Thursday, January 19, 2006

When The War Drums Beat

If the buildup to the war in Iraq taught us anything, it is that when the war drums begin to beat, logic and rationality are the first casualties. Over the past few days we've seen that process start anew. On the issue of Iran, I can't pick up a newspaper or read a blogger---and that includes some moderate conservatives I respect and view as sane---without being swamped with the now-obligatory "Islamofascists", references to 1930's appeasement, dark comparisons to Hitler, and apocalyptic predictions of imminent nuclear war. For an example of the hysteria that surrounds this issue right now, read a bit of this.

Common to all this is a sense of urgency; we can't afford to wait, assert the hawks. As we saw with the buildup to Iraq, that urgency is necessary, of course. It turns logic and rationality into irrelevant nuisances. The playbook may have gotten a bit of mud on it during the last game, but it's still the same playbook.

Before the war drums reach a crescendo, however, let's visit with a nuisance. About five months ago, a National Intelligence Estimate made some projections about Iran's nuclear program. The NIE is an agreed-upon consensus of our major intelligence agencies, including the CIA, DIA, and--yes--the NSA. From WaPo (my bolds):
A major U.S. intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with firsthand knowledge of the new analysis.

The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. The new estimate could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. President Bush has said that he wants the crisis resolved diplomatically but that "all options are on the table."

The new National Intelligence Estimate includes what the intelligence community views as credible indicators that Iran's military is conducting clandestine work. But the sources said there is no information linking those projects directly to a nuclear weapons program. What is clear is that Iran, mostly through its energy program, is acquiring and mastering technologies that could be diverted to bombmaking.

The estimate expresses uncertainty about whether Iran's ruling clerics have made a decision to build a nuclear arsenal, three U.S. sources said. Still, a senior intelligence official familiar with the findings said that "it is the judgment of the intelligence community that, left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons."

At no time in the past three years has the White House attributed its assertions about Iran to U.S. intelligence, as it did about Iraq in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion. Instead, it has pointed to years of Iranian concealment and questioned why a country with as much oil as Iran would require a large-scale nuclear energy program.

The NIE, ordered by the National Intelligence Council in January, is the first major review since 2001 of what is known and what is unknown about Iran. Additional assessments produced during Bush's first term were narrow in scope, and some were rejected by advocates of policies that were inconsistent with the intelligence judgments.

One such paper was a 2002 review that former and current officials said was commissioned by national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, who was then deputy adviser, to assess the possibility for "regime change" in Iran. Those findings described the Islamic republic on a slow march toward democracy and cautioned against U.S. interference in that process, said the officials, who would describe the paper's classified findings only on the condition of anonymity.

Until recently, Iran was judged, according to February testimony by Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to be within five years of the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Since 1995, U.S. officials have continually estimated Iran to be "within five years" from reaching that same capability. So far, it has not.

The new estimate extends the timeline, judging that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before "early to mid-next decade," according to four sources familiar with that finding. The sources said the shift, based on a better understanding of Iran's technical limitations, puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures.

The timeline is portrayed as a minimum designed to reflect a program moving full speed ahead without major technical obstacles. It does not take into account that Iran has suspended much of its uranium-enrichment work as part of a tenuous deal with Britain, France and Germany. Iran announced yesterday that it intends to resume some of that work if the European talks fall short of expectations.

In January, before the review, Vice President Cheney suggested Iranian nuclear advances were so pressing that Israel may be forced to attack facilities, as it had done 23 years earlier in Iraq.

In an April 2004 speech, John R. Bolton -- then the administration's point man on weapons of mass destruction and now Bush's temporarily appointed U.N. ambassador -- said: "If we permit Iran's deception to go on much longer, it will be too late. Iran will have nuclear weapons."
Make no mistake about it: there are many good reasons why Iran should be prevented from developing nuclear weapons. But the same was said about Saddam, with the same urgency we're hearing right now about Iran. As the momentum on this snowballs, the question of urgency must be balanced with what we know or can reasonably estimate. That's why we have intelligence agencies we fund with billions of dollars every year.

