Iran and the Irrationality Factor

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Ira…[fill in the letter of your choice]
Connecting the Dots, Bush-Style
By Tom Engelhardt

As readers flee news on the printed page for an on-line life and classified ads head out the door for Craigslist and points west, the Washington Post became just the latest major newspaper to announce significant staff cuts. With fourth-quarter revenue down 3% from the previous year, eighty jobs — 9% of the Post’s newsroom — are to be shed in the next twelve months. According to the New York Times, Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr. “said other cost savings could come from having foreign correspondents cover broad topics — terrorism, say — rather than cover specific countries, thus allowing for the elimination of some [Post] foreign bureaus.”

This, of course, is the route that the TV news followed long ago, shedding foreign bureaus like so much flaky skin. Anyone who loves his or her daily dose of news in print should be dismayed at the thought of news bureaus abroad closing. It’s just another way in which American isolation is likely to increase, as our bubble world, so prized by the Bush administration, continues to morph into something more permanent.

On the brighter side, though, assigning more reporters to “broad topics” might have an unexpectedly salutary effect. After all, one of the strangest aspects of the news in the Bush years has been its unwillingness to connect regional or global dots. In most cases, foreign reporting has consisted of stories about only one country (at most two) at a time.

Not so long ago, we lived in a world that the media regularly told us was being connected in ever more complex ways — think of all that reporting on globalization in the 1990s. But for the last several years, “just disconnect” might have been the reigning news motto. If you read about the Iraq War, you get Iraq, and generally little else. No Turkey, no Israel, few Syrians, no Saudis, nor Egyptians. Reports on our little Afghan war give you Afghanistan, but certainly nothing about the fighters that, according to Syed Saleem Shahzad of Asia Times on-line, the resurgent Taliban, based in Pakistani border areas, has been sending to Iraq for training in the new ways of guerrilla warfare. (Think: IEDs and car bombs.) You would never know from stories in the American press that Iran bordered Afghanistan, or that both India and Russia have complex interests and connections there. And forget about the ‘Stans of Central Asia.) Why exactly this has been so, I leave others to analyze. That it has left our major papers strangely demobilized when it comes to offering us a picture of our world and so in an unequal contest with the Bush administration is hard to deny.

After all, the administration’s top officials have had a vision of American geopolitical dominance that has been nothing if not grandly global in nature. In their version of the Great Game, they seldom even bother to deal with one country at a time — often, as in Iraq, to their detriment. It wasn’t by happenstance that they named their “war” of choice the Global War on Terror (GWOT) or that they regularly label the Iraq War not a war at all but a “theater” in their GWOT. In military, political, or energy terms, they have never hesitated to connect the dots in a vast region they once termed the “arc of instability” — basically, the planet’s oil heartlands — into patterns of imperial dominance.

Where newspaper reporting saw individual countries that happened to have enormous oil or natural gas reserves, this administration has, from the beginning, seen global energy flows. In many ways, Bush’s top officials seemed to recognize no traditional boundaries at all. No wonder they were surprised by an insurgency largely based on gut feelings about national sovereignty.

As we now know, they hit Iraq running in March 2003. They were determined to make it to Baghdad without looking back; leave their prize Iraqi, Ahmed Chalabi, in charge; and turn their attention elsewhere, especially to Syria and Iran. When it came to those two countries, they were ready to connect the dots in person and, if need be, by force of arms. They thought they could make “regime change” a regional, and then global, way of life.

Okay, it didn’t quite work out. Instead, they ran into a three-year-going-on-endless roadblock. But they’ve never stopped thinking in these terms. The invasion of Iraq was a stunning gamble. There’s no reason to believe that, in a pinch, an administration still made up of many of the same figures wouldn’t take another.

Bush administration planners framed that initial gamble brilliantly, in part by moving assertively into the vacuum of non-connection that was then our mainstream media. With their own propaganda organs like Fox News and right-wing talk radio in tow, they began to connect the dots as they pleased and very publicly. There were those lines drawn between, say, the 9/11 attackers and Saddam Hussein, or weapons of mass destruction and an Axis of Evil, or Saddam’s supposed WMD arsenal, African “yellowcake” uranium, and possible future mushroom clouds rising over American cities — but this part of the story you all remember well. In doing so, they largely determined the limits of, and nature of, what “debate” there was in our media from September 12, 2001 to March 20, 2003.

