Commentators whom I respect are saying, with conviction, that there’s no way the U.S. is going to attack Iran. Alexander Cockburn, Jim Lobe and Tom Engelhardt, for example, say no. Others whom I equally respect predict the opposite. Gordon Prather, Ray McGovern, Scott Ritter and Justin Raimondo say yes, it’s going to happen. Those proffering the comforting message that further insanity is not on the immediate horizon argue that the U.S. is overextended in Afghanistan and Iraq, that the military brass opposes an attack, and that the Condoleezza Rice faction of “realists” in the State Department is heading off Vice President Cheney and the neocons. They point to the presence of Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns at the recent six-nations talks with Iran, and talk of opening a U.S. interests section in Iran. They note the furious denunciations of Rice in the Weekly Standard, presumed to articulate Cheney’s views, and suggest that the rage results from a sense of political defeat.
Those predicting an assault point to the incessant propaganda campaign against Iran, abject Congressional complicity in that campaign, military preparations in the U.S. and Israel, the recent flurry of U.S.-Israeli military contacts, the power of AIPAC and Israel in U.S. politics and specifically their influence on the impressionable mind of President Bush. They point to the sidelining of mainstream intelligence reports that declare Iran has no active military program, and to the nearly identical rhetoric from Bush, McCain and Obama about how that (probably non-existent) program poses an “existential threat” to (nuclear) Israel. They suggest Burns’ recent step and other small diplomatic initiatives are really cover, merely designed to convince the world that the U.S. is exhausting diplomacy before the bombing starts.
Having predicted a U.S. attack on Iran for several years during which it’s failed to materialize, at this point I think it’s a toss-up. I believe that the president’s cabinet is, as Lenin would put it, “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie” of this country. It mainly represents and is answerable to a ruling class. Bush made it clear in the 2000 presidential race that the billionaires are “my social base.” Obviously oilmen Bush and Cheney would love to secure U.S. control over the petroleum resources of Southwest Asia and establish military bases throughout the region in preparation for future rich man’s wars. But on the other hand, U.S. capitalists and oil execs in general do not seem enthusiastically united in favor of the expansion of the conflict and the destabilization of regimes (like the Saudi) that they’ve profitably worked with for decades. The Wall Street Journal editors might be agitating for an attack on Iran, but the U.S. ruling class is in fact deeply divided on how to proceed.
When the Iranian regime in the summer of 2003 delivered a message to the Bush administration via the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, proposing talks towards a comprehensive settlement of issues between the U.S. and Iran, Colin Powell’s State Department first responded positively. But Cheney’s team contemptuously dismissed the overture, sabotaging a positive response. There’s been a “two-line struggle” underway at the highest levels: on the one side are the Cheney-neocon faction, a mix of anti-China geopolitical strategists and extreme Zionists, on the other the “realists” who doubt the benefits of the ongoing military engagements in Southwest Asia and feel alarmed by the prospect of a spreading war in the region.
It’s not at all clear that what government officials always term “the interests of United States” (in reality, the interests of the corporate elite and those of U.S. imperialism) would be well-served by an attack on Iran. The blowback could actually be disastrous for the whole system. But Dick Cheney, wielding unprecedented power as a vice-president, may think that a go-for-broke assault on Iran, Syria and Hizbollah in southern Lebanon is perfectly rational. It would if successful complete the U.S. colonization of Southwest Asia, end the emerging alliance between Tehran’s mullahs and the al-Maliki regime in Iraq, place more resources of the region under U.S. hegemony, and allow further “containment” of emerging rival China. Meanwhile Cheney’s busy foot soldiers, the neoconservatives, obsessed with the destruction of Arab or Muslim regimes that maintain a hostile stance towards Israel, are driven by the conviction that American power must be used NOW, by this unprecedentedly pro-Israel administration, to destroy the Iranian regime to save Israel from a “nuclear holocaust.”
We’re talking about the government of an imperialist country taking action that, in the judgment of its more rational agents and former officials like Brent Snowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski wouldn’t serve the interests of the state and its ruling class. (Not that they’d put it in those words, of course.) It’s action urged by a faction of the ruling class of Israel, a small country founded as a settler-state and at war with its Arab neighbors for sixty years. Such appeals are echoed by the second largest and most effective lobbying organization in the U.S., backed up by seemingly limitless funding and the support of the maybe 25% of Americans whose religious beliefs incline them towards unswerving support for Israel.
The personality of the president could be key here. George Bush is the representative of his class, but he is also a failed businessman, and someone easily influenced by advisors taking advantage of his ignorance of the world and general inattention to details. He has a cruel streak; recall his enthusiasm for the death penalty as Texas governor and his sickening mockery of a woman who had appealed for clemency (“Please,” he mimicked her, pursing his lips in mock desperation in 1999,” don’t kill me!”) Alongside that cruel streak, and indifference to human suffering so evident in the Hurricane Katrina episode, is a self-righteous religiosity; recall his comment to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2003 that “God told me to smite [Saddam Hussein]. And I smote him.” Perhaps he really believes God talks to him. Perhaps the neocons (cynical secularists for the most part) skillfully play upon such delusions.
