George W. Bush is again guiding the nation toward a preemptive war – this time with Iran – without allowing anything like a full debate of the underlying facts, probable consequences of the conflict or peaceful alternatives.

Bush is following the same course he chose in the run-up to war in Iraq: he insists that war is “a last resort” yet puts in motion the engines of war; he times the release of alarming intelligence reports for maximum political effect; he brushes aside doubts and warnings; he then presents war as unavoidable or a fait accompli.

Despite the painful lessons from the Iraq War disaster – including more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers dead and Iraq torn apart by sectarian civil war – the key institutions of Washington, particularly the Congress and the press, are playing similar roles, too.

The capital again is possessed of an air of unreality as the clock ticks down to a likely military showdown with Iran.

Though the documentary record is now clear that Bush set his sights on war in Iraq a year or so before the actual invasion, the President is still believed when he insists now that he wants a diplomatic solution with Iran.

Democratic congressional leaders politely accepted Bush’s new war council – from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the new regional commander Adm. William Fallon – while the only harsh questioning came from pro-war Republican Sen. John McCain to the departing general for Iraq, George Casey, for not making Bush’s Iraq scheme work.

Meanwhile, the Senate has tied itself up for more than three weeks quibbling about the wording of a non-binding resolution of disapproval about Bush’s troop escalation in Iraq. The Senate is finally expected to begin debate next week on compromise language that limits criticism to the narrow issue of the Iraq troop “surge.”

Washington’s drift on the Iraq resolution rolls on with almost no one pointing at the gathering speed of Bush’s confrontation with Iran.

Congress and the major U.S. news media appear to be taking Bush at his word that he is not planning to bomb Iran, although he has dispatched two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region, deployed Patriot anti-missile missile batteries, has British mine sweepers in place, and accuses Iranian agents of helping to kill American troops in Iraq.

This wishful disbelief around Washington that a wider war is looming remains steadfast even as Israeli officials call Iran’s nuclear program an “existential threat” and reportedly train their pilots for bombing runs against Iran’s heavily fortified nuclear facilities.

Yet, instead of front-page stories about the dangers of an expanded war in the Middle East or an examination of alternative strategies that might be tried, the major U.S. newspapers act as if nothing is happening.

Predictive War

The underlying problem appears to be a continued unwillingness to challenge Bush’s five-year-old strategy of “preemptive” – or one might say “predictive” – war that he first enunciated in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Bush has never budged from his claim that U.S. military intervention is justified anywhere in the world when a hostile state is developing the potential for weapons of mass destruction that conceivably could fall into the hands of a terrorist group that might use them against American targets.

That was the fundamental rationalization for invading Iraq, even though Bush and his aides found that to sell the idea to the American people they had to exaggerate Iraq’s WMD capabilities and invent connections between the secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and the Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in al-Qaeda. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How Neocon Favorites Duped U.S.”]

Bush has put together a similar sales package for Iran. By applying broad definitions of “terrorism” to Iranian-supported Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Bush has defined Iran as a state sponsor of “terrorism.” Iran’s development of nuclear technology has met the other requirement for a WMD scare.

So, the question about an attack on Iran shouldn’t be as much if as when, at least if one follows the neoconservative logic of the Bush administration.

Though Iran appears to be years away from having the capability to build a nuclear bomb and although neither Hezbollah nor Hamas has sponsored acts of terrorism inside the United States, Bush and his top aides want to counter this potential threat now.

And, despite Bush’s slump in the polls and the Republican defeat in the November elections, the White House is encountering surprisingly few obstacles.

Indeed, some leading Democrats and prominent TV pundits still try to talk as tough – or even tougher than Bush – about Iran.

For instance, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, supposedly one of the more liberal Democratic presidential candidates, spoke via satellite to a security conference in Herzliya, Israel, in January telling senior Israeli government officials that he shared their view that Iran was the world’s preeminent threat.

“At the top of these threats is Iran,” Edwards said. “Iran threatens the security of Israel and the entire world. Let me be clear: Under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons. …

"We have muddled along for far too long. To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep ALL options on the table, Let me reiterate – ALL options must remain on the table.”

Edwards even chided Bush for not being aggressive enough in confronting Iran.

“To a large extent, the U.S. abdicated its responsibility to the Europeans. This was a mistake,” Edwards said in a speech that contained not a single critical word about Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, its settlements on occupied territory or its own large and sophisticated nuclear arsenal.

Typical of Democrats

In many ways, Edwards’s speech was typical of how leading Democrats pander to Israel for political gain. But the failure of Democrats – and other elements of the American Establishment – to maintain the traditional U.S. posture as “honest broker” actually portends greater dangers for Israel and other nations in the Middle East.

If the region continues to go up in flames and even larger numbers of Muslims die, Israel will find it harder to protect itself against an eventual attack by someone with an unconventional weapon that could inflict mass casualties.

The endless pursuit of security through “preemptive” war is almost surely a fool’s errand. Indeed, it could speed, not retard, terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear bomb.

For instance, the precarious Pakistani government of dictator Pervez Musharraf already possesses a nuclear bomb and elements of the Pakistani intelligence service are believed to be sympathetic to al-Qaeda and other radical movements. A wider U.S. war against another Muslim state could tip control of Pakistan to the extremists.

Already, an epidemic of anti-Americanism is infecting populations across the Middle East and around the globe. If counterinsurgency – which is what the “war on terror” ultimately is – requires winning hearts and minds, then Bush is doing the opposite.

