Naked Democracy, an occasional election-season column, will focus on the deeper disorders of our politics—those evaded or actively concealed by the money-drenched campaigns.
The irony of the 2016 presidential race is that the selection of a new American president might not be the most fateful political contest. Rather, it could be the showdown between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama over who runs US foreign policy. Neither man will be on the ballot next year, of course, but if Bibi succeeds in defeating Barack’s nuclear deal with Iran, it will cast a long, dark shadow over presidential contenders and the prospects for war or peace.
Not for the first time, the Israeli prime minister has bluntly intruded on US politics, making common cause with the Republican Party’s relentless efforts to demean and disparage the American president. Together Bibi and the GOP are now trying to poison public opinion and stifle debate on Obama’s deal and its long-term implications.
Public ignorance is a product of the political system itself, abetted by the shallow media coverage. The things not explained include why Iran has abiding hostility toward the “Great Satan,” and the deeper questions not asked include what happens if Bibi wins. The political stakes are bigger than whether Iran will change its intentions. The larger question is whether the United States can change its own aggressive role in the world.
Since the start of his presidency, Obama has attempted, in his halting way, to shift the American superpower from its combative military posture in the Middle East and elsewhere toward more patient diplomacy. Instead of blunt force, he has sought new relationships with some old adversaries. The monumental task is like trying to turn around a huge battleship in the midst of stormy seas.
If Obama’s deal is rejected, the door to greater restraint and balance in US foreign policy will be slammed shut. Practical politics would stick with overwhelming firepower and far-reaching troop deployments for national defense. Forget the nice talk about peace-making.
On their end, Iranian leaders might well reach a similar conclusion. With deal-making scrapped, Iran could race to develop a nuclear weapon before an Israeli strike aimed at destroying its nuclear facilities.
If so, the next move would belong to Bibi. As Israel has done in other circumstances and Netanyahu has hinted, Israel could try to wipe out Iran’s potential nukes in a single lightning strike. “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran,” as Senator John McCain once jokingly sang. The newly elected US president would have to decide whether to support its longstanding ally. He or she might not have much choice.
War-gaming scenarios developed during the last decade by strategic experts in Washington have not received much attention in political debate, but they involve ominous warnings. In 2009, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution predicted that if Israel acted alone, the United States would be pulled unwillingly into a broader regional war. Iran would counterattack by firing missiles at Israel’s own nuclear weapons complex and its civilian population, compelling the United States to deploy massive reinforcements.
A second war game conducted by the US Central Command in 2012 (described by the Center for Strategic and International Studies) assumed Iran would perceive US complicity in the Israeli attack and immediately strike an American warship in the Gulf, killing hundreds of Americans and demanding US retaliation. Regional war would follow.
Obama’s congressional critics dismiss these scenarios as highly unlikely, and maybe they are right. Or maybe they are as wrong as they were back in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq. Not only would the “shock and awe” bombing campaign make quick work of Saddam Hussein, they asserted, but the Iraqi people would greet American soldiers as liberators.
A similar hubris is being expressed now in Republican circles. When the president warned that war was the only alternative to his Iran deal, GOP leaders whined and demanded an apology. Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, accused the president of “intimidation and demonization.”
Meanwhile, Tom Cotton, the freshman senator from Arkansas and an Iraq War veteran, blithely assured conservatives that US bombs could take out Iran’s nuclear installations in a matter of days. Iran, he conceded, could rebuild its weapon factories, but we “can set them back to day zero.”
Strangely enough, if Obama loses to Netanyahu, the only winner would be the same neoconservatives who championed that disastrous invasion of Iraq a decade ago. The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld plan for making over the Middle East turned into America’s catastrophe. The armchair warriors in the Bush-Cheney gang were utterly discredited, disgraced by their own inflated egos and deliberate falsehoods.
Yet now the neocons are trying to stage a comeback, seeking redemption for themselves and selling the same tough-guy doctrine that led to their shame. Without much notice, they have made themselves a driving force alongside the Israeli prime minister in his campaign to wreck Obama’s diplomatic opening. Neocons now blame their failure in Iraq on Obama. He wasn’t tough enough, they say.
