By Ray McGovern
Introduction by Tom Engelhardt
Here’s the strange thing. In the decade that followed the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, nuclear weapons more or less disappeared from American sight — despite a near-nuclear war in South Asia, despite the fact that the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals continued to sit in place without particular justification or obvious “mission.” Those potentially world-ending weapons, which had preoccupied two Cold War generations ever since the first of them was exploded over Hiroshima in August 1945, had to queue up at the back of an ever-growing line of global problems to get even their fifteen seconds of attention, no less fame. Suddenly, after 9/11 (when the site where the World Trade Center had once stood was dubbed “ground zero” as if a nuclear explosion had taken place on American soil), nuclear weapons zoomed back to the head of the line. At least in administration rhetoric, mushroom clouds began to go off over American cities and there was a drumbeat of fear about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program (and the rest of his — as it turned out, nonexistent — WMD), leading of course to the invasion of Iraq under the rubric of a “counterproliferation war.”
Now, another of those drumbeats, this time about the much-disputed Iranian nuclear bomb that no one yet claims actually exists, has begun. Once again we seem to be heading down a highway marked “counterproliferation war.” What makes this bizarre is that the Middle East today, for all its catastrophic problems, is actually a nuclear-free zone except for one country, Israel, which has a staggeringly outsized, semi-secret nuclear arsenal. As Los Angeles Times reporter Douglas Frantz wrote at one point, “Though Israel is a democracy, debating the nuclear program is taboo… A military censor guards Israel’s nuclear secrets.” And this “taboo” has largely extended to American reporting on the subject. Imagine, to offer a very partial analogy, if we all had had to consider the Cold War nuclear issue with the Soviet, but almost never the American nuclear arsenal, in the news. Of course, that would have been absurd and yet it’s the case in the Middle East today, making most strategic discussions of the region exercises in absurdity.
I wrote about this subject under the title, Nuclear Israel, back in October 2003, because of a brief break, thanks to Frantz, in the media blackout on the subject. I began then, “Nuclear North Korea, nuclear Iraq, nuclear Iran – of these our media has been full for the last year or more, though they either don’t exist or hardly yet exist. North Korea now probably has a couple of crude nuclear weapons, which it may still be incapable of delivering. But nuclear Israel, little endangered Israel? It’s hard even to get your head around the concept, though that country has either the fifth or sixth largest nuclear arsenal in the world.” And not much has changed since. I recommend as well a piece written even earlier by Ira Chernus on a graphic about the Israeli nuclear arsenal tucked away at the MSNBC website (and still viewable).
Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst and one of the founders of the group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, considers the Iranian and Israeli bombs, and Bush administration policy in relation to both below in a piece that, he writes, emerged from “an informal colloquium which has sprung up in the Washington, DC area involving people with experience at senior policy levels of government, others who examine foreign policy and defense issues primarily out of a faith perspective, and still others with a foot in each camp. We are trying to deal directly with the moral — as well as the practical — implications of various policy alternatives. One of our group recently was invited to talk with senior staffers in the House of Representatives about Iran, its nuclear plans, its support for terrorists, and U.S. military options. Toward the end of that conversation, a House staffer was emboldened to ask, ‘What would be a moral solution?’ This question gave new energy to our colloquium, generating a number of informal papers, including this one. I am grateful to my colloquium colleagues for their insights and suggestions.” Now, read on.
Attacking Iran: I Know It Sounds Crazy, But…
By Ray McGovern
“‘This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous.’
“‘And having said that, all options are on the table.’
“Even the White House stenographers felt obliged to note the result: ‘(Laughter).'”
(The Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin on George Bush’s February 22 press conference)
For a host of good reasons — the huge and draining commitment of U.S. forces to Iraq and Iran’s ability to stir the Iraqi pot to boiling, for starters — the notion that the Bush administration would mount a “preemptive” air attack on Iran seems insane. And still more insane if the objective includes overthrowing Iran’s government again, as in 1953 — this time under the rubric of “regime change.”
But Bush administration policy toward the Middle East is being run by men — yes, only men — who were routinely referred to in high circles in Washington during the 1980s as “the crazies.” I can attest to that personally, but one need not take my word for it.
According to James Naughtie, author of The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency, former Secretary of State Colin Powell added an old soldier’s adjective to the “crazies” sobriquet in referring to the same officials. Powell, who was military aide to Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger in the early eighties, was overheard calling them “the f—ing crazies” during a phone call with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw before the war in Iraq. At the time, Powell was reportedly deeply concerned over their determination to attack — with or without UN approval. Small wonder that they got rid of Powell after the election, as soon as they had no more use for him.
