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When asked on Monday about administration plans for an attack on Iran, including the use of nuclear bunker-buster bombs as laid out by Seymour Hersh in his New Yorker article, “The Iran Plans,” George Bush was derisively dismissive. “What you’re reading is wild speculation, which is-it’s kind of a, you know, happens quite frequently here in the nation’s capital.” Donald Rumsfeld, when questioned on Tuesday about whether the Pentagon had any fresh plans for Iran, spewed venom. “The last thing I’m going to do is to start telling you or anyone else in the press, or the world, at what point we refresh a plan or don’t refresh a plan and why. It just isn’t useful.”
The performances themselves were unremarkable in that they were what we’ve come to expect, but it is the ease with which they are still able to get away with this that drives me to ask, “Can this Republic stand?”
After all, what Hersh revealed to a mainstream audience this week has not been a closely guarded state secret. Rather, this administration has always been forthright, if not brazen, in laying out the broad contours of its endless “war on terror.” The elements are known: disavowal of international treaties and obligations, legal manipulation and deconstruction, unilateral assertion of rights. When it comes to Iran in particular, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Bolton, and Hadley have all been consistent and deliberate in their choice of words. “Nothing is off the table.” And anyone who has been willing to push just a question or two beneath the surface has found quite specific details of what that means in an array of official statements and speeches that have been greeted mostly with yawns. We are not paying attention to their words, and we are doing so at our peril.
A case in point. In March National Security Director Stephen Hadley appeared before a genteel audience in the paneled conference room of the U.S. Institute of Peace to unveil the latest “National Security Strategy.” He was casual and understated in his manner, he called many of the questioners by their first names, and they called him Steve. The press, when it reported on the document, treated it as though it had been issued merely to fulfill some obscure bureaucratic requirement.
The document he delivered, however, was the latest installment in the administration’s domestic psy-ops campaign. Moving boundaries, subtly dissolving language, claiming novel authority, all dressed up in numbingly banal legalize. We need to be paying much closer attention.
First, the strategy document offers a history lesson:
“For centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack. Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of preemption on the existence of an imminent threat-most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack.”
But after a perfunctory bow in the direction of centuries of international law, we are told that all is now changed. Old principles are outmoded, black is no longer black. It’s the Gonzales “Geneva-Conventions-as-quaint” move:
“We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries. Rogue states and terrorists do not seek to attack us using conventional means. They know such attacks would fail. Instead, they rely on acts of terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction-weapons that can be easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning.
“The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction- and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”
In other words, there no longer needs to be an imminent threat “in the traditional sense.” And the United States has, once again, arrogated unto itself the authority, or right, to act “preemptively” whenever it sees fit. Then, as if anticipating the objections of the faint of heart, we are assured that the United States knows the difference between “legitimate” use of force and naked aggression:
“The United States will not use force in all cases to preempt emerging threats, nor should nations use preemption as a pretext for aggression. Yet in an age where the enemies of civilization openly and actively seek the world’s most destructive technologies, the United States cannot remain idle while dangers gather.”
Ah! The sleight of hand. The last line takes it all away. We are being set up, and we’ve been warned.
It was during the question and answer session that Hadley spoke quite plainly, so soothingly that his words were ingested before you knew what you were drinking. CNN asked how the debacle in Iraq had changed the administration’s thinking about its policy of preemption. Hadley did not miss a beat. “There is a view out there that Iraq is exhibit one in preemptive war,” he calmly replied. “Twelve years of diplomacy, 16, 17 security council resolutions is hardly a preemptive war In the end of the day, Saddam had a strategic decision to make and he made the wrong decision and left the international community and the United States with few options. That’s what I think is the story of Iraq.”
Not only is Iraq not a debacle, it’s not an example of preemptive war. He was serious. The questioner was flustered. The next questioner did attempt to press just a little further, asking whether the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq hadn’t undermined the administration’s theory of preventive war. Hadley once again deftly turned the tables, and in a way that leaves no doubt about how the “unending war on terror” is being planned and executed.
“We learned a lot of things. We’ve learned that we need better intelligence In some sense those countries that pursue weapons of mass destruction, in secret, also learned an important lesson, that there are risks for that kind of behavior, for that kind of activity.”
The answer was an open threat to Iran, Syria, North Korea and anyone else that falls out with the empire. Our intelligence may be faulty, but our suspicions are all that matter. If we think that you are developing weapons in secret, or even if we want the rest of the world to think that we think that you are, we will do to you what we did to Iraq. Hadley went on:
“I think the basic proposition, though, remains, that we have seen the lethality of terrorist groups and their state sponsors without access to weapons of mass destruction, and we cannot turn away from the risk that those groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction and the threat that that could pose to the United States of America. And the president has made clear we need to use all the tools of national power to try to deal with and avoid that threat. But in the end of the day, effective use of military force in a smart, measured way has to remain part of your inventory But what we say in the document about preemption simply is, [preemption] has to, in the current times, [preemption] has to be, remain as one of the options.”
And remember, Iraq was not a preventive or even preemptive war. It was forced on the United States by the actions of a recalcitrant dictator, and we “simply” did what we had to. Need we ask how the attack on Iran will be sold?
As if on cue Thursday, after announcing earlier in the week that Iran had successfully enriched a small amount of uranium, Iranian President Ahmadinejad stepped in to defend his country’s legal right to do so, stating “no one has the right to retreat, even one iota.” With International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei in the country for a day of diplomatic talks, Ahmadinejad warned, “Our answer to those who are angry about Iran achieving the full nuclear fuel cycle is just one phrase. We say: ‘Be angry at us and die of this anger.”
And we have an administration that is brimming with anger. The accusations, denunciations and threats are reaching a fever pitch, all carefully calculated to draw us into their vortex of fear. Jim Lobe writes, “In a veritable blitz of editorials and opinion pieces published Wednesday and Thursday, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, and National Review warned that Tehran had passed a significant benchmark in what they declared was its quest for nuclear weapons and that the administration must now plan in earnest to destroy Iran’s known nuclear facilities, as well as possible military targets, to prevent it from retaliating.”
Hersh’s New Yorker article lays out the blueprint. The war against Iran is to include the use of nuclear bunker-buster bombs in an aerial assault, and the planning, he says, has already moved into the operational phase. “This White House believes that the only way to solve the problem is to change the power structure in Iran, and that means war,” a senior Pentagon adviser told Hersh.
“The Bush administration’s rapid escalation of anti-Iran rhetoric in the last few months should not be dismissed as posturing,” writes Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, “this administration has a history of carrying out actions widely viewed, even among U.S. elites, as reckless and dangerous.” Echoing those sentiments, Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace admits, “I previously dismissed talk about U.S. military strikes as left-wing conspiracy theory and the kind of stuff that bloggers are chattering about on the Internet. But in just the past few weeks I’ve been convinced that at least some in the administration have already made up their minds that they would like to launch a military strike against Iran.”
And where is Congress as yet another war is announced? Greg Mitchell, writing in Editor and Publisher, is on target. “You don’t expect the Democrats to keep us out of war, do you? Just as they would not stand up to the president on Iraq for fear of appearing ‘weak on terror,’ they would likely be wary of appearing ‘weak on the Tehran Bomb.’ Let’s face it: All the Democrats want to do right now is stagger through to November with an unpopular president in office, and hope that, maybe, they can re-take at least one house of Congress-without having to stick their necks out.”
This is borne out by Hersh who reports that his Congressional sources tell him that no one “is really objecting.”
“‘The people they’re briefing are the same ones who led the charge on Iraq. At most, questions are raised: How are you going to hit all the sites at once? How are you going to get deep enough?’ (Iran is building facilities underground.) ‘There’s no pressure from Congress’ not to take military action, the House member added. ‘The only political pressure is from the guys who want to do it.’ Speaking of President Bush, the House member said, ‘The most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision.'”
Bush with a messianic vision. Ahmadinejad obligingly playing the devil. A nuclear first strike on the table. Congress complicit. Our democracy has arrived at a critical juncture. Can we still claim to be a democracy in any sense of the word?
Last month Phyllis Bennis wrote that “the administration’s most useful tool-fear-remains a factor in U.S. politics, but it is now much more concentrated in Congress, less so in the American people.” She believes that the shifting poll numbers reveal a new public awareness, and that “our task now is to transform that consciousness into empowerment.”
I hope that she is right, but if so, how do we do that? How do we transform awareness into empowerment? When Chomsky was asked a similar question recently, he answered, “Start acting like you live in a democracy.”
Do we believe enough in ourselves and in our democratic freedoms to begin acting as though our actions can actually achieve something? That we can succeed? That we can win?
Arundhati Roy exhorts us to exercise our freedoms. “It is important to remember that our freedoms, such as they are, were never given to us by any government, they have been wrested by us. If we do not use them, if we do not test them from time to time, they atrophy. If we do not guard them constantly, they will be taken from us. If we do not demand more and more, we will be left with less and less.”
I hear Roy’s adamant tone in the challenge Scott Ritter issued recently to the antiwar/peace movement. He met a lot of good, committed people, he said, but was baffled by the often uncoordinated and seemingly aimless efforts. He surely had Hadley’s voice in the back of his head as he issued the challenge to “adopt a laser-like focus” on ending the war. He knows that the war’s prosecutors have been assiduously putting the pieces of their plan in place for decades. If we really believe that this unending, unlimited war can and must be stopped, then we had better develop our own comprehensive strategy and begin to implement it with at least a commensurate conviction. In Ritter’s words, “adopt a laser-like focus” on ending the war.
Bush’s casual brush-off on Monday serves as a smokescreen only for those who choose to remain invincibly ignorant. But that’s what they are counting on. A Los Angeles Times poll-conducted before this week’s developments in Tehran-found that 48% of Americans said they would support military action if Iran continues to produce material that could be used to develop nuclear weapons; only 40% said no. One in four would back use of ground troops.
“Crises polarize people,” says Roy. “They hustle us into making uninformed choices: ‘You’re either with us or with the terrorists If you’re not good, you’re evil.’ These are spurious choices. They’re not the only ones available to us. But in a crisis, we become like goalkeepers in a penalty shoot-out of a soccer match. We imagine that we have to commit ourselves to one side or another. We have nothing to go on but instinct and social conditioning. And once we’re committed it’s hard to realign oneself. In this process, those who ought to be natural allies become enemies.”
University of California physicist, Jorge Hirsch, who has rallied nearly 2000 physicists to denounce a first use of nuclear weapons by the United States, issued his own challenge. “I believe there is a high probability of war with Iran because key people in the administration desperately want it, but I don’t believe it is inevitable. I hope there will be a sufficiently large public outburst of opposition… However I believe there is very little time: an attack may well happen within the next 2 weeks, while Congress is in recess. There is no advantage to those that want it to happen in waiting.”
If that’s the case, how can we act before instinct and social conditioning take over, yet again? Before the Iran war propaganda machine kicks into high gear? We have reached a moment of crisis from which we must not shrink. Can our democratic system of government restrain a crazed administration with messianic intentions from waging nuclear war against Iran? Will Congress stand up and forbid the administration from launching a nuclear attack on Iran? I have grave suspicions that we already know the answer, but let’s verify that. Let’s drive the members of Congress out into the open, put them on notice that we are giving them 14 days to take a stand on Iran by answering this straightforward question: “Will you take a nuclear first strike against Iran off the table, now?”
It’s a simple strategy. Arundhati Roy says that once we understand that the freedoms we have must always be wrested from those in power, and that they atrophy when not practiced, we can turn that insight into a tool for “interrogating what passes as ‘normalcy’ and can subvert the tyranny of crisis.”
Let the interrogation begin by launching a 14-day campaign that starts today and ends April 28. Congress is in recess and members are at home in their districts. Let’s ask each one of our Senators and Representatives a straightforward question. One that requires a “yes” or “no” answer. “Will you take a nuclear first strike against Iran off the table, now?” By April 28, any answer other than a “yes” will be taken as a “no.” Throw them off balance. Interrogate the lunacy of a nuclear first strike that is masquerading as ‘normalcy.’ Subvert the tyranny of the latest manufactured crisis.
The United Nations Security Council has given Iran until April 28 to comply with the demand that they cease the enrichment of uranium. What showdown will be set in motion by their refusal?
Direct questions from citizens demanding direct answers will become a trial by ordeal for politicians hiding out in the war’s shadows. That’s the challenge to the antiwar/peace movement.
Our representatives in Congress are not innocent lambs. Here’s what they already know.
Stephen Hadley played a prominent role in crafting the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which was completed in 2002. It explicitly calls for U.S. nuclear weapons to deter and respond to a “wide range of threats,” including attacks by conventional, chemical, or biological weapons as well as “surprising military developments.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists expressed its alarm last year about the dramatic change of direction in U.S. nuclear policy:
“While the United States has never forsworn the first use of nuclear weapons, the Bush NPR carries this policy further and makes it more explicit.
“The Bush NPR explicitly calls for targeting nuclear weapons against several non-nuclear weapon state signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is contrary to previous U.S. pledges to not do so. Such pledges were made by all the nuclear weapon state signatories to the NPT as an incentive for other countries to renounce nuclear weapons.”
Addressing directly the question of U.S. actions that will drive other countries towards nuclear instability, the Union of Concerned Scientists continues:
“However, this policy is counter to U.S. and international security interests. Maintaining and strengthening the firebreak against the use of nuclear weapons by all countries should be a paramount concern for U.S. national security. Thus, the sole purpose for U.S. nuclear weapons should be to deter the use of nuclear weapons and, if necessary, to respond to nuclear attacks. The additional roles for nuclear weapons called for by the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review undermine the overriding goal of preventing the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons. If the United States, with unquestioned conventional superiority, chooses to rely on nuclear weapons, then weaker states-particularly those not covered by U.S. security guarantees-would apparently have a far greater need for nuclear weapons. Ultimately, this policy of first use will encourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
Answering questions from Congress in March of last year about the proposed next generation of nuclear bunker-buster bombs, Ambassador Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, spelled it out.
“I really must apologize for my lack of precision if we in the administration have suggested that it was possible to have a bomb that penetrated far enough to trap all fall-out. I don’t believe the laws of physics will ever let that be true But it is very important for this committee to recognize what we on our side recognize…. There is a nuclear weapon that is going to be hugely destructive over a large area. No sane person would use a weapon like that lightly… I do want to make it clear that any thought of … nuclear weapons that aren’t really destructive is just nuts.”
But Congress already knows all of this. They know, too, the effects of using a tactical nuclear weapon in Iran. They’ve had the briefings. They know that “the depth at which even a small nuclear weapon must be buried to ensure that it is ‘contained’ -that is, that no radiation is released when it explodes-is much greater than the achievable penetration depth, so that it is impossible to prevent radioactive fallout” from a nuclear earth-penetrating weapon of any size, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Attack Iran and it will be a solemn declaration that we care not one whit about the lives of Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, or most anyone else on the planet. Then we’re left to reap the whirlwind.
Our question, “Will you take a nuclear first strike off the table, now?” is only the first question. It’s our opening gambit, the pry bar that will open up a new space for social action. A free space in which we will be able to begin to seriously imagine a future and to strategize its creation. We can use this round of interrogations to jump out ahead of the Bush war machine, to reinforce the firebreak the administration has been systematically obliterating, to reclaim territory that we have ceded. To get some of our language back. Once we’ve established our beachhead, we can begin to move in.
We have already begun in Missouri. A group of us will ask our two senators, Kit Bond and Jim Talent, to answer the question with a “yes” or “no.” We have appointments at their offices on Tuesday. We are also arranging meetings with our nine Representatives in Congress. By next Friday we will hold a press conference in St. Louis to announce their answers. We will also publish their answers at www.offthetable.org.
Here is a challenge to you. Visit the office of your Representative and Senators and put the question to them. Then go to www.offthetable.org and record their answers.
Joining this campaign is not complicated. Visit your Senators and Representatives and put the question to them. Let them know that any answer other than “yes” will be considered a “no” and that April 28 is the deadline. Take your friends. Take a day off work and go with colleagues. Commit your local peace group to the task.
Here’s a challenge to MoveOn. Use your organizing muscle to get people out, physically, and into Congressional offices between today and April 28. Help empower your members by urging them to pose a direct question and demand a direct answer.
Here’s a challenge to United for Peace and Justice. Exhort your member organizations to jump into this campaign. Imagine the strategizing that could take place on April 29 in New York if everyone came knowing exactly where Congress stood on the issue of launching a nuclear first strike against Iran.
“Who will blow the whistle on Iran?” asked Ray McGovern last month. “Anyone who has been near a TV in recent weeks has heard the drumbeat for war on Iran Let’s see if we cannot do better this time than we did on Iraq. Patriotic truth tellers, we need you!”
What’s our immediate task? Force every one of our Senators and Representatives out into the open before April 28. By our actions we can give courage to those on the inside who need to find a way to speak out while discovering our own power and courage.
Hersh says a Pentagon adviser he interviewed called the administration’s war plans “a juggernaut that has to be stopped.” Within two weeks time we will find out the harsh truth of whether Congress will act to stop this juggernaut.
For if not, we must organize ourselves into a peoples’ resistance movement that will claim the authority and responsibility that our elected representatives have abdicated. We will need to learn the tactics that will further a comprehensive strategy. It requires exploration and practice. We should become conversant in many of Gene Sharp’s 198 methods for nonviolent action, including protesting, persuasion, intervention, and non-cooperation of all sorts. That comes next.
For now, let the interrogations begin.
ANDREW WIMMER is a member of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
CTSA is organizing this campaign in Missouri and hosting the site www.offthetable.org. The site contains a news archive and a place for discussion. We are anxious to hear your comments, suggestions, and insights.