Democratic Underground

The Enemy of my Enemy is my Enemy

August 3, 2005
By Bucky Rea

Imagine this scene: FDR, heavily armed, wheels his way through the Reichstag into Hitler's office, grabs a hostage, puts a gun up to his hostage's head, and screams, "Put down your weapons, Hitler, or the rabbi gets it!"

The same scene was played out last week with Cheney in the FDR role, terrorists as Hitler, and Iran as the rabbi in the wrong place.

Like many of my fellow sane people, I was initially stunned, if not terribly surprised, when I read about Dick Cheney's directive to the U.S. Air Force to retaliate against Iran, should the United States be hit by "another 9/11" whether or not the actual source of the attack is Iran or terrorist proxies supported by Iran. Here's how Billmon quotes the magazine American Conservative's "Deep Background" column on the matter:

The Pentagon, acting under instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney's office, has tasked the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM) with drawing up a contingency plan to be employed in response to another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States. The plan includes a large-scale air assault on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons.

Within Iran there are more than 450 major strategic targets, including numerous suspected nuclear-weapons-program development sites. Many of the targets are hardened or are deep underground and could not be taken out by conventional weapons, hence the nuclear option. As in the case of Iraq, the response is not conditional on Iran actually being involved in the act of terrorism directed against the United States.

Several senior Air Force officers involved in the planning are reportedly appalled at the implications of what they are doing - that Iran is being set up for an unprovoked nuclear attack - but no one is prepared to damage his career by posing any objections.

Four hundred and fifty targets. Wow, I thought, that's a pretty impressive deterrent. Unless, of course, there happens to be a terrorist organization out there that happens to hate Iran. Iran, like most Middle East players, does have its pet terror organization. However, Iran's terrorism budget goes to Hezbollah, the religious Shi'ite militia based mostly in Lebanon. Hezbollah doesn't like the United States very much, but they've really not done anything against us lately. Their concerns are opposing Israeli and Syrian Ba'athist domination of Lebanon.

The terrorists who've been doing the deadliest mischief in the world are extreme Wahhabists like al-Qaeda. They thoroughly despise the Iranian revolution - not least because Iran as late as 2002 was providing intelligence support for the U.S. forces tracking down al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Iran loathed al-Qaeda and its dominance of Afghanistan. They rightly understood that al-Qaeda was the secret weapon of Wahhabi extremists in Saudi Arabia, another old enemy of Persia. Thus, the Cheney directive serves as one big fat incentive to the most dangerous and active terrorist groups in the world to take a shot at the United States. Pop a suitcase full of anthrax at your local American Greyhound station and you get two for the price of one. Your two enemies would then go to total war.

I've got to question whether Mr Cheney thought that one through too carefully. I'm not sure I'd like the answer either way.

But upon reflection, I think it's a little too soon to panic over this. First off, these sorts of leaks don't just happen for no reason at all. Someone close to the source, close to Vice President Cheney's office, thought our side would benefit if this information got out. They wanted to remind the mullahs on Iran's ruling council, called the Assembly of Experts, that the United States is big, bad, and not to be trifled with. Led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei, the Assembly of Experts (and not Iran's elected president) control all of Iran's security forces. It is they, under Iran's constitution, who give permission for Iran's nascent democratically elected government to exist.

Certainly, the intent here in leaking this information is to scare the Iranians into some kind of desirable behavior, rather than to freak out you, me, and the American Air Force generals with the thought that Mr Bush's court-appointed guardian has truly lost his marbles. Cheney's directive should be understood in the light of a few basic realities - psychological, diplomatic, historic, and military.

Psychologically, this directive is the equivalent of an alpha male dominance display. In primate terms, it's a big silverback gorilla beating his chest and hollering "I'm in charge!" to his local competitors. "Don't touch my bananas!" The problem is that this particular gorilla is a little too busy guarding the "bananas" in Iraq for this to be a credible bluster. Our options against Iran are very limited and the silverbacks in Tehran are just as set on getting their bananas as we are.

Diplomatically, this leak might serve as the United States playing the "bad cop" to the "good cop" efforts of European diplomats who are trying the novel approach of negotiating with Iran to keep them from developing their nuclear weapons program. If that's the case, intention could be to scare the Iranian diplomats into coming to the table in good faith to appease that scary dude in Washington. Unfortunately, here too the approach taken is not going to be very productive, serving more to remind the mullahs just why they wanted some nukes in the first place. When it comes to national pride, their colors don't want to run, either.

In historical terms, Cheney is mimicking a strategy that was effective in preventing superpower clashes during most of his lifetime, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). If you hit me, I'll hit you back with everything I got, so you better seek peace. Sadly for the cause of world peace, the historical parallel fails on two key points. First off, MADness works when you have roughly parallel powers - you say nuclear, I say nucular, let's call the whole thing off. But the vice president's directive is applying a deterrent to what military planners call an asymmetrical threat. We've got nukes, but the Iranians don't. Their defense right now would have to be conventional (tanks and troops) or non-conventional (covert operations). Perhaps this was a warning to Iran not to start up supporting covert terrorists to counter our nuclear threats to them.