If further proof of insanity were needed, one could simply look at the unnecessary carnage in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003. That unprovoked attack was, in my view, the most fateful foreign policy blunder in our nation’s history…so far.
It Can Get Worse
“The crazies” are not finished. And we do well not to let their ultimate folly obscure their current ambition, and the further trouble that ambition is bound to bring in the four years ahead. In an immediate sense, with U.S. military power unrivaled, they can be seen as “crazy like a fox,” with a value system in which “might makes right.” Operating out of that value system, and now sporting the more respectable misnomer/moniker “neoconservative,” they are convinced that they know exactly what they are doing. They have a clear ideology and a geopolitical strategy, which leap from papers they put out at the Project for the New American Century over recent years.
The very same men who, acting out of that paradigm, brought us the war in Iraq are now focusing on Iran, which they view as the only remaining obstacle to American domination of the entire oil-rich Middle East. They calculate that, with a docile, corporate-owned press, a co-opted mainstream church, and a still-trusting populace, the United States and/or the Israelis can launch a successful air offensive to disrupt any Iranian nuclear weapons programs — with the added bonus of possibly causing the regime in power in Iran to crumble.
But why now? After all, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency has just told Congress that Iran is not likely to have a nuclear weapon until “early in the next decade?” The answer, according to some defense experts, is that several of the Iranian facilities are still under construction and there is only a narrow “window of opportunity” to destroy them without causing huge environmental problems. That window, they say, will begin to close this year.
Other analysts attribute the sense of urgency to worry in Washington that the Iranians may have secretly gained access to technology that would facilitate a leap forward into the nuclear club much sooner than now anticipated. And it is, of course, neoconservative doctrine that it is best to nip — the word in current fashion is “preempt” — any conceivable threats in the bud. One reason the Israelis are pressing hard for early action may simply be out of a desire to ensure that George W. Bush will have a few more years as president after an attack on Iran, so that they will have him to stand with Israel when bedlam breaks out in the Middle East.
What about post-attack “Day Two?” Not to worry. Well-briefed pundits are telling us about a wellspring of Western-oriented moderates in Iran who, with a little help from the U.S., could seize power in Tehran. I find myself thinking: Right; just like all those Iraqis who welcomed invading American and British troops with open arms and cut flowers. For me, this evokes a painful flashback to the early eighties when “intelligence,” pointing to “moderates” within the Iranian leadership, was conjured up to help justify the imaginative but illegal arms-for-hostages-and-proceeds-to-Nicaraguan-Contras caper. The fact that the conjurer-in-chief of that spurious “evidence” on Iranian “moderates,” former chief CIA analyst, later director Robert Gates, was recently offered the newly created position of director of national intelligence makes the flashback more eerie — and alarming.
George H. W. Bush Saw Through “The Crazies”
During his term in office, George H. W. Bush, with the practical advice of his national security adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, was able to keep “the crazies” at arms length, preventing them from getting the country into serious trouble. They were kept well below the level of “principal” — that is, below the level of secretary of state or defense.
Even so, heady in the afterglow of victory in the Gulf War of 1990, “the crazies” stirred up considerable controversy when they articulated their radical views. Their vision, for instance, became the centerpiece of the draft “Defense Planning Guidance” that Paul Wolfowitz, de facto dean of the neoconservatives, prepared in 1992 for then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. It dismissed deterrence as an outdated relic of the Cold War and argued that the United States must maintain military strength beyond conceivable challenge — and use it in preemptive ways in dealing with those who might acquire “weapons of mass destruction.” Sound familiar?
Aghast at this radical imperial strategy for the post-Cold War world, someone with access to the draft leaked it to the New York Times, forcing President George H. W. Bush either to endorse or disavow it. Disavow it he did — and quickly, on the cooler-head recommendations of Scowcroft and Baker, who proved themselves a bulwark against the hubris and megalomania of “the crazies.” Unfortunately, their vision did not die. No less unfortunately, there is method to their madness — even if it threatens to spell eventual disaster for our country. Empires always overreach and fall.
The Return of the Neocons
In 2001, the new President Bush brought the neocons back and put them in top policymaking positions. Even former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, convicted in October 1991 of lying to Congress and then pardoned by George H. W. Bush, was called back and put in charge of Middle East policy in the White House. In January, he was promoted to the influential post (once occupied by Robert Gates) of deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs. From that senior position Abrams will once again be dealing closely with John Negroponte, an old colleague from rogue-elephant Contra War days, who has now been picked to be the first director of national intelligence.
