I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories. Anyone who works on Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan has to reject a dozen a day just to keep in shape. But if you don't want to be constantly surprised, you also have to learn from the Red Queen and "believe six impossible things before breakfast." With experience you get better at keeping the balance right.
Conspiracy theories are easy targets for deflation, since, almost by definition, they lack evidence to support them. Sure enough, right-wing writers (I won't say "conservative," since I have a hard time imagining Edmund Burke or Michael Oakeshott going down this road) have rolled out an attack on this report. I may illustrate the common pattern of these attacks by reference to Eli Lake's September 10 column in the New York Sun. The argument (omitting a few flagrant misrepresentations of what I wrote, which are just distractions) is pretty simple:
- It's typical left-wing conspiracy theory to imagine that Cheney's office would instruct neo-conservatives to campaign for war with Iran.
- Neo-conservatives are campaigning for war with Iran because they sincerely support such a war, not because anyone told them to do it.
- They're right to support such a war, because the Iranian mad-mullah regime is already at war with the U.S. and is making nuclear bombs right now in order to destroy Israel, the U.S., and the entire global order.
Another warning I have received is not to rely on Alex Debat, whom I have never met or spoken to. (Update: the Weekly Standard just asked me if Debat was my source.) Reports are now circulating that he is a fabulist. I have no idea if he is or not. I cited an article in the Sunday Times of London in which he is quoted by the reporter as providing a detailed description of U.S. preparations for war with Iran.
A tall tale? Maybe. Or maybe Debat got an advance look at this 80-page study by Dr. Dan Plesch and Martin Butcher of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. They summarize their principal findings:
The study concludes that the US has made military preparations to destroy Iran’s WMD, nuclear energy, regime, armed forces, state apparatus and economic infrastructure within days if not hours of President George W. Bush giving the order. The US is not publicising the scale of these preparations to deter Iran, tending to make confrontation more likely. The US retains the option of avoiding war, but using its forces as part of an overall strategy of shaping Iran’s actions.In case this turns out to be accurate, Iran has prepared to respond. Tehran Times reports:
• Any attack is likely to be on a massive multi-front scale but avoiding a ground invasion. Attacks focused on WMD facilities would leave Iran too many retaliatory options, leave President Bush open to the charge of using too little force and leave the regime intact.
• US bombers and long range missiles are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours.
• US ground, air and marine forces already in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan can devastate Iranian forces, the regime and the state at short notice.
• Some form of low level US and possibly UK military action as well as armed popular resistance appear underway inside the Iranian provinces or ethnic areas of the Azeri, Balujistan, Kurdistan and Khuzestan. Iran was unable to prevent sabotage of its offshore-to-shore crude oil pipelines in 2005.
Commander of the IRGC, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari here on Tuesday said that any attack against Iran would spark a crushing response from the country.
Iran has boosted its defense capabilities based on the weak points of the enemies, which occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, General Jafari said on Tuesday.
The newly appointed commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned that the IRGC is more than ready to defend Iran's against all security, political, cultural, and social threats.
Such preparations make a "provocation," which Reuel Marc Gerecht of AEI thinks is the most likely cause of war, more likely. In any case, General David Petraeus has told Congress that Iran has already launched such provocations. The National Review helpfully summarized them in order to savage Ambassador Ryan Crocker for supporting an “Iraq at peace with its neighbors.” Appeasement! Here is Petraeus' bill of particulars:
We have also disrupted Shia militia extremists, capturing the head and numerous other leaders of the Iranian-supported Special Groups, along with a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative supporting Iran’s activities in Iraq.The weblog of Foreign Policy magazine originally adhered to the prescribed role of "moderates" in the rollout script by explaining "Why you should discount all the bomb Iran talk." Of course the administration was just engaging in coercive diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program in order to stiffen the backs of the Europeans. Clever negotiating tactic!
Foreign and home-grown terrorists, insurgents, militia extremists, and criminals all push the ethno-sectarian competition toward violence. Malign actions by Syria and, especially, by Iran fuel that violence.
In the ensuing months, our forces and our Iraqi counterparts have focused on improving security, especially in Baghdad and the areas around it, wresting sanctuaries from al Qaeda control, and disrupting the efforts of the Iranian-supported militia extremists.
