Will Iran War be Another October Surprise?

Will Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu concoct a war with Iran?  Not if they have a tenth of the sense they were born with.  But that’s not much consolation when we’re dealing, on the one hand, with a vulture capitalist and one time Mormon bishop whose flip flopping gives opportunism a bad name and, on the other, with a fascistically inclined ethnocratic zealot on a mission from God.

Each of them is nefarious enough to tempt fate.  To make matters worse, it turns out that the two of them are friends.

It doesn’t help either that Barack Obama, having publically endorsed the Israeli view of Iran’s nuclear program, reinforced their pretext, the one that media pundits in thrall to the Israel lobby have promoted for years.   Neither does it help that, despite overwhelming evidence that it produces the opposite of the intended effect, it is now taken for granted in Western capitals that it is good policy to wage or threaten to wage disarmament wars – ostensibly to block nuclear proliferation.

If we could be confident of the rationality of the parties involved, there would be no cause for alarm.  But can anyone reflecting on the absurdity of American politics in the Bush-Obama era, or on Israeli politics, not help but worry?  In both countries, the left is a shell and the center is spineless and insipid.  Meanwhile, the right is not just mindless but also dangerously full of what William ButlerYeats called “passionate intensity.”

Therefore the irrational could come to pass.  It isn’t likely because the consequences would be so catastrophic, but it isn’t impossible either.

* * *

As if to underscore the debasement of his character and the larger political culture of which it is an integral part, watch how, between now and November, Mitt Romney heaps praise on Ronald Reagan, the Son of Man second only to the Son of God in the minds of the Republican faithful.

As an opportunist ever on the lookout for opportunities, Romney knows that praising Reagan can’t hurt with “moderates” either — especially not when Obama Democrats chirp on about how Reagan’s was a “transformative” presidency, and as they praise his “pragmatism” on taxes and his willingness to accord amnesty to undocumented aliens.  They have a point:  Reagan’s views on many of the current fixations of the Republican base are closer to Obama’s than to the Republican Party line today.

But the Reagan cult is not about the man, the so so actor and acting President who served as an amiable figurehead for plutocrats intent on rolling back organized labor and undoing the New Deal-Great Society settlement.  It is about a mythical figure whose character took shape in the nether regions of the political culture during the Clinton years.  By 1998, the process had gone so far that few Democrats even bothered to object when Bill Clinton renamed Washington’s National Airport for that villainous (and already senile) scoundrel.

Even so, it would cost Democrats to venerate Reagan the way Republicans do; so they seldom dare.  Yet our two post-Reagan Democratic presidents have done more than
any Republican could to implement the vision that has come to be associated with his name.  Their efforts were not ideologically driven.  Unlike Republicans, they have no beef with the social and economic advances achieved in the middle decades of the twentieth century.  To the very considerable extent that they have acted as if they did, it is only because that’s what the oligarchs who own them wanted them to do.

To the extent that Democrats in Congress have gone along, it has mainly been a case of follow (or at least support) the leader.  When Republicans are in the White House, Democratic legislators are more inclined to accord weight to the interests of the people who vote them into office.

How is it then that after eight years of Clinton and more than three already of Obama, Social Security and Medicare are still intact?  The short answer is: we’ve been lucky.

After ending “welfare as we know it,” Clinton set out to take on Social Security.  He failed only because Republicans couldn’t resist making a federal case out of his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  When Obama, aiming to please deficit hawks, tried much the same, he encountered a less salacious obstacle – obstinacy.  If Obama proposed it, Republicans were against it.  And so they turned down a Grand Compromise confected in the White House that Reagan could only have dreamed of achieving.  In a second Obama term, we may not be so lucky.

My point is not that the historical Reagan was a liberal at heart, quite the contrary.  It is that Obama and Clinton are, or might as well be, “secret Republicans.”

And what about adherents of today’s Reagan cult?  Since their antics are of more clinical than political interest, the traditional compass points of the political lexicon are inadequate.  Political space, or rather the end of it occupied by the hard core Republican base, has become too unhinged for received concepts or traditional understandings of party labels to be of use.

* * *

Some things don’t change, however.  Politicians will be politicians, whether or not the inmates are running the asylum; and attitudes about their violations of civics lessons norms have remained consistent even as the Democratic Party has veered rightward and the Republican Party, leading the way, has flipped off the charts altogether.

Everyone despises Lee Atwater-Karl Rove style “dirty tricks.”  That level of sleaziness is fit only for the likes of Bush family operatives or worse.  But truly ballsy machinations, like the Kennedys’ involvement with organized crime in the West Virginia primary in 1960 and their conniving with the Daley machine to fix the election in Chicago later that year, or the shenanigans that won the young LBJ a place in Congress and the nickname “landslide Lyndon” are a different matter.  Even squeaky-clean liberals can’t help admiring exploits like these.

