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Monday, June 30, 2008

Obama's Iraq Problem by George Packer, The New Yorker

The New Yorker
Obama's Iraq Problem
by George Packer July 7, 2008

In February, 2007, when Barack Obama declared that he was running for President, violence in Iraq had reached apocalyptic levels, and he based his candidacy, in part, on a bold promise to begin a rapid withdrawal of American forces upon taking office. At the time, this pledge represented conventional thinking among Democrats and was guaranteed to play well with primary voters. But in the year and a half since then two improbable, though not unforeseeable, events have occurred: Obama has won the Democratic nomination, and Iraq, despite myriad crises, has begun to stabilize. With the general election four months away, Obama's rhetoric on the topic now seems outdated and out of touch, and the nominee-apparent may have a political problem concerning the very issue that did so much to bring him this far.

Obama's plan, which was formally laid out last September, called for the remaining combat brigades to be pulled out at a brisk pace of about one per month, along with a strategic shift of resources and attention away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan. At that rate, all combat troops would be withdrawn in sixteen months. In hindsight, it was a mistake—an understandable one, given the nature of the media and of Presidential politics today—for Obama to offer such a specific timetable. In matters of foreign policy, flexibility is a President's primary defense against surprise. At the start of 2007, no one in Baghdad would have predicted that blood-soaked neighborhoods would begin returning to life within a year. The improved conditions can be attributed, in increasing order of importance, to President Bush's surge, the change in military strategy under General David Petraeus, the turning of Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda, the Sadr militia's unilateral ceasefire, and the great historical luck that brought them all together at the same moment. With the level of violence down, the Iraqi government and Army have begun to show signs of functioning in less sectarian ways. These developments may be temporary or cyclical; predicting the future in Iraq has been a losing game. Indeed, it was President Bush's folly to ignore for years the shifting realities on the ground.

Obama, whatever the idealistic yearnings of his admirers, has turned out to be a cold-eyed, shrewd politician. The same pragmatism that prompted him last month to forgo public financing of his campaign will surely lead him, if he becomes President, to recalibrate his stance on Iraq. He doubtless realizes that his original plan, if implemented now, could revive the badly wounded Al Qaeda in Iraq, reënergize the Sunni insurgency, embolden Moqtada al-Sadr to recoup his militia's recent losses to the Iraqi Army, and return the central government to a state of collapse. The question is whether Obama will publicly change course before November. So far, he has offered nothing more concrete than this: "We must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in."

Obama's advisers have been more forthcoming. Samantha Power, before she resigned from the campaign for making an indiscreet remark about Hillary Clinton, told the BBC, "He will, of course, not rely upon some plan that he's crafted as a Presidential candidate or a U.S. senator. He will rely upon a plan—an operational plan—that he pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground." Last month, the Center for a New American Security, which has become something like Obama's foreign-policy think tank, released a report that argued against a timetable for withdrawal, regardless of the state of the war, and in favor of "conditional engagement," declaring, "Under this strategy, the United States would not withdraw its forces based on a firm unilateral schedule. Rather, the time horizon for redeployment would be negotiated with the Iraqi government and nested within a more assertive approach to regional diplomacy. The United States would make it clear that Iraq and America share a common interest in achieving sustainable stability in Iraq, and that the United States is willing to help support the Iraqi government and build its security and governance capacity over the long term, but only so long as Iraqis continue to make meaningful political progress." It's impossible to know if this persuasive document mirrors Obama's current thinking, but here's a clue: it was co-written by one of his Iraq advisers, Colin Kahl.

A "conditional engagement" policy is a much better fit for the present situation in Iraq. It would keep the heat on Iraqi politicians, whose willingness to reach compromise on issues like oil revenues, provincial elections, de-Baathification, and power sharing still lags well behind the government's recent military successes. It would allow for a phased withdrawal of most troops, depending on political progress and on the performance of the Iraqi Army. This, in turn, would ease the pressure on the American military and answer the rightful disenchantment in American public opinion. There will be no such thing as victory in Iraq, but the next President, if he remains nimble, may be able to keep the damage under control.

The politics of the issue is tricky, because acknowledging changed ideas in response to changed facts is considered a failing by the political class. Accordingly, Obama, on the night that he proclaimed himself the nominee, in St. Paul, made a familiar declaration: "Start leaving we must. It's time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their future." His supporters claim that the polls are with Obama, that war fatigue will make Iraq a political winner for him in November. Yet, as exhausted as the public is with the war, a candidate who seems heedless of progress in Iraq will be vulnerable to the charge of defeatism, which John McCain's campaign will connect to its broader theme of Obama's inexperience in and weakness on national security. The relative success of the surge is one of the few issues going McCain's way; we'll be hearing about it more and more between now and November, and it might sway some centrist voters who have doubts about Obama.

Obama has shown, with his speech on race, that he has a talent for candor. One can imagine him speaking more honestly on Iraq. If pressed on his timetable for withdrawal, he could say, "That was always a goal, not a blueprint. When circumstances change, I don't close my eyes—I adapt." He could detail in his speeches the functions that American troops and diplomats can continue to perform even as our primary combat role recedes: training and advising, counterterrorism, brokering deals among Iraqi factions, checking their expansionist impulses, opening talks with our enemies in the region. He could promise to negotiate all this with Iraqi leaders, emphasizing the difference between a relationship that respects the wishes of the public in both countries and one in which Iraqis are coerced into coöperation. If Obama truly wants to be seen as a figure of change, he needs to talk less about the past and more about the future: not the war that should never have been fought but the war that he, alone of the two candidates, can find an honorable way to end. ♦

Iran in the Crosshairs

Iran in the Crosshairs

by Ira Glunts / June 30th, 2008

When the United States invaded Iraq in order to destroy a nonexistent nuclear threat there were national and world protests. Opposition to that war was loudly voiced by American politicians and world leaders, as well as in mass demonstrations across the globe. Despite the protests, the war proceeded as planned. Today it seems that it is generally agreed that the Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation were catastrophic mistakes.

Now the same people that gave us Iraq, and remain just about the only supporters of their own failed policy there, are signaling that it is necessary to destroy the Iranian nuclear …
(Full article …)

A General for Obama?

Even though many of his political operatives are surely anxious for presidential candidate Obama to shore up his national security credentials by selecting a retired general as his running mate, he should not choose one. The reason is simple: the ones available simply do not have the requisite moral character and professional acumen. Today's June 30 issue of Defense News is running a new commentary by Straus Military Reform Project adviser Col. Douglas Macgregor arguing the case.

Find this commentary at, and below.


Within the American political system, a polarized celebrity cul­ture conditioned to respond to emotional buttons, clichés and slogans, military uniforms and badges have acquired astonish­ing power. But Obama might think twice before attaching too much im­portance to the trappings of mili­tary glory. A life spent in hierar­chical, rule-bound, tightly con­trolled military organizations is not necessarily the best prepara­tion for accurately judging the fluid world of politics at home and abroad.

More important, nowhere in the Constitution or in any other public document that frames the government of the United States is there mention that the presi­dent, a senator, a secretary of defense or any other federal offi­cial should have served in the armed forces. Military service can be ennobling, but there is no evidence that military service confers greater moral authority on a soldier over matters per­taining to war and peace.

Perhaps this explains why Americans automatically blame politicians for whatever is wrong — and politicians are rarely blameless. However, the record shows that whereas bad political judgment in war can often be rescued through effective mili­tary leadership, the reverse is rarely true. It’s why high com­mand in wartime requires people of the highest caliber and char­acter. Such people, like Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman in the Civil War, John Pershing in World War I, and George Patton and Douglas MacArthur in World War II, tend to be demanding, sometimes dif­ficult for politicians to control, and often unpredictable; but without such people, regardless of the resources available, suc­cess is impossible.

Unfortunately, the George W. Bush administration always ex­hibited a marked aversion to ad­vancing men of character to the most senior posts in a way not seen since the days of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. If they had, events might have turned out very differently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s be­cause such men would have fought the administration over its culture of torture and abuse in relation to Muslim detainees, be­havior that has betrayed Ameri­can values, cost us our moral au­thority and done us incalculable damage internationally.

Instead, the Bush administra­tion opted for biddable corpo­rate men who followed orders, pushed the party line, lied and dissembled where necessary.

The most disturbing example of moral gutlessness occurred when Ambassador Paul Bremer announced the decision to dis­band the very Iraqi Army which the top U.S. Army generals had planned to reconstitute and use to restore order. A minority of generals — John Abizaid, for ex­ample — who composed the U.S. Army leadership in Iraq knew it was a disastrous decision that virtually guaranteed the most ap­palling consequences. But did he or any of the generals stand up and oppose the decision or threaten to resign en masse, and speak out publicly? No, they folded — and eagerly accepted the promotions that followed.

Such moral cowardice is inex­cusable. In the final analysis, the generals turned a limited mili­tary intervention to remove the corrupt leadership of a weak, in­capable despot into a destructive war of occupation waged against Iraq’s Sunni Arab population. Then, they replaced Saddam Hussein’s regime with a corrupt Shi’ite Islamist Arab government with ties to Iran.

No less disappointing was the readiness of the retired generals to defend the incompetence and failure of their chosen succes­sors by misinforming the Ameri­can people about the true condi­tions on the ground in Iraq. Thanks to their disinformation campaign on television and ra­dio, the disaster was concealed from the American public until the strategic consequences were so negative the only way to re­duce U.S. losses was to buy off the insurgent enemy with bags of U.S. cash under the guise of the surge.

Despite the desperate need in our republic for accountability from everyone, including gener­als, the demand for accountabili­ty has been frustrated. Journal­ists who covet access cannot write stories if the generals and the Bush administration bar them from doing so. And politi­cians find it easier to attack each other. But the truth is, if the active and retired generals were corpo­rate officers with a track record like Iraq, the shareholders would be up in arms, and the generals would have been fired en masse long ago.

No, Obama needs no help from former generals or from anyone sporting medals to win in No­vember. ■

Douglas Macgregor is a former U.S. Army colonel and a decorated Gulf War combat veteran who writes for the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, Washington.

Now that Sen. Barack Obama has emerged the victor in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, the pressure is on from some quar­ters inside the Democratic Party to find a suitable general to be his running mate. The implica­tion is that a former general, or at least someone with military experience, will confer credibili­ty on the Obama ticket.

Winslow T. Wheeler
Straus Military Reform Project
Center for Defense Information
301 791-2397

DE BORCHGRAVE: U.S.-Israel moment of truth?

DE BORCHGRAVE: U.S.-Israel moment of truth?

Arnaud de Borchgrave
Monday, June 30, 2008


Israel's message to its only ally, the United States was quite clear. Either President Bush orders military action or Israel will have to strike on its own.

It can't wait till a new U.S. president is sworn in because the new White House tenant could well be Barack Obama. And Mr. Obama almost certainly would not approve an Israeli air strike without first going several extra miles on the U.N. and Western diplomatic track. This could even lead to the kind of rift in Israeli-U.S. relations that occurred when President Eisenhower ordered French, British and Israeli forces out of Egypt in the 1956 Suez War.

America's allies had sprung a strategic deception surprise on the United States by invading Egypt to put the Suez Canal, nationalized by Gamal Abdel Nasser, back under international control. The Soviet Union then ordered Warsaw Pact forces to invade Hungary to suppress an anti-communist revolution.

Thus, the invasion of Suez drained whatever propaganda advantage Eisenhower could have obtained from naked Soviet aggression. Soviet leader Nikita Khruschchev even felt free to rattle his nuclear "rockets" at the United States and took credit for the humiliatingly hurried Franco-British-Israeli withdrawal from Egypt.

The juxtaposition of the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis were two of the most dramatic upheavals in international affairs in the post-World War II era. If Israel were to attack Iran's nuclear facilities while Mr. Bush is still the commander in chief, China and Russia may be tempted to take a page out of Khruschchev's geopolitical playbook and rattle a few threatening economic missiles.

This, in turn, would be designed to get Mr. Obama to disassociate himself from any hostile action Israel might have taken against Iran. And if that didn't elicit the desired result, Iran's formidable asymmetrical retaliatory capabilities would be unleashed throughout the Gulf in particular and the Mideast in general. Iran can also make life hell for U.S. forces in Iraq and NATO forces in Afghanistan. With U.S. consumer confidence already at a 16-year low, oil would quickly skyrocket to $400 or $500 a barrel.

If, on the other hand, Sen. John McCain moves into the White House the afternoon of Jan. 20, he would presumably approve of Israeli bombing raids and Cruise missile strikes against Iran's nascent nuclear weapons capability. There is only thing worse than bombing Iran, Mr. McCain has said, and that is an Iranian nuclear bomb.

Mr. McCain is also privately critical of Mr. Bush's reluctance to cross the border from Iraq into Iran to attack al Quds barracks housing the Revolutionary Guards' Special Forces that smuggled into Iraq a steady stream of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), which kill and maim American soldiers.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen will be in Israel next weekend where he will hear the same simple message: If you don't, we have to - and will.

On May 28 and June 12, in a double-barreled exercise code-named "Glorious Spartan 08," more than 100 Israeli F-16s and F-15s and air-to-air refueling tankers engaged in exercises over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece, 900 miles from home bases. Greece cooperated in what Athens called joint maneuvers. For Jerusalem, it was a demonstration of Israel's capabilities and readiness to strike Iranian targets.

With French know-how at first, Israel began building a nuclear arsenal in the 1950s. Today, Israel is a major nuclear weapons power with an estimated 200 warheads. But Israel's political leadership, reflecting public opinion, is convinced it is living an existential crisis and that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's extremist threats to snuff out Zionism could destroy the Jewish state with one city-busting weapon in the nose cone of an Iranian missile.

Notwithstanding four unsuccessful Security Council sanction resolutions, and countless juicy carrots spurned by Tehran (including technological and financial assistance for a modern nuclear power industry), diplomats recoil in horror at the mere mention of Iranian and/or American attacks on Iran. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei says any attack on Iran will turn the entire region into a "ball of fire" and he would resign.

But Mr. ElBaradei still talks the talk, if not the walk, when he accuses Iran of holding back information needed to clarify intelligence reports it had secretly researched nuclear bomb-making, concealed from the prying eyes of his inspectors.

Ranking U.S. and European diplomats say there is still plenty of leeway for diplomacy coupled with increased sanctions pressure. They point out that verbal bomb-thrower Mr. Ahmadinejad does not control Iran's nuclear establishment, which is in the hands of Supreme Religious Leader Ali Khamenei, who keeps pledging Iran is not interested in nukes, only nuclear power.

Also encouraging is that one of Mr. Ahmadinejad's bitter political opponents, former chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, was recently elected to the powerful position of speaker of Parliament - and may unseat Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2009 elections.

That Iran is a wannabe nuclear weapons power is beyond dispute. A national hero at home for midwifing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal with plans for a uranium enrichment plant stolen from the Netherlands and a villain in the rest of the world for running a black market in nuclear secrets for the benefit of America's enemies, Dr. A.Q. Khan sold weapons secrets to Iran's mullahs beginning 23 years ago. It would be a miracle if Iran, which boasts thousands of scientists and engineers, does not have at least one powerful device in one of its many underground facilities, usually adjacent to population centers.

Three former CentCom four-stars - Anthony Zinni, John Abizaid and William J. Fallon - are on record against bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. Instead, they favor high-level negotiations with Iran's mullah regime. They believe the aim should be a geopolitical deal whereby Iran allows Iraq to consolidate its pro-Western democracy, reins in Hezbollah and Hamas, the United States restores full diplomatic relations, lifts all economic sanctions - and learns to live with an Iranian bomb. As a sign of peaceful intent, the administration offered to open a consular section in Tehran to facilitate visas for Iranians wishing to visit the United States.

Four of the world's eight nuclear powers - Russia, Israel, Pakistan and India - surround Iran north, west and east. Next to these parvenus, Iran/Persia is the only ancient civilization. Like the shah the mullahs overthrew, Iran is determined to achieve the ultimate badge of power. But then major Arab players - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates - will want it next.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

Don't Wait for World War III

Don't Wait for World War III
Act now to stop it! by Justin Raimondo The drumbeat for war with Iran is getting louder. Determined to ensure their success, by hook or by crook, the neoconservatives inside the administration, and their supporters in Israel, have launched a three-front campaign to provoke a confrontation with Tehran.

1. The Blackmail Option: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held a secret meeting recently at his home. Present were top cabinet officials and someone who has plenty of experience of the sort that interests the Israelis at the present moment: Aviam Sela, who headed up Operation Opera, the 1981 air strike against Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility. It was a bold and decisive blow against Israel's mortal enemy, which set the Iraqis back (though it drove them to create an underground program that actually was for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons by the time of the first Gulf War 10 years later). What Olmert wanted to know was whether it could be repeated in the case of Iran.

Yet no one should assume that Israel intends to act alone. An Israeli strike against Iran would be but a prelude to a much wider conflict, one that would invariably draw in Israel's one and only ally – us.

That's why the Israeli propaganda campaign directed at Iran has taken place on American terrain, aimed squarely at American public opinion and American lawmakers. Speaking at a recent AIPAC conference in Washington, Olmert declared:

"Israel will not tolerate the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and neither should any other country in the free world. The Iranian threat must be stopped by all possible means. International economic and political sanctions on Iran, as crucial as they may be, are only an initial step, and must be dramatically increased. … The international community has a duty and responsibility to clarify to Iran, through drastic measures, that the repercussions of their continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will be devastating."

There is no doubt in anyone's mind what "drastic" means, and this was underscored by his deputy prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, who recently averred that an attack on Iran is "unavoidable."

The Israelis, as is well-known, cannot take out the widely dispersed Iranian target sites all by themselves. They need U.S. cruise missiles fired from our ships in the Persian Gulf to take out the entirety of Iran's nuclear assets. The whole point of this stratagem would be to embroil the U.S. in a conflict that would soon take on regional dimensions.

2. The Blockade Option: The Israel lobby is hard at work getting support for a congressional resolution that mandates a naval blockade of Iran. This is now AIPAC's top priority in Washington, and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have already signed on. The Senate version has attracted 32 cosponsors, while the House version has 220 cosponsors.

The resolution itself is typical AIPAC agitprop: at one point, it says that "the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate reports that the Government of Iran was secretly working on the design and manufacture of a nuclear warhead until at least 2003 and that Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon as early as late 2009" – deftly snipping off the conclusion of the NIE that "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program" and substituting the Israeli assessment that Iran will go nuclear by 2009, which the National Intelligence Council concluded was "very unlikely."

The resolution, while containing boilerplate language to the effect that "nothing in this resolution will be construed as authorizing military action," goes on to demand "that the president lead an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the pressure on the Government of Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, among other measures, banning the importation of refined petroleum products to Iran."

It is typical Orwellian Newspeak: no military action is "authorized," yet what else would a blockade involve but the use of American military assets to enforce it? This means war – and don't think for a moment that the Israel lobby hasn't got the power to push this war resolution through Congress.

3. The Infiltration Option: Congress has already approved $400 million to destabilize the Iranian regime, the first phase of the administration's war moves against Tehran, and U.S. special-ops teams have been busy. The number of violent incidents inside Iran has recently skyrocketed, and there is little doubt that the U.S. is funding and otherwise assisting terrorist activities within that country. As Seymour Hersh reports:

"The scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have now been significantly expanded, according to the current and former officials."

The idea of the infiltration option is to coordinate with various minority ethnic groups, such as the Ahwazis and the Baluchis – Sunni fundamentalists of the al-Qaeda stripe who despise the Iranian Shi'ites as heretics – as well as the idiosyncratic Marxist cultists of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK). The goal is not just to gather intelligence, but also to provoke the regime into initiating a violent reaction. This would increase the likelihood of direct U.S. involvement, as the fighting spills over Iran's borders into Iraq and/or Pakistan.

All three options, working in tandem over the next few months, will be more than enough to provoke the Iranians into some sort of response, which can then be used as a pretext for the Americans to attack.

As in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, there is considerable opposition gathering within U.S. military and diplomatic circles. Hersh reports on a meeting between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Democratic caucus in the Senate, during which

"Gates warned of the consequences if the Bush administration staged a preemptive strike on Iran, saying, as the senator recalled, 'We'll create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America.' Gates's comments stunned the Democrats at the lunch, and another senator asked whether Gates was speaking for Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Gates's answer, the senator told me, was 'Let's just say that I'm here speaking for myself.'"

The realists in the administration – foremost among them, the top military brass – know what a disaster war with Iran would soon turn into. It would be an act of self-immolation unprecedented since Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Yet the power of the Israel lobby is formidable, the realists have little political clout, and there isn't much time to stop the momentum for war.

As craven as Barack Obama's recent performance before AIPAC was, the Lobby knows that, as president, he'll be unlikely to launch what would amount to World War III. Shmuel Bar, a former top intelligence officer and Israeli government official who now works as an analyst, recently spoke to the British Guardian:

"What is clear is that the push inside the Israeli establishment for a strike is not being driven by the timetable of Iran's mastery of the technical aspects alone, but by geopolitical considerations. That point was reinforced by Bar last week when he identified a window of opportunity for a strike on Iran – ahead of the November presidential election in the United States which could see Barack Obama take power, and possibly engage with Syria and Iran. An Obama presidency would close that window for Israel, says Bar."

The window of opportunity for the neocons to launch an attack will stay open only as long as this president is in the White House, and the Israelis know it. That's why their propaganda campaign has recently been ratcheted up to new heights of hysteria, and why they're pulling in all their chits in Congress.

The clock is ticking, and the Lobby is moving fast. Will – can – the antiwar movement move with equal speed?

What is needed, first of all, is a decisive defeat for the Lobby on the issue of Senate Resolution 580 (in the House, Congressional Resolution 362). A new war in the Middle East – or anywhere else – is the last thing the majority of Americans want, yet a fanatical and well-positioned minority will prevail if we don't act now. Call your congressional representative today and tell them, politely and calmly, that you are urging a "No!" vote on these concurrent resolutions.

There seems little doubt who and what is motivating this new push for war. Even as "moderate" a commentator as Joe Klein knows that the Lobby is up to its old tricks again, and he is being pilloried for telling the truth. In his Time column, Klein wrote:

"The notion that we could just waltz in and inject democracy into an extremely complicated, devout and ancient culture smacked – still smacks – of neocolonialist legerdemain. The fact that a great many Jewish neoconservatives – people like Joe Lieberman and the crowd over at Commentary – plumped for this war, and now for an even more foolish assault on Iran, raised the question of divided loyalties: using U.S. military power, U.S. lives and money, to make the world safe for Israel."

As I have pointed out in this space many times, the great majority of American Jews oppose this administration's crazed foreign policy, and there would be no antiwar movement of any consequence without their active support. Yet it cannot be denied – as I wrote before a single shot had been fired – that the Iraq war was launched, as Klein notes, to make the Middle East safer for Israel, just as the current push for "regime change" in Iran is energized by the same motive.

This is what it means to be an empire: foreign lobbyists and satraps gather 'round the imperial throne, scheming and plotting to gain the emperor's favor and the privilege of using his praetorians as an instrument to advance their own ends. If it wasn't the Israelis, it would be someone else – perhaps the Brits, as in the two previous world wars. In any case, until and unless we make real changes in our foreign policy – fundamental changes – we'll never get out of this box, and war clouds will loom large on our horizon well into the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, however, we have to make a start, and that means defeating Senate Resolution 580 and House Resolution 362, in what would be a rare setback for the Lobby. Go for it!

Making Progress, Without Uncle Sam

Making Progress, Without Uncle Sam
by Alan Bock

It may be that the phrases "Middle East peace" and "Israeli-Palestinian peace" are classic oxymorons, along the lines of the late George Carlin's example, "military intelligence." Certainly the history of the last several decades, perhaps the last 50 years, suggests that the safest attitude toward whatever is the latest manifestation of hope for peace among Israel and its neighbors is a pessimistic one. Based on the record, you will hardly ever be wrong. And indeed, signs emerged this week that a fragile truce between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has been made more fragile by Qassam rockets heading toward Israel.

Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that in the last few weeks some tentative moves toward resolving, or at least reducing, some of the many ongoing conflicts in the Middle East have taken place. The remarkable – and remarkably important – fact about all of them is that the United States has played virtually no role in any of them.

Israel and the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, agreed on a truce last week, which would end the rockets rained on the southern Israeli city of Sderot and the Israeli military strikes in Gaza. Unfortunately, rockets were fired into Israel on Tuesday, Israel closed border crossings on Wednesday in retaliation, and a couple more rockets were fired on Thursday. The UN has also claimed that Israel has violated the truce. Still, even though both Hamas and the Israeli government blame the other side for violating the truce, neither is proposing to call off the cease-fire.

After months of turbulence, the factions in Lebanon have reached a tentative political agreement that promises at least a semblance of orderly government. That agreement, brokered by Qatar, was quietly opposed by the U.S., in part because it would increase the formal power of Hezbollah within the Lebanese government. But the parties involved, who have to live in the country and who feared it was on the verge of a civil war – memories of the 1975-1990 have hardly disappeared from Lebanese memory – went ahead anyway.

So Israel on June 18 pushed to open peace negotiations with Lebanon. The Lebanese government immediately rebuffed the idea, but that would be the expected first reaction.

Israel is also negotiating a prisoner exchange with its longtime adversary Hezbollah. And last month Israel announced the resumption of talks with Syria, which have been on hold for eight years.

There are numerous possible explanations for all this activity directed at relative peace, though war-weariness on all sides may be the most important underlying factor. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces a growing corruption scandal from which he may be trying to divert attention. Hamas rules Gaza, but continuing the attack-counterattack pattern means ordinary people in Gaza face privation with few hopes for a better future.

Most extraordinary – or perhaps not extraordinary at all, but utterly predictable – is the fact that the United States has not been involved, except very peripherally, in any of these negotiations. For years – decades, really – conventional wisdom has been that progress toward resolving the numerous disputes between Israel and her neighbors can only be made if the United States takes an aggressive leadership role. Every American president since Carter has at least tried to broker an Israeli-Palestinian accord.

But U.S. influence and capabilities in the region have declined considerably since we invaded Iraq. The invasion led not to an increase in U.S. influence but an increase in the effective power of Iran. So without Uncle Sam to handle things, countries in the region are taking matters into their own hands. Egypt brokered the truce between Israel and Hamas. Qatar mediated the Lebanese accord that may have prevented another civil war. Turkey is acting as mediator in Israeli-Syrian preliminary talks.

The waning of American influence is felt in other parts of the region as well. As Leon Hadar reminded me when I spoke on the phone with him recently, we shouldn't be surprised that Saudi Arabia came up with only a token increase in oil production after President Bush personally asked for a little relief. The Saudis are convinced that the Americans destabilized the region with the invasion of Iraq and its disastrous aftermath, and they are particularly concerned about the growing regional strength of Iran, a direct result of the invasion. The U.S. now has much less leverage over the Saudis than it had in times past.

In addition, however much various neocons trumpet the Iraqi government's attack on Moqtada al-Sadr's forces as evidence of the Maliki regime's growing strength as a truly national government, the conflict would likely still be going on, with considerable bloodshed on both sides, if Iran had not intervened to broker a cease-fire. Although the U.S. is the military occupation force in Iraq, Iran has more influence both with the government and with the various Shia militias than the U.S. does.

The U.S. is not completely quiescent. Following the precedent of several previous U.S. presidents – seeking an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the last year of a term, when presidents start to think about their legacies – President Bush announced last December that he expects an Israeli-Palestinian agreement before he leaves office. Of all the initiatives in the region, however, this is the least likely to succeed anytime soon. You might even say that the bizarre combination of pushing for democracy and seeking to enhance U.S. hegemony has failed miserably.

Leon Hadar, whose book Sandstorm is still a good guide to how effectively the U.S. has destabilized the Middle East and includes a good deal of informed discussion on how the various countries in the region operate, thinks most of this activity is occurring because all the countries in the region sense the declining power and influence of the U.S. and are beginning to act in their own interests, knowing the U.S. can do little to stop them. Hadar believes there is deep support in Israel for the initiatives Ehud Olmert is undertaking. Diverting attention from the prime minister's scandals may play a small role in all this flurry of activity, but concern for the regime's survival is a stronger motive. And an increasing number of Israelis see negotiating with their neighbors rather than maintaining a constantly hostile attitude as important for Israel's long-term survival. Living in a garrison state is tiring.

