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Thelma and Louise Imperialism | The Nation

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Thelma and Louise Imperialism

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Let me make an argument about the possibility that a regime-change-style, shock-and-awe air assault might someday be launched on Iranian nuclear facilities and associated targets--based on no insider knowledge, just the logic of George and Dick's Thelma and Louise-style imperialism.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.

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Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute of which he is a Fellow...

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Now, across a vast and growing swath of the planet, the main force at work seems not to be the concentration of power, but its fragmentation.

The calls for escalating military action against Islamic State (IS) ignore thirteen years of evidence that US intervention usually accomplishes the opposite of what Washington intends.

Of course, we all know at least half the story by now. Is there anybody in official Washington--other than our President, Vice President, the Vice President's secretive imperial staff, assorted neocon supporters, and associated right-wing think tanks--who isn't sweating blood, popping pills, and wondering what in the world to do about our delusional leaders?

Senators, House members, former top officials and high military types are now crawling out of the Washington woodwork to offer the kinds of dire warnings that, not so long ago, would have been confined to the distant peripheries of political argument.

After all, to anyone not delusional--which leaves out you-know-who and his Vice President--a massive air assault on Iran, surely involving staggeringly powerful bunker-busting missiles, would seem to be an act of madness. It would be immensely destructive to Iran (and yet almost surely a rallying point for its fundamentalist regime); bloody in its repercussions for US soldiers in Iraq; imperiling to US allies in the region; and, for the global economy, a potential energy catastrophe. A series of explosive events could unravel the oil heartlands of the planet, making the Administration's last several years in Iraq little more than an hors d'oeuvre before a banquet of catastrophe.

You don't have to rely on me for this. In his confirmation hearings, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates offered his own bloodcurdling scenario for the aftermath of such an assault:

"...[While] Iran cannot attack us directly militarily, I think that their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil, their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror both in the -- well, in the Middle East and in Europe and even here in this country is very real... Their ability to get Hezbollah to further destabilize Lebanon I think is very real. So I think that while their ability to retaliate against us in a conventional military way is quite limited, they have the capacity to do all of the things, and perhaps more, that I just described."

Fatwa Time

The possibility of an attack on Iran has long been on the horizon. You'd have to start back before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when, as Newsweek reminded us, one quip of the bolder neocons was: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran." You'd have to go back to January 2005, when reporter Seymour Hersh, in a New Yorker piece, "The Coming Wars," wrote, "In my interviews, I was repeatedly told that the next strategic target was Iran."

You'd have to go back to August 2005 when, in the American Conservative magazine, former CIA official Philip Giraldi warned: "In Washington it is hardly a secret that the same people in and around the Administration who brought you Iraq are preparing to do the same for Iran"--possibly involving an "unprovoked nuclear attack" on that country. A contingency plan was, he claimed, being drawn up in the Pentagon, "acting under instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney's office."

You'd have to check out a second Hersh piece from April 2006 in which he reported that, increasingly, insiders believed the President's goal was not simply aborting the Iranian nuclear program, but Iraq-style "regime change," and that, against Pentagon opposition, "the nuclear option"--the possibility of using a "bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon"--had made it into initial Iran planning. You'd have to check out the work of former UN arms inspector Scott Ritter, who recently published a book whose title says it all: Target Iran.

These men--some classic conservatives--are now, if anything, even more passionately convinced that the Administration is headed for the Iranian cliff, possibly as early as this Spring.

But it took more than their work for so much of official Washington to panic. It took the Administration's decision to send the USS John C. Stennis, a second aircraft carrier task force into the Persian Gulf (with hints that a third could follow); it took the announcement of what Juan Cole has termed George Bush's " fatwa," allowing the US military to take out Iranian agents anywhere in Iraq; it took the detention by US forces of various Iranian officials in Iraq and the invasion of an Iranian office in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan; it took the President's announcement of a decision to emplace Patriot anti-missile systems in the smaller Gulf states; it took a sudden, massive, eerily familiar ratcheting up of Administration rhetoric about Iran and Iranian influence in Iraq and the cherry-picked intelligence to go with it.; it took the refusal of officials like John Negroponte to say whether they believed the Administration already had the right to whack Iran without returning to Congress for permission; it took reports about the readying of new bases in Bulgaria and Romania for a future Iranian air campaign; it took rumors that the Pentagon's latest strike plan against Iran includes "more than 2,300 'high value' targets."