Déjà Vu All Over Again in Ira

They were of course ascendant in that period, which would seem to explain a lot. But here’s the strange thing: The Bush administration is now in the dumps and the President’s ratings again heading for something like freefall. The latest Pew poll gives him a 33% approval rating, leaving him heading for depths of unpopularity previously reached only by Richard Nixon in his pre-Watergate moment. And that’s not the worst of it. The President’s strongest suit, handling terror, has plummeted as well to 42%, an 11 point drop since January; while his once cherished trustworthiness sits at a paltry 40%. In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Americans say they “prefer Democratic control of Congress after the mid-term elections” by a 50-37% margin; and, perhaps more strikingly, “a congressional candidate urging the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq within a year would gain favor by a 50-35 percent margin, while one advocating staying ‘as long as necessary’ would lose favor by 43-39 percent.” And it’s not as if matters are going peachily elsewhere either. In Iraq, for instance, everything seems to be plummeting (except civilian death tolls) — and that includes, for instance, electricity availability and oil production.

And yet, give this administration credit. By connecting those dots (while the media generally doesn’t), they have been able, despite their position of increasing weakness, to continue to frame, and so drive, the debate, such as it is, in this country. Under the circumstances, this is nothing short of miraculous — the latest example being the way they have both escalated and contextualized the nuclear crisis with Iran (with a goodly helping hand from that country’s fundamentalist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) simply by following — almost without contradiction in the press — a well-trodden Iraqi path.

On a visit to Washington recently, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, remembering the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, commented: “It looks so déjà vu, you know. I don’t believe we should engage in something which might become self-fulfilling prophecy.”

What’s déjà vu, of course, is the way the administration has been assertively connecting its chosen Iranian dots to other dots of its choice. In the first of a new wave of Iraq speeches (before the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies), the President spoke of how the Iranians were sending the makings for advanced IEDs (roadside explosives) into Iraq to kill Americans. (“Some of the most powerful IEDs we’re seeing in Iraq today includes components that came from Iran. Our Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, told the Congress, ‘Tehran has been responsible for at least some of the increasing lethality of anti-coalition attacks by providing Shia militia with the capability to build improvised explosive devises’ in Iraq.) Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused the Iranians of “dispatching the Al-Quds Division of its Revolutionary Guard to ‘stir trouble inside Iraq.'” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared Iran the “central banker for terrorism” in the Middle East as well as the single most dangerous threat to the United States on the planet. And just last week, the administration released its latest version of the U.S. National Security Strategy, reiterating its belief in “preventive war,” threatening a future Iran/U.S. “confrontation,” and ramping up that relatively impoverished, fractious, mid-sized regional power with enormous oil and natural gas reserves, into a near Cold War-level public enemy number one. Its key line was, “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran,” and Secretary of State Rice began running with it instantly.

Every one of these statements, as well as a drumbeat of others in recent weeks, is at best questionable; a number like the IED charges are probably ludicrous. (For those wanting to understand why, don’t miss Juan Cole’s recent piece at Truthdig.comin which he writes, “The guerrillas in Iraq are militant Sunnis who hate Shiites, and it is wholly implausible that the Iranian regime would supply bombs to the enemies of its Iraqi allies.”) But every one of these claims and assertions has one thing in common — a familiar ring to it from the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. This is especially true, of course, of the various charges about Iran’s nuclear program (which Cole also handles superbly).

When it comes to Iranian WMDs, no serious analyst claims that the country could possibly produce a nuclear weapon for, at best, years; yet at this moment we find ourselves in a crisis leading, many signs indicate, to the possible launching of a massive “preventive” American air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, some in heavily populated urban areas, and undoubtedly Iranian air defenses as well, later this year or early in 2007. For those in the media who claim that the U.S. military is too overstretched for such a campaign, think again. This is true only of the Army, which probably would not be used. Despite a recent upsurge in air attacks in Iraq, the Air Force and especially the Navy are quite underutilized right now and reputedly raring to show their stuff. On the other hand, unlike Iraq, which was in 2003 a toothless, fifth rate power incapable of harming Americans, the Iranians do have a multitude of ways of striking back — including at the 130,000 American troops just across the border in tumultuous Iraq.