Regular readers know that I believe Iran is essentially about economic consequences and our desperate desire to avoid them, which I posted about here. On the policy level, this game within a game is the real force driving the current sense of urgency. That's why, amidst the Hitler analogies and imminent-mushroom-cloud-redux hysteria, we're not seeing much of a fact-based debate; as the WaPo piece notes, "at no time in the past three years has the White House attributed its assertions about Iran to U.S. intelligence." One would think that somewhere along the way, citing such intelligence will be---if not mandatory---at the very least good form, no? In light of what our highest level of intelligence has already estimated, what happens then?

Unfortunately, this administration has proven itself unconstrained by such trivialities. And as the momentum on Iran builds, the most unlikely source for anything fact-based or rational is a one-issue president mired in a 40% approval rating who thinks he has one last chance to resuscitate both his presidency and his legacy.

51 Comments:

Blogger fallenjaw said...

Here we go again.
Has anyone seen this yet?
http://americablog.blogspot.com/2006/01/breaking-rep-slaughter-says-bill-frist.html
(sorry, don't know how to link yet)
Call me a simple Canadian, but from a distance I can't understand how this administration is still in power.
CunningRealist - YOU ROCK. Days you don't post are a little less interesting.

1/19/2006 9:37 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

I'll admit I haven't followed the hawkish blogosphere lately, so I didn't realize the war drums were beating so loudly.

But let me say bluntly: to attack Iran at this juncture would be nothing short of sheer madness. Madness.

If folks want to toss around Hitler analogies, how bout this one: In early summer 1941, the Nazis, flush with the glow of earlier victories & obsessed with reaching the "core" of both Communism & European Jewry, ordered the Wermacht to invade a huge nation it was ill-equipped to hold. Considerations of supply-lines, weather-appropriate gear, and morale were left by the wayside.

More importantly, the German military was already bogged down, unable to suppress an enemy it had attacked in a tactically-incorrect manner one year earlier. That other enemy showed no signs of weakening, and in fact was contributing heavy losses on the Luftwaffe.

No one knew it at the time, but the worm had turned for good on the morning of June 22, 1941.

Further foolishness came in the days following an equally foolish attack by one of Germany's allies that December. Already bogged down in two battles now, Hitler deciced to declare war on the sleeping giant across the ocean, just woken from its slumber by that ally.

The tale I just outlined is a fortunate one for those of us not of the Nazi or Greater East-Asia Co0Prosperity Sphere persuasions. But the lessons are nonetheless there for all to see.

Madness.

1/20/2006 8:31 AM  
Blogger D.Boyer said...

I found this article somewhat helpful in countering the mood of "Oh what shall we do with this Iran?"

Iran and the art of crisis management by Sami Moubayed.

It may not be the whole story, but it does allow for a different view of contemporary events.

1/20/2006 9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bush goes with his gut not with facts. Facts got them in trouble (mostly after the fact) in Iraq. Therefor, with regards to Iran, they ignore the facts.

Of course if the facts were more favorable, they would use them. But typical of this administration, ignoring that which disagrees with the head policymakers and the pResident is the norm.

1/20/2006 9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm a cockeyed optimist, but I cannot believe that the public will go along with another trumped-up war that has no intelligence backing. Bush may desperately want one, but the public won't buy it. And if they don't buy it, it won't be done.

1/20/2006 11:41 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

This President doesn't seem to give the proverbial rat's derierre for the public's wants or want-nots.

Unless the mumbling & hand-wringing moves into action territory, he's shown he'll do whatever the hell he pleases.

1/20/2006 1:01 PM  
Blogger Jay C said...