In short, what we are seeing throughout the Middle East represents a gradual declaration of independence from the United States. Unlike denizens of comfortably appointed think tanks in Washington, D.C., those in the region have recent, personal experience of various kinds of conflict. It would be foolish to suggest a region-wide desire for peace, but a certain war-weariness seems to be growing. Even though regional peace may be elusive – and perhaps unlikely – the governments in the Middle East are beginning to move beyond the simplistic categorization of good and evil regimes the Bush administration has tried to impose, and are seeking some kind of modus vivendi with countries who are not leaving the neighborhood.

The lesson? Maybe the United States should stop trying to run the Middle East and let the people who live there handle things. As the next president considers how to leave Iraq as gracefully as possible, he would do well to contemplate reducing American efforts to run the rest of the region. Israel will survive, and the oil-producing countries have plenty of incentive to sell oil – perhaps more of an incentive – without U.S. ships patrolling the Persian Gulf.

Of course, the Middle Eastern countries will make mistakes, and all the initiatives described are fragile at best. But the evidence is that they will do better – indeed they are already doing better – without the precious guidance of the United States.

The Urge to Surge by Tom Engelhardt

June 30, 2008
The Urge to Surge
by Tom Engelhardt

[Note for TomDispatch readers: The following piece offers a picture of the Bush administration's 18-month "surge" in Iraq that, I believe, you'll find nowhere else. Something similar could be said of all the pieces collected in the new book, The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire. Collectively, they offer a remarkable sense of what not just but the political Internet had to offer that you couldn't – and, to a large extent, still can't – find in the mainstream media. I hope those of you who have followed this site will consider picking up a copy of the book as a gesture of support for the work done here since we came online in December 2002. You may think you're doing TomDispatch a favor (and indeed you are), but open the covers, begin reading, and you'll find that you've done something for yourself as well. Tom]

On March 19, 2003, as his shock-and-awe campaign against Iraq was being launched, George W. Bush addressed the nation. "My fellow citizens," he began, "at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger." We were entering Iraq, he insisted, "with respect for its citizens, for their great civilization and for the religious faiths they practice. We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people."

Within weeks, of course, that "great civilization" was being looted, pillaged, and shipped abroad. Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist dictatorship was no more and, soon enough, the Iraqi army of 400,000 had been officially disbanded by L. Paul Bremer, the head of the occupying Coalition Provisional Authority and the president's viceroy in Baghdad. By then, ministry buildings – except for the oil and interior ministries – were just looted shells. Schools, hospitals, museums, libraries, just about everything that was national or meaningful, had been stripped bare. Meanwhile, in their new offices in Saddam's former palaces, America's neoconservative occupiers were already bringing in the administration's crony corporations – Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR, Bechtel, and others – to finish off the job of looting the country under the rubric of "reconstruction." Somehow, these "administrators" managed to "spend" $20 billion of Iraq's oil money, already in the "Development Fund for Iraq," even before the first year of occupation was over – and to no effect whatsoever. They also managed to create what Ed Harriman in the London Review of Books labeled "the least accountable and least transparent regime in the Middle East." (No small trick given the competition.)

Before the Sunni insurgency even had a chance to ramp up in 2003, they were already pouring billions of U.S. tax dollars into what would become their massive military mega-bases meant to last a millennium, and, of course, they were dreaming about opening Iraq's oil industry to the major oil multinationals and to a privatized future as an oil spigot for the West.

On May 1, 2003, six weeks after he had announced his war to the nation and the world, the president landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier returning from the Persian Gulf where its planes had just launched 16,500 missions and dropped 1.6 million pounds of ordnance on Iraq. From its flight deck, he spoke triumphantly, against the backdrop of a "Mission Accomplished" banner, assuring Americans that we had "prevailed." "Today," he said, "we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians." In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, the initial shock-and-awe strikes he had ordered killed only civilians, possibly hundreds of them, without touching a single official of Saddam Hussein's "regime."

Who's Counting Now?

Since that first day of "liberation," Iraqis have never stopped dying in prodigious numbers. Now, more than five years after the U.S. "prevailed" with such "precision," a more modest version of the same success story has once again taken the beaches of the mainstream media, if not by storm, then by siege. When it comes to Iraq, the good news is unavoidable. It's in the air. Not victory exactly, but a slow-motion movement toward a "stable" Iraq, a country with which we might be moderately content.

The president's surge – those extra 30,000 ground troops sent into Iraq in the first half of 2007 – has, it is claimed, proven the negativity of all the doubters and critics unwarranted. Indeed, it is now agreed, security conditions have improved significantly and in ways "that few thought likely a year ago."

You already know the story well enough. It turns out that, as in Vietnam many decades ago, the U.S. military is counting like mad. So, for instance, according to the Pentagon, attacks on American and Iraqi troops are down 70 percent compared to June 2007; IED (roadside bomb) attacks have dropped almost 90 percent over the same period; in May, for the first time, fewer Americans died in Iraq than in Afghanistan (where the president's other war, some seven-plus years later, is going poorly indeed); and, above all else, "violence" is down. ("All major indicators of violence in Iraq have dropped by between 40 and 80 percent since February 2007, when President Bush committed an additional 30,000 troops to the war there, the Pentagon reported.")

Think of this as the equivalent of Vietnam's infamous "body count," but in reverse. In a country where the U.S. generally occupies only the land its troops are on, the normal measures of military victory long ago went out the window, so bodies have to stand in. In Vietnam, the question was: How many enemy dead could you tote up? The greater the slaughter, the closer you assumedly were to obliterating the other side (or, at least, its will). As it turned out, by what the grunts dubbed "the Mere Gook Rule" – "If it's dead and it's Vietnamese, it's VC [Vietcong]… " – any body would do in a pinch when it came to the metrics of victory.

In Iraq today, the counting being most widely publicized runs in the opposite direction. Success now can be measured in less deaths; and, by all usual counts, Iraqi deaths have indeed been falling since the height of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing in the early months of 2007. In part, this has occurred because millions of people have already been driven out of their homes and many neighborhoods, especially in the capital, "cleansed." At the same time, in Sunni areas, significant numbers of insurgents have joined the Awakening Movement. They have been paid off by the U.S. military to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq, while, assumedly, biding their time until the American presence ebbs to take on "the Persians" – that is, the Shi'ite (and Kurdish) government embedded in Baghdad's fortified, American-controlled Green Zone.

As a result, cratered Iraq – a land with at least 50 percent unemployment, still lacking decent electricity, potable water, hospitals with drugs (or even doctors, so many having fled), or courts with judges (40 of them having been assassinated and many more injured since 2003) or lawyers, many of whom joined the more than two million Iraqis who have gone into exile – is, today, modestly quieter. But don't be fooled. So many years later, Iraqis are still dying in prodigious numbers, and significant numbers of those dying are doing so at the hands of Americans.

It's not just the family, including possibly four children under the age of 12, who died last week when a U.S. jet blasted their house in Tikrit (after their father, evidently believing thieves were about, fired shots in the air with a U.S. patrol nearby); or the manager and two female employees of a bank at Baghdad International Airport ("three criminals," according to a U.S. military statement) killed when their car was shot up by soldiers from a U.S. convoy; or the unarmed civilian, a relative of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who died in an early morning American raid in the southern town of Janaja; or the men, woman, and child in a car "which failed to stop at a [U.S.] checkpoint on the outskirts of Mosul because, according to a U.S. military statement, the two men were armed and one man inside the car made 'threatening movements'"; or, according to the UN, the estimated 1,000 dead in Baghdad's vast, heavily populated Shi'ite slum of Sadr City, mostly civilians, 60 percent women and children, in fighting in April and May in which U.S. troops and air power played a significant role.

In fact, one great difference between the "liberation" moment of 2003 and the "stabilization" moment of 2008 is simply that what began as "regime change" – missiles and bombs theoretically meant for that Saddamist deck of 55 leadership cards – then developed into a war against a Sunni insurgency, and is now functionally a war against Shi'ites as well. Particularly targeted of late has been the movement headed by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the American occupation, who is especially popular among the impoverished Shi'ite masses in Baghdad and southern Iraq. In Shi'ite areas, his party, according to a U.S. intelligence estimate, would probably win upward of 60 percent of the votes in the upcoming provincial elections, if they were fairly conducted. In recent months, the U.S. military in "support" of its Iraqi allies in the Maliki government has fought fierce battles in both the southern oil city of Basra and Sadr City against Sadr's militia, with the usual sizable numbers of civilian casualties.

In other words, despite all the talk about onrushing "stability," looked at another way, the U.S. faces an ever more complicated and spreading, if intermittent, war. With it has gone another, somewhat less publicized kind of body count. Consider, for instance, a small passage from a recent piece by New York Times correspondent Thom Shanker on inter-service rivalries in Iraq. The U.S. Army, he reports, is now ramping up its own air arm (just as it did in the Vietnam era). In the last year, it has launched Task Force ODIN, the name being an acronym for "observe, detect, identify, and neutralize," but also the über-god of Norse mythology (and perhaps a reminder of the godlike attitudes those in the air can develop toward those being "neutralized" on the ground).