Those of us who — like Colin Powell — had front-row seats during the 1980s are far too concerned to dismiss the re-emergence of the neocons as a simple case of déjà vu. They are much more dangerous now. Unlike in the eighties, they are the ones crafting the adventurous policies our sons and daughters are being called on to implement.
Why dwell on this? Because it is second in importance only to the portentous reality that the earth is running out of readily accessible oil – something of which they are all too aware. Not surprisingly then, disguised beneath the weapons-of-mass-destruction smokescreen they laid down as they prepared to invade Iraq lay an unspoken but bedrock reason for the war — oil. In any case, the neocons seem to believe that, in the wake of the November election, they now have a carte-blanche “mandate.” And with the president’s new “capital to spend,” they appear determined to spend it, sooner rather than later.
Next Stop, Iran
When a Special Forces platoon leader just back from Iraq matter-of-factly tells a close friend of mine, as happened last week, that he and his unit are now training their sights (literally) on Iran, we need to take that seriously. It provides us with a glimpse of reality as seen at ground level. For me, it brought to mind an unsolicited email I received from the father of a young soldier training at Fort Benning in the spring of 2002, soon after I wrote an op-ed discussing the timing of George W. Bush’s decision to make war on Iraq. The father informed me that, during the spring of 2002, his son kept writing home saying his unit was training to go into Iraq. No, said the father; you mean Afghanistan… that’s where the war is, not Iraq. In his next email, the son said, “No, Dad, they keep saying Iraq. I asked them and that’s what they mean.”
Now, apparently, they keep saying Iran; and that appears to be what they mean.
Anecdotal evidence like this is hardly conclusive. Put it together with administration rhetoric and a preponderance of other “dots,” though, and everything points in the direction of an air attack on Iran, possibly also involving some ground forces. Indeed, from the New Yorker reports of Seymour Hersh to Washington Post articles, accounts of small-scale American intrusions on the ground as well as into Iranian airspace are appearing with increasing frequency. In a speech given on February 18, former UN arms inspector and Marine officer Scott Ritter (who was totally on target before the Iraq War on that country’s lack of weapons of mass destruction) claimed that the president has already “signed off” on plans to bomb Iran in June in order to destroy its alleged nuclear weapons program and eventually bring about “regime change.” This does not necessarily mean an automatic green light for a large attack in June, but it may signal the president’s seriousness about this option.
So, again, against the background of what we have witnessed over the past four years, and the troubling fact that the circle of second-term presidential advisers has become even tighter, we do well to inject a strong note of urgency into any discussion of the “Iranian option.”
Why Would Iran Want Nukes?
So why would Iran think it has to acquire nuclear weapons? Sen. Richard Lugar, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was asked this on a Sunday talk show a few months ago. Apparently having a senior moment, he failed to give the normal answer. Instead, he replied, “Well, you know, Israel has…” At that point, he caught himself and abruptly stopped.
Recovering quickly and realizing that he could not just leave the word “Israel” hanging there, Lugar began again: “Well, Israel is alleged to have a nuclear capability.”
Is alleged to have…? Lugar is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and yet he doesn’t know that Israel has, by most estimates, a major nuclear arsenal, consisting of several hundred nuclear weapons? (Mainstream newspapers are allergic to dwelling on this topic, but it is mentioned every now and then, usually buried in obscurity on an inside page.)
Just imagine how the Iranians and Syrians would react to Lugar’s disingenuousness. Small wonder our highest officials and lawmakers — and Lugar, remember, is one of the most decent among them — are widely seen abroad as hypocritical. Our media, of course, ignore the hypocrisy. This is standard operating procedure when the word “Israel” is spoken in this or other unflattering contexts. And the objections of those appealing for a more balanced approach are quashed.
If the truth be told, Iran fears Israel at least as much as Israel fears the internal security threat posed by the thugs supported by Tehran. Iran’s apprehension is partly fear that Israel (with at least tacit support from the Bush administration) will send its aircraft to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, just as American-built Israeli bombers destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. As part of the current war of nerves, recent statements by the president and vice president can be read as giving a green light to Israel to do just that; while Israeli Air Force commander Major General Eliezer Shakedi told reporters on February 21 that Israel must be prepared for an air strike on Iran “in light of its nuclear activity.”
