The Neocons Won
Reading an assortment of commentaries (“retrospectives”) on the tenth anniversary of the U.S. war on Iraq, and onset of the horrific occupation, I find most center their discussion on the now almost universally conceded fact that the war was based on false pretexts. That is no longer debated. The division is between those who buy the official line (that “intelligence flaws” caused honest leaders to accuse Saddam of having WMDs when he didn’t, and ties with al-Qaeda that didn’t exist), and those who recognize that the leaders themselves engaged in a campaign of mis- and disinformation to frighten people into supporting war. All recognize that public opinion turned against the war, as it became clear it would not be not the “cakewalk” Richard Perle had confidently predicted. But few sufficiently highlight the role of the neocons—what neocon godfather Irving Kristol called the “neoconservative movement”—in collecting and channeling the lies that produced that war. And too few lament the fact that neocons continue to shape foreign policy (especially policy towards Iran and the Arab world) in significant ways.
The fact is, neocon ideologue Paul Wolfowitz, as deputy secretary of defense under his old friend Donald Rumsfeld, devoted full time during 2002 and early 2003 planning the war. That meant in part planning the lies to justify the war. Via the mysterious (and never really investigated) “Office of Special Plans” in the Pentagon he helped steer a compliant and gullible press into creating public opinion favorable for war. All top officials—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice—contributed, with their coordinated fear-mongering talking points—but the OSP often generated those talking points and rhetorical flourishes (most memorably: “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”).
Who is this architect of a disastrous war bared on lies? Wolfowitz, an academic and student of the philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973), served in the “Team B” established by the CIA in the 1970s to present an assessment of Soviet military strength independent from the agency’s. As it turns out, the team, headed by neocon Richard Pipes and firmly supported by then-Secretary of Defense and firm Wolfowitz buddy Rumsfeld, consistently exaggerated the Soviet “threat.” By the fall of the USSR in 1991, it became clear that Team B had been widely off the mark. As Time Magazine editor Strobe Talbott put it, “[the 41st president] Bush allowed a panel of outsiders, deliberately stacked with hard-liners, to second-guess the agency’s findings. Not surprisingly, the result was a depiction of Soviet intentions and capabilities that seemed extreme at the time and looks ludicrous in retrospect.” Still, Team B had triggered a massive arms build-up, including Reagan’s Star Wars program, and the Soviets’ inability to match it contributed to the great enemy’s collapse. So I doubt Wolfowitz or Pipes regret their duplicity; they surely think they destroyed the Soviet Union. They got the job done.
The Office of Special Plans and Leo Strauss’s Philosophy
The Office of Special Plans of 2002-3 was headed by Donald Feith, a Wolfowitz appointee whom Gen. Tommy Franks once famously called “the dumbest fucking guy on the planet.” It included Abram Shulsky, Wolfowitz’s college roommate at the University of Chicago and fellow student of the philosopher Leo Strauss, and implemented Strauss’s principle that since the masses are intrinsically foolish and will not always approve heroic action when necessary, the “Wise” must employ “noble lies” to convince them. These are to be presented through “gentlemen” who are not too bright but malleable and enjoy credibility. Political science professor Shadia Drury, in her Leo Strauss and the American Right (1999), contends that Strauss believed that “perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what’s good for them.”
The OSP, relying largely on Iraqi exile and bank swindler Ahmad Chalabi (whom the CIA had long dismissed as a fraud) and Iraqi exile Rafid Ahmed Alwan (“Curveball”) in Germany, decided upon which false stories about Iraq would become part of the public campaign for war: weapons of mass destruction, aluminum tubes for an atomic weapons program, mobile biological weapons factories, a camp run by the Iraqi secret service to train foreigners in plane hijacking, purchases of Niger uranium, a camp of Kurdish al-Qaeda under Saddam’s protection with a chemical weapons plant in northeast Iraq, etc. Shulsky prepared the “talking points memos” consulted by many of the unnamed government sources sited by journalists in sensationalistic fashion. It worked!
