New Yorker luminary Seymour Hersh documents a purported “shift in targeting” by the President amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran, writing in The New Yorker. Hersh, at his most workmanlike in this piece, methodically builds a case in support of a careful Bush Administration campaign to make sure the US goes to war in Iran:
In a series of public statements in recent months, President Bush and members of his Administration have redefined the war in Iraq, to an increasing degree, as a strategic battle between the United States and Iran. “Shia extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people,” Bush told the national convention of the American Legion in August. “The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased. . . . The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And, until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops.” He then concluded, to applause, “I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.”
The President’s position, and its corollary—that, if many of America’s problems in Iraq are the responsibility of Tehran, then the solution to them is to confront the Iranians—have taken firm hold in the Administration. This summer, the White House, pushed by the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney, requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw long-standing plans for a possible attack on Iran, according to former officials and government consultants. 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.
As always, the bluff of Hersh’s assertions greatly exceeds the bluster of his reporting.
Hersh can always be counted on to tell a complex story with skill and dexterity, just as he can always be counted on to embellish his references with carefully targeted rhetorical excesses. Of course, Hersh maintains the disciplined appearance of objectivity, finding among unnamed sources in Federal bureaucracies, useful co-conspirators with ready anti-Administration gossip and other sound bites.
No doubt these are driven currently by anti-Bush animus, as in days of yore, when Hersh attacked prior Republican administrations. Iraq and Iran must serve as thin gruel indeed. Compared to Vietnam, where Hersh first rose to international prominence for his anti-war reporting. One almost feels sorry for the old war horse.
None of which necessarily speaks to the accuracy of his reporting, but rather to the obviousness of his biases.
Hersh wants his readers to believe that the President has decided he must scapegoat Iran at this particular time in this particular way – a change from any previous planning – because of three “developments”:
- The failure of a “campaign” to convince the public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat;
- Consensus within the Intelligence Community (IC) that Iran is at least 5 years away from developing nuclear weapons; and
- Recognition that Iran is the “geopolitical winner” in Iraq.
The first purported “development,” of course, highlights how Bush and his advisors want to “do Iraq” all over again, something Hersh states plainly. Not being content to suffer enormous political fallout, lost elections and lost control of both Houses of Congress from one Iraq, Hersh wants to believe (and wants credulous readers to believe) that Bush and Company desperately want another. (“Desperately seeking Quagmire,” I suppose.)
The second “development” suggests a parallel between Iran’s nuclear ambitions, programs, and level of threat, compared to Hussein in 2002. Hersh clearly wants to throw down the gauntlet, “not this time” -- as if the worries and concerns about Iranian apocalyptic rhetoric and stunning advances in nuclear technology procurement and weaponization, just more of the same Lie Us Into War strategy.
The problem here is that there is anything but consensus on how far Iran has advanced in the nuclear weapons program, or the extent to which they were assisted by Pakistan’s rogue nuclearists or North Korea’s obvious desire to proliferate nuclear weapons or weapon making capability. We’ll know how far they are when they test their first nuke, probably not before.
No doubt, the League of Former Senior Intelligence and CIA Officials who Oppose Bush have reached a firm consensus that everything he does is wrong and always for the wrong reasons, whereas everything They Think is Right and always in the Interest of National Security -- never petty politics or bureaucratic turf battle or in-fighting. Surely the same can be said of Hersh, who’s never met an unnamed official he couldn’t find compelling and convincing, provided the official gave him anti-Administration quotes.
The third “development,” that Iran is the geopolitical winner in Iraq is not only highly arguable, but highly doubtful as a conclusion that this administration might reach. I have no doubt at all that Hersh pushes this line of reasoning, the better to justify his steadfast conclusion that nothing good can come from our efforts in Iraq. In this, he’s joined by many of his cooperating unnamed officials, many in the Foreign Policy establishment, and a proliferation of academics, bound and determined to stand as apologists for the regime in Tehran.
Iran may or may not be in a better regional situation for a variety of reasons because of our efforts in Iraq. Likewise, our efforts at eliminating the Taliban and Saddam and introducing democracy to the Arab Middle East surely present a serious threat to the stability and survival of the Mullahcracy in Iran.
