Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Maybe it's just me, but I've been at least a little bit surprised by the relatively muted reaction to the news that the Cheney Administration and its Pentagon underlings are racing to put the finishing touches on plans for attacking Iran – plans which may include the first wartime use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki.
I mean, what exactly does it take to get a rise out of the media industrial complex these days? A nuclear first strike against a major Middle Eastern oil producer doesn't ring the bell? Must every story have a missing white woman in it before the cable news guys will start taking it seriously?
I suppose I could understand it if all we had was Sy Hersh's word that the administration is planning another "pre-emptive" war in the Middle East. After all, we're talking about the same reporter who peddled all those crazy, unsubstantiated allegations about torture at Abu Ghraib prison. You can't be too careful with a journalistic loose cannon like that.
But now that Sy's Iranian nightmare – including the nuclear aspect of it – has been confirmed by the semi-official media, you'd think we could expect a little more ruckus about it from someone other than Helen Thomas. (No disrepect intended to Thomas, but she's probably the media personality the White House would most like to see taking point on this story.)
Even by the corrupt and debased standards of our times, this is a remarkable thing. The U.S. government is planning aggressive nuclear war (the neocons can give it whatever doublespeak name they like, but it is what it is); those plans have been described in some detail in a major magazine and on the front page of the Washington Post; the most the President of the United States is willing to say about it is that the reports are "speculative" (which is not a synonym for "untrue") and yet as I write these words the lead story on the CNN web site is:
ABC pushes online TV envelope
ABC is going to offer online streams of some of its most popular television shows, including "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," for free the day after they first air on broadcast TV.
It appears our long national journey towards complete idiocy is over. We've arrived.
Idiots, of course, don't need a reason to be idiots. But to the extent there is a rational excuse for treating a nuclear strike on Iran as the journalistic equivalent of a seasonal story about people washing their cars, it must be the cynical conviction that the Cheneyites aren’t serious – they're just doing their little Gen. Jack Ripper impression to let the Iranians know they really mean business.
This may seem plausible – that is, if you were in a catatonic stupor throughout 2002 and the early months of 2003 (which is just another way of saying: if you were a member in good standing of the corporate media elite.) But the rest of us have learned that when Dick Cheney starts muttering about precious bodily fluids, you'd better pay attention. He really does mean business, and when Dick Cheney means business, bombs are likely to start falling sooner rather than later.
Maybe the idea of the United States would launch a nuclear first strike – albeit a "surgical" one – is too hard for most Americans, including most American journalists, to process. (I'm talking about normal people here, not the genocide junkies over at Little Green Footballs) It's even harder to square with our national self-image than the invasion of Iraq. We're the global sheriff, after all – Gary Cooper in a big white hat. And while Gary Cooper might shoot an outlaw down in a fair fight at High Noon, he wouldn't sneak into their camp in the middle of the night and incinerate them with nuclear weapons. That's not how the Code of the West is supposed to work.
Even my own hyperactive imagination is having a hard time wrapping itself around the idea. I'm familiar enough with Cold War history to know the United States has at least considered the first use of nuclear weapons before – in Korea and even in Vietnam – and I know it was long-standing U.S. strategic doctrine never to rule out a nuclear response to a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe. But the current nuclear war gaming strikes me as much more likely to end in the real thing – partly because the neocons appear to have convinced themselves a "tactical" strike doesn't really count, partly because of what Hersh politely refers to as Bush's "messianic vision" (Cheney may have his finger on the bureaucracy, but Shrub is still the one with his finger on the button) but mostly because I think these guys really think they can get away with it. And they might be right.
I've been trying to picture what the world might look like the day after a U.S. nuclear strike on Iran, but I'm essentially drawing a blank. There simply isn't a precedent for the world's dominant superpower turning into a rogue state – much less a rogue state willing to wage nuclear war against potential, even hypothetical, security threats. At that point, we’d truly be through the looking glass.
One can assume (or at least hope) that first use of nuclear weapons would turn America into an international pariah, at least in the eyes of global public opinion. It would certainly mark the definitive end of the system of collective security – and the laws and institutions supporting that system – established in the wake of World War II. The UN Security Council would be rendered as pointless as the old League of Nations. The Nuremberg Principles would be as moot as the Geneva Conventions. (To the neocons, of course, these are all pluses.)
Nuclear first use would also shatter (or at least, radically transform) the political alliances that defined America's leadership role in the old postwar order. To the extent any of these relationships survived, they’d be placed on roughly the same basis as the current U.S. protectorate over Saudi Arabia – or, even worse, brought down to the level of the old Warsaw Pact. They would be coalitions of the weak, the vulnerable and the easily intimidated.
In other words, the current hegemony of American influence and ideas (backed by overwhelming military force) would be replaced by an overt dictatorship based – more or less explicitly – on fear of nuclear annihilation. U.S. foreign policy would become nothing more than a variation on the ancient Roman warning: For every one of our dead; 100 of yours. Never again would American rulers (or their foreign counterparts) be able to hide behind the comfortable fiction that the United States is just primus inter pares – first among equals. A country that nukes other countries merely on the suspicion that they may pose a future security threat isn't the equal of anybody. America would stand completely alone: hated by many, feared by all, admired only by the world’s other tyrants. To call that a watershed event seems a ridiculous understatement.
But I can't even begin to guess what such an event would mean in immediate, tangible terms (other the creation of a large, radioactive hole about 200 miles south of Tehran). It’s entirely possible the near-term consequences wouldn't appear as cataclysmic as you might expect from such a world-shaking event – except, of course, for those poor souls unlucky enough to be living near or downwind from one of Iran's suspected nuclear weapons facilities.
Yes, the price of oil could go to $150 a barrel, and yes, Iran could retaliate with a terrorist offensive that would light Iraq and the Persian Gulf up like Roman candles. We can't rule out a major attack on American soil. (A recent report based on Saudi intelligence sources claims the al-Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps – probably the most capable terrorist support organization in the world – already has a box on its organizational chart labeled "North America.")
But, barring another 9/11, or a worldwide financial meltdown, the day after a nuclear strike on Iran might not look that much different than the day before, at least to the folks back home. The impact on oil prices – and even more importantly, on prices at the pump – might be containable, at least in the short-term, if the Straits of Hormuz remain open and the strategic oil reserve does what it's supposed to do. (Very big ifs, to be sure, but not impossible ones. Neither of the last two wars in the gulf turned into the energy catastrophes everyone had feared when they started.) Financial markets might actually rally if Wall Street judges the strike to have been a "success." As for an Iranian-backed terror offensive in Iraq, at this point you have to wonder if anyone would notice.
For most Americans, then, the initial impact of war with Iran could play out in the same theatre of the absurd as the first Gulf War and the opening phases of the Iraq invasion – that is to say, on their living room TVs. And if there's one place where a nuclear first strike could be made to appear almost normal, or even a good thing, it's on the boob tube.
After all, the corporate media complex has already shown a remarkable willingness to ignore or rationalize conduct that once would have been considered grossly illegal, if not outright war crimes. And the right-wing propaganda machine is happy to paint any atrocity as another glorious success in the battle for democracy (that is, when it's not trying to deny it ever happened.) Why should we expect something as transitory as a nuclear strike to change the pattern?
Let's be honest about it: For both the corporate and the conservative media, as well as for their audiences, an air campaign against Iran would make for great TV – a welcome return to the good old days of Desert Storm and Shock and Awe. All those jets soaring off into the desert twilight; the overexposed glare of cruise missiles streaking from their launch ships; the video game shots of exploding aircraft hangers and government buildings, the anti-aircraft tracers arcing into the night sky over Tehran – it would be war just the way we like it, far removed from the dull brown dust, raw sewage and multiple amputees of the Iraqi quagmire.
And to keep things interesting, we’d have the added frisson of nuclear weapons – a plot twist that would allow blow-dried correspondents to pose in borrowed radiation suits, give Pentagon flacks the opportunity to try out new euphemisms for killing people, and encourage retired generals to spice up their on-air military patter with knowing references to blast effects, kilotons, roentgens and fallout patterns.
What I'm suggesting here is that it is probably naive to expect the American public to react with horror, remorse or even shock to a U.S. nuclear sneak attack on Iran, even though it would be one of the most heinous war crimes imaginable, short of mass genocide. Iran has been demonized too successfully – thanks in no small part to the messianic delusions of its own end-times president – for most Americans to see it as a victim of aggression, even if they were inclined to admit that the United States could ever be an aggressor. And we know a not-so-small and extremely vocal minority of Americans would be cheering all the way, and lusting for more.
More to my point, though, I think it's possible that even something as monstrously insane as nuclear war could still be squeezed into the tiny rituals that pass for public debate in this country – the game of dueling TV sound bites that trivializes and then disposes of every issue.
We’ve already seen a lengthy list of war crimes and dictatorial power grabs sink into that electronic compost heap: the WMD disinformation campaign, Abu Ghraib, the torture memos, the de facto repeal of the 4th amendment. Again, why should a nuclear strike be any different? I can easily imagine the same rabid talk show hosts spouting the same jingoistic hate speech, the same bow-tied conservative pundits offering the same recycled talking points, and the same timid Beltway liberals complaining that while nuking Iran was the right thing to do, the White House went about it the wrong way. And I can already hear the same media critics chiding those of us in left Blogostan for blowing the whole thing out of proportion. It’s just a little bunker buster, after all.
Why should anyone or anything change? When a culture is as historically clueless and morally desensitized as this one appears to be, I don’t think it’s absurd to suppose that even an enormous war crime – the worst imaginable, short of outright genocide – could get lost in the endless babble of the talking heads. When everything is just a matter of opinion, anything – literally anything – can be justified. It’s only a matter of framing things so people can believe what they want to believe.