When it comes to the Iranian nuclear program in particular, the Bush administration has been nothing short of brilliant in connecting only those dots that put it in the worst possible light, while isolating it from every other nuclear program on Earth, from what Jonathan Schell has dubbed our global “atomic archipelago.” At this, top administration officials continue to prove themselves unbelievably competent; in part because, without those Downie-esque “broad topics” to cover, the press — with rare honorable exceptions like a recent Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler Post piece, U.S. Campaign Is Aimed at Iran’s Leaders — has proved so abysmally incompetent in creating more reasonable patterns on its own.

But let’s, for a moment, imagine a Washington Post reporter taken from the South Asia bureau and assigned to an overarching global nuclear beat. Let’s imagine that he or she started with India, a country which, unlike Iran, would be in thorough violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), had it ever signed on. With a major military program and now nuclear-armed, it has come to the brink of nuclear war more than once with its nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan. Our President, of course, just visited India and offered it a non-proliferation-whacking sweetheart deal on nuclear fuel and technology. Next door, of course, is nuclear-armed Pakistan, a shaky military regime and U.S. ally that has lost control of some of its border regions to the Taliban, elements of al Qaeda, and a growing fundamentalist opposition which, should it ever come to power, would find itself instantly in possession of a full-scale nuclear arsenal.

Skip Afghanistan (nothing but warlords and opium) and you’ve made it to Iran, whose nuclear program, begun with American help back in the days of the Shah and continued with secret aid from our ally Pakistan, is now in question. Then jump over to Israel, which, like India, has never signed on to the NPT and possesses (but refuses to publicly acknowledge) a near-civilization busting arsenal of 200-300 nuclear weapons. You can read the American press for months at a time without the slightest mention of the Israeli nuclear arsenal, though the as-yet-nonexistent Irani dominates the front-page day after day.

Finally, that Post reporter might take a glance at the country charging Iran with nuclear crimes worthy of a future full-scale assault, the U.S. (You can also hunt our press practically in vain for any discussion of the Iranian nuclear “arsenal” in the context of the American one.) In fact, the Bush administration has been intent on expanding and “modernizing” our already staggering nuclear arsenal of almost 10,000 weapons, while putting new nuclear weapons on the drawing board and dreaming about how to use “tactical nukes” in future “rogue wars” against countries like Iran. Meanwhile, the Soviet arsenal decays and the relatively small Chinese one remains fairly stagnant. According to scholars Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine (“The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy”), the administration has by now come close to achieving a Cold War dream state: nuclear dominance. “Today, for the first time in almost 50 years,” they write, “the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy. It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike.” When you try to connect a few of these dots, a possible future Iranian “bomb,” while still unpalatable, takes on a somewhat different look and you have to wonder about the administration’s threats of war.

Or let’s imagine a reporter from some other downsizing newspaper being pulled from the disappearing Paris bureau and given the History-of-the-Bush Administration-in-the-Middle-East archival beat. Might not that broad-topic journalist pull together the déjà-vu-all-over-again aspect of our present Iran build-up and, connecting just a few dots, make something of it? In fact, Robert Dreyfuss has already done this chillingly at, pointing out everything from the “brand-new Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department, which looks suspiciously like a step toward creating the Iraq war planning office at the Pentagon called the Office of Special Plans” to the Chalabi-like Iranian exiles gathering in Washington and the new talk of a “coalition of the willing.”

That former Paris bureau reporter might even have noticed a déjà vu that Dreyfuss missed: These days, as in the run-up to the Iraq war, there is much connect-the-dots analysis (and some reporting)that steps outside the administration-defined Iranian box, but it’s almost all on the Internet, and so, as in 2002-03, when it comes to Iran, most Americans see little of it. (Just to offer a few examples in addition to Cole and Dreyfuss, there was Ira Chernus at, writing on Dubai as an administration “home base” for a new cold war against Iran; Ian Williams at the invaluable Asia Times on-line, considering the “slippery slope” to war; Ehsan Ahrari, also at Asia Times, on “Iran’s turn for a ‘coalition of the willing'”; and Tom Porteous at on the return of “regime change.”)

It’s an indication of the administration’s success in driving the media before it and making its Iran agenda our agenda that, in a recent poll (as Inter Press Service reporter Jim Lobe pointed out), “Some 27% of respondents cite Iran as Washington’s greatest menace — three times the percentage who ranked it at the top of foreign threats just four months ago.” A recent Zogby poll revealed that, while surprising numbers of Americans are now thoroughly sick of George Bush’s war in Iraq, 47% of Americans nonetheless favor some kind of military action, “preferably along with European allies, to halt Iran’s nuclear program.”