If one could portray the President’s heightened focus on Iran as desperate, as an acknowledgement of losing ground, as Hersh implies here, the same could certainly be said of Iran’s intense meddling in Iraq.
It’s almost humorous how critics of this administration manage to slam the President on both sides of these kinds of issues: negligence and not seeing the real threats; then paying too much attention or “hyping” those same threats.
Hersh favors the rhetorical device of mixing in military and political commentary when quoting his unnamed sources. I do not suggest that Hersh manufactures quotes. Rather, he regularly quotes presumed experts in one area who Hersh oddly calls upon to draw conclusions outside their areas of expertise.
As Hersh does here, quoting a “former intelligence official”:
“There is a desperate effort by Cheney et al. to bring military action to Iran as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the politicians are saying, ‘You can’t do it, because every Republican is going to be defeated, and we’re only one fact from going over the cliff in Iraq.’ But Cheney doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the Republican worries, and neither does the President.”
That’s highly speculative. And highly suspect. I seriously doubt many Republicans think this might be true, although one hears this kind of thing quite often from liberal Democrats. I’m also not sure there are many former intelligence officials who can or should be quoted authoritatively on matters of politics, or of organizational psychology, but then I’m no Seymour Hersh.
Hersh, as many foul weather critics of this Administration, points to heightened or increased operation analysis and planning as evidence of intent or mission selection. Hersh points to increased “tempo of attack planning” and increased staffing, and draws another helpful (unnamed) CIA source to compare these efforts to pre-war preparations for Iraq in 2002.
There are a few other possibilities, as any military commander or Intelligence Analyst could tell you, even without remaining anonymous.
One very strong possibility is that the US knows that our analytic understanding about Iran, its nuclear and military capabilities, is weak, and needs to get better. Whatever intelligence gaps we had about Iraq prior to going to war, and that we had about North Korea before they went nuclear, we can be assured that we have al least as many about Iran. That doesn’t suggest that Iran might take longer to reach the nuclear threshold, rather than sooner. Especially if Iran’s El Baradei is insisting it will take longer.
The majority of Hersh’s readership remains largely ignorant or ill-informed on military matters (no thanks to Hersh). The military plans on a continuous basis for all conceivable threats and multiple areas of operations. Intelligence assets anticipate potential hot spots and operational requirements, and seek to build understanding, fill gaps, and expand intelligence holdings. We certainly should be concentrating on Iran, not because we’ve already decided to attack, but because of all the threats out there today, Iran is among the most bellicose, and Iranian actions (including acts of war) the most belligerent.
There is also the possibility that prior operational planning over-emphasized targeting of nuclear sites. For a variety of reasons, planning may now be including detailed threat assessments and potential target preparation for so called surgical strikes.
Not that any of this needs to detract from Hersh’s depiction of a White House on the march to war. This matches the conclusion drawn by former Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Foreign Policy realists breed strange bedfellows indeed.)
Of course Ahmadinejad blames the state of relations between the US and Iran entirely on US aggression. Brzezinski, in a similar vein, thinks the Bush Administration is hoping Iran keeps saber rattling for a reason, according to Brzezinski, via Hersh:
“A lot depends on how stupid the Iranians will be,” Brzezinski told me. “Will they cool off Ahmadinejad and tone down their language?” The Bush Administration, by charging that Iran was interfering in Iraq, was aiming “to paint it as ‘We’re responding to what is an intolerable situation,’ ” Brzezinski said. “This time, unlike the attack in Iraq, we’re going to play the victim. The name of our game seems to be to get the Iranians to overplay their hand.”
Brzezinski suggests that vile anti-Americanism is somehow more threatening or angering to the US than Iranian funding and training of anti-US terrorists, active targeting of US military, and the supply of shaped-charge munitions to our enemies for the express purpose of killing more Americans.
Hersh attempts to refute recent US accusations against Iranian support of insurgent and militia violence against US and coalition forces by introducing some doubt as to the provenance of arms thought to be of (recent) Iranian vintage. In this, he confers with former UN weapons inspector David Kay, who asserts that Inspection Teams found surprising and huge quantities of munitions, including “explosively formed penetrators.” These may not be the kinds of munitions now being used against US forces in Iraq, but surely existing known and unidentified munitions stockpiles are a large source for IEDs used in Iraq.
