Sunday, October 07, 2007

Iran: Beware the Plural Casus Belli!

It is hard to tell how seriously to take Seymour Hersh on the subject of Iran. After all, he has constantly been sounding the alarm that bombing is imminent, but so far he has been wrong every time. His articles so far have been more useful as insights into the mindset of the Iran warhawks than of their actual power. Nonetheless, his latest article on the subject is significant, if only to show why we must NOT listen to the hawks.

It is true that neocon pundits and the Cheney faction within the Bush Administration have long been urging us to bomb Iran. Up until now the argument for such an attack has been that Iran is close to getting nuclear weapons and would pose an intolerable threat. But this argument is running into a serious problem; anti-proliferation experts such as UN Inspector Mohammed El-Baradei are finding Iran to be years from that goal -- and their track record on that subject is a good deal more reliable than the Bush Administration's. So now the Cheney faction is finding a new reason to go to war; the threat Iranians pose to US troops in Iraq:
The focus of the plans had been a broad bombing attack, with targets including Iran’s known and suspected nuclear facilities and other military and infrastructure sites. Now the emphasis is on “surgical” strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere, which, the Administration claims, have been the source of attacks on Americans in Iraq. What had been presented primarily as a counter-proliferation mission has been reconceived as counterterrorism.

The shift in targeting reflects three developments. First, the President and his senior advisers have concluded that their campaign to convince the American public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat has failed (unlike a similar campaign before the Iraq war), and that as a result there is not enough popular support for a major bombing campaign. The second development is that the White House has come to terms, in private, with the general consensus of the American intelligence community that Iran is at least five years away from obtaining a bomb. And, finally, there has been a growing recognition in Washington and throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging as the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq.
In otherwords, superhawks remain as determined as ever to have a war with Iran. Having failed in one rationale, they are simply seeking another. (The war is to take the form of bombing only because even superhawks can see that our ground troops are tied up in Iraq; if we had ground forces to spare, we would also invade). That should, in itself, be sufficient reason NOT to go to war. Beware the plural casus belli!

When a war is truly justified, there is usually one simple, straightforward reason for us to fight. Nothing else is needed. We fought the first Gulf War because Saddam had invaded Kuwait. We fought the Korean War because North Korea had invaded South Korea. We fought WWII because Germany and Japan had invaded most of Europe and Asia. And we invaded Afghanistan because their government was harboring the culprits responsible for the September 11 attacks. No one had any doubt why we were fighting any of these wars.

But why did we invade Iraq? Because of Saddam's ties to al-Qaeda? His arsenal of WMD? The danger that he would give such weapons to terrorists? The threat of what might happen some time in the more distant future? As a humanitarian intervention? To transform the Middle East? Supporters of the Iraq War have offered all these explanations. When one is refuted, they move on to the next. As a last resort, they can always argue that no one reason was adequate to go to war, but the combination is adequate. Nonesense! There may, indeed, be wars with more than one justification. The Korean War was fought, not just against agression, but against Communist aggression. WWII was justified not only because Germany and Japan were the invaders, but because of their unprecedented atrocities. The Civil War was both a war to preserve the Union and a war against slavery. But in all these cases there was at least ONE justification for the war that could stand on its own with no other needed.

Wars with a plural casus belli are much less likely to be seen as just than ones fought for simple and straightforward reasons. Was the War of 1812 about freedom of the seas? British support for Tecumseh? A second War of Independence? Conquering Canada? No one knows to this day, but the war was so controversial in its own time that the New England states nearly seceded.

Leaders who offer a plural casus belli are, most likely, concealing their true motive for going to war, sometimes even from themselves. When Woodrow Wilson called for the US to join WWI, he offered as justifications the sinking of the Lusetania, Germany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, the Zimmerman telegram, and a grand crusade "to make the world safe for democracy" and a "war to end all wars." Most likely he believed his own grand vision. But, seen realistically, what WWI was about was that the Germans were threatening the balance of power in Europe as it had not been threatened since Napoleon's day. One can argue whether the US should have gone to war to maintain the balance of power in Europe. But in asking us to do so, Wilson was going against a longstanding American tradition going back to George Washington's warning against "entangling alliances" that the balance of power in Europe was none of our business.

Something similar is happening in the call to war with Iran today. We were previously urged to bomb uranium enrichment sites to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program. When that failed to elicit a response, the call came to bomb Revolutionary Guard sites because they are behind attacks on our troops in Iraq. Some warhawks are even trying to enlist liberals in the cause by pointing out the Islamic Republic's presecution of homosexuals. This constant shifting of ground is a good indication that our leaders are not being honest about their real reasons for wanting to attack Iran. The most charitable explanation is the mentioned by Seymour Hersh, "[T]here has been a growing recognition in Washington and throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging as the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq." If correct, the Cheneyites' reason for wanting to attack Iran is similar to our real reason for joining WWI. Iran's growing influence is threatening the balance of power in the Middle East, and is dangerous enough to justify preventive war. Most Americans, for good reason, are unlikely to see that as adequate grounds for fighting.

The least charitable explanation is a three-letter word that begins with O.


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