Iran: War Talk, Peace Talk

It is difficult to avoid bumping into Jeffrey Goldberg these days. The Atlantic commentator’s prediction that there is a good chance Israel will strike Iran by next July to destroy its alleged nuclear weapons program has got everyone talking, and writing, and then talking some more.

This discussion has been going on for years now. The right-wingers say it’s about time for a preemptive strike, that Iran simply cannot be allowed to have a weapon, and it would be all the better if Israel — and the United States — were willing to carry out a nuclear invasion. The left lists a series of objections to an attack on Iran either by Israel or the United States — among them the lack of evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons, that it has a right to enrich uranium under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, that talks must be the only resort, and so on.

Then there are the cold analysts, who look at facts exactly as they are and pronounce their verdict. To some of them, Goldberg’s article is a psychological operation (psyop) to pressure the United States into carrying out the strike before Israel loses its patience. To others of their ilk, such talk is a psyop to pressure Iran to toe the Western line and call off its nuclear program or else.

But here’s the real bottom line: No strike is going to take place, not by next July, not by the next decade of Julys.

The Phantom Strike

If a strike on Iran were to have happened, it would have taken place at least five years ago. Fresh from his election to a second term, a warmongering U.S. president would have lost no sleep over domestic politics then. Afghanistan was already a forgotten war, Iraq was yet to turn into as big a nightmare as it has become, and Iran had just got a new president who seemed to have little experience in international politics, let alone war. In addition, Syria had recently been ousted from Lebanon, leaving Iran’s regional proxy network at its weakest and limiting the chances or retribution against Israel.

But a strike didn’t happen. No F-16s flew across the Strait of Hormuz; no B-52s hovered over Bushehr or Tehran. Since then, Iran has been steadily increasing its readiness for such an attack, both militarily and by deepening its economic ties with China, Russia and Turkey and thus raising the stakes of the game. In the meanwhile, the United States has a new president who relies on antiwar voters to survive within his own party and an economy that can’t lift its own weight. Israel has a new prime minister who can’t attack a boat in international waters without having the whole world baying for his blood.

So no war is going to happen, and everyone knows this. And yet, for years now, everyone has been talking in all earnest about why a war should or should not happen. What’s the point?

Talking Is the Point

The point is the talk itself. War may not happen, for conditions do not allow it, but talk of war very nearly serves the purpose of those who would like to see it happen. In short, war is best, but talk of war is a close second.

Such talk, from whichever perspective, helps build a siege mentality among an unsuspecting public. Whether you listen to arguments for or against, just the fact that you are listening to serious war talk all around you makes you feel you are, or soon could be, at war. And that opens you up to the idea of supporting the purchase of another aircraft bomber even if you can’t pay your mortgage installment.

There is nothing new to this. Long before he propounded the clash of civilizations theory, Samuel P. Huntington made a name for himself by arguing that maintaining a large and fully equipped military was imperative for the United States even in times of peace. His book The Soldier and the State came out in 1957, when liberal Americans were wondering why they should spend millions of dollars on the military although the world war was well over and no new war was imminent.

Huntington suggested that American society would have to turn conservative en masse because liberalism would weaken national security. The thesis proved to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. The Cold War followed, Americans did become more conservative and supportive of an imbecilic arms race, and militaries and military pacts grew and grew in size. Alongside grew the coffers of the military-industrial complex.

The Harvard professor returned at the end the Cold War to suggest that although communism was now defeated, a civilization clash was on between Islam and the West: another self-fulfilling prophesy, which once again had the by-now-familiar effect of boosting the fortunes of the defense industry in yet another hour of crisis. The Clash of Civilizations made Huntington a celebrated thinker worldwide, but in truth it only gave a new context to a means of mass manipulation spawned by The Soldier and the State. The objective was to turn the utterly counterintuitive notion of sustaining and expanding armies and arsenals, even when you don’t need them, into a sine qua non for every modern state.

It’s the reason why Americans today are willing to accept record defense budgets, even under a president who promised to end the Iraq War and claims to be winding down all active military engagements ahead of deadlines.

Talk Turns to Peace?

The cyber Beltway is ringing with talk of another kind as well — not of war but of peace. Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas met in Washington on September 2 to begin direct negotiations for the first time since Israel’s 2008 Gaza assault.

The talk surrounding peace is not as voluble as the talk surrounding war, but they are similar in a crucial respect — both talks are equally pointless. Just as no Iran war is to take place, so no Israeli-Palestinian peace is in the cards. And this, too, is equally well known to the Israelis, the Palestinians, the rest of the Arabs, the Americans, and the pundits, as well as those who know next to nothing about the conflict.

For one, even while discussing how much land he may have to concede to the Palestinians, Netanyahu is unwilling to forgo fresh grabbing of Palestinian land as the talks are going on. Furthermore, members of his own coalition and the opposition as well want Abbas to vanish, and for a plague to be visited on the Palestinians. They are unlikely to accept any form of peace plan that requires Israel to concede an inch.

Third, Netanyahu himself was allergic to the idea of negotiated peace with the Palestinians until his recent meeting with Obama, after which he suggested that direct talks should take place on the condition that Israel would abide by no conditions.

Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, Abbas has no authority whatsoever, not among the larger Palestinian populace, not among his own Fatah members.

So, let’s call the bluff. The only possibility of peace right now is if Obama can press Netanyahu to concede significant ground on virtually every point of contention — by dint of the fact that Israel is the aggressor and the occupier. But the past has shown that Barack cannot hold his own against Bibi, and the president has shown he doesn’t even want to, certainly not so close to the November midterm elections.

Here, too, the point is the talks themselves. Movement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front was a key presidential campaign message for Obama, he can’t enter midterm polls without having something to show.

So, the peace talks have been called. The leaders meet, are photographed hand in hand, sit and discuss, disagree and eventually walk away. Then the blame game will begin, along with violence. There will be some UN reports, preceded by talks on whether the UN should do any reports or not, and followed by talks on whether it should adopt them or not. With luck, there could be some votes and resolutions too. The charade will continue until the time is ripe for the next peace talks.

Talk of peace and talk of war aren’t really all that different then. They are two sides of the same counterinsurgency (COIN) operation that Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is so fond of. War, war and jaw, jaw — once so clearly distinct — have become a single unpalatable policy.

SAIF SHAHIN is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and a doctoral candidate in West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.