If this is Cheney's thinking, he's essentially escalating tensions in order to then stabilize their relationship with the West. This is what happened in the Cold War and, as horrendous as the threat was, it's hard to argue with the results.

Unfortunately, even MADness won't work here. The second point about MAD is that it succeeded because it dealt with a bilateral conflict, us versus them. For all the Manichean rhetoric coming out of this administration, the reality of the Middle East involves multiple parties who loathe each other as much as they "hate freedom." The adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," comes about because it makes sense if you can get all your enemies to fight each other.

Which brings us back to all the people in that dangerous region who are already in the terror business, or close to it, and would love to see the U.S. blast Iran to smithereens: the Wahhabists, the Saudis, al-Qaeda crazies, and the secular Ba'athist extremists in power in Syria and underground in Iraq. They'll get Cheney's message, too.

The last light bulb to shine on Dick Cheney's thinking is the military realities that the U.S. faces right now. Cheney and his fellow neoconservatives may not precisely want a war with Iran, but it's a price they seem willing to risk in order for them to reduce Iran down to a third rate power in the region. Militarily, Iran's got two big cards in its hand. They've got a big population. Given time to mobilize, they could put an army of several million men in the field to defend themselves against any US threat. But more importantly, they've got missile bases all along their Persian Gulf coast and more than enough ordnance to shut down the flow of oil by fat slow supertanker coming out of Iraq.

Compare that to the U.S.'s position. We've got a standing army of about half a million troops, dwindling enlistment rates, and a populace dead set against a draft. A recent Democratic proposal to increase force strength doesn't enjoy administration support. U.S. forces are deployed to scores of outposts around the world. Over 100,000 are tied down in Iraq by the (mostly) Ba'athist insurgency and almost all the rest are recovering from and/or planning to return to new deployments in Iraq. The army has dramatically accelerated the troops' rotation schedules going in and out of Iraq, but eventually that's going to impinge on morale. We have no conventional deterrent against Iran's threat to the Persian Gulf and Iran knows it. Our navy could probably take out most of their coastal missile batteries, but not without suffering a lot of casualties, something the American public is not very open to. The full Air Force tactical Monty is about all the neocons have left to bluster with.

So desperation and weakness are behind the Cheney directive to the Air Force to plan a massive strike on Iran. Desperation and weakness are behind his office deciding to leak this Unilaterally Assured Destruction of Iran policy. He might like to take them down a few pegs, sure, but it's a war that he and the United States cannot realistically fight. Such a strike would turn America into a pariah nation; it would end our brief career as the world's sole superpower.

But why is Cheney so angry at Iran? Part of his anger stems from something that he should have copped to long, long ago. In the shadowy world of espionage and geopolitical power politics, Mr. Cheney is coming to realize that he and his fellow PNAC-ers have been played for saps by the Iranians.

Iran, unlike the Bush Cheney White House, understands those Middle Eastern adages. Iran's spymasters, probably directed by Ayatollah Khamenei, got con-artist Ahmed Chalabi to convince the neocons to take down Iran's worst enemy, Saddam Hussein. One big reason why your next door neighbor is flying her flag at half staff, or why your ex-classmate needs his parents to build a wheelchair ramp before he can come home, is that Ahmad Chalabi convinced the Project for the New American Century's own council of experts in Rumsfeld's Pentagon that Iraq really had "massive" WMDs and ties to al-Qaeda, and all that other crap they've been telling you.

Chalabi, fed DOD officials Doug Feith, Richard Perle, and assorted other chickenhawks a steady diet of misinformation about Saddam Hussein. His "inside information" was critical in helping the neocons override the arguments by the CIA that the weapons may not be there. He assured them that we'd need only 100,000 troops to play this game. "They're gonna love you, baby, they'll throw flowers at you." He sold them a war they lusted for and they in turn sold it to America. But the whole time he was working for Iran.

"Let's you and him fight" is not a new game in southwest Asia. Iran played that game and succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. Today Iran is negotiating numerous business deals with Iraq's new Shiite government, from flour sales to pipeline projects. Iraq's new prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, has declared the U.S. won't be permitted to stage an invasion of Iran from Iraq, amid numerous new security agreements between the former enemies. Fat chance that was gonna happen anyway, given our current force levels, but it's still not exactly a warm embrace of Iraq's supposed "liberators."

There's a clear road to peace that can evolve in the Persian Gulf region, but the United States is not part of that final picture. Iran is. Mr Cheney's directive is not a credible threat so much as a big whiny temper tantrum, a cornered bully screaming "I'll knock your block off" when he sees how powerless, and how foolish, he's become. As Juan Cole points out in a recent Salon article, "The Iraq war is over, and the winner is Iran."

Halliburton isn't even running a close second. And to think they call George Bush the dumb one.

Bucky Rea writes the Brown Bag Blog and teaches world history and geography in Houston, Texas.

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