In June 2003, just a month after the conquest of Iraq had begun, before the lies had been thoroughly exposed, Shulsky unabashedly described his Straussian view of intelligence. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “In a supportive role, intelligence must concentrate its efforts on finding and analyzing information relevant to implementing the policy” because, after all, “truth is not the goal” of intelligence operations, but “victory.” He explained that whereas the (traditional) “social science” method of intelligence focuses on “facts,” he prefers the military intelligence model, “in which the intelligence officer works for the commander rather than an independent intelligence agency.” (He further distils these thoughts in a 1999 essay, coauthored with Gary Schmitt, entitled “Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence” available on line. Here he also argues, citing Strauss, that “political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception.”)
Note that in traditional intelligence, deception is used to confuse the enemy. In this model, the deception (the “Noble Lie” in Straussian terms) used to mislead one’s own people, in order to achieve some “victory” on behalf of the noble, wise elite.
The calculated mendacity of the neocons project has been exposed any number of times. Recall how the head of British intelligence, Sir Richard Dearlove, famously concluded after visiting Washington in July 2002 that “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” (In other words, truth was not the goal, but the policy of conquering Iraq.) Meanwhile that same summer New York Times columnist Ron Suskind reported a visit from a “senior official” (perhaps Karl Rove) who complained about his writing and ridiculed his belief “that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he told Suskind. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality, 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.”
In May 2003, as two months into the occupation CIA teams were still scouring about for anything that might be called a weapon of mass destruction, Wolfowitz actually let the truth slip. He told Vanity Fair: “For reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.” Wolfowitz also chided reporters in Iraq for raising the issue, stating that the Iraqi people didn’t care about weapons of mass destruction but about rebuilding their country!
No Consequences: The Liars’ Career Moves
Thus not only were the war mongers manufacturing lies, they were in some instances blatantly justifying—as sound policy—the manipulation of public opinion through lies. And from their point of view, there are probably few regrets. Certainly their failures of prophecy (WMD hoards, ecstatic greetings, easy victory, peaceful democratic Iraq, even huge oil profits) have not cost them personally. Lynch mobs are not surrounding their homes, blaming them from the deaths of over four thousand young Americans and well over 100,000 Iraqis. Wolfowitz left the Defense Department quietly in April 2005, when support for the war had dropped below 50%. With no banking experience, he was appointed by President Bush to head the World Bank. (He left that post two years later when it was revealed that he had arranged a lucrative pay and promotion package for his girlfriend in violation of bank rules and had tried to hide this from bank legal and ethics officials.) According to ABC News, he was “the first World Bank president ever to leave under a cloud of scandal.” But no legal consequences, of course, and now this foremost architect of the Iraq War is happily occupied as a “visiting scholar” at the neocon-dominated American Enterprise Institute.
Feith meanwhile in January 2005 tip-toed out of the Defense Department (“for personal and family reasons” although there was some talk of “performance problems”). He was the first senior official to resign during Bush’s second term. This was well in advance of the report by the Pentagon inspector general made public in April 2007, according to which the OSP under Feith “developed, produced, and then disseminated alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and al Qaida relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the Intelligence Community, to senior decision-makers.” (The report concluded these actions were “inappropriate” though not “illegal.”) Senator Carl Levin, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, demanded the report be made public. “The bottom line,” he declared, “is that intelligence relating to the Iraq-al-Qaeda relationship was manipulated by high-ranking officials in the Department of Defense to support the administration’s decision to invade Iraq. The inspector general’s report is a devastating condemnation of inappropriate activities in the DOD policy office that helped take this nation to war.”
But no consequences! None even proposed by senior lawmakers like Levin, content to condemn as “inappropriate” what should be condemned as murderous. Lucky Feith was hired upon his departure on a two-year contract as a professor of National Security Policy at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Apparently the appointment wasn’t renewed. But he is now the director of the Center for National Strategies at the ultra-conservative Hudson Institute as well as a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
The “Prince of Darkness” and the Sabotage of Peace
Long-time Feith pal Richard Perle, whom Feith (just twelve years younger) dubs his “godfather,” is another neoconservative who aggressively promoted the cause of war on Iraq. He has a long history of promoting lies. Perle recommended Paul Wolfowitz for Team B to his good friend Richard Pipes. As Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, 1981-1987, he received the nickname “Prince of Darkness” due to his gloomy view of arms control, insistence that the USSR was planning for victory in a nuclear confrontation with the U.S., and (as we now know) grossly inflated view of Soviet military strength in the 1970s and 80s.
Appointed chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board in 2001, at Feith’s recommendation, Perle resigned over a conflict of interest situation involving his private consulting firm in 2003. In the interim, as Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books explained in June 2003, he transformed what had “just [been] an advisory group” into “in fact a powerful instrument for pushing neocon policies.” Using the prestige of his title and position (which is not subject to congressional approval), he editorialized in favor of war on Iraq in the British press, even telling European journalists in 2002 that “(9-11 hijacker) Mohammed Atta met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad prior to September 11. We have proof of that, and we are sure he wasn’t just there for a holiday. The meeting is one of the motives of an American attack on Iraq.” Sheer lies!
Perle validated all the “intelligence” his buddy, that charlatan Ahmad Chalabi, produced. But Perle was in fact more than any other U.S. official aware of the Iraqi desire to avert war. In December 2002 a representative of Gen. Tahir Jalil Habbush al Takriti, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence chief, sent a message to CIA former counter-intelligence head Vincent Cannistraro. (Habbush perhaps imagined that intelligence professionals are best able to manage conflicts between countries, at least when intelligence issues are so central.) Saddam, according to the message, “knew there was a campaign to link him to September 11 and prove he had weapons of mass destruction [but] the Iraqis were prepared to satisfy these concerns.” Cannistraro passed the message along to senior levels of the State Department whom, he says, “killed” it because the administration was insistent on removing Saddam from power. Perle must have been aware of this.
In February 2003 Perle was himself contacted indirectly by the Iraqi intelligence chief Hassan al-Obeidi and Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, in a desperate effort to stave off attack. The details are a bit complicated. They first contacted Imad al-Hage, a Lebanese-American businessman living in Beirut working with the Office of Special Plans. (He’d been recruited by his friend F. Michael Maloof, a Pentagon official working in the OSP). Hage had earlier met Perle through Maloof’s introduction in order to deliver a message from a senior Syrian intelligence official whom he had met during a business trip to Syria; the official had complained of the difficulties of establishing communications lines with U.S. intelligence. Iraqi officials may have felt that they, like the Syrians similarly in Washington’s crosshairs, might attempt to communicate through Perle via Hage.
The Iraqis, Perle was informed, offered to allow 5000 FBI agents to scour their country, in order to confirm the absence of any WMDs; grant oil and mining concessions to U.S. firms; declare “full support for any U.S. plan” for a Middle East peace process; and hand over al-Qaeda agent Abdul Rahman Yasin (in Iraqi custody since 1994) as a sign of good faith. They even acceded to UN-sponsored elections within two years. But Perle says he was instructed by the Pentagon to tell the Iraqis “it was a no-go” and that “we will see them in Baghdad.” (In a message to Saudi officials Perle revealed that U.S. conditions for peace included “Saddam’s abdication and departure, first to a U.S. military base for interrogation and then into supervised exile, a surrender of Iraqi troops, and the admission that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.” In other words Washington was demanding that Iraq avoid war by groveling in the sand, accepting occupation without a fight, joining abject capitulation with a false confession extracted under threats.)
Perle has been vague about his role in all this, suggesting the CIA prevented him from meeting with Iraqi negotiators, while the White House set policy. But it is hard to imagine this advocate of “regime change” throughout “the Greater Middle East” as an earnest proponent of talks.
Where’s Perle now? Getting interviewed by NPR, for one thing. Asked this month if he felt the war was worth it, the “Prince of Darkness” replied: “I’ve got to say I think that is not a reasonable question. What we did at the time was done in the belief that it was necessary to protect this nation. You can’t, a decade later, go back and say, ‘Well we shouldn’t have done that.’”
“Was done in the belief…” Who the hell created the belief? Who made people have nightmares about “a mushroom cloud over New York City”—knowing (as Perle did) that the Iraqi regime was in fact pleading for the U.S. to send in 5000 agents to ascertain for themselves that Iraq was no threat? It wasn’t the intelligence services, contemptuously dismissed by those “creating other new realities” for their quaintly “judicious study of discernible reality.” It was the neoconservatives staffing the think tanks to which Perle currently belongs, and from whose pulpits he can pontificate: Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the Center for Security Policy (CSP), the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
And why can’t we a decade later say “we shouldn’t have done it”? (This should indeed be, “you shouldn’t have done it.” Millions of us marched against the war, multiple times. Leave me out of that “we”!) But we on the right (moral, rational) side lost. The neocons won.