Call it connecting the dots — yet again — Bush-administration style. It’s sobering that the media learned so little from the last major round of this back in 2002-2003 and is reporting the Iran crisis only within the bounds of what the administration cares to have debated, while Bush, Cheney, and associates let the UN process on Iran play itself out over the coming months and prepare (possibly along with the Israelis) for a major military strike that could lead the planet into energy (and economic) chaos.

The Irrationality Factor

If this administration’s top officials have proven to be dreamers on a planetary scale and immensely competent at setting the terms for debate in this country, they are in so many other ways utter incompetents. If we want to use that increasingly common term for them, however, we have to think a little about what it really means. At the most basic level, inside their bubble world these insular beings and their remarkably insulated President undoubtedly believe that they are ready to correct for errors and apply lessons learned in Iraq to the Iran crisis, but there is one lesson they are guaranteed not to have learned, the simplest but most difficult one of all: Know thyself.

In fact, their inability to gain any perspective on themselves guarantees their dangerous incompetence in the Iran crisis to come. Imagine, for instance, that their second leading diplomat, UN ambassador John Bolton, recently offered this assessment of the prospect of negotiations with Iran: “I don’t think we have anything to say to the Iranians.” His statement — and it could be multiplied by so many others from Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and associates — represents one aspect of their incompetence: hubris (or call it arrogance). To that should be added a profound belief — on this they are the ultimate fundamentalists — in preponderant American power, especially in its military guise, as well as in their ability to wield it with precision and invariably to their advantage.

Throw in the fact that they are not only the greatest gamblers in our history, but also control freaks of the first order, and you already have a combustible meld of “incompetence” factors. If they do move against Iran, they will surely be blinded by their arrogance, overly impressed by the power they think they wield, and ridiculously sure of the plans they have made for various contingencies to come.

And yet the single thing that can be guaranteed about any air assault on Iran is that, whatever anybody’s plans may be, events will quickly spin out of control — and that they will then be stunned and unprepared to deal. The result will be the “incompetence” for which they are already well known as well as disaster for us all.

At least one more factor should be added to the mix: irrationality. This is not a word we usually associate with the United States government. It’s the sort of term normally left for Arabs who are, of course, known to be overemotional, closer to those more primitive, “tribal” emotions, and consequently deeply irrational. (In the American context, by the way, Iranians should be thought of as Arabs, even though they aren’t.) Whatever our flaws and mistakes, we tend to assume that we are civilized and reasonably rational. This is why we don’t worry enormously about our own singular nuclear arsenal. We know that, unlike the many revenge-bound, irrational, rogue regimes out there, not even the Bush administration would, in the end, use such weapons — even though, of course, the U.S. is the only country to do so to date.

While the Bush administration may have incredibly destructive military powers at its command, it’s worth remembering that its officials are anything but supermen and women. Don’t imagine them simply as Machiavellian manipulators of the rest of us. They are instead blunderers like the rest of us — only more so. We already know from reports seeping out of Washington that the administration is “riven by divisions” over, and confusions about, its Iran policy. The box its officials have been intent on creating to lock in the international community, the Iranians, and the American public may, sooner or later, come to feel like a kind of prison to them as well from which the only release, many months down the line, could appear to involve the mad act of pulling the superpower trigger. In other words, they may find themselves backed into a corner of their own making.

What we face, in fact, are two fundamentalist regimes, American and Iranian — each in the process of overestimating the hand it is playing; each underestimating its enemy; each in the grip of a different kind of irrationality. It’s a frighteningly combustible mix. All those people who believe that the administration’s Iran approach is just so much saber-rattling and bluster, part of a reasonably rational plan to create bargaining chips, or force the Iranians to the table on more favorable terms, should divest themselves of such fantasies. We are on the path to madness, which also happens to be the path to $100 a barrel oil and possibly some kind of economic meltdown. Then again, dreams of riches have often gone hand-in-hand with madness. Why not now?

[Note to readers: Let me recommend The Global Beat, a website which I mined heavily for this piece (as I often do). A project of Boston University, it is compiled by Tony Karon of Time magazine and bills itself as offering “resources for the global journalist.” You don’t have to be a journalist or even a student of journalism, however, to benefit from its superb once-a-week run-downs of crucial news articles on and analyses of foreign-policy crisis points (with extremely useful links). Check it out and take a look as well at Karon’s always fascinating, periodically updated blog, Rootless Cosmopolitan.]

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt