Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Brushback Pitch? Ten Reasons for Concern

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

(”But Dick, I’m not sure I want to bomb Iran!”)

This past week on L.A.-based NPR show To the Point, The New York Times’ David Sanger theorized about the Bush administration’s intentions toward Iraq. The most likely scenario to Sanger was that all their saber-rattling was a “brushback pitch” to make Iran back off. It’s a possibility I’ve discussed in e-mail exchanges, but haven’t covered explicitly in recent posts (”Iraq and Iran Watch”, ”Iran Watch Update”, the satirical “Proof of Iran’s Perfidy Provided by Anonymous Experts!” and several others). Of course a bluff is a possibility. But is it likely?

There’s definitely a negotiating advantage to be had through possessing a massive arsenal and the perception that you’re completely nuts and irrational. Listening to Sanger, I immediately thought of the scene in Bull Durham where catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) tells pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) to bean the mascot with his next pitch to make the hitter really nervous. (That pitcher’s crazy! He’s unpredictable!) You can use whatever metaphor you like, and many have been wielded on the news and in commentary: brushback pitch, a poker bluff, good cop-bad cop, chess (“three dimensional chess” has been surprisingly popular, welcome I’m sure to all those Star Trek fans out there).

This intimidation approach ties in perfectly with the general neocon ideology as expressed by neocon Michael Ledeen and quoted approvingly by that, ahem, leading intellectual luminary of the Right, Jonah Goldberg:

Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.

Goldberg describes Ledeen’s statement as “semi-serious,” and Al Franken might describe it as “kidding on the square” — making sort of a joke, but revealing one’s true attitude while doing so. Of course, Ledeen’s line is very far from the only time a Bush official or ally has expressed such a sentiment. If Ledeen’s attitude were applied to the Bull Durham analogy, the biggest intimidation pitch has of course been invading Iraq, but it’s immoral to equate that to merely beaning a mascot. If “Nuke” LaLoosh took out a submachine gun and gunned down dozens of spectators to intimidate the hitter, it might come closer.

Many folks have speculated that if the Bush administration had been in charge during the Cuban Missile Crisis , we’d have had a nuclear war (and some historians would posit we were lucky to avoid it under Kennedy). To date, it seems there are few if any ‘cooler heads to prevail’ in the Bush White House. Dean Rusk’s famous line was that "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” For years, the “lesson” of the Cuban Missile Crisis was to taken to be: Act tough and make the other guy back down. However, with more interviews of the central players, and greater access to documents of the time, a different picture has emerged. Books such as Graham T. Allison’s The Essence of Decision have made clear that defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis was due in large part to quiet diplomacy. While Kennedy could talk tough in public, behind the scenes his administration told Khrushchev if he removed Soviet missiles from Cuba, they would be open to discussing the removal of American missiles from Turkey.

Has the Bush administration learned this real lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis? Does the recent agreement with North Korea herald a resurgence of the “realist” school of foreign policy? The North Korean situation clearly worsened under Bush. But does the Bush team’s willingness to essentially adopt the Clinton plan, after six years of non-engagement and vilification of the Clinton plan, mean the Bush Doctrine no longer rules? China is reportedly the lead player in the North Korean negotiations. Did the Bush administration play a more prominent positive role than is known? Will they hold fast against the fury of the neocons, hawks and other hardliners — or will they blink?

Of course, that last question suggests the hawks and neocons aren’t already inside the administration as powerful players. We can all hope or pray for wisdom on the part of our national leaders. Perhaps the Bush administration is bluffing. However, intimidation moves and a desire for a new war are of course not mutually exclusive. And as Allison, Barbara Tuchman and human nature might remind us, the actions of nations do not always result from rational decision-making. Whether through craft, ineptitude or some startling combination of the two, the Bush administration does indeed possess a strong negotiating position with Iran — albeit complicated by Iran’s need to save face as well. However, while the Bush administration may be bluffing, ample reasons exist to suggest otherwise. The Bush administration deserves rigorous scrutiny, and the current reception to their Iran stance is a referendum on their credibility. The unease expressed and questions posed by Congress, reporters, the liberal blogosphere, late-night comedians and the general public are more than justified. There are at least ten overlapping reasons for serious concern.

1. Bush's Rhetoric. Bush's rhetoric and evasions during questions at his 2/14/07 press conference were not reassuring (Dan Froomkin's 2/15/07 column does a nice summing-up). Bush sought to establish Iran as a threat, brushing off all substantive questions as usual. He insisted he was right, but without explanation or support, and often in contradiction to current news reports, also as usual. He did not seek to reassure the public of his own wisdom at the helm, or even make the cursory nod of something like, 'of course no one wants war, and we'll exhaust all peaceful options first.' Bush's rhetoric has been completely disproportionate to the threat. Iran is a country of legitimate concern, but it is not currently an imminent threat, since the expert consensus is that they do not possess nuclear weapons, and they are roughly ten years away from doing so . The Bush administration has been pushing the Iran-is-making-Iraq-worse storyline, most likely as a scapegoat measure. Yet as covered previously, they have inflated Iran's role, and even if Iran simply did not exist, Iraq would still be a complete mess. Invading Iraq would not make things better, but would instead be, as James Fallows states, "a catastrophe that would make us look back fondly on the minor inconvenience of being bogged down in Iraq." Yet Bush has not acknowledged any of this, he has not even considered any of this publicly, and he has refused to answer questions that ask him to consider it.

Furthermore, Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack proved that Bush had firmly decided on war with Iraq months before he revealed it to the American people or Congress, even while he was insisting publicly that he was still looking for peaceful solutions (and, incidentally, before he learned, in January 2003, that a Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide even existed in Iraq). Is it more likely that Bush's refusal to use even the language of responsibility now is part of a bluff, or merely a further abandonment of the façade that they don't want war?

2. Cheney and His “Cabal” Want to Go to War with Iran. There’s no question about Cheney’s hawkish public stance. Cheney's most fervent defenders are pushing Cheney and Bush forward on war, not arguing that they should show restraint or arguing that secretly they are. The only question is what Cheney’s private thoughts are. The most generous interpretations would be that Cheney and his team feel war with Iran is "necessary,” that the option of war should be left on the table, or he is indeed bluffing. It should also be noted that the White House has issued denials of a desire for war with Iran, and Bush may not be of the exact mind as Cheney. However, there’s no question Cheney is still a (if not the) major player in the Bush White House, and the accounts linked in "Iraq and Iran Watch" all reinforce previous behind-the-scenes pieces that suggest that Cheney wants to go to war with Iran.

3. Neocon Saber-Rattling. As noted before, the neocons have cried loudly and consistently for war with Iran. Michael Ledeen, William Kristol, Joshua Muravchik and the rest of the gang seem to be competing to see who can squawk the loudest for war while giving the slightest argument for it. Kristol in particular has been creepily excited about the prospect of war, and he and the Bush administration have been simpatico on virtually everything to do with the Middle East. The neocon argument for war, seen in the light of the actual evidence they choose to deliberately ignore, boils down to: In ten years, Iran may have a nuke if we and the entire world do nothing to stop it. Any president other than Bush or Cheney likely won’t attack Iran unnecessarily. So we need to do it now, not before it’s “too late” — but before the opportunity passes.

4. The Plans and Forces are in Place. Seymour Hersh, Sam Gardiner, and Philip Giraldi are among those who have reported that the United States is already operating covertly in Iran. Beyond dispute is the presence of two U.S. carrier groups in the Gulf, with a possible third on the way. As Giraldi reports in “Next Stop: Tehran” for The American Conservative:

In some sense, the war has already begun. For the past two years, the U.S. has been conducting secret operations inside Iran, employing Special Forces units operating out of Afghanistan, while Pentagon-supported dissidents have been carrying out armed raids into Iran’s predominantly Arab provinces.

A second carrier group, the USS John Stennis, is moving toward the Persian Gulf to supplement the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower—the last time two carrier groups were in the Gulf was during the invasion of Iraq—and a flotilla of minesweepers accompanied by an Aegis class cruiser was sent to the region at the end of 2006. The carrier aircraft, useless against insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, can only be employed in a war with Iran, while the minesweepers would be needed to keep clear the Strait of Hormuz for oil tankers and other shipping.

(Back in September 2006, Matthew Yglesias posted about the "Craziest Goddamn Thing I've Heard In a Long Time", a plan to nuke Iran and then blame the resulting radiation on Iranian facilities. According to Yglesias' source, this plan originated from the Office of the Vice President. Like Yglesias, I would like to think that such a nuclear strike is unlikely to happen, despite the far right's enthusiasm for using nukes on Iran (and Iraq!). I would really hope that any idea as crazy as that never got past the spitballing phase, if it was considered at all. Back in April 2006, Seymour Hersh reported that generals were threatening to resign unless the nuclear option with Iran was taken off the table. Sadly, such accounts no longer seem impossible. Still, all recent news reports suggest war plans using conventional weapons, not nukes.)

5. A History of Intent. The Project for a New American Century, or PNAC, made no secret of its desire for regime change in Iraq and Iran. Headed up by William Kristol, its membership was made up almost entirely of future Bush administration officials and other prominent neocons. However, there’s far, far more out there in the record. Read Digby’s post Clean Break, for instance. In addition to quoting a Sy Hersh piece, Digby quotes a new piece by Craig Unger for Vanity Fair about the neocons and Benjamin Netanyahu back in 1996. Led by Richard Perle in this case, and including Douglas Feith, and David and Meyrav Wurmser, they produced a hawkish piece of policy for the Middle East titled “A Clean Break.” As Unger writes:

Netanyahu also made one significant addition to "A Clean Break." The paper's authors were concerned primarily with Syria and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but Netanyahu saw a greater threat elsewhere. "The most dangerous of these regimes is Iran," he said.

Ten years later, "A Clean Break" looks like nothing less than a playbook for U.S.-Israeli foreign policy during the Bush-Cheney era. Many of the initiatives outlined in the paper have been implemented-removing Saddam from power, setting aside the "land for peace" formula to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon-all with disastrous results.

Nevertheless, neoconservatives still advocate continuing on the path Netanyahu staked out in his speech and taking the fight to Iran. As they see it, the Iraqi debacle is not the product of their failed policies. Rather, it is the result of America's failure to think big. "It's a mess, isn't it?" says Meyrav Wurmser, who now serves as director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute. "My argument has always been that this war is senseless if you don't give it a regional context.”

6. An Earlier Deal Spurned. As covered by Newsweek and Think Progress, in May 2003, Iran contacted the Bush administration and offered them pretty much everything the Bush administration is demanding now. Iran was spurned. While naturally there’s some details and nuance to the story, it certainly calls into question the sincerity of the Bush administration’s public goals now.

7. Bush's Legacy. The Bush administration values Bush’s legacy more than the welfare of America or Iraq, and rather than learning the lessons of Iraq, the neocons blame the failures of Iraq on a lack of zeal, or Bush’s incompetence, never mind that Bush has called all the shots exactly as he’s wanted for almost four years using the plans the neocons drew up and advocated. The neocons believe it’s double or nothing. For just one take on their glacially slow learning curve, the aforementioned Vanity Fair piece by Craig Unger reports:

"Everything the advocates of war said would happen hasn't happened," says the president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist, an influential conservative who backed the Iraq invasion. "And all the things the critics said would happen have happened. [The president's neoconservative advisers] are effectively saying, 'Invade Iran. Then everyone will see how smart we are.' But after you've lost x number of times at the roulette wheel, do you double-down?"

Grover Norquist is definitely in a position to know what Bush's advisors are saying. (Also, when Norquist is the voice of reason, you’re in serious trouble.)

8. Track Record. These guys really are this stupid, reckless, imperialistic, arrogant, however you want to put it. Déjà vu. Pick any of the excellent books on this subject: The Assassin’s Gate, Blind Into Baghdad, Fiasco, State of Denial, Weapons of Mass Deception, The One Percent Doctrine, and many, many more.

9. The News Keeps Coming. Just this morning, the BBC reports "US 'Iran attack plans' revealed" (hattip to C&L). Every fresh piece of legitimate news seems to suggest the Bush administration is moving to attack. In this particular case, it's not surprising that the Pentagon would have a plan for invading Iraq Iran, since part of their routine is to make plans for various contingencies and update them in cycles. What's of greater concern is the nature of the plan, since it seems it contains a high level of detail for an imminent attack on Iran. The current dynamic strongly re-caps the section in Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack where Rumsfeld insists to an incredulous Tommy Franks that he draw up war plans for invading Iraq while they're still fighting in Afghanistan. Now, while we're bogged down in Iraq, there certainly seems to be an inordinate amount of focus on Iran.

10. Naïveté and Immaturity. This subject deserves its own post (which I hope to complete soon). However, in addition to the juvenile nature of Ledeen’s “throw them to the wall” statement above, long on machismo, short on sense, consider two samples.

Ron Suskind’s October 2004 article “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush” gave us the phrase “reality-based community.” Suskind also repeated an incident recounted in his book, The Price of Loyalty (emphasis mine):

...At the Bush administration's first National Security Council meeting, Bush asked if anyone had ever met Ariel Sharon. Some were uncertain if it was a joke. It wasn't: Bush launched into a riff about briefly meeting Sharon two years before, how he wouldn't ''go by past reputations when it comes to Sharon. . . . I'm going to take him at face value,'' and how the United States should pull out of the Arab-Israeli conflict because ''I don't see much we can do over there at this point.'' Colin Powell, for one, seemed startled. This would reverse 30 years of policy -- since the Nixon administration -- of American engagement. Such a move would unleash Sharon, Powell countered, and tear the delicate fabric of the Mideast in ways that might be irreparable. Bush brushed aside Powell's concerns impatiently. ''Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things.''

That is a profoundly dangerous, naive view, all the more disturbing because in the telling, Bush is waving off wiser folks on the matter even in his own private administrative meeting.

Also consider this passage Jonathan Schwarz quotes from the book Hubris:

As Fleischer recounted [an exchange with Helen Thomas about Saddam Hussein] for the president, Bush's mood changed, according to Levine. He grew grim and determined—steely. Out of nowhere, he unleashed a stream of expletives.

"Did you tell her I don't like motherfuckers who gas their own people?" the president snapped.

"Did you tell her I don't like assholes who lie to the world?"

"Did you tell her I'm going to kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast?”

Schwarz’ commentary is well worth the read, as always, but this incident is also far from the only report of Bush behaving in this manner. Needless to say, it doesn’t swell one with confidence that the most powerful man in the world is over-brimming with wisdom, maturity and an even temperament.

There are benefits to growing up a bit and giving matters more thought. In Bull Durham, it helped even a dumb, wild pitcher to briefly land Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) and make it out of the minor leagues to "The Show." Of course, the very smart Robbins played dumb very well in the movie, while it seems some very dumb people in the Bush administration don’t play smart very well. Rather than throwing a brushback pitch, Bush seems to be beaning the hitter, the mascot, the umpire (the media), the spectators (the public), and perhaps his own catcher. He's got a great deal of power, but doesn't seem to know what he's doing. Alternatively, it's all deliberate and Bush thinks what he's doing is great. To use Bush's own recent language about Iran, which is worse? That he knows, or that he doesn't know? It seems in his efforts to make "The Show" and be considered one of the all-time greats, he's playing more and more like a minor leaguer. It’s no help, either, that there doesn’t seem to be any Annie Savoy around to settle ol' Bush down (even if she weren't a peacenik liberal in real life).

Of course, the Bull Durham analogy breaks down after a while, and the phrase "good enough for baseball" definitely doesn't apply to statecraft when war is at stake and people will live or die as a result of these decisions. One last comparison, though: Filming Bull Durham allowed Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon to wind up very happy in real life as well, but Robbins and Sarandon only managed that because they tossed aside the Bush league fiction that a stupid Nuke is where it’s at.

Update 2/21/07: Typo "Iraq" corrected to "Iran" in item #9. Nope, wasn't trying to be clever with that one!

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