TCR, you are (as usual) quite right on about the current nuclear-Iran hysteria.
Admittedly, the present Iranian government hasn't helped its own international image much - by promoting the cretinous Ahmedinejad as President, and then letting him babble away like the nutjob he is about destroying Israel, etc., and vigorously promoting their (probably WAY overestimated) nuclear ambitions, they have certainly made themselves look like an unstable "rogue state".
But when "survival of the regime" is at stake, whether in Tehran or Washington, normal considerations of policy tend to go out the window: and thanks to their own fundamental incompetence/criminality, the Bush gang face (one can hope) a major challeng to their domestic hegemony in the upcoming elections this November.
I wish I could say that the prospect of a real-life "Wag the Dog" scenario with regard to Iran was too-far-fetched to be credible: but after five years of Dubya's clown-show Administration, I am no longer so sure.

1/20/2006 1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Unless the mumbling & hand-wringing moves into action territory, he's shown he'll do whatever the hell he pleases."

He's already signalled that dissent = treason so, "action" will have some pretty hairy consequences. Remember, he can already lock up Americans without charges and without due process.

1/20/2006 1:56 PM  
Blogger brian said...

Geez, Bush might as well just come right out and say that he's paranoid & ignores intelligence that doesn't agree with what he already knows because he thinks the CIA has it in for him. This kind of thing is usually more familiar to little 3rd world dictatorships where the Secret Police actually are more often than not planning a coup.

The more stuff like this comes out w/ casual mentions of broad claims not backed up by intel, the more convinced I am that this president is mentally unstable. I say that not in the mere political anti-Bush "haha" sense, but in the dead-serious, scared, "this guy is gonna get us in a hole we can't climb out of" sense.

1/20/2006 3:00 PM  
Blogger Roy said...

I would respectfully disagree that the Bush administration is beating the war drums just like Iraq. Bush has gone out of his way to internationalize the Iran problem. He is allowing the UN inspectors all the time they want to search and the Euros were allowed to negotiate. He seem very weary about starting a new war without the UN. Infact it is the EU3 and the UN that are increasing the rhetoric against Iran. This is much different than Iraq when we made it clear right from the begining we were ready to take out Iraq with or without the UN.

1/20/2006 4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mid term elections
some troops out of Iraq
roll out the new product
send troops to Iran

1/20/2006 5:44 PM  
Anonymous John said...

Let 'em have it, CR. I'm not going to say to completely ignore the opinions of others who disagree with you. Usually that's the province of sociopaths. Continue to be true to yourself. That's what makes you one of the best internet pundits around, Democrat or Republican.

1/21/2006 6:45 AM  
Anonymous dan said...

Jay C:

Of course, Ahmedinejad had a bad image with the Western Media from the beginning. However, I suspect if you took a look at ME and wider Islamic opinion, you might find that he had a much better profile than you imagine. The Iranians are far less isolated than we imagine: their diplomacy has been vigorous and they have been talking in Moscow, Riyadh, Cairo, Delhi, Damascus and elsewhere in the past few weeks.

Thinking that he is mad, unstable or just plain odious is of course very comforting, however, he is none of these things; he is a very canny political operator who is doing an extremely effective job of destabilizing the contradictions in Western policy towards Iran. Our leaders just haven't realised it yet - they're still reeling from the fact that the Iranians are the ones taking the initiative at present; this is a situation that they don't know how to deal with, beyond recourse to the usual rhetoric and stereotypes, because it rarely crops up.

Jack Straw's recent comments on Radio 4 were illuminating: we don't have any evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, but we believe that they are, and it is up to Iran to prove that they aren't but we can't tell you how they could do that. Deja vu all over again? The problem is that it won't work a second time.

1/21/2006 10:48 AM  
Anonymous J Thomas said...

It might work a second time. Why wouldn't it?

Could we get congress to forbid the President to attack iran? Is that constitutional?

Could we impeach him before he can attack iran? Not likely.

If it turns out unpopular, all the candidates in the next election can say they disagree with it. Whoopee.

1/21/2006 11:29 AM  
Anonymous susiecal said...

Informative post, TCR. I had been wondering when we would bing up the issue of intelligence. Looks like it is going to get interesting.

1/21/2006 4:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bush will use nuclear bunker busters in Iran if he remains in office for the rest of his term.
This is my prediction.

Marky.

1/21/2006 5:28 PM  
Blogger objectiveintelligence said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1/21/2006 9:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your good posts, TCR.

Why doesn't anybody mention the fact that Iran is planning to open its own petroleum exchange in March, where transactions will be denominated in Euro's (see Gordon Prather: Currency War)?

This is probably the real reason behind the coming attack, or at least a very important one.

hvb

1/22/2006 7:06 AM  
Anonymous J Thomas said...

Doesn't it make sense for russia to start an oil exchange in euros? What would the Bush regime do about that?

But thinking it out, would another oil exchange really make much difference? Market theory says that in general people prefer to use the largest exchange, where they can make the quickest deal etc. Make a deal at a smaller exchange when the rate at the larger is different, and the loser could have gotten a better deal elsewhere. But that doesn't reverse, the guy who went to the larger exchange and got the worse deal might not have done better at the smaller because they might not have been big enough to handle that much more business.

So if a euro-based exchange got big enough, then it might get real big. But it has a hard time getting started.

Euros. Why use euros? Sellers would rather get euros instead of depreciating dollars. But buyers would rather pay in dollars. Gresham's Law. Everybody prefers to get the weak currency out of their hands and into somebody else's. So to sell in euros, the sellers would have to offer a discount. Buyers are up to their eyeballs in cheap dollars, and to get euros they have to change them at an unfavorable rate. That cost has to come out of the price at the euro oil exchange.

I just don't see that it matters that much. But these Econ 102 arguments surely miss a lot.

1/22/2006 9:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will the war in Iran make us safer? Make the world safer from nuclear weapons?
If you think so, then you are gravely uninformed on the topic.

You did note that they raised the age for the second time for joining the service...

Oprah, is going to be having a show on to discuss what we should be afraid of. Terrible title. One of her guests is Tom Friedman, the, we got here the wrong way but it is the right thing to do guy. Ugh. They are going to discuss the bird flu, nuclear bombs, etc. Great another high profile person creating hysteria. Bottom line, we should be informed, act to reduce our risks, but never fearful. However, this administration doesn't want want us to be truthfully informed because it has its own agenda (they believe we are the super power and that we have wasted the power since the fall of Russia, so they are joyous now). This administration wants us fearful, and this administration is failing miserably in preparation and reducing the risks.

Whatever happened to Tom Ridge's color coded alarm system... I think they only use it at election time.

1/22/2006 1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oprah had Friedman on right before we invaded Iraq. That was what Drudge called Oprah's anti-war show.

Can you imagine anyone more boring than Tom Friedman? Let him talk about the world being flat and the audience will be asleep instead of scared.

1/22/2006 4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I often wonder when we talk about terrorists, why doesn't Oklahoma come up more; before 9/11 it was one of the worst attacks. How many Terry Nichols and Tim McVeighs have originated here...

There was an interesting news item at Democracy Now. The guy that knew about the bombing, transported stolen firearms, was recently released from prison:

"U.S. Criticized For Downplaying Threat Of Radical Right
Last year federal investigators told a Senate committee that environmental and animal groups like ELF and ALF represented the nation's leading domestic terror threat. The Southern Poverty Law Center however recently criticized the federal government for underestimating the threat posed by violent right-wing organizations. According to the Center, the radical right has plotted to carry out at least 60 terrorist plots inside the United States since the Oklahoma City Bombing. This includes plans to bomb or burn government buildings, mosques, synagogues and abortion clinics, plans to assassinate government officials and civil rights leaders and efforts to amass chemical and biological weapons arsenals."

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