Democrats are loathe to admit it, but they yearn for the days when their party still had a will to win, and when knowledge of the art of putting in the fix had not yet been lost.  That would have been long before the year 2000, when the Gore campaign, inept and spineless, let George W. Bush’s father’s friends snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Back in the day, Republicans too had it in them to be magisterial crooks.  No one knows for sure what arrangements Richard Nixon made with Vietnamese diplomats in Paris in 1968; all we can say for sure is that the Vietnamese must have come to regret trusting Tricky Dicky.  But there is a line of thought that holds that, notwithstanding the Democrats’ disarray after the police riots at their Chicago convention, Hubert Humphrey might have won but for Nixon’s scheming.

But Nixon, according to received opinion, was a small-time operator compared to Reagan.  The mother of all October surprises, the archetype, is the one the Reagan campaign is believed to have engineered in 1980 with the Ayatollahs in Tehran.  In exchange for who-knows-what, they supposedly got the Iranian authorities to agree not to release the hostages being held in the American embassy until the moment Jimmy Carter’s presidency gave way to the Gipper’s.

Cult adherents don’t like flaunting candidate Reagan’s treasonous pursuits any more than Democrats like harping on Kennedy’s ribald hijinks or his and Johnson’s shady dealings.  But they do believe that Reagan pulled off that greatest of all dirty tricks, just as surely as they think that, as President, he commanded the Berlin Wall to come tumbling down.  The idea that their Idol came into office by sticking it to his hapless predecessor is one of the glories of the Reagan legend.

It therefore behooves us to worry that candidate Romney, a Reagan acolyte in these later days of the primary season, might, in imitatio Dei, have an October surprise of his own up his sleeve.  Could Romney be planning to have Israel drag the United States into another Middle Eastern war by promising who-knows-what to Netanyahu in exchange for defying Obama for the umpteenth time?

Bringing the world economy to ruin and wreaking havoc throughout the Middle East might seem a high a price to pay just for again putting Obama in a humiliating situation.   But the only sure thing about Romney is that he wants to be President, and that he will do anything within his power, no matter how dangerous or dumb, to make it happen.

* * *

The likely consequences for Israel of a war with Iran would be even worse than for the United States, and so one would think that an Israeli government, even one led by the likes of Netanyahu, would be disinclined to go along, much less to instigate what would in all likelihood turn into a catastrophe for the Jewish state.  Sane minds in Israel agree.  But with Netanyahu believing, not unreasonably, that he has carte blanche from the American Congress to do as he pleases, and with his known predilection for pushing Obama around, all bets are off.

It was Netanyahu, after all, who discovered, even before Republicans did, that Obama has feet of clay and that, when challenged, he can be counted on to back off.  But surely even he does not believe his propaganda.  No one who is even minimally rational and informed – that is to say, no one this side of the John McCain-Joe Lieberman-Lindsay Graham axis – could possibly think that an Iranian bomb, much less the capacity to build one, poses an “existential threat” to Israel.

Netanyahu is not that stupid. The real reasons for his war mongering have nothing to do with what he says.

The problem Netanyahu or any Israeli Prime Minister faces is that there is only so much moral capital left to squeeze out of Holocaust guilt.  Much as Republican obstinacy merits admiration, one can only marvel at how successful Zionists have been in maintaining that gift that keeps on giving.  Not only have they submerged Jewish identity politics under its spell; they have even swept up into it all but the most liberal and the most retrograde strains of contemporary Judaism.  But nothing lasts forever.

In the words of Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories: y’esh g’vul, there are limits, limits to what their North American and European enablers will permit the state of Israel to do to Palestinians and others in the region to make up for what European fascists did to European Jews before the state of Israel even existed.

Those limits have yet to register politically to a degree that would worry Netanyahu and his comrades, but even they must realize that the time for that to happen is long past due, and that no matter how much Holocaust remembrance they can still drum up seven decades after the end of World War II, public opinion is bound eventually to turn against the idea that Hitler gave Israel a “get out of jail free” card that never expires.

This is why Israel needs at least the specter of an existential threat to maintain such international support as it has.   It needs to be able to present itself as the state of a people defending itself against an enemy eternally bent on its annihilation.  One might almost say that if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not exist, AIPAC would have had to invent him.

The specter of impending annihilation is also useful for keeping Israeli society from splintering apart.  Countries under attack draw together, and Israel is no exception. With Zionist convictions on the wane and the Nazi Judeocide a distant memory, existential threats have become a condition for the possibility of the Jewish state.

Threats of war are almost as useful as actual wars, especially if they are or can be made to seem credible; and there is the advantage that, as long as matters don’t get out of hand, no one needs to be killed or maimed.  Therefore, an Iranian bomb that doesn’t exist is a godsend for Israel.  Netanyahu has every reason to talk the specter up.

Ironically, his trusty, if unwitting, accomplices in the Iranian government have been more than helpful in this endeavor.  For their own reasons, they talk an ominous line.   It’s a win-win situation, so long as it stays just talk.  If Netanyahu can keep his wits about him, it will.  But that’s a big “if.”

* * *

Along with Turkey, Iran used to be Israel’s best friend in the Middle East – not just under the Shah but in the decade that followed the Iranian revolution too.  This made sense for as long as both Israel and Iran feared Soviet influence and the Iraqi army more than they feared each other.  That was the case until the Soviet Union imploded and the first Bush’s Gulf War made Iraq militarily inconsequential.