Kay believes General Petraeus and other military officials misstate the degree of current Iranian culpability, but his specific objections reveal a bias towards the “Iran reacts to US belligerence out of an enlightened self-interest:
“I thought Petraeus went way beyond what Iran is doing inside Iraq today,” Kay said. “When the White House started its anti-Iran campaign, six months ago, I thought it was all craziness. Now it does look like there is some selective smuggling by Iran, but much of it has been in response to American pressure and American threats—more a ‘shot across the bow’ sort of thing, to let Washington know that it was not going to get away with its threats so freely. Iran is not giving the Iraqis the good stuff—the anti-aircraft missiles that can shoot down American planes and its advanced anti-tank weapons.”
Iranian apologetics flourish among the UN intelligentsia like Kay and El Baradei, and such prove useful to Hersh’s contention that the US is hyping us into war with Iran. These same kind of internationalists display the kind of thinking that always justifies Iranian reaction, and even over-reaction, to the threats posed by the US.
A senior European diplomat, who works closely with American intelligence, told me that there is evidence that Iran has been making extensive preparation for an American bombing attack. “We know that the Iranians are strengthening their air-defense capabilities,” he said, “and we believe they will react asymmetrically—hitting targets in Europe and in Latin America.” There is also specific intelligence suggesting that Iran will be aided in these attacks by Hezbollah. “Hezbollah is capable, and they can do it,” the diplomat said.
All to make the argument in advance that whatever happens, the US and our attitudes towards Iran will have “caused” whatever results.
Hersh presents contrasting views of the root causes of violence against coalition forces. Hersh contrasts the US and UK military view that Iran supports many groups in the south who kill British and American soldiers, with international think tank assessments that violence results more from “the systematic abuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias.”
Hersh’s international sources also quite rightly observe that corrupt Iraqi politicians often use accusatiosn of foreign intrigue as a way of diverting attention from corruption and outright criminality.
Hersh, as other critics, aligns himself with Shiite apologia that consistently evaluates every coalition strategy in the zero sum game of tribal politics: anything benefiting Sunnis is necessarily cause for Shiite concern.
“The American policy of supporting the Sunnis in western Iraq is making the Shia leadership very nervous,” Nasr said. “The White House makes it seem as if the Shia were afraid only of Al Qaeda—but they are afraid of the Sunni tribesmen we are arming. The Shia attitude is ‘So what if you’re getting rid of Al Qaeda?’ The problem of Sunni resistance is still there. The Americans believe they can distinguish between good and bad insurgents, but the Shia don’t share that distinction. For the Shia, they are all one adversary.”
Nasr went on, “The United States is trying to fight on all sides—Sunni and Shia—and be friends with all sides.” In the Shiite view, “It’s clear that the United States cannot bring security to Iraq, because it is not doing everything necessary to bring stability. If they did, they would talk to anybody to achieve it—even Iran and Syria,” Nasr said. (Such engagement was a major recommendation of the Iraq Study Group.) “America cannot bring stability in Iraq by fighting Iran in Iraq.”
It is no small coincidence that this line of Shiite-oriented, tribal analysis always points towards closer diplomacy with Iran as the solution to all ills in Iraq. You will never read of an analyst making these kinds of assessment ever criticizing Iranian provocations, or their sins of commission or omission causing damage to US-Iranian relations, or for that matter, Iranian-Iraqi relations. One inevitably concludes that such voices are pro-Iranian, for a reason.
Hersh juices up his critique with highly detailed speculations (or intelligence leaks) from more of those un-named officials, detailing the form surgical strikes would take, and the almost single-minded desire of Vice President Cheney to have them carried out.
In framing the case that the US is preparing to conduct more limited, surgical strikes against Iran, Hersh consults with an anonymous European official, who Hersh quotes authoritatively on British support for a change in targeting:
A senior European official told me, “The British perception is that the Iranians are not making the progress they want to see in their nuclear-enrichment processing. All the intelligence community agree that Iran is providing critical assistance, training, and technology to a surprising number of terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, through Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine, too.”