In his New Yorker article, Sy Hersh suggests that there are some, at least, in the military who can still recognize evil when they see it, and who aren’t willing to follow their Commander in Chief any deeper into the pits of hell:
The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror confirmed that some in the Administration were looking seriously at this option, which he linked to a resurgence of interest in tactical nuclear weapons among Pentagon civilians and in policy circles. He called it “a juggernaut that has to be stopped.” He also confirmed that some senior officers and officials were considering resigning over the issue. “There are very strong sentiments within the military against brandishing nuclear weapons against other countries,” the adviser told me. “This goes to high levels.”
At this point, I’ll believe it when I see it and not before. We’ve already seen the preferred course for most of our military dissenters: retire, remain silent, then write an op ed a couple of years later (far too late to change anything) explaining how it wasn’t their fault because they knew all along that Rumsfeld was an asshole. Excuse me for not being impressed.
But even if it’s possible to make the American people – or at least a majority of them – swallow a nuclear first strike, and even if most of our warrior bureaucrats are willing to emulate their German counterparts and obey orders handed down by criminals in power, surely the reaction abroad would be swift and violently negative.
No doubt, and God help the American tourist or business person who finds himself or herself in the wrong place at the wrong time when the balloon goes up. But while popular outrage would at least send a needed message to America that nuking other countries is not OK, I wouldn’t be surprised if it left major U.S. strategic interests relatively unharmed – or at least less harmed than one would expect if the aggressor were any other nation.
If America has few real friends, Iran has even fewer, at least among the world’s ruling regimes. It’s hard to imagine Russia or China challenging the U.S. diplomatically – much less militarily – over an attack on Iran, oil or no oil. Russia doesn’t need the oil (and in fact would reap windfall profits from any disruption in the Iranian supply.) China would have to balance its need for Iranian oil (currently about 15% of its total imports, which in turn are about half of total oil consumption) against its overall military weakness, its lucrative U.S. export trade and its enormous investment in U.S. debt. Those countries that do rely heavily on Iran oil – Europe, Japan – are still notional allies, and in any case completely under the American military thumb. Finally, most of America’s allies (protectorates) in the Middle East would welcome a strike on Iran, since they either share our paranoia about Iranian nukes, or dread the rise of Shi’a influence in the region.
The bottom line is that most of the world’s powers – and nearly all of its weak countries – have a vested interest in sucking up to the hegemon, or at least in not antagonizing it. And this would still be true even if the hegemon turns out to be a full-fledged nuclear war criminal. If the realists are correct (and their batting average has been pretty high lately) neither morality nor democracy are likely to change that fact. States run by religious lunatics and self-appointed messiahs are still the exception, not the rule, in the global cockpit. Most states are as single-minded and relentless in the pursuit of their interests as your average Renaissance pope – like sharks, in other words, although not as warm and cuddly.
It’s possible, of course, that I’m dead wrong about the short-term effects of a strike on Iran. It could quickly lead to economic catastrophe and a wider war, or evolve into a full-fledged U.S. invasion and occupation of Iran – i.e. “regime change.” This may be the entire essence of the neocon plan. The resulting quagmire could make the Vietnam War look like a minor colonial skirmish with the natives. But even if none of these nightmares come to pass, it’s still a fair bet – based on recent experience – that the long-term consequences of war with Iran would be wholly bad, both for America and the world.
But my thought exercise – What if we started a nuclear war and nobody noticed? – is still useful, if only as a reminder of how easy it can be to lead gullible people down a path that ends in a place no sane human being would ever want to go. A nation that can live with the idea of launching a nuclear first strike isn’t likely to have much trouble with the rest of the program – particularly when its people, like their leader, are convinced they’ve been chosen to save the world.
What’s truly scary, though, is the possibility that even though the other members of what we jokingly refer to as the international community don’t share Bush’s delusions, they may be willing to humor them as long as it is in their own narrow self-interest to do so (in other words, as long as they’re not the ones being nuked.) Maybe power really is all the justification that power needs. In which case the downhill path for America – the most powerful country that ever was – is likely to be very steep indeed.
Update 5:25 PM: I wrote above that I believed most of America's "allies" in the Middle East would welcome a strike on Iran as a counter to the Islamic Republic's strategic influence in the Sh'ia world. AFP says I'm wrong:
Saudi Arabia, fearing that US military action against Iran would wreak further havoc in the region, has asked Russia to block any bid by Washington to secure UN cover for an attack, a Russian diplomat said on Tuesday . . . A Gulf diplomat, who also requested anonymity, said Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were worried about the possibility of US military action against Iran at a time when Iraq is engulfed in what is increasingly turning into civil war.
Perhaps this is true. Having seen the consequences of the neoncons' last military master stroke, the House of Saud may have decided it's better to reach an accommodation with Tehran rather than rely on the infidels to flatten it.
Even if that's true, however, the Saudis and their fellow Gulf princelings will have little choice but to go with the neocon flow. Indeed, one ironic result of the havoc the Cheney administration is creating in the Middle East is that it has left America's oil protectorates even more dependent on the hegemon to defend them from the forces it has unleased. From an imperial point of view, on other words, failure can be as good as success -- and maybe even better.
I'm reasonably confident this thought has never occurred to Shrub. I wouldn't say the same about Cheney.