The Iranians also remember how Israel was able to acquire and keep its nuclear technology. Much of it was stolen from the United States by spies for Israel. As early as the late-1950s, Washington knew Israel was building the bomb and could have aborted the project. Instead, American officials decided to turn a blind eye and let the Israelis go ahead. Now Israel’s nuclear capability is truly formidable. Still, it is a fact of strategic life that a formidable nuclear arsenal can be deterred by a far more modest one, if an adversary has the means to deliver it. (Look at North Korea’s success with, at best, a few nuclear weapons and questionable means of delivery in deterring the “sole remaining superpower in the world.”) And Iran already has missiles with the range to hit Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has for some time appeared eager to enlist Washington’s support for an early “pre-emptive” strike on Iran. Indeed, American defense officials have told reporters that visiting Israeli officials have been pressing the issue for the past year and a half. And the Israelis are now claiming publicly that Iran could have a nuclear weapon within six months — years earlier than the Defense Intelligence Agency estimate mentioned above.
In the past, President Bush has chosen to dismiss unwelcome intelligence estimates as “guesses” — especially when they threatened to complicate decisions to implement the neoconservative agenda. It is worth noting that several of the leading neocons – Richard Perle, chair of the Defense Policy Board (2001-03); Douglas Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; and David Wurmser, Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney — actually wrote policy papers for the Israeli government during the 1990s. They have consistently had great difficulty distinguishing between the strategic interests of Israel and those of the US — at least as they imagine them.
As for President Bush, over the past four years he has amply demonstrated his preference for the counsel of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who, as Gen. Scowcroft said publicly, has the president “wrapped around his little finger.” (As Chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board until he was unceremoniously removed at the turn of the year, Scowcroft was in a position to know.) If Scowcroft is correct in also saying that the president has been “mesmerized” by Sharon, it seems possible that the Israelis already have successfully argued for an attack on Iran.
When “Regime Change” Meant Overthrow For Oil
To remember why the United States is no favorite in Tehran, one needs to go back at least to 1953 when the U.S. and Great Britain overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Premier Mohammad Mossadeq as part of a plan to insure access to Iranian oil. They then emplaced the young Shah in power who, with his notorious secret police, proved second to none in cruelty. The Shah ruled from 1953 to 1979. Much resentment can build up over a whole generation. His regime fell like a house of cards, when supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini rose up to do some regime change of their own.
Iranians also remember Washington’s strong support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after it decided to make war on Iran in 1980. U.S. support for Iraq (which included crucial intelligence support for the war and an implicit condoning of Saddam’s use of chemical weapons) was perhaps the crucial factor in staving off an Iranian victory. Imagine then, the threat Iranians see, should the Bush administration succeed in establishing up to 14 permanent military bases in neighboring Iraq. Any Iranian can look at a map of the Middle East (including occupied Iraq) and conclude that this administration might indeed be willing to pay the necessary price in blood and treasure to influence what happens to the black gold under Iranian as well as Iraqi sands. And with four more years to play with, a lot can be done along those lines. The obvious question is: How to deter it? Well, once again, Iran can hardly be blind to the fact that a small nation like North Korea has so far deterred U.S. action by producing, or at least claiming to have produced, nuclear weapons.
Nuclear Is the Nub
The nuclear issue is indeed paramount, and we would do well to imagine and craft fresh approaches to the nub of the problem. As a start, I’ll bet if you made a survey, only 20% of Americans would answer “yes” to the question, “Does Israel have nuclear weapons?” That is key, it seems to me, because at their core Americans are still fair-minded people.
On the other hand, I’ll bet that 95% of the Iranian population would answer, “Of course Israel has nuclear weapons; that’s why we Iranians need them” — which was, of course, the unmentionable calculation that Senator Lugar almost conceded. “And we also need them,” many Iranians would probably say, “in order to deter ‘the crazies’ in Washington. It seems to be working for the North Koreans, who, after all, are the other remaining point on President Bush’s ‘axis of evil.'”
The ideal approach would, of course, be to destroy all nuclear weapons in the world and ban them for the future, with a very intrusive global inspection regime to verify compliance. A total ban is worth holding up as an ideal, and I think we must. But this approach seems unlikely to bear fruit over the next four years. So what then?
A Nuclear-Free Middle East
How about a nuclear-free Middle East? Could the US make that happen? We could if we had moral clarity — the underpinning necessary to bring it about. Each time this proposal is raised, the Syrians, for example, clap their hands in feigned joyful anticipation, saying, “Of course such a pact would include Israel, right?” The issue is then dropped from all discussion by U.S. policymakers. Required: not only moral clarity but also what Thomas Aquinas labeled the precondition for all virtue, courage. In this context, courage would include a refusal to be intimidated by inevitable charges of anti-Semitism.
