Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A World Without Scapegoats

The U.S. and Israel confront new realities

There could be differing opinions on when the war of manoeuvre between the U.S. and Iran began. The most recent phase of conflict could however, be dated from a few weeks after U.S. President George Bush landed in the full uniformed regalia of a fighter-pilot on an aircraft carrier anchored off the California coast, to declare “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.

Though mutual intelligibility is never a concern with sides engaged in battle -- whether of the diplomatic or military type -- a coherent argument is called for if broader support is required. It was always a struggle for the U.S. Suspicions had been aroused by the manner that intelligence on Iraq was concocted intelligence to fit a preconceived policy. And nobody seems anxious to take the same course in Iran.

Evidence that the U.S. intelligence agencies were disinclined to go along with the “neocon” gameplan emerged on December 3. In the opacity of the Bush administration’s internal procedures, it is yet unclear how the public release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear programme came to be authorised. The consequences though, have been immense.

Iran’s nuclear programme had abandoned weapons ambitions as far back as 2003, the NIE concluded, as the world asked: what took them so long? From all the investigations and inquiries by the authorised nuclear watchdog body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it seemed undeniably the case, that Iran was a long way from being nuclear weapons capable.

Both the U.S. and Iran studied the NIE and declared victory. In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad observed at a celebratory public rally, that the principal intent of the NIE was to extricate the U.S. from an impasse of its own creation. The NIE, said the Iranian president, was a “confession of error”, even a “declaration of surrender”. But since the U.S. could not bring itself to admit error, it had chosen to say the same in other words.

An admission of error is what Bush is particularly averse to. Having spoken as recently as late-October, of the Iranian nuclear programme as the surest road to “World War Three”, Bush needed to show unaccustomed agility to fend off inconvenient questions. He was, as in previous such conjunctures of political awkwardness, assisted by a compliant media in transforming adversity to advantage.

Bush claimed first, that the core finding of the NIE vindicated his approach since 2003, of orchestrating world opinion and maintaining pressure on Iran. And in making the dire prediction that Iran could plunge the world into cataclysmic conflict, he had been faithful to all the intelligence then available. In a general sense, he had been aware that some new findings on Iran were available when he made his apocalyptic speech. But these findings were only then being analysed for veracity and a final assessment was yet to reach him.

In the days and weeks preceding the NIE, there was little in the public conduct of either Bush or his principal advisors, to suggest a departure from their ingrained habit of using every fragment of information in patently self-serving fashion. On November 15, the IAEA published a report on its most recent inspections and inquiries in Iran. Among other things, it established that the declarations made by Iran in respect of uranium enrichment, were consistent with findings the IAEA had arrived at through independent inspections. The overall summation of the IAEA was that “Iran (had) provided sufficient access to individuals and (had) responded in a timely manner to questions and provided clarifications and amplifications on issues raised in the context of the (IAEA) work plan”.

The IAEA did add the cautionary warning that Iran had not stopped its uranium enrichment activity and had perhaps achieved a 4 percent level of enrichment (against the 90 percent required for weapons grade material). Though formally at variance with a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Iran halt uranium enrichment, this finding put the Iranian programme within the parameters of peaceful ends and intentions, casting a stain of illegality over the U.N. demand.

These subtleties were obviously lost on the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad – an erstwhile oil industry functionary and patron of the Afghan Taliban – who joined in, soon after the IAEA report, with calls for another punitive resolution on Iran, backed by credible threats of the use of force.

Against this backdrop, it occasioned no surprise that Bush came out, soon after the NIE was released, with a rose-tinted retrospect on the efficacy of U.S. policy. The U.S. president has ceased to surprise. It is still interesting though, that U.S. intelligence agencies, till recently completely pliant to the political diktat, should have shown the conviction to state what is the case.

If Bush sought to put a brave face on matters, there were signs of disquiet within his inner cabal. Zalmay Khalilzad came out with the regretful assessment that the U.S. had in publicising intelligence, scored a spectacular “own goal”. His predecessor John Bolton, considered too obstreperous for the job even by a U.S. Congress that Bush had a firm grip on, spoke of a “quasi-putsch” by the intelligence agencies against the political leadership. In like vein, the neocon guru Norman Podhoretz, warned ominously of a sinister plot to undermine the Bush presidency.

Israel for its part, rejected the findings of the NIE and insisted that its attitude would remain unchanged. The following week, it called for consultations with the U.S. on the new situation. To avoid undue attention, a meeting was agreed at a relatively junior level, not involving ministerial level contacts.

There was a curious moral inversion in the manner that the right-wing establishment in the U.S. went about the challenge posed by the NIE. The intelligence services, conveniently made the scapegoat for the unending disaster of Iraq, were yet again the target. Having allegedly over-stated the case against Iraq, the agencies were held guilty of fatally under-stating the case against Iran. Two commentators in that neocon bastion, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, put it rather well: intelligence agencies had failed at every juncture, to arrive at an understanding of potentially hostile countries’ intentions, stretching back to the first nuclear tests of the Soviet Union, through the Iraqi program of the 1980s, and the Indian and Pakistani tests of 1998. There was hence just no cause to take their assessment on Iran seriously.

The omission in this entire narrative would be obvious to a school-child. In Iraq, for at least a decade preceding the 2003 U.S. invasion – not to mention in Iran since then -- the IAEA has had access to all sites of interest. Unlike other assessments, which have been drawn from unreliable testimonies of defectors, hard-to-interpret electronic signals or remote sensing data, the IAEA has been able – like it was in Iraq in 2003 -- to probe Iranian conduct through an actual presence on the ground.