One could go down the list of neocons complicit in the planning for the Iraq War, enumerating the lies they’re most associated with. But suffice it to note that they triumphed. They got what they wanted, are generally unapologetic, have never been punished (physically, legally, financially) nor excluded from the public realm; indeed, some are treated as elder statesmen. Bill Kristol, who endorsed and embraced every neocon lie about Iraq, continues to appear as commentator on Fox News every Sunday, spouting disinformation about Iran and urging it be bombed.
The Neocon Achievement in Iraq
Surely most in this category are smugly satisfied at their achievement. They replaced a stable if bleeding Iraq under sanctions and Baathist secular rule—a country where women could go to school without headscarves, where Christians could sell and anyone purchase beer and DVDs, where Sunni-Shiite intermarriage and mixed neighborhoods were common, where Christian churches and the Baghdad synagogue were spared attack and kept in repair by the secularist regime, where doctors and professors felt secure in their professions, where four (out of 30) million people soon to be driven into internal or foreign exile still lived in their homes, where at least 100,000 people now dead went about their daily lives—with today’s Iraq of ongoing, bloody sectarian violence, religious fanaticism, assaults of women’s rights, attacks of gays, dysfunctional politics, plunder of the national heritage, flight of doctors, professors and other professionals, flight of Christians, incipient dictatorship.
“At least it’s not a threat to us anymore!” they might argue, although Iraq never threatened the U.S. in any way. Saddam had in fact been a CIA asset from 1959 into the early sixties at least and was indeed an ally in the 1980s, when Donald Rumsfeld happily met with him in Baghdad (December 1983 and again March 1984) and provided his military with satellite intelligence on Iranian troop movements. Iraq did not threaten the U.S. by invading Kuwait in 1990; Saddam only annexed Kuwait after a border row that Washington deliberately exacerbated, and after receiving what he felt were assurances from the U.S. that it would not intervene if there were war between the two countries. But George H.W. Bush wanted to seize the opportunity to destroy Saddam’s army. This had aided U.S. objectives while deployed against Iran, but with the end of the Iran-Iraq War in August 1988, the half-million strong, experienced Iraqi army appeared to constitute a threat to close U.S. allies, especially Israel.
Saddam’s forces were of course easily defeated, vitiated. Defenseless conscript boys fleeing on the road from Kuwait to Basra, in commandeered vehicles of any kind, were slaughtered by the tens of thousands. “It was like shooting fish in a barrel,” said one U.S. pilot. With the end of the war, Saddam had to agree to U.N. arms inspections that we now know resulted in the complete destruction of his WMD arsenal and had to accept U.S.-imposed no-fly zones (and de facto Kurdish autonomy) as well as crippling sanctions. No, Iraq was no threat to the U.S. as of 2001 and the neocons knew it.
Hadn’t the U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, stated in Cairo, on February 24, 2001, “He (Saddam Hussein) has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors”? Hadn’t Powell said on May 15 that Saddam had not been able to “build his military back up or to develop weapons of mass destruction” for “the last 10 years,” and that the U.S. had been successful in keeping him “in a box?” Hadn’t National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stated in July, “Saddam does not control the northern part of the country. We are able to keep his arms from him. His military forces have not been rebuilt”? All such statements were denied or forgotten once Bush and Cheney decided for war.
Israel: the Neocons’ Main Issue
U.S. security was not the issue. For the neocons, Israel was the main issue. In 1996 Perle had headed headed something called the Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy as part of the (Israeli) Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies. With Feith and other prominent dual-national neocons including David and Meyrav Wurmser, he authored (for Benjamin Netanyahu, not the U.S. government) a “new strategy for securing the realm” (that is to say, the “realm” of Israel). This paper declares that Israel “can shape its strategic environment,” in an “effort [that] can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq…”
Saddam shared no borders with Israel and had never made war on Israel. Iraqi forces had not fought Israelis since 1948, although Israel attacked Iraq’s French-built Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981 in an action condemned by the entire world (even Reagan’s UN ambassador voted to do so). So why would Perle highlight the Iraq threat? Saddam had in sent some Scud missiles Israel’s way in January 1991, as the U.S.-led coalition was destroying the Iraqi army. (39 Scuds hit Tel Aviv and Haifa resulting in significant property damage, two deaths from direct hits, and four from suffocation in their gas masks.) Saddam did, up to his overthrow, make payments to the families of Palestinians who died in suicide bombings. He was (and remains in death) popular on the Arab street precisely because of his unrelenting opposition to Israel.