And it took, of course, the Administration's ongoing catastrophe in Iraq, which drives everything before it, as well as Bush's pugnacious (if hopeless) "surge plan" reaction to rejection in the November midterm elections; it took the President's insistence on victory in a situation where loss was so obvious that you didn't need scads of dollars and the sixteen agencies of the US intelligence community to make the point in a National Intelligence Estimate; it took Vice President Cheney's insistence, in a duke-it-out interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, that the Administration's Iraq policy would be "an enormous success story."

And, of course, it took all those eerie parallels with the Administration's behavior in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, not to speak of the realization that this Administration, devoted to an unfettered commander-in-chief-style of presidential power, believed it already had authorization aplenty to attack Iran. All of this brought home the possibility that our leaders might one day actually take the house down with them, that they might gun the car and head directly for the cliff with something between sneers and smiles on their faces.

Over the Cliff?

An attack on Iran, if it were to happen, promises a special mixture of two fundamentalisms that will make up a single lethal brew. Though our President claims to be a Christian fundamentalist, neither of these Washington fundamentalisms are, in the normal sense, religious or particularly Christian.

The first--the bedrock faith of the Bush Administration and its neocon supporters since September 12, 2001--is the religion of force. Our self-styled "wartime" Commander-in-Chief, and the Vice President head an Administration that has long been in love with the dazzling military possibilities that seemed open to them as leaders of the last standing superpower. Its high-tech destructive capabilities, they believed, gave them the power to go it alone in the world, shocking and awing a post-Cold War assemblage of lesser states into eternal submission.

Back in 2001-2003, they saw force as their own special Tao, their Way in the world; at their depths--now--reaching into their problem-solving quiver, they naturally find only the same arrow that's always been there; a belief system, a religion for all occasions.

In the case of a possible future assault on Iran, the larger fundamentalism of the Church of Force will surely combine with the only significant force the Pentagon has on hand--air power. The belief in air power's ability to fell regimes and bring whole peoples to their knees, is long-lasting and deep-seated. Since well before World War II, we've been living with a military belief system in which bombing others, including civilian populations, is a "strategic" thing to do; in which air power can, in relatively swift measure, break the "will" not just of the enemy, but of that enemy's society; and in which air power is the royal path to victory.

That this has not proven so; that it did not prove so in Afghanistan, in shock-and-awe Iraq, or in Israel's air assault last summer on Lebanon matters little. Faith in the efficacy of air power (as opposed to its barbarism) is fundamentalist in nature and so not disprovable by the facts on the rubble-strewn ground.

As a result, the strength of the belief that "it"--force, air power--will do the trick the next time, if only you have the nerve not to listen to the Nervous Nellies, if only you commit to it, should not be underestimated.

Do you remember that period before the invasion of Iraq when the neocons and their various admirers were proclaiming us the New Rome, hailing a Pax Americana globally (and a Pax Republicana domestically) that would last forever and a day? They were then intent on describing a jungle world of failed states at the global peripheries that needed an imperial power like...well, like us...for order. That was before the Bush Administration managed to bring a jungle world to Iraq and so to the heart of the global energy system--and they all fell imperially silent.

I've been wondering in their stead: What sort of empire are we? Empires are usually settled, ruled areas (except at their frontiers), not jungle worlds. So if, say, the Congo or Afghanistan or Somalia is a failed state, are we then, under George and Dick, simply a failed empire? Do we now rule (as opposed to threaten) anything? Are we an empire at all--even at home where a vast, ungainly government is being privatized into ever more expensive chaos and the federal budget is being driven over a military-industrial cliff --or are we Kong? Or are we a Three Stooges version of the imperial, or is it just that Dick and George, all four hands on the spinning wheel of state, are heading for that cliff intent on liberating us all?

In that over-the-top interview with CNN's Blitzer, Cheney accused him of, as the Washington Post put it, "embracing defeat."

What an apt phrase for Dick himself--and his presidential pal! Having long embraced a fantasy of victory, they now show every sign of wrapping their arms around their own Iraq defeat as if it were victory, and--with the enthusiasm of Thelma and Louise trapped by all those cop cars--taking the only path that seems open to them. As the alternatives grow ever more stark--surrender to those "Democrat" electees, to the critics, the cavilers, the ragtag insurgents, the alien Mullahs, even panicked Republicans in their own ranks--what's left but that liberating, exhilarating trip over the cliff?

Unlike the movies, where reviews can tell you the ending before you even enter the local multiplex, political life, even geopolitical life, is a remarkably unsettled, as well as unsettling thing.

Nothing assures us that some predetermined fate will actually drive us all over that cliff. But if, before November 2008, we do head in that direction, a small suggestion: Don't bother to buckle your seatbelt. It's not going to be that sort of a trip to the bottom.

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