The personality of the vice president is also a potentially decisive factor. He well exemplifies the mentality of the Bush aide (Karl Rove?) who in a conversation with Ron Suskind in 2004 mocked “the reality-based community,” comprised of people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” No, he argued: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Cheney’s angry reaction to the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program produced by the collective U.S. intelligence community in November 2007 is telling: having delayed its release, he rejected it out of hand because it contradicted the disinformation campaign in part conducted out of his highly secretive office. He has never dropped his assertion that Saddam Hussein was working with al-Qaeda. He is not only not a “realist;” he is Machiavellian comfortable with lies, and enormous power to influence policy justified by lies.
Bush’s cabinet is the executive committee of the U.S. ruling class, but that cabinet and that class are divided. So the president gets different kinds of advice and in the end, as he told Bob Windward, he “play[s] by instinct.” Thus it’s very possible that Bush will, in the near future, perhaps in a less than sober state, follow his instincts and order an attack. If it happens, it will show the triumph of a uniquely American mix of bellicose Christian Zionism and geopolitical miscalculation over mainstream Wall Street and the (rational) military and intelligence establishments.
The attack on Iraq, based on claims that it posed a looming threat to the world and had some sort of 9-11 tie, was a leap into irrationality. Most wars are justified by lies, but these lies were especially transparent even though, in the manipulated atmosphere of fear and anxiety following 9-11, they acquired traction. Nowadays the thinking population has soured on that war and its rationale and opposes any attack on Iran. A minority—the quarter or so who still believe Iraq was involved in 9-11, supports Bush and the Iraq War— believes more war in the Middle East will fulfill Biblical prophecy and pave the way for Jesus’ return. They may reliably endorse even a horrific nuclear attack.
So is it going to happen? I don’t know. The chief executive is the representative of his class, but this administration despite its unprecedented concentration of power seems to have lost the confidence and support of much of its own original base. (Hence among other things the mainstream corporate media’s enthusiasm for Obama.) There is fear within the ruling class that Bush and Cheney will hurl American and world capitalism into the greatest crisis since the 1930s, against the interests of Wall Street and the military industrial-complex, aided by a Congress filled with legislators ignorant of the basics of Middle Eastern history and culture and convinced that adhering to the AIPAC line will abet their political careers.
Bush/Cheney must know that if the U.S. attacks Iran the price of oil will skyrocket, the American people suffer, hatred for the U.S. intensify universally (except perhaps in Israel), and the Shiites of Iraq and Iran both wage a ferocious jihad against the U.S. troops in the region. They may anticipate the unraveling of NATO, the collapse of the United Nations, and the abandonment of any notion of international law. But they may really think these times of U.S. economic decline and the “existential threat” they imagine confronts Israel justify further empire-building through military terror—what the world will perceive as madness. The neocons see themselves as the Wise in the background, working through their willing, stupid agents in the foreground, steering the clueless masses through fear-mongering to support the reconstruction of the world on their terms. Maybe they’ll get their way.
They must take comfort in the fact that despite mass disillusionment with the Iraq War, voters according to polls see warmonger John McCain as better able than Obama to conduct what they still conceptualize as a “War on Terror.” They must smile at the Congressional votes endorsing their lies about Syria and Iran and signaling the administration that it’s free to attack either state at its discretion. Maybe they lose some sleep worrying that Adm. Michael Mullen and other military leaders will thwart their plans. But they know that some well-placed, well-timed editorials by the likes of Norman Podhoretz, Bill Kristol, John Bolton, and Benny Morris screaming about an impending nuclear holocaust if the U.S. doesn’t act to protect Israel impact a lot of readers. They know that Bush does not want to leave office with the Iranian regime still in power; he wants its destruction part of his legacy, to be praised from fundamentalist pulpits for years to come.
In short Bush may, as an unwitting agent of what Hegel called “the cunning of Reason,” help along a process that, were he thinking rationally from his own ruling-class point of view, he would emphatically reject: the actual decline of U.S. imperialism. My pessimism about the prospect of war is alleviated somewhat by that prospect—the arrival of a period of “creative chaos.” You may recall that Donald Rumsfeld used this phrase to refer to the havoc in Baghdad (including the plundering of the National Museum) during the U.S. invasion. I refer instead to the possibility that horrific events might produce something entirely unexpected and potentially positive. The First World War led to the Bolshevik Revolution (on the whole, a move forward for humanity in my view) and a wave of (unfortunately abortive) workers’ and soldiers’ revolutions in Europe. The “War on Terror” against “insurgents” throughout Southwest Asia could increase the disgust towards U.S. policy felt throughout the world, alienate friends and allies, strengthen the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), produce cracks in the “coalitions” fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and provoke punitive moves against the dollar while Americans struggle to cope with rapidly rising fuel and food costs. If it hurts us deeply enough, it could produce a groundswell of protest in this country—against things that are obviously intolerable and wrong—greater than anything we saw in the sixties. It could generate a revolutionary crisis.
How the people of the planet would rejoice in hearing news that the American people, rejecting imperialist war, are marching in millions, challenging their leaders, taking action towards real change! But the future is truly unclear.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org