The sales pitch hasn’t changed much. In fact, some of the GOP presidential wannabes now being tutored by the neocon strategists promise to send American ground troops back into Iraq. Only modest redeployments, they promise. And only until the warring factions in Iraq stop killing one another (good luck with that). To recover their influence, the neocons realized they had to change their labels so as not to remind people how wrong they were before. I got a glimpse of the new tactics in a recent column by David Brooks of The New York Times. In his usual even-tempered style, Brooks discussed a step-by-step analysis of Obama’s Iran deal prepared by the Foreign Policy Initiative. Obama failed on all seven points, the sagacious columnist concluded. But what is the Foreign Policy Initiative? Brooks didn’t say. It turns out the FPI is composed of the same neocon apostles who sold us the Iraq War. No wonder Brooks didn’t name any of them.
Old wine in a new bottle. The Project for the New American Century, established in the 1990s as the original home base for neocon agitators, had long since fallen into utter disrepute. So the big thinkers shut down PNAC and repackaged themselves with a bland new title. But the FPI’s board of directors are the same guys: William Kristol, the editor of Murdoch’s Weekly Standard (and Brooks’s old boss before he joined the Times); Robert Kagan, co-founder of PNAC (and a Washington Post columnist); Dan Senor, former spokesman for the Bush administration’s Coalition Provisional Authority in US-occupied Iraq; and Eric Edelman, Cheney’s national-security policy guy at the Pentagon and White House.
Kagan has been talking about military action against Iran since at least 2004. “Anyone who thinks that it is inconceivable that there could be a military option in Iran sometime down the road I think is making a mistake,” he declared. In 2014, he wrote a call to battle in The New Republic titled “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.”
Searching the web, one finds neocons pushing plenty of buttons to get a sufficiently belligerent Republican elected in 2016. A new group calling itself the John Hay Initiative is tutoring GOP candidates on foreign policy. It claims to be nonpolitical, but its three “educators” are neocons. In addition to Edelman, they include Eliot Cohen, former aide to Bush’s deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz (Cohen claims to be one of the first neocons to advocate war against both Iraq and Iran), and lawyer Brian Hook, who warns that weak foreign policy “always carries a high price tag.”
These three say they’ve already written speeches for Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie and briefed Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and several others. Only Rand Paul and Donald Trump have thus far failed to drink the neocon Kool-Aid.
Neocons started feeling better about themselves right after the 2014 elections, when the GOP captured the Senate. Kristol said that he sensed “more willingness to rethink” the neocon dogma, which was “vindicated to some degree” by Obama’s alleged weakness. The FPI held a postelection conference last December called “A World in Crisis,” with kindred spirits expressing their worries. Speakers included Robert Kagan; Senator Bob Corker, now chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, who is leading the opposition to the Iran deal; Fred Hiatt, editorial-page editor at The Washington Post; and Senators John McCain, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton.
Despite the lies and spectacular failures, the neocon fantasy still appeals to many citizens because it manipulates patriotic emotions deep in the American psyche: the fear of distant others and our national sense of injured innocence. Why do others hate us when we are only trying to do good for the world? To answer that question to their liking, neocon thinkers are required to blot out the large facts of our history that contradict American self-pity.
Not to pick on David Brooks, but his supposedly even-handed style is a model of how neocons mislead readers through shameless evasions. After his column runs through the Iran agreement in a dispassionate manner, he concludes with hot-blooded propaganda. Iran, he announces, is led by “a fanatical, hegemonic, hate-filled regime.” Once his readers accept that as true, argument is over.
Except that Iranian leaders say much the same about us. And if Brooks had inquired a little more deeply, his facile propaganda would be contradicted by bloody facts that many Americans have never heard.
In August 1953, the CIA arranged a mob-driven coup in Tehran that toppled the elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, after he moved to nationalize the country’s vast oil fields, then controlled by the major US and British oil companies. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was installed as the American puppet, and he governed Iran for a quarter of a century, keeping domestic dissidents in check with Savak, his brutal secret police.
A New York Times editorial in August 1954 described the benefits of this act of US imperialism:
Costly as the dispute over Iranian oil has been to all concerned, the affair may yet be proved worthwhile, if lessons are learned from it. Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism.
The revolution that toppled the shah in 1979 installed a reactionary government of Islamist clerics, not the left-wing communists feared by Washington’s Cold War strategists in 1953. Note the ironic similarity in the US accusations: The Times warned against Iran’s “fanatical nationalism” in 1954; six decades later, a Times columnist warns us to fear Iran’s “fanatical, hegemonic, hate-filled regime.”
As Obama suggests, perhaps it’s time to let go of the past.