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Iran and the Irrationality Factor

Connecting the Dots, Bush-Style

| Mon Mar. 20, 2006 4:00 AM EST

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."

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