Revolutionary Iran was an ally of Israel, but in its effort to become a hegemon throughout the Islamic world, it took pains to present itself as anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian.  In Israel, they knew enough to focus on deeds, not words.  It has only been since the geopolitical context changed in 1991 that Israeli governments and their supporters abroad have found it useful to promote the view that the Iranians really mean what their most rabid spokesmen say.

* * *

Thus it is hardly the prospect of being “wiped off the map” that worries Netanyahu and his co-thinkers.  What they want is for “the international community” – the usual designation for friends and vassals of the United States – to prevent Iran from developing a deterrent to Israel’s freedom of action in the Middle East.  An Iranian bomb would be an obstacle in the way of the untrammeled exercise of Israeli power, much as the Soviet Union and a flourishing Iraq once were.

By Netanyahu’s lights, a powerful Iran would not be good for Israel.  From the moment the Shah fell, the foreign policy establishment in the United States has also wanted Iran kept weak.  Inasmuch as the Bush-Obama wars in Iraq and Afghanistan strengthened Iran’s hand in the region, the stewards of the empire now have even more reason to want Iran’s nuclear capacity expunged.

Romney is with them on this, and why not: moderates are on board and the hard right, the current object of his pandering, is awash in Islamophobia.  Under neoconservative tutelage, it has become the vanguard of the perpetual war party.  Were he focused more on the world he would have to operate in were his electoral campaign to succeed, he would by now have second thoughts about a war with Iran.  But, for the time being, winning is all; and, to that end, bellicosity, in both word and deed, makes sense.

But, of course, in the not very much larger scheme of things, it makes no sense at all.  To will the end is not always to will the means thereto; not if the means would undermine ends one wills even more.   This is why an Iran war for an October Surprise would be unconscionably reckless on both Romney’s and Netanyahu’s parts.

* * *

And yet!  Romney wants to win in November and Netanyahu is almost as eager to deny Obama a second term – not because he hasn’t been servile enough but because he fears, not unreasonably, that Obama knows better, and that, in the right circumstances, he might act on that knowledge.

I used to think that Netanyahu would have doubts about Romney too.  The problem, I thought, was not only that Romney is too unprincipled to be a reliable ally, but also that, as a Mormon, he and the Christian Zionists in the Republican base are not of one mind on who the Chosen People are or where the Promised Land is.  This theological difference would also put his reliability in question.

I therefore thought that, of all the Republicans in contention as the primary season reached its denouement, Romney was the worst from Netanyahu’s point of view; or rather the second worst after Ron Paul.

Rick Santorum would be better, though he is a Catholic more popish than the Pope, and the Vatican, for all harm it does in the world, is at least sensitive to the Palestinians’ plight and dubious of Zionism’s claims.  One would think that that would lower Santorum’s appeal.  But not so much!  Santorum is, after all, of a piece, morally and intellectually, with the most benighted evangelical Protestants, and so, from Netanyahu’s point of view, his popery can be forgiven.

Newt Gingrich, also a Catholic (of late) but a Southern Baptist at heart, would be better still.  However, to Netanyahu’s dismay, not even Sheldon Adelson’s money could keep that miscreant’s campaign afloat.

I therefore thought that Netanyahu just might end up doing what Wall Street did four years ago and may well do this year again if Romney founders – let Obama be their “yes we can” man.  He is not their first choice but, as the song (suitably mangled) declares, if you can’t be with the one you love, love or at least get by with the one you’re with – if he’s desperate to be with you.

However my confidence in the likelihood that Netanyahu would go that route was shaken by the April 7 edition of The New York Times where I learned that he and Romney are old friends – practically soul mates.

It seems that in the mid-70s, they both worked as “corporate consultants” at the Boston Consulting Group, where they formed a fast and lasting friendship based on their “shared conservative ideologies” and “the same profoundly analytical view of the world.”  According to the Times, they’ve not only kept in touch over the years but also advise one another when the occasion arises.

The good news, then, is that if these are the kinds of people who are called upon to advise corporations at the pinnacles of the capitalist system, the system cannot be long for this world.  The bad news is that, in the spirit of friends helping friends, those two could well conspire not just to bring Obama down, but the world along with him.  This would be an October Surprise surpassing anything the maleficent Reagan could have imagined, a surprise to end all surprises.

I’d be more worried than I am about what these brothers under the skin might be cooking up were it not for the timing.  October is too late to start another “stupid war,” as Obama said of the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq before he made it his own.  A war so close to Election Day would most likely strengthen the Commander-in-Chief’s position.  For Obama to own the devastation an Iran War would unleash would take time; perhaps more time than there is between now and November.

It might have been otherwise had Romney sealed the deal sooner and if his standing within his own party were more secure.  In other words, had “moderates” or at least saner plutocrats been calling the shots in the GOP, we might now be closer to an outcome compared to which the murder and mayhem Obama has superintended these past three and a half years would almost seem benign.

The irony is palpable.  In the end, it just might be that the trajectory the campaign for the Republican nomination has taken thanks to the out of control lunacy of the Republican base and the candidates who represent its views is our best protection against a devastating October surprise.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).