The truth about Iraq, obscured from public view by a shameful record of acquiescence by the U.S. media and political opposition, is simply that it was not about a failure of intelligence. It was all about a failure of professional integrity and the capitulation by intelligence agencies to political pressure from a neocon cabal intent on war.

Bush officials had spun a number of stories of Iraqi deceit in the weeks preceding the U.S. invasion. Two in particular, of these numerous fairy-tales, deserve attention. The first describes in sordid detail, a supposed attempt by Iraq to buy uranium from Niger; and the second speaks darkly, of the potential uses of a consignment of aluminium tubes that Iraq had imported.

The first of these fictions was elevated to the status of official doctrine in Bush’s state of the union address to the U.S. Congress in January 2003. The second found mention in Secretary of State (as he was then) Colin Powell’s address to the U.N. Security Council in February the same year.

How did these insults against the world’s intelligence escape scrutiny? As early as October 2002, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) had laid out its doubts on both these claims. “The activities we have detected”, it recorded in an assessment that found its way into the National Intelligence Estimate filed that month “do not .. add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing … an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons”. This judgment was reinforced by the U.S. Department of Energy -- the nodal agency for nuclear weapons related expertise – which found that the aluminium tubes found in Iraq were not intended for uranium enrichment.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), similarly, had sought to get to the bottom of the “uranium from Niger” claim by commissioning a visit to all the sites indicated, by a diplomat with extensive knowledge of Africa. Based on his inputs, the CIA sent two memos, urging that the accusation be deleted from Bush’s public rhetoric.

Yet these accusations continued to be flaunted, to be in fact, the underpinning of Bush’s programme in Iraq. This campaign of public disinformation was occasionally diluted by the petulant outburst against the U.S. intelligence agencies for supposedly misleading the political leadership.

The background to this involves an assessment afresh of how intelligence serves politics and vice versa.

On May 1, 2005, The Times of London published the entire transcript of a secret memorandum written in 2002 by a top political aide to the British Prime Minister, several months before the war in Iraq began. Referring to a visit to Washington by the chief of U.K. intelligence, the memorandum recorded that “military action” against Iraq was “inevitable”. And the British official’s professional assessment was that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around (this) policy”.

Fixing intelligence and facts around a policy of war has proved an enormously expensive indulgence. Embarking on a similar course with Iran could well be fatal for the U.S. These mortal perils arise from a number of other “facts” which now crowd in, demanding the attention of even the most obsessive ideologues in the Bush administration, and resisting the most resolute attempts to “fix” them.

Uncounted hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died as a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion, though this statistic is of less consequence to Bush than the 4,000 U.S. servicemen who have perished. And as the U.S. becomes more deeply embroiled in a no-win situation, its reluctant allies have chosen to pull out. Spain and Italy have left; Poland and Australia have announced their intention to leave. And the U.K., that most loyal among serfs, recently handed over security responsibilities in Basra province to Iraqi forces.

What perhaps is most mortifying for the U.S., is the fact that as British troops pack up, they leave southern Iraq in the secure grip of Iran’s surrogates. The Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) has established itself as a formidable power in the central administration in Baghdad. But if its powers in Baghdad are restrained by the compulsions of political cohabitation with rival militias and ethnic groups, few such fetters are operative in Shi’a dominated southern Iraq. If anything, the only challenge to its preeminence comes from the Mahdi Army of the Shi’a cleric, Moqtada Al-Sadr, who tilts towards an Arab-nationalist posture and is even more implacably opposed to the U.S.

“Weapons of mass destruction” was the veil of deception that the U.S. spun to cloak the true motivations of its invasion of Iraq. Those motives remain unstated and unanalysed to this day, shamefully for the putative “free media” in the U.S. There has however, been much informed comment from the alternative media and from dissenting academics on the possible concerns that impelled the U.S. into its misadventure.

The security of Israel has been read by the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, as a significant concern. Making the Arab world safe for client regimes was another compulsion, as too, was the need to control the energy reserves that hold the key to shoring up the precarious dollar.

In all these respects, the U.S. confronts a moment of decisive importance. The dollar is in free-fall against major world currencies, energy prices are soaring, and the U.S. economy now teeters on the verge of what is with appropriate dread, called a “depression”.

On quite another plane, Israel faces, just when its military supremacy seems absolute, a crisis of identity and legitimacy. It is a crisis best summed up in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plea that a “Palestinian state”, once something that Israel needed as badly as a pox, is now an existential necessity for the Jewish state. Failure to grant the Palestinian people their aspirations to independent statehood, said Olmert, would inevitably invite upon Israel the unwanted accusations of “apartheid”.

The term “apartheid”, as also anything suggesting affinity with the racist South African republic, was once anathema in Israel. An Israeli Prime Minister’s introduction of a deeply stigmatised term into the political discourse, indicates that the Jewish state today faces a moment of reckoning. All efforts at re-engineering the near neighbourhood – the war of destruction against Lebanon, the threats and imprecations against Syria – have conspicuously failed. And as one failure has followed another, the temptation to destroy Iran, supposedly the source of all evil, rises.

The ideologues though, have at some stage, to confront reality. And the plain fact is that the U.S. project in West Asia, even counting Israel, has run out of steam. To take on Iran in an armed confrontation, would be to write the final obituary of this project.

Sukumar Muralidharan,
December 18, 2007

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