So how satisfying it must have been for the Israeli leaders and their neocon allies to watch U.S. troops track Saddam down like a dog, display him humiliated in public, let a kangaroo court sentence him to death and hang him in front of the cameras! No more Scuds against Israel. No more payments to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. A vastly increased U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf (facilitating the prayed-for bombing of Iran). Working arrangements between the Israelis and Iraqi Kurds and a massive arms-for-oil deal between the Israelis and Azerbaijanis. Such are the heroic achievements that validate the Iraq War in the minds of the neocons. So what if an Arab nation’s been destroyed?
Where’s the Outrage?
It should be infuriating to any thinking, moral person that the war on Iraq was based on lies. One might hope that people in this country would see that, and be wary of further attempts to lead the country into wars based upon lies. But no! Their continued gullibility—more precisely, their vulnerability to media brainwashing—and the continued vitality of the neocons are shown by a recent Gallup poll showing that 99% of people in this country believe that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat “to the vital interests of the United States.”
Talk about a propaganda success! It shows the regime-change project remains on track. Gen. Wesley Clark has repeatedly cited a conversation he had with a Pentagon general on Sept. 20, 2001 who had received a memo describing, as he put it “how we are going to take out seven countries in five years. Starting with Iraq, then Syria and Lebanon. Then Libya, Somalia and Sudan. Then finishing off Iran.” The U.S. has now toppled the regimes in Iraq, Somalia and Libya, and works behind the scenes to overthrow the Syrian government. The U.S. and allies were able to force Syria out of Lebanon (but unable to thwart the political progress of Hizbollah). The agenda’s been substantially accomplished but Syria and Iran loom high on the to-do list.
The neocons have succeeded in persuading the American people that Iran threatens them. How did this happen? Early on in the George W. Bush administration it appeared that Colin Powell’s State Department might respond to some Iranian diplomatic initiatives. But by January 2002 Iran was part of the “Axis of Evil” alongside the (utterly unrelated) countries of Iraq and North Korea. Whereas Powell’s deputy Richard Armitage had referred to Iran as a “democracy” at the beginning of Bush’s term, in 2003 Dick Cheney’s office dismissed out of hand a message from the Iranian leadership offering to exchange cooperation on a two-state solution to the Palestine problem, end to support for Hamas and Hizbollah, assurances on the nuclear program and discussion of other issues in return for restoration of trade and diplomatic relations. Cheney meanwhile began to declare that the only reason Iran could possible be pursuing a nuclear power program (which he failed to note had begun under U.S. auspices in the 1970s, when the Shah was in power, with the enthusiastic involvement of GE) was to build a bomb! “With all that oil,” he declared, “why would they need to generate electricity from nuclear power?”
Cheney surrounded himself with neoncons, indeed, when heading up George W. Bush’s “transition team” in late 2000 selected most of the cabinet, choosing the most outrageously conservative figures possible and seeding the Defense and State Departments as best he could with neocons: Wolfowitz, Feith, Bolton, John Hannah. His chief of staff “Scooper” Libby had been a student of Wolfowitz at Yale and coauthored the “Wolfowitz Doctrine” with him in 1992. Libby accompanied Cheney on trips to the Pentagon to browbeat CIA officials into including their bogus “intelligence” in official reports. He was convicted in federal court of obstructing justice and perjury in relation to his role in the Plame Affair.
(Remember that affair? There have been so many outrages, it’s easy to forget, or get them all confused… A CIA agent named Valerie Plame, aware of intelligence suggesting that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger, proposed that her husband, Joseph C. Wilson, be sent to investigate. As a former career diplomat, who had been U.S. ambassador to Mali in the 1980s, he seemed an appropriate choice so he was sent by the CIA and discovered no evidence for any such purchase. This was reported to the Vice President’s Office in February 2002, according to Wilson, but Cheney denies any knowledge of the trip. He was however horrified to read on July 6, 2003 Wilson’s New York Times op-ed, “What I Didn’t Find In Africa.” The piece chastised Bush for mentioning the Niger uranium story in his January State of the Union Address and concluded he had “little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” Why was Cheney so enraged by this exposure of administration mendacity—so much that he apparently had Libby leak Wilson’s wife’s identity to Judith Miller of the New York Times in order to punish Wilson and ruin her career?)