With its headquarters at a base near Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's old hometown, the unit consists of only "about 300 people and 25 aircraft." Shanker calls it "a Rube Goldberg collection of surveillance and communications and attack systems, a mash-up of manned and remotely piloted vehicles, commercial aircraft with high-tech infrared sensors strapped to the fuselage, along with attack helicopters and infantry."

Here's the money paragraph of his piece with its triumphalist body count:

"The work of the new aviation battalion was initially kept secret, but Army officials involved in its planning say it has been exceptionally active, using remotely piloted surveillance aircraft to call in Apache helicopter strikes with missiles and heavy machine gun fire that have killed more than 3,000 adversaries in the last year and led to the capture of almost 150 insurgent leaders."

We have no idea how that figure of more than 3,000 dead Iraqis was gathered (given that we're talking about an air unit), or what percentage of those dead were actually civilians, but certainly some among them died in the recent fighting in heavily populated Sadr City. In any case, consider that number for a moment: One modest-sized Army air unit/one year = 3,000+ dead Iraqis.

Now, consider that the Air Force in Iraq in that same year, according to Shanker, "quadrupled its number of sorties and increased its bombing tenfold." Consider that significant numbers of those sorties have been over heavily populated cities, or that, according to the Washington Post, between late March and late May, more than 200 powerful Hellfire missiles were fired into Baghdad (mainly, undoubtedly, into the Sadr City area); or that the unmanned aerial vehicles, the Predator (armed with two Hellfire missiles) and the larger, far more deadly Reaper (armed with up to 14 of those missiles), carried out, according to Shanker, 64 and 32 attacks, respectively, in Iraq and Afghanistan between the beginning of March and June.

And we're not even considering here U.S. military operations on the ground in Basra earlier in the year (special forces units were sent into the city when the Iraqi military and police seemed to be buckling), or in campaigns in Sunni or mixed areas to the north of Baghdad, or simply in ongoing everyday operations. Although individual body counts are now regularly announced for specific operations (not the case in the early years in Iraq), who knows what the overall carnage amounts to. One thing can be said, however: The pacification campaign in Iraq really hasn't flagged since the Sunni insurgency gained strength in late 2003. Reformulated by Gen. David Petraeus in 2007, it's just the sort of effort that occupying Great Powers have long been known to apply to rebellious possessions.

Iraq as a Surge-athon

To fully assess just what lurks beneath the "good news" from Iraq, including those 3,000 "adversaries" that Task Force ODIN "neutralized," we would have to do a different kind of counting of which we're incapable, not because no one's doing it, but because we have minimal access to the numbers. Let me try, however, to outline briefly some of what can be known – and then you can judge the good news for yourself.

American troop strength in Iraq now stands at about 146,000. That's perhaps 16,000 more than in January 2007 just before the surge began. It's also about 16,000 more than in April 2003 when Baghdad was taken. According to Lolita Baldor of the Associated Press, the latest Pentagon plans are to order about 30,000 U.S. troops into Iraq in 2009, which would keep troop levels at or above that 140,000 mark.

In addition, a vast force of private contractors, armed and unarmed, is in the country. There is no way to know how many of these hired hands and hired guns are actually there, but it's a reasonable guess that they add up to more – possibly substantially more – than the troops on hand.

Since February 2007 in the U.S., only one "surge" has been discussed, almost nonstop – those 30,000 ground troops the president ordered largely into the Baghdad area. A surprising number of other surges have, however, been underway, even if barely noted in the U.S. These add up to a remarkable Bush administration urge to surge that puts American policy in Iraq in quite a different light.

Among these surges, for instance, has been a political surge of U.S. "advisers" and "mentors" to the Iraqi government, police, and military. In another of his superb reports for the New York Review of Books, "Embedded in Iraq," Michael Massing says that the main elements of this "little known political surge … were spelled out in a classified 'Joint Campaign Plan' completed in May 2007." It represented, he writes, a "sharp expansion."

"Specialists from Treasury and Justice, Commerce and Agriculture were assigned to government ministries to help draw up budgets and weed out sectarian elements. The Agency for International Development and the Army Corps of Engineers set up projects to boost nutrition and reinforce dams. Provincial Reconstruction Teams were stationed in Baghdad and elsewhere to help repair infrastructure, improve water and electrical systems, and stimulate the economy."

We know as well that American advisers are now deeply involved with local government bodies in contested areas; that American advisers, evidently hired from private contractors, are embedded in the key interior, defense, and oil ministries; that advisers, also hired from private contractors, are helping the Iraqi police and that a new multi-year contract with DynCorp International, which already has 700 civilian police advisers in the country, will raise that number above 800. Their mission: "to advise, train and mentor the Iraqi Police Service, Ministry of Interior, and Department of Border Enforcement."

In this period, even academics have surged into Iraq as the military has embedded anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists from the "Human Terrain System" in military units to advise on local customs and "cultural understanding." One of them, a political scientist completing her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, was recently killed in a bombing in Sadr City.

We know that more than 20,000 Iraqis are now in two U.S. prisons, Camp Bucca in the south of the country and state-of-the-art Camp Copper on the outskirts of Baghdad. Both of these have been continually upgraded. In this period, though, it seems that a surge in prison building (and assumedly prisoners) has also been underway. The Washington Post's Walter Pincus reports that a new "Theater Internment Facility Reconciliation Center" – i.e., prison – is being built near Camp Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad. A "new contract calls for providing food for 'up to 5,000 detainees' [there] and will also cover 150 Iraqi nationals, who apparently will work at the facility." Another "reconciliation center" is to be opened at Ramadi in al-Anbar province.

All of this is, again, being done through private contractors, including a contract for some company to "guard" the "property" of up to 60,000 Iraqi detainees. ("The contracted personnel will be responsible for the accountability, inventory, and storage of all property.") This, reports Sharon Weinberger of Wired's Danger Room blog, is evidently in anticipation of a "surge of approximately 15,000 detainees in the upcoming six months."

In addition, the Iraqi military, with its embedded American advisers, remains almost totally dependent on the U.S. military. According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, based on "a classified study of Iraqi army battalions," just 10 percent of them "are capable of operating independently in counterinsurgency operations and that even then they rely on American support." For logistics, planning, supplies – almost everything that makes a military function – the Iraqi military relies on the U.S. military and would be helpless without it.

More than five years after Baghdad fell, there still is no real Iraqi air force. The Iraqi military now depends ever more on the quick and constant application of American air power – and U.S. air power in the region has surged in the last year and a half. The use of drones like the Predator and Reaper, whose pilots are stationed at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas and other distant spots, has also surged, doubling since the beginning of 2007. Meanwhile, new machines, including a "platoon" of 30 of the Army's experimental Micro Air Vehicles, which can hover "in one place [and] … stare down with 'electro-optical and infrared cameras,'" are being rushed into action in Iraq, which is increasingly a laboratory for the testing of the latest U.S. weaponry.

In addition, for unknown billions of dollars, the upgrading of American bases in that country, especially the mega-bases, continues, while possibly the largest embassy on the planet, a vast citadel inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone meant to house 1,000 "diplomats" (and large numbers of guards and support staff of every sort), is nearly finished.

Finally, among the various surges of these last 18 months, there has been a surge in Bush administration demands for an American future in Iraq. In ongoing negotiations for a Status of Forces Agreement, U.S. negotiators have demanded access to nearly 60 bases, control of Iraqi air space to 29,000 feet, the right to arrest Iraqis without explanation or permission, the right to bring troops into and out of the country without permission or notification, the right to launch operations on the same basis, and immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for Americans.

In other words, wherever you might have looked over the last year or more, a surge-athon was under way. It was meant to solidify the American position in Iraq for the long term as an occupying power. Not withdrawing or drawing down, but ramping up has been the order of the day, no matter what was being debated, discussed, or written about in the United States.

That ramping up makes some sense of the "good news" and "stability" of this moment. Among other things, it's hardly surprising that weakly armed guerrilla forces (whether Shi'ite or Sunni), when faced with such a display of power, have no desire to take it on frontally.

Given the situation of Iraq more than five years after the invasion, to speak of this urge to surge and its results as "success" or as "good news" is essentially obscene. Think of Iraq instead as a cocked gun. It's loaded, it's held to your head, and things are improving only to the extent that, recently, it hasn't gone off.

Iraq itself is wreckage beyond anything that could have been imagined back in March 2003; liberation is, by now, a black joke; the Bush administration's "benchmarks" for Iraqi success remain largely unmet, and still we keep "liberating" that land, still we keep killing Iraqis in prodigious numbers. A Vietnam-style body count, once banned by an administration that wanted no reminders of the last disastrous American counterinsurgency war, is now back with a vengeance, even if violence is down. These days, in its statements, the U.S. military is counting scalps almost everywhere there's fighting in Iraq.

A Great Lie of History

"We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people." This was one of the great lies of history. And all the while, the price of oil – the one product Iraq has and, in present conditions, can't get at adequately – continues to soar. There is no "good news" in any of this, unless you happen to be an undertaker, nor is there any end to it in sight.

Of the political surge in Iraq – all those advisers and Provincial Reconstruction Teams pouring into the country – Michael Massing has written bluntly: "[I]t has been an utter failure. 'Dysfunctional' is how one visiting adviser described it, citing bitter inter-agency battles, micromanagement from Washington, and an acute mismatch between the skills of the advisers and the needs of the Iraqi government."

The same could be said – and someday undoubtedly will be said – of the rest of the U.S. effort, including the much lauded recent counterinsurgency part of it.