There were four possible responses to this Iranian activity, the European official said: to do nothing (“There would be no retaliation to the Iranians for their attacks; this would be sending the wrong signal”); to publicize the Iranian actions (“There is one great difficulty with this option—the widespread lack of faith in American intelligence assessments”); to attack the Iranians operating inside Iraq (“We’ve been taking action since last December, and it does have an effect”); or, finally, to attack inside Iran.
The European official continued, “A major air strike against Iran could well lead to a rallying around the flag there, but a very careful targeting of terrorist training camps might not.” His view, he said, was that “once the Iranians get a bloody nose they rethink things.” For example, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Ali Larijani, two of Iran’s most influential political figures, “might go to the Supreme Leader and say, ‘The hard-line policies have got us into this mess. We must change our approach for the sake of the regime.’ ”
The logic here is hard to follow. A big attack against Iran or its nuclear facilities would cause Iranians to rally to the regime, but a smaller attack might cause the grown ups in Tehran to pressure changes in Iranian behavior? Too many critics of the Bush Administration and current US foreign policy predicate their thinking on the assumption that US planners are all imbeciles, or nefarious.
Yet another unnamed European diplomat – don’t these gentlemen have work to do in Brussels or Paris? – passes along the related French opinion that changed US plans for Iran are mere face saving for mis-steps in Iraq:
Many in the French government have concluded that the Bush Administration has exaggerated the extent of Iranian meddling inside Iraq; they believe, according to a European diplomat, that “the American problems in Iraq are due to their own mistakes, and now the Americans are trying to show some teeth. An American bombing will show only that the Bush Administration has its own agenda toward Iran.”
A European intelligence official made a similar point. “If you attack Iran,” he told me, “and do not label it as being against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it will strengthen the regime, and help to make the Islamic air in the Middle East thicker.”
Assuming one can correctly interpret what “make the Islamic air in the Middle East thicker” means, would that even be possible? I thought Bin Ladenism, coupled with the extreme anti-Semitism, 12th Imam evoking, Caliphate restoring rhetoric already made the Islamic air about as thick as it could get. Not in the eyes of some, who must see the US at fault for every negative turn of events in the Middle East.
Hersh makes sure to include commentary by Mohamed El Baradei and the IAEA:
The director general of the I.A.E.A., Mohamed ElBaradei, has for years been in an often bitter public dispute with the Bush Administration; the agency’s most recent report found that Iran was far less proficient in enriching uranium than expected. A diplomat in Vienna, where the I.A.E.A. is based, said, “The Iranians are years away from making a bomb, as ElBaradei has said all along. Running three thousand centrifuges does not make a bomb.” The diplomat added, referring to hawks in the Bush Administration, “They don’t like ElBaradei, because they are in a state of denial. And now their negotiating policy has failed, and Iran is still enriching uranium and still making progress.”
The diplomat expressed the bitterness that has marked the I.A.E.A.’s dealings with the Bush Administration since the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The White House’s claims were all a pack of lies, and Mohamed is dismissive of those lies,” the diplomat said.
Hans Blix, a former head of the I.A.E.A., questioned the Bush Administration’s commitment to diplomacy. “There are important cards that Washington could play; instead, they have three aircraft carriers sitting in the Persian Gulf,” he said. Speaking of Iran’s role in Iraq, Blix added, “My impression is that the United States has been trying to push up the accusations against Iran as a basis for a possible attack—as an excuse for jumping on them.”
When a commentator quotes El Baradei or Hans Blix in support of an argument, more thoughtful readers should know what’s coming.
That members of the IAEA continue to insist that US accusations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, programs for WMD, intentions, and known and documented violations of UNSC resolutions were “all a pack of lies,” that tells you everything you need to know about the IAEA. El Baradei and the IAEA carried water for Saddam Hussein, and now they carry water for Iran. Can’t let anything stand in the way of the Islamic Bomb, can we?
That’s as much as I can stomach for one outing.
Via Mudville Gazette. Greyhawk also noted the Hersh report at MILBLOGS, and tries to decide if the story is batsh** crazy.