the only way for him to get what he desperately wants but cannot achieve (resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict).
The reverse linkage argument rejects the notion that pushing Israel to make difficult concessions—particularly freezing settlement construction and engaging in land swap negotiations—is a vital U.S. national security interest, a view held by, among others, Gen. David Petraeus and Secretary of States Hillary Clinton. It also suggests that removing Israel’s enemies, and those who give harbor to them, will weaken support for Hamas and Hezbollah, increasing opportunities for Arab-Israeli peace.
With little progress on the “road to peace,” after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, however, the “reverse linkage” argument has shown itself to be remarkably resilient despite the apparent lack of any causal relationship between the removal of Middle Eastern autocrats and increased security or advancement of the peace process.
Appeasement … Again
The “reverse linkage” theory hinges on the argument that there is “no daylight” between U.S. and Israeli interests, emphasizing the role of countries like Iran and Iraq that arm and financially support forces hostile to Israel. When that tack fails, neoconservatives and their allies frequently accuse anyone who’s insufficiently hawkish of “appeasement”.
Back in 2002 this argument, which is frequently coupled with a comparison to former British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s “Anglo–German Agreement” and failure to secure peace between the UK and Germany, was used to push forward the campaign for regime change in Iraq. The Weekly Standard’s co-founder, Fred Barnes, wrote in May 2002 that anything short of toppling Hussein wouldn’t change anything, adding: “Bush would become a well-liked statesman, just as Neville Chamberlain was for months after Munich.”
The same tack enjoys regular rotation as a talking point designed to compare any proposed policy of negotiation or deescalation as comparable to Chamberlain’s “appeasement” of Hitler. In a September 2010 National Review Online blog post, titled “Will the Future Belong to Iran,” FDD fellow Benjamin Weinthal employed this tactic while at the same time echoing arguments from Goldberg and others that any U.S. failure to act against Iran would merely spur Israel to attack:
“Soggy Western appeasement toward Iran’s regime is a natural precondition for Israeli military action, a country whose existence is immediately threatened by Iranian acquisition of atomic weaponry. The West has a chance to avoid a repeat performance of its wretched appeasement politics of the 1930s. If robust economic sanctions do not force Iran to walk away from its nuclear-weapons program, the West has to lay the foundation for military strikes. Time is the West’s enemy.”
The argument calls readers to wake up and realize that no slow moving diplomatic negotiations or attempts to find common ground can postpone an inevitably bloody conflict.
The anti-appeasement argument is, at its core, a call for action. Combating “isolationist” tendencies has long been a major concern for neoconservatives, and their “appeasement” argument is usually bolstered with examples of when Washington’s unwillingness to put boots on the ground led to greater violence or, as in the case of North Korea, a nuclear threat.
In a September 2010 speech on Iran at the Council on Foreign Relations, the long-standing neoconservative fellow traveler Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), rehashed many of the same “appeasement” talking points and compared policymakers who seek to avoid a military confrontation with Iran to those who pushed for American isolationism after World War I. “But before you get too wistful—also remember that those were the days when the principal strategic challenge confronting the President of the United States was a great power conflict in the heart of Europe between Germany and her neighbors—a conflict of nationalistic hatreds and geopolitical rivalries that twice ignited into world war and claimed the lives of tens of millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of Americans,” he said.
The Long Game
George W. Bush once famously botched a common saying about falling for the same trick twice. Correctly stated, it goes: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” This paradigm seems to be reflected in U.S. public opinion on and foreign policy consensus about attacking Iraq. With the broad perception that the Bush administration exaggerated the Iraqi threat, many commentators and politicians who acquiesced to demands for action on Iraq have as of yet resisted the calls of neoconservatives and other hawks for attacking Iran. Iraq war supporter Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, for example, has come out against a military attack on Iran.
Importantly, President Barack Obama, who campaigned on the Iraq War having been a mistake, has resisted calls to elevate his rhetoric or take military action against Iran, instead relying on a measured tone and international pressure on Iran’s nuclear program. And observers assume that Obama is unlikely to give Netanyahu a green light to attack.
But the campaign for war with Iran has not abated from neoconservative and hawkish corners. Editorials in outlets like Commentary magazine, the Weekly Standard, the National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and—to a lesser extent—the Washington Post, still often carry overblown warnings of the Iranian threat coupled with calls for increasingly drastic action.
Perhaps even more ominously, the incremental escalation of tensions with Iran has continued unabated with almost weekly calls from Congress for crushing sanctions against Tehran, covert action against Iran’s nuclear program, and a growing campaign—from groups like the Iran Policy Committee—to remove the cultish Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group, from the State Department’s terrorist organization list.
As protesters have taken to the streets during the “Arab Spring,” the alliance between liberal interventionists and neoconservatives—the same nexus that gave overwhelming political support to the Iraq war—was briefly resurrected in support of western intervention in Libya. The move came under the auspices of the “responsibility to protect” civilians, a responsibility that surely will be cited against Iran’s repressive state apparatus.
It serves well to remember that the campaign for war with Iraq started in earnest in the mid-1990s, and didn’t bear fruit until after the 9/11 attacks. Hawks are again laying the groundwork, and with the right crisis or a change of administration in 2012, they could very well seize the opportunity and, again, triumph. It’s not a stretch to imagine U.S. political and public opinion being shamefully fooled again.
As George Packer reminds us in his award-winning book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq: “The focused efforts of a handful of organized ideologues can win the political war when opposition is confused and the country distracted. But they have to be willing to fight, and often lose, obscure battles over years and even decades.”
We would be severely remiss if we did not take this warning to heart when considering the hawk’s long-game effort to push us into war in Iran.
Eli Clifton and Ali Gharib are New York-based writers who contribute to Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).
Image Credit: Tehran Bureau