So let me offer this bit of advice. When you read the news, skip the "good" part. The figures demonstrating "improvement" may (or may not) be perfectly real, but they also represent an effort to dominate (as well as divide and conquer) in an essentially colonial fashion; worse yet, it's an effort barely held together by baling wire and reliant on the destruction of ever more Iraqi neighborhoods.

If you want a prediction, here it is and it couldn't be simpler: This cannot end well. Not for Washington. Not for the U.S. military. Not for Americans. And, above all, not for Iraqis.

Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt

US Advised Iraqi Ministry on Oil Deals - Andrew Kramer, New York Times

US Advised Iraqi Ministry on Oil Deals - Andrew Kramer, New York Times

A group of American advisers led by a small State Department team played an integral part in drawing up contracts between the Iraqi government and five major Western oil companies to develop some of the largest fields in Iraq, American officials say. The disclosure, coming on the eve of the contracts’ announcement, is the first confirmation of direct involvement by the Bush administration in deals to open Iraq’s oil to commercial development and is likely to stoke criticism.

US to Expand Covert Operations in Iran - Joby Warrick, Washington Post

US to Expand Covert Operations in Iran - Joby Warrick, Washington Post

The Bush administration told Congress last year of a secret plan to dramatically expand covert operations inside Iran as part of a long-running effort to destabilize the country's ruling regime, according to a report published yesterday. The plan allowed up to $400 million in covert spending for activities ranging from spying on Iran's nuclear program to supporting rebel groups opposed to the country's ruling clerics, veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker magazine.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Annals of National Security Preparing the Battlefield

The New Yorker

Annals of National Security
Preparing the Battlefield
The Bush Administration steps up its secret moves against Iran.
by Seymour M. Hersh July 7, 2008

Operations outside the knowledge and control of commanders have eroded

Operations outside the knowledge and control of commanders have eroded "the coherence of military strategy," one general says.

L ate last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country's religious leadership. The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations. They also include gathering intelligence about Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program.

Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. United States Special Operations Forces have been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with Presidential authorization, since last year. These have included seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and taking them to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of "high-value targets" in the President's war on terror, who may be captured or killed. But the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have now been significantly expanded, according to the current and former officials. Many of these activities are not specified in the new Finding, and some congressional leaders have had serious questions about their nature.

Under federal law, a Presidential Finding, which is highly classified, must be issued when a covert intelligence operation gets under way and, at a minimum, must be made known to Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and the Senate and to the ranking members of their respective intelligence committees—the so-called Gang of Eight. Money for the operation can then be reprogrammed from previous appropriations, as needed, by the relevant congressional committees, which also can be briefed.

"The Finding was focussed on undermining Iran's nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change," a person familiar with its contents said, and involved "working with opposition groups and passing money." The Finding provided for a whole new range of activities in southern Iran and in the areas, in the east, where Baluchi political opposition is strong, he said.

Although some legislators were troubled by aspects of the Finding, and "there was a significant amount of high-level discussion" about it, according to the source familiar with it, the funding for the escalation was approved. In other words, some members of the Democratic leadership—Congress has been under Democratic control since the 2006 elections—were willing, in secret, to go along with the Administration in expanding covert activities directed at Iran, while the Party's presumptive candidate for President, Barack Obama, has said that he favors direct talks and diplomacy.

The request for funding came in the same period in which the Administration was coming to terms with a National Intelligence Estimate, released in December, that concluded that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons in 2003. The Administration downplayed the significance of the N.I.E., and, while saying that it was committed to diplomacy, continued to emphasize that urgent action was essential to counter the Iranian nuclear threat. President Bush questioned the N.I.E.'s conclusions, and senior national-security officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, made similar statements. (So did Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee.) Meanwhile, the Administration also revived charges that the Iranian leadership has been involved in the killing of American soldiers in Iraq: both directly, by dispatching commando units into Iraq, and indirectly, by supplying materials used for roadside bombs and other lethal goods. (There have been questions about the accuracy of the claims; the Times, among others, has reported that "significant uncertainties remain about the extent of that involvement.")

Military and civilian leaders in the Pentagon share the White House's concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions, but there is disagreement about whether a military strike is the right solution. Some Pentagon officials believe, as they have let Congress and the media know, that bombing Iran is not a viable response to the nuclear-proliferation issue, and that more diplomacy is necessary.

A Democratic senator told me that, late last year, in an off-the-record lunch meeting, Secretary of Defense Gates met with the Democratic caucus in the Senate. (Such meetings are held regularly.) Gates warned of the consequences if the Bush Administration staged a preëmptive strike on Iran, saying, as the senator recalled, "We'll create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America." Gates's comments stunned the Democrats at the lunch, and another senator asked whether Gates was speaking for Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. Gates's answer, the senator told me, was "Let's just say that I'm here speaking for myself." (A spokesman for Gates confirmed that he discussed the consequences of a strike at the meeting, but would not address what he said, other than to dispute the senator's characterization.)

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chairman is Admiral Mike Mullen, were "pushing back very hard" against White House pressure to undertake a military strike against Iran, the person familiar with the Finding told me. Similarly, a Pentagon consultant who is involved in the war on terror said that "at least ten senior flag and general officers, including combatant commanders"—the four-star officers who direct military operations around the world—"have weighed in on that issue."

The most outspoken of those officers is Admiral William Fallon, who until recently was the head of U.S. Central Command, and thus in charge of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, Fallon resigned under pressure, after giving a series of interviews stating his reservations about an armed attack on Iran. For example, late last year he told the Financial Times that the "real objective" of U.S. policy was to change the Iranians' behavior, and that "attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice."

Admiral Fallon acknowledged, when I spoke to him in June, that he had heard that there were people in the White House who were upset by his public statements. "Too many people believe you have to be either for or against the Iranians," he told me. "Let's get serious. Eighty million people live there, and everyone's an individual. The idea that they're only one way or another is nonsense."

When it came to the Iraq war, Fallon said, "Did I bitch about some of the things that were being proposed? You bet. Some of them were very stupid."

The Democratic leadership's agreement to commit hundreds of millions of dollars for more secret operations in Iran was remarkable, given the general concerns of officials like Gates, Fallon, and many others. "The oversight process has not kept pace—it's been coöpted" by the Administration, the person familiar with the contents of the Finding said. "The process is broken, and this is dangerous stuff we're authorizing."

Senior Democrats in Congress told me that they had concerns about the possibility that their understanding of what the new operations entail differs from the White House's. One issue has to do with a reference in the Finding, the person familiar with it recalled, to potential defensive lethal action by U.S. operatives in Iran. (In early May, the journalist Andrew Cockburn published elements of the Finding in Counterpunch, a newsletter and online magazine.)

The language was inserted into the Finding at the urging of the C.I.A., a former senior intelligence official said. The covert operations set forth in the Finding essentially run parallel to those of a secret military task force, now operating in Iran, that is under the control of JSOC. Under the Bush Administration's interpretation of the law, clandestine military activities, unlike covert C.I.A. operations, do not need to be depicted in a Finding, because the President has a constitutional right to command combat forces in the field without congressional interference. But the borders between operations are not always clear: in Iran, C.I.A. agents and regional assets have the language skills and the local knowledge to make contacts for the JSOC operatives, and have been working with them to direct personnel, matériel, and money into Iran from an obscure base in western Afghanistan. As a result, Congress has been given only a partial view of how the money it authorized may be used. One of JSOC's task-force missions, the pursuit of "high-value targets," was not directly addressed in the Finding. There is a growing realization among some legislators that the Bush Administration, in recent years, has conflated what is an intelligence operation and what is a military one in order to avoid fully informing Congress about what it is doing.

"This is a big deal," the person familiar with the Finding said. "The C.I.A. needed the Finding to do its traditional stuff, but the Finding does not apply to JSOC. The President signed an Executive Order after September 11th giving the Pentagon license to do things that it had never been able to do before without notifying Congress. The claim was that the military was 'preparing the battle space,' and by using that term they were able to circumvent congressional oversight. Everything is justified in terms of fighting the global war on terror." He added, "The Administration has been fuzzing the lines; there used to be a shade of gray"—between operations that had to be briefed to the senior congressional leadership and those which did not—"but now it's a shade of mush."

"The agency says we're not going to get in the position of helping to kill people without a Finding," the former senior intelligence official told me. He was referring to the legal threat confronting some agency operatives for their involvement in the rendition and alleged torture of suspects in the war on terror. "This drove the military people up the wall," he said. As far as the C.I.A. was concerned, the former senior intelligence official said, "the over-all authorization includes killing, but it's not as though that's what they're setting out to do. It's about gathering information, enlisting support." The Finding sent to Congress was a compromise, providing legal cover for the C.I.A. while referring to the use of lethal force in ambiguous terms.

The defensive-lethal language led some Democrats, according to congressional sources familiar with their views, to call in the director of the C.I.A., Air Force General Michael V. Hayden, for a special briefing. Hayden reassured the legislators that the language did nothing more than provide authority for Special Forces operatives on the ground in Iran to shoot their way out if they faced capture or harm.

The legislators were far from convinced. One congressman subsequently wrote a personal letter to President Bush insisting that "no lethal action, period" had been authorized within Iran's borders. As of June, he had received no answer.

Members of Congress have expressed skepticism in the past about the information provided by the White House. On March 15, 2005, David Obey, then the ranking Democrat on the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee, announced that he was putting aside an amendment that he had intended to offer that day, and that would have cut off all funding for national-intelligence programs unless the President agreed to keep Congress fully informed about clandestine military activities undertaken in the war on terror. He had changed his mind, he said, because the White House promised better coöperation. "The Executive Branch understands that we are not trying to dictate what they do," he said in a floor speech at the time. "We are simply trying to see to it that what they do is consistent with American values and will not get the country in trouble."