Cheney’s inner sanctum was always a neocon hub. John Hannah, his national security advisor, and formerly assistant to John Bolton in the State Department, was a major architect of the Iraq War. David Addington, his counsel and chief of sometime staff, made Cheney’s case when he refused to cooperate with National Archives and Records Administration and to maintain absolute secrecy of records. One does not sense in Cheney the pro-Israel ardor that energizes the neocons; he is all about oil, and the Bush administration was all about merging neocon regional transformation goals with (capitalist-imperialist) “national interests.” The oil barons Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush and even Rice (board of Chevron) perhaps sought control over the oil fields; the neocons sought that too, but mainly greater security for Israel. Anyway Cheney happily led the way for neocons in the administration to marginalize the State Department in freezing Iran relations and in vilifying the Iranian regime. They insisted at every opportunity that they knew the Iranians had a nuclear weapons program.
Cheney was furious when the sixteen U.S. government intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI and military intelligence, submitted a National Intelligence Estimate in 2006 concluding with “high confidence” that Iran did not have an active nuclear weapons program. (The NIE of 2011 reiterated this conclusion. Meanwhile, the IAEA which keeps tight watch over the Iranian nuclear program has found no evidence that Iran has ever diverted fuel for military use.) The Vice President’s Office succeeding in delaying release of the document by a year. Asked about it at a press conference in Dec. 2007, George Bush replied, “The NIE says that Iran had a hidden—a covert nuclear weapons program. That’s what it said. What’s to say they couldn’t start another covert nuclear weapons program? And the best way to ensure that the world is peaceful in the future is for the international community to continue to work together to say to the Iranians, we’re going to isolate you.” On a trip to Israel Bush comforted its leaders by pointedly disavowing his own intelligence agencies’ conclusions—a prime example of empire creating its own realities.
This is the way they deal with truth. They insult our intelligence while assaulting our sense of decency. Is it not outrageous? Are we so accustomed to this culture of lying, then covering up the lies, or forgetting them, or (as Obama has) forgiving them by declining to prosecute the liars for what Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations that declined to approve Bush’s war called “illegal” for war crimes—that we’re no longer angry?
The Noblest Lie of All: Iran’s Nukes
How many hundreds of thousands of lives have been destroyed from Iraq to Pakistan due to a “War on Terror” that changes shape, shifting from Aghanistan to Iraq to Libya to Syria and Iran? How many will be killed if the U.S. and/or Israel decide to prevent Iran from mastering the nuclear cycle, just the way Brazil and Argentina want to do (with no one objecting), and which every nation signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty has the “inalienable right” to do?
Because that is what it’s about: preventing Iran from doing what it’s entitled to do under international law. The neocons have been incessantly demanding a U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities for years, particularly since their heyday during the George W. Bush years when neocon icon Norman Podhoretz publically prayed to Bush to bomb Iran. Cheney, we know, was on board the project; Condoleezza Rice, however, apparently restrained her boss with the very practical argument that world oil prices would double and wreck the world economy.
But the game wasn’t over when Bush/Cheney left with their remaining neocon courtiers and Obama moved into the White House. Obama campaign advisor Rahm Emmanuel, who’d had the candidate tell the AIPAC conference that he supported Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal undivided capital” (which is of course at variance with the official U.S.position, which recognizes that East Jerusalem is illegally occupied) likely scripted Obama’s first press conference after becoming president. At that conference, in answering a question about his response to the congratulatory message from Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, Obama merely declared that he would not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. This, despite the NIEs, the IAEA reports, Iranian denials and the fatwa issued by Iran’s Supreme Leader against nuclear weapons production, sale or use. Obama has not echoed Bush’s preposterous neocon and AIPAC-spun rhetoric about “the shadow of a nuclear holocaust” but he has never challenged the fear mongering or emphasized what his intelligence services tell him. Instead he conveys the impression that Iran is heading to some unacceptable level of nuclear power capacity—some vaguely defined “red line” level at which Iran would be so near the capability to produce nuclear weapons (which, one should remember from time to time, Israel has in abundance) that the U.S. would have to preemptively attack, for its own sake or to protect Israel.