The reality is that, except for Israel, the Middle East is nuclear free. But the discussion cannot stop there. It is not difficult to understand why the first leaders of Israel, with the Holocaust experience written indelibly on their hearts and minds, and feeling surrounded by perceived threats to the fledgling state’s existence, wanted the bomb. And so, before the Syrians or Iranians, for example, get carried away with self-serving applause for the nuclear-free Middle East proposal, they will have to understand that for any such negotiation to succeed it must have as a concomitant aim the guarantee of an Israel able to live in peace and protect itself behind secure borders. That guarantee has got to be part of the deal.
That the obstacles to any such agreement are formidable is no excuse not trying. But the approach would have to be new and everything would have to be on the table. Persisting in a state of denial about Israel’s nuclear weapons is dangerously shortsighted; it does nothing but aggravate fears among the Arabs and create further incentive for them to acquire nuclear weapons of their own.
A sensible approach would also have to include a willingness to engage the Iranians directly, attempt to understand their perspective, and discern what the United States and Israel could do to alleviate their concerns.
Preaching to Iran and others about not acquiring nuclear weapons is, indeed, like the village drunk preaching sobriety — the more so as our government keeps developing new genres of nuclear weapons and keeps looking the other way as Israel enhances its own nuclear arsenal. Not a pretty moral picture, that. Indeed, it reminds me of the Scripture passage about taking the plank out of your own eye before insisting that the speck be removed from another’s.
Lessons from the Past…Like Mutual Deterrence
Has everyone forgotten that deterrence worked for some 40 years, while for most of those years the U.S. and the USSR had not by any means lost their lust for ever-enhanced nuclear weapons? The point is simply that, while engaging the Iranians bilaterally and searching for more imaginative nuclear-free proposals, the U.S. might adopt a more patient interim attitude regarding the striving of other nation states to acquire nuclear weapons — bearing in mind that the Bush administration’s policies of “preemption” and “regime change” themselves create powerful incentives for exactly such striving. As was the case with Iraq two years ago, there is no imminent Iranian strategic threat to Americans — or, in reality, to anyone. Even if Iran acquired a nuclear capability, there is no reason to believe that it would risk a suicidal first strike on Israel. That, after all, is what mutual deterrence is all about; it works both ways.
It is nonetheless clear that the Israelis’ sense of insecurity — however exaggerated it may seem to those of us thousands of miles away — is not synthetic but real. The Sharon government appears to regard its nuclear monopoly in the region as the only effective “deterrence insurance” it can buy. It is determined to prevent its neighbors from acquiring the kind of capability that could infringe on the freedom it now enjoys to carry out military and other actions in the area. Government officials have said that Israel will not let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon; it would be folly to dismiss this as bravado. The Israelis have laid down a marker and mean to follow through — unless the Bush administration assumes the attitude that “preemption” is an acceptable course for the United States but not for Israel. It seems unlikely that the neoconservatives would take that line. Rather…
“Israel Is Our Ally.”
Or so said our president before the cameras on February 17, 2005. But I didn’t think we had a treaty of alliance with Israel; I don’t remember the Senate approving one. Did I miss something?
Clearly, the longstanding U.S.-Israeli friendship and the ideals we share dictate continuing support for Israel’s defense and security. It is quite another thing, though, to suggest the existence of formal treaty obligations that our country does not have. To all intents and purposes, our policymakers — from the president on down — seem to speak and behave on the assumption that we do have such obligations toward Israel. A former colleague CIA analyst, Michael Scheuer, author of Imperial Hubris, has put it this way: “The Israelis have succeeded in lacing tight the ropes binding the American Gulliver to Israel and its policies.”
An earlier American warned:
“A passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation facilitates the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, infuses into one the enmities of the other, and betrays the former into participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification…. It also gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, who devote themselves to the favorite nation, facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country.” (George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796)
In my view, our first president’s words apply only too aptly to this administration’s lash-up with the Sharon government. As responsible citizens we need to overcome our timidity about addressing this issue, lest our fellow Americans continue to be denied important information neglected or distorted in our domesticated media.
Ray McGovern served as a CIA analyst for 27 years — from the administration of John F. Kennedy to that of George H. W. Bush. During the early 1980s, he was one of the writers/editors of the President’s Daily Brief and briefed it one-on-one to the president’s most senior advisers. He also chaired National Intelligence Estimates. In January 2003, he and four former colleagues founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.
Copyright 2005 Ray McGovern
This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com