Obey declined to comment on the specifics of the operations in Iran, but he did tell me that the White House reneged on its promise to consult more fully with Congress. He said, "I suspect there's something going on, but I don't know what to believe. Cheney has always wanted to go after Iran, and if he had more time he'd find a way to do it. We still don't get enough information from the agencies, and I have very little confidence that they give us information on the edge."

None of the four Democrats in the Gang of Eight—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, and House Intelligence Committee chairman Silvestre Reyes—would comment on the Finding, with some noting that it was highly classified. An aide to one member of the Democratic leadership responded, on his behalf, by pointing to the limitations of the Gang of Eight process. The notification of a Finding, the aide said, "is just that—notification, and not a sign-off on activities. Proper oversight of ongoing intelligence activities is done by fully briefing the members of the intelligence committee." However, Congress does have the means to challenge the White House once it has been sent a Finding. It has the power to withhold funding for any government operation. The members of the House and Senate Democratic leadership who have access to the Finding can also, if they choose to do so, and if they have shared concerns, come up with ways to exert their influence on Administration policy. (A spokesman for the C.I.A. said, "As a rule, we don't comment one way or the other on allegations of covert activities or purported findings." The White House also declined to comment.)

A member of the House Appropriations Committee acknowledged that, even with a Democratic victory in November, "it will take another year before we get the intelligence activities under control." He went on, "We control the money and they can't do anything without the money. Money is what it's all about. But I'm very leery of this Administration." He added, "This Administration has been so secretive."

One irony of Admiral Fallon's departure is that he was, in many areas, in agreement with President Bush on the threat posed by Iran. They had a good working relationship, Fallon told me, and, when he ran CENTCOM, were in regular communication. On March 4th, a week before his resignation, Fallon testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that he was "encouraged" about the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regarding the role played by Iran's leaders, he said, "They've been absolutely unhelpful, very damaging, and I absolutely don't condone any of their activities. And I have yet to see anything since I've been in this job in the way of a public action by Iran that's been at all helpful in this region."

Fallon made it clear in our conversations that he considered it inappropriate to comment publicly about the President, the Vice-President, or Special Operations. But he said he had heard that people in the White House had been "struggling" with his views on Iran. "When I arrived at CENTCOM, the Iranians were funding every entity inside Iraq. It was in their interest to get us out, and so they decided to kill as many Americans as they could. And why not? They didn't know who'd come out ahead, but they wanted us out. I decided that I couldn't resolve the situation in Iraq without the neighborhood. To get this problem in Iraq solved, we had to somehow involve Iran and Syria. I had to work the neighborhood."

Fallon told me that his focus had been not on the Iranian nuclear issue, or on regime change there, but on "putting out the fires in Iraq." There were constant discussions in Washington and in the field about how to engage Iran and, on the subject of the bombing option, Fallon said, he believed that "it would happen only if the Iranians did something stupid."

Fallon's early retirement, however, appears to have been provoked not only by his negative comments about bombing Iran but also by his strong belief in the chain of command and his insistence on being informed about Special Operations in his area of responsibility. One of Fallon's defenders is retired Marine General John J. (Jack) Sheehan, whose last assignment was as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command, where Fallon was a deputy. Last year, Sheehan rejected a White House offer to become the President's "czar" for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "One of the reasons the White House selected Fallon for CENTCOM was that he's known to be a strategic thinker and had demonstrated those skills in the Pacific," Sheehan told me. (Fallon served as commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific from 2005 to 2007.) "He was charged with coming up with an over-all coherent strategy for Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and, by law, the combatant commander is responsible for all military operations within his A.O."—area of operations. "That was not happening," Sheehan said. "When Fallon tried to make sense of all the overt and covert activity conducted by the military in his area of responsibility, a small group in the White House leadership shut him out."

The law cited by Sheehan is the 1986 Defense Reorganization Act, known as Goldwater-Nichols, which defined the chain of command: from the President to the Secretary of Defense, through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and on to the various combatant commanders, who were put in charge of all aspects of military operations, including joint training and logistics. That authority, the act stated, was not to be shared with other echelons of command. But the Bush Administration, as part of its global war on terror, instituted new policies that undercut regional commanders-in-chief; for example, it gave Special Operations teams, at military commands around the world, the highest priority in terms of securing support and equipment. The degradation of the traditional chain of command in the past few years has been a point of tension between the White House and the uniformed military.

"The coherence of military strategy is being eroded because of undue civilian influence and direction of nonconventional military operations," Sheehan said. "If you have small groups planning and conducting military operations outside the knowledge and control of the combatant commander, by default you can't have a coherent military strategy. You end up with a disaster, like the reconstruction efforts in Iraq."

Admiral Fallon, who is known as Fox, was aware that he would face special difficulties as the first Navy officer to lead CENTCOM, which had always been headed by a ground commander, one of his military colleagues told me. He was also aware that the Special Operations community would be a concern. "Fox said that there's a lot of strange stuff going on in Special Ops, and I told him he had to figure out what they were really doing," Fallon's colleague said. "The Special Ops guys eventually figured out they needed Fox, and so they began to talk to him. Fox would have won his fight with Special Ops but for Cheney."

The Pentagon consultant said, "Fallon went down because, in his own way, he was trying to prevent a war with Iran, and you have to admire him for that."

In recent months, according to the Iranian media, there has been a surge in violence in Iran; it is impossible at this early stage, however, to credit JSOC or C.I.A. activities, or to assess their impact on the Iranian leadership. The Iranian press reports are being carefully monitored by retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, who has taught strategy at the National War College and now conducts war games centered on Iran for the federal government, think tanks, and universities. The Iranian press "is very open in describing the killings going on inside the country," Gardiner said. It is, he said, "a controlled press, which makes it more important that it publishes these things. We begin to see inside the government." He added, "Hardly a day goes by now we don't see a clash somewhere. There were three or four incidents over a recent weekend, and the Iranians are even naming the Revolutionary Guard officers who have been killed."

Earlier this year, a militant Ahwazi group claimed to have assassinated a Revolutionary Guard colonel, and the Iranian government acknowledged that an explosion in a cultural center in Shiraz, in the southern part of the country, which killed at least twelve people and injured more than two hundred, had been a terrorist act and not, as it earlier insisted, an accident. It could not be learned whether there has been American involvement in any specific incident in Iran, but, according to Gardiner, the Iranians have begun publicly blaming the U.S., Great Britain, and, more recently, the C.I.A. for some incidents. The agency was involved in a coup in Iran in 1953, and its support for the unpopular regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi—who was overthrown in 1979—was condemned for years by the ruling mullahs in Tehran, to great effect. "This is the ultimate for the Iranians—to blame the C.I.A.," Gardiner said. "This is new, and it's an escalation—a ratcheting up of tensions. It rallies support for the regime and shows the people that there is a continuing threat from the 'Great Satan.' " In Gardiner's view, the violence, rather than weakening Iran's religious government, may generate support for it.

Many of the activities may be being carried out by dissidents in Iran, and not by Americans in the field. One problem with "passing money" (to use the term of the person familiar with the Finding) in a covert setting is that it is hard to control where the money goes and whom it benefits. Nonetheless, the former senior intelligence official said, "We've got exposure, because of the transfer of our weapons and our communications gear. The Iranians will be able to make the argument that the opposition was inspired by the Americans. How many times have we tried this without asking the right questions? Is the risk worth it?" One possible consequence of these operations would be a violent Iranian crackdown on one of the dissident groups, which could give the Bush Administration a reason to intervene.

A strategy of using ethnic minorities to undermine Iran is flawed, according to Vali Nasr, who teaches international politics at Tufts University and is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Just because Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan have ethnic problems, it does not mean that Iran is suffering from the same issue," Nasr told me. "Iran is an old country—like France and Germany—and its citizens are just as nationalistic. The U.S. is overestimating ethnic tension in Iran." The minority groups that the U.S. is reaching out to are either well integrated or small and marginal, without much influence on the government or much ability to present a political challenge, Nasr said. "You can always find some activist groups that will go and kill a policeman, but working with the minorities will backfire, and alienate the majority of the population."

The Administration may have been willing to rely on dissident organizations in Iran even when there was reason to believe that the groups had operated against American interests in the past. The use of Baluchi elements, for example, is problematic, Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. clandestine officer who worked for nearly two decades in South Asia and the Middle East, told me. "The Baluchis are Sunni fundamentalists who hate the regime in Tehran, but you can also describe them as Al Qaeda," Baer told me. "These are guys who cut off the heads of nonbelievers—in this case, it's Shiite Iranians. The irony is that we're once again working with Sunni fundamentalists, just as we did in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties." Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is considered one of the leading planners of the September 11th attacks, are Baluchi Sunni fundamentalists.

One of the most active and violent anti-regime groups in Iran today is the Jundallah, also known as the Iranian People's Resistance Movement, which describes itself as a resistance force fighting for the rights of Sunnis in Iran. "This is a vicious Salafi organization whose followers attended the same madrassas as the Taliban and Pakistani extremists," Nasr told me. "They are suspected of having links to Al Qaeda and they are also thought to be tied to the drug culture." The Jundallah took responsibility for the bombing of a busload of Revolutionary Guard soldiers in February, 2007. At least eleven Guard members were killed. According to Baer and to press reports, the Jundallah is among the groups in Iran that are benefitting from U.S. support.