Obama’s main Iran advisor to November 2011 was Dennis Ross. Described by Aaron David Miller, whom he’d served with as a diplomat during the Camp David negotiations of 1999-2000, as “Israel’s lawyer,” Ross had responded to the 2007 NIE by co-authoring a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece declaring that Iran was striving to become “a nuclear state” and that leaders needed to “mobilize the power of a united American public in opposition” and send aircraft carriers into the Persian Gulf. He had long advocated crippling economic sanctions on Iran, precisely to provoke actions that might be used to justify a U.S.-Israeli attack. Ross may have left his post on the National Security Council due to disappointment at Obama’s failure to attack. But the relentless neocon drumbeating, plus AIPAC pressure, produce resolutions like H.R. 1905: Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, which actually forbids U.S. government officials from having any contact with Iranian officials without congressional approval two weeks in advance:
“The President may waive the requirements of subsection (c) if the President determines and so reports to the appropriate congressional committees 15 days prior to the exercise of waiver authority that failure to exercise such waiver authority would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States.” This is a clear indication that there are some powerful forces who do not trust Obama to bomb Iran as they so hope but will rather find a negotiated settlement whereby, say, Iran’s regime commits to cap enrichment at under 20% and under rigid monitoring but the regime stays in place. These no doubt include people who’ve been taken in by the propaganda and think Iran has threatened to attack Israel unprovoked, and cynical people who know Iran’s no threat but relish an opportunity to bomb it anyway.
Hoodwinking the 99%
The reason for that Gallop figure of 99%—those seeing Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to the U.S.—is that the people of this country have been subjected to a massive campaign of disinformation. I don’t suggest a single coordinator or command center. The campaign includes wildly illogical (but to some, convincing) conflation of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “Asis of Evil” by George W. Bush in January 2002; the false story in 2001 that Rafsanjani threatened Israel with nuclear war (basically by boasting that Iran was much larger than Israel); the false story after Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005 that he had been among the students seizing hostages at the U.S. embassy in 1979; the false story that Ahmadinejad in October 2005 said “Israel must be wiped off the map”; the false news story in 2006 about the Iranian parliament planning to badge Jews; the (successful) 2010 campaign to classify the Revolutionary Guards (a division of the Iranian Army) a “terrorist organization” (something now-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel opposed at the time, noting it was unusual to classify in such fashion a regular military force with 125,000 personnel including ground, air and naval forces). It even includes the 2007 film 300 that vilified Persians (versus Greeks) in western antiquity.
When you read report after mainstream press report that refers matter-of-factly to “Iran’s nuclear weapons program” as though there definitely is one, and find that editors refuse to insist that reports routinely note “the entire U.S. intelligence establishment has repeatedly concluded that Iran has no operative nuclear weapons program,” and then you look at that poll figure, you can tell how the neocons and allies have won. However exposed, time and again, the lies of empire have triumphed, and continue to triumph. More than progressive honest investigative journalism, which flourishes in the interstices of the media, reaching those paying attention but scarcely impacting (or impacting too late) minds saturated with corporate media lies, we need a different system entirely.
Recall that MSNBC, now the most “liberal” cable news network happy to run documentaries critical of the Iraq War (now that it’s over), once fired a very popular Phil Donahue in order to silence his outspoken criticism of the war on Iraq. It was not because the show wasn’t making money; indeed, it was the most popular show on MSNB. But MSNBC owner GE was deeply invested in war, and as a leaked internal memo put it, Donahue presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” In other words, he wasn’t doing his proper job of lining up in favor war, the way fellow MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews was doing. So he was discharged one month before the bombing of Iraq began.
The moral? So long as profit conditions what the masses hear and believe, there will be more wars based on lies. In the end, the problem is less a cabal hell-bent on regime change throughout the Muslim Middle East than the nature of the corporate press that markets their lies in the service of the system we live under: bloodthirsty capitalist imperialism.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department 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 a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org