A bombing campaign against Iran is certain to stir up even more fury and further isolate the United States. Plus, virtually no military analyst believes a bombing campaign – short of using nuclear weapons – can inflict long-term damage on Iran’s dug-in facilities.

Yet, Edwards and other Democrats, with their hard-line rhetoric, have lowered the bar for Bush to start a war with Iran, much as Edwards and other top Democrats eased his route into Iraq by voting for a resolution on the use of force. (Edwards has since apologized for that Iraq War vote.)

Winds of War

More and more signs point to Bush’s determination to strike at Iran sooner rather than later – and to do so with massive force.

As author Craig Unger noted in a new article in Vanity Fair, the ominous rumble of war has been reverberating across the political landscape for almost a year now.

Last April, in the New Yorker, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh described the Bush administration’s preliminary planning for bombing Iran. In September, Time magazine said a U.S. bombing campaign could strike as many as 1,500 targets in Iran.

More recently, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi said, “I’ve heard from sources at the Pentagon that their impression is that the White House has made a decision that war is going to happen.”

Unger reported that Bush also has turned to the U.S. Strategic Command (StratCom) to draw up plans for the bombing campaign against Iran. StratCom oversees nuclear weapons, missile defense, and protection against weapons of mass destruction.

“Shifting to StratCom indicates that they are talking about a really punishing air-force and naval air attack [on Iran],” said retired Col. W. Patrick Lang, a former analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. [Vanity Fair, March 2007]

My own military and intelligence sources have painted a similar picture of an expected American air campaign against Iran, which may involve the Israelis as the initiators of the attack to make the U.S. attack appear more defensive and to nail down more Democratic and media support. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Iran Clock Is Ticking.”]

Though the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to join in or at least support the attack on Iran, the war ultimately might damage Israeli interests by cutting off opportunities to defuse regional tensions.

Some Middle East analysts believe Israel would be better served in the long term by tamping down the fiery rhetoric and working in more collaborative ways with the Muslim world, including returning land captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The United States also could reestablish its credentials as a peacemaker if it openly cooperated in such an endeavor.

If, for instance, the United States redeployed its forces from Iraq, some could be sent to Israel, both to remain in the region if needed for a quick return to Iraq and to reassure Israelis about the American commitment to their security. U.S. troops also could assist in the peaceful withdrawal of settlers from the Golan Heights and West Bank.

The image of U.S. troops assisting Israel remove settlers would be graphic evidence to the Muslim world that both Washington and Tel Aviv were serious about a commitment to a new era. The removal of the settlers could coincide with peace negotiations with Syria, the Palestinians and Lebanon.

Israel also could move to engage Iran with a positive commercial relationship, possibly including technological help in building Iranian oil refineries. Business ties would give Israel some positive leverage to discourage Iran from building a nuclear device or at least the chances would be better than just bombing.

Israel also might initiate a conference on nuclear disarmament that would seek to make the Near East a nuclear-free zone with India, Pakistan and Israel phasing out their nuclear arsenals while securing international guarantees about Iran’s nuclear program.

Eventually, other smaller nuclear powers, such as the United Kingdom and France, might relinquish their nuclear bombs, and the major nuclear powers – the United States, Russia and China – might agree to reduce their stockpiles.

As unlikely as a Middle East peace initiative might be at this time, it should be an alternative that is part of a pre-war debate.

Peace Guidelines

Some other guidelines that would help a peace initiative:

--The U.S. press and politicians should cool the rhetoric about “terrorism” and start using the word more precisely and less ideologically. The definition should apply to intentional violence against civilians to achieve a political goal.

Plus, the word should be applied evenhandedly, not as a propaganda weapon.
When the word is hurled against any militant group that’s unpopular with Washington or that has attacked U.S. soldiers, it becomes not only a way to incite irrational hatred, but an impediment to rational policy. Also, overusing the word serves the interests of actual terrorists such as al-Qaeda by lumping them together with, say, Iraqi insurgents.

--Recognize another harsh truth, that virtually no ethnic group, race, religion or nation has clean hands when it comes to “terrorism.” Historians can point to a long record of Americans employing terror tactics going back to the origins of the country and continuing through recent atrocities and indiscriminate killings committed against Iraqi civilians.

It’s also true that some Jewish extremists used terrorism against British administrators and Palestinians to advance the founding of Israel. Some of these extremists, such as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, later rose to positions of prominence, including the post of prime minister. So, avoid selective outrage.

--The United States must recognize that the best way to help Israel is not always to do what the Israeli government and its influential backers demand. One of the greatest contributions to Israeli security was the Sinai peace deal with Egypt that President Jimmy Carter hammered out in the late 1970s, often over the angry objections of Prime Minister Begin and Israeli hardliners.

On the other hand, the yoking of U.S. and Israeli positions during George W. Bush’s administration has caused damage to Israeli security interests, including a stunning military-diplomatic misadventure in Lebanon in summer 2006 and a disturbing rise in Islamic extremism across the region.

Overall, the goal of a more peaceful way forward would be to wind down the tensions and the hatreds, rather than ratcheting them up.

Granted, the prospects for such a peace initiative do not seem bright. It is especially hard to envision President Bush canning his tough talk in favor of peace talks, or the Democrats and the national news media shaking off their opportunism and timidity.

In a healthy democracy, however, all chances for peace would be openly debated and tried out before a decision was made to wage war.

[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Logic of a Wider Mideast War.”]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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