The C.I.A. and Special Operations communities also have long-standing ties to two other dissident groups in Iran: the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, known in the West as the M.E.K., and a Kurdish separatist group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK.

The M.E.K. has been on the State Department's terrorist list for more than a decade, yet in recent years the group has received arms and intelligence, directly or indirectly, from the United States. Some of the newly authorized covert funds, the Pentagon consultant told me, may well end up in M.E.K. coffers. "The new task force will work with the M.E.K. The Administration is desperate for results." He added, "The M.E.K. has no C.P.A. auditing the books, and its leaders are thought to have been lining their pockets for years. If people only knew what the M.E.K. is getting, and how much is going to its bank accounts—and yet it is almost useless for the purposes the Administration intends."

The Kurdish party, PJAK, which has also been reported to be covertly supported by the United States, has been operating against Iran from bases in northern Iraq for at least three years. (Iran, like Iraq and Turkey, has a Kurdish minority, and PJAK and other groups have sought self-rule in territory that is now part of each of those countries.) In recent weeks, according to Sam Gardiner, the military strategist, there has been a marked increase in the number of PJAK armed engagements with Iranians and terrorist attacks on Iranian targets. In early June, the news agency Fars reported that a dozen PJAK members and four Iranian border guards were killed in a clash near the Iraq border; a similar attack in May killed three Revolutionary Guards and nine PJAK fighters. PJAK has also subjected Turkey, a member of NATO, to repeated terrorist attacks, and reports of American support for the group have been a source of friction between the two governments.

Gardiner also mentioned a trip that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, made to Tehran in June. After his return, Maliki announced that his government would ban any contact between foreigners and the M.E.K.—a slap at the U.S.'s dealings with the group. Maliki declared that Iraq was not willing to be a staging ground for covert operations against other countries. This was a sign, Gardiner said, of "Maliki's increasingly choosing the interests of Iraq over the interests of the United States." In terms of U.S. allegations of Iranian involvement in the killing of American soldiers, he said, "Maliki was unwilling to play the blame-Iran game." Gardiner added that Pakistan had just agreed to turn over a Jundallah leader to the Iranian government. America's covert operations, he said, "seem to be harming relations with the governments of both Iraq and Pakistan and could well be strengthening the connection between Tehran and Baghdad."

The White House's reliance on questionable operatives, and on plans involving possible lethal action inside Iran, has created anger as well as anxiety within the Special Operations and intelligence communities. JSOC's operations in Iran are believed to be modelled on a program that has, with some success, used surrogates to target the Taliban leadership in the tribal territories of Waziristan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But the situations in Waziristan and Iran are not comparable.

In Waziristan, "the program works because it's small and smart guys are running it," the former senior intelligence official told me. "It's being executed by professionals. The N.S.A., the C.I.A., and the D.I.A."—the Defense Intelligence Agency—"are right in there with the Special Forces and Pakistani intelligence, and they're dealing with serious bad guys." He added, "We have to be really careful in calling in the missiles. We have to hit certain houses at certain times. The people on the ground are watching through binoculars a few hundred yards away and calling specific locations, in latitude and longitude. We keep the Predator loitering until the targets go into a house, and we have to make sure our guys are far enough away so they don't get hit." One of the most prominent victims of the program, the former official said, was Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior Taliban commander, who was killed on January 31st, reportedly in a missile strike that also killed eleven other people.

A dispatch published on March 26th by the Washington Post reported on the increasing number of successful strikes against Taliban and other insurgent units in Pakistan's tribal areas. A follow-up article noted that, in response, the Taliban had killed "dozens of people" suspected of providing information to the United States and its allies on the whereabouts of Taliban leaders. Many of the victims were thought to be American spies, and their executions—a beheading, in one case—were videotaped and distributed by DVD as a warning to others.

It is not simple to replicate the program in Iran. "Everybody's arguing about the high-value-target list," the former senior intelligence official said. "The Special Ops guys are pissed off because Cheney's office set up priorities for categories of targets, and now he's getting impatient and applying pressure for results. But it takes a long time to get the right guys in place."

The Pentagon consultant told me, "We've had wonderful results in the Horn of Africa with the use of surrogates and false flags—basic counterintelligence and counter-insurgency tactics. And we're beginning to tie them in knots in Afghanistan. But the White House is going to kill the program if they use it to go after Iran. It's one thing to engage in selective strikes and assassinations in Waziristan and another in Iran. The White House believes that one size fits all, but the legal issues surrounding extrajudicial killings in Waziristan are less of a problem because Al Qaeda and the Taliban cross the border into Afghanistan and back again, often with U.S. and NATO forces in hot pursuit. The situation is not nearly as clear in the Iranian case. All the considerations—judicial, strategic, and political—are different in Iran."

He added, "There is huge opposition inside the intelligence community to the idea of waging a covert war inside Iran, and using Baluchis and Ahwazis as surrogates. The leaders of our Special Operations community all have remarkable physical courage, but they are less likely to voice their opposition to policy. Iran is not Waziristan."

A Gallup poll taken last November, before the N.I.E. was made public, found that seventy-three per cent of those surveyed thought that the United States should use economic action and diplomacy to stop Iran's nuclear program, while only eighteen per cent favored direct military action. Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to endorse a military strike. Weariness with the war in Iraq has undoubtedly affected the public's tolerance for an attack on Iran. This mood could change quickly, however. The potential for escalation became clear in early January, when five Iranian patrol boats, believed to be under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, made a series of aggressive moves toward three Navy warships sailing through the Strait of Hormuz. Initial reports of the incident made public by the Pentagon press office said that the Iranians had transmitted threats, over ship-to-ship radio, to "explode" the American ships. At a White House news conference, the President, on the day he left for an eight-day trip to the Middle East, called the incident "provocative" and "dangerous," and there was, very briefly, a sense of crisis and of outrage at Iran. "TWO MINUTES FROM WAR" was the headline in one British newspaper.

The crisis was quickly defused by Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the region. No warning shots were fired, the Admiral told the Pentagon press corps on January 7th, via teleconference from his headquarters, in Bahrain. "Yes, it's more serious than we have seen, but, to put it in context, we do interact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and their Navy regularly," Cosgriff said. "I didn't get the sense from the reports I was receiving that there was a sense of being afraid of these five boats."

Admiral Cosgriff's caution was well founded: within a week, the Pentagon acknowledged that it could not positively identify the Iranian boats as the source of the ominous radio transmission, and press reports suggested that it had instead come from a prankster long known for sending fake messages in the region. Nonetheless, Cosgriff's demeanor angered Cheney, according to the former senior intelligence official. But a lesson was learned in the incident: The public had supported the idea of retaliation, and was even asking why the U.S. didn't do more. The former official said that, a few weeks later, a meeting took place in the Vice-President's office. "The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington," he said.

In June, President Bush went on a farewell tour of Europe. He had tea with Queen Elizabeth II and dinner with Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, the President and First Lady of France. The serious business was conducted out of sight, and involved a series of meetings on a new diplomatic effort to persuade the Iranians to halt their uranium-enrichment program. (Iran argues that its enrichment program is for civilian purposes and is legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) Secretary of State Rice had been involved with developing a new package of incentives. But the Administration's essential negotiating position seemed unchanged: talks could not take place until Iran halted the program. The Iranians have repeatedly and categorically rejected that precondition, leaving the diplomatic situation in a stalemate; they have not yet formally responded to the new incentives.

The continuing impasse alarms many observers. Joschka Fischer, the former German Foreign Minister, recently wrote in a syndicated column that it may not "be possible to freeze the Iranian nuclear program for the duration of the negotiations to avoid a military confrontation before they are completed. Should this newest attempt fail, things will soon get serious. Deadly serious." When I spoke to him last week, Fischer, who has extensive contacts in the diplomatic community, said that the latest European approach includes a new element: the willingness of the U.S. and the Europeans to accept something less than a complete cessation of enrichment as an intermediate step. "The proposal says that the Iranians must stop manufacturing new centrifuges and the other side will stop all further sanction activities in the U.N. Security Council," Fischer said, although Iran would still have to freeze its enrichment activities when formal negotiations begin. "This could be acceptable to the Iranians—if they have good will."

The big question, Fischer added, is in Washington. "I think the Americans are deeply divided on the issue of what to do about Iran," he said. "Some officials are concerned about the fallout from a military attack and others think an attack is unavoidable. I know the Europeans, but I have no idea where the Americans will end up on this issue."

There is another complication: American Presidential politics. Barack Obama has said that, if elected, he would begin talks with Iran with no "self-defeating" preconditions (although only after diplomatic groundwork had been laid). That position has been vigorously criticized by John McCain. The Washington Post recently quoted Randy Scheunemann, the McCain campaign's national-security director, as stating that McCain supports the White House's position, and that the program be suspended before talks begin. What Obama is proposing, Scheunemann said, "is unilateral cowboy summitry."

Scheunemann, who is known as a neoconservative, is also the McCain campaign's most important channel of communication with the White House. He is a friend of David Addington, Dick Cheney's chief of staff. I have heard differing accounts of Scheunemann's influence with McCain; though some close to the McCain campaign talk about him as a possible national-security adviser, others say he is someone who isn't taken seriously while "telling Cheney and others what they want to hear," as a senior McCain adviser put it.

It is not known whether McCain, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been formally briefed on the operations in Iran. At the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in June, Obama repeated his plea for "tough and principled diplomacy." But he also said, along with McCain, that he would keep the threat of military action against Iran on the table. ♦