In the past six months we have also targeted Shia militia extremists, capturing a number of senior leaders and fighters, as well as the deputy commander of Lebanese Hezbollah Department 2800, the organization created to support the training, arming, funding, and, in some cases, direction of the militia extremists by the Iranian Republican Guard Corps’ Qods Force. These elements have assassinated and kidnapped Iraqi governmental leaders, killed and wounded our soldiers with advanced explosive devices provided by Iran, and indiscriminately rocketed civilians in the International Zone and elsewhere. It is increasingly apparent to both Coalition and Iraqi leaders that Iran, through the use of the Qods Force, seeks to turn the Iraqi Special Groups into a Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq.
The recommendations I provided were informed by operational and strategic considerations. The operational considerations include recognition that … success against Al Qaeda-Iraq and Iranian-supported militia extremists requires conventional forces as well as special operations forces[.]
[O]n a less encouraging note, none of us earlier this year appreciated the extent of Iranian involvement in Iraq, something about which we and Iraq’s leaders all now have greater concern.
[Our] assessment is supported by the findings of a 16 August Defense Intelligence Agency report on the implications of a rapid withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Summarizing it in an unclassified fashion, it concludes that a rapid withdrawal would result in the further release of the strong centrifugal forces in Iraq and produce a number of dangerous results, including … exacerbation of already challenging regional dynamics, especially with respect to Iran.
But this item from Fox News gave them second thoughts:
This could not be discounted as the ravings of the liberal blogosphere (even if Rupert Murdoch did give a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton). So today Foreign Policy warns:
Political and military officers, as well as weapons of mass destruction specialists at the State Department, are now advising Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the diplomatic approach favored by Burns has failed and the administration must actively prepare for military intervention of some kind. Among those advising Rice along these lines are John Rood, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation; and a number of Mideast experts, including Ambassador James Jeffrey, deputy White House national security adviser under Stephen Hadley and formerly the principal deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs.
Consequently, according to a well-placed Bush administration source, "everyone in town" is now participating in a broad discussion about the costs and benefits of military action against Iran, with the likely timeframe for any such course of action being over the next eight to 10 months, after the presidential primaries have probably been decided, but well before the November 2008 elections.
The discussions are now focused on two basic options: less invasive scenarios under which the U.S. might blockade Iranian imports of gasoline or exports of oil, actions generally thought to exact too high a cost on the Iranian people but not enough on the regime in Tehran; and full-scale aerial bombardment.
I once wrote a book about early warning and conflict prevention. There are two kinds of errors in early warning (as in statistical inference): believing something that ain't so and disbelieving something that is. You have to weigh the likelihood and the cost of each kind of error. That's the calculus behind Vice-President Cheney's One Percent Doctrine: the risk of not acting on a warning of nuclear terrorism is so great, that you have to treat a one percent possibility as a certainty.
Next thing you know, you'll start hearing folks at AEI saying that Iran was responsible for 9/11. Wait a minute, that's already happening, as Peter Beinart pointed out in Sunday's New York Times. "It's the 2007 equivalent of the claims made in 2002 and 2003 about Iraq," Beinart noted. "The years between 9/11 and the Iraq war gave rise to a cottage industry ... charging that Saddam Hussein was the hidden mastermind behind a decade of jihadist terror. While refuted by the 9/11 Commission and mainstream terror experts, these claims had a political effect."
Looks like it's time to stop the epidemic of denial that has the foreign-policy community convinced that an attack on Iran is out of the question. Before it's too late.
I set the bar a bit higher than one percent. But in view of the record of this administration, including what its leaders and supporters have said themselves, the cost of not acting on these warnings is too great. The cost of acting (for me anyway) is being attacked by the New York Sun and the National Review and being supported by a few conspiracy theorists. I can live with it.
Update: In his speech yesterday in Clinton, Iowa, Senator Barack Obama said:
We hear eerie echoes of the run-up to the war in Iraq in the way that the President and Vice President talk about Iran. They conflate Iran and al Qaeda. They issue veiled threats. They suggest that the time for diplomacy and pressure is running out when we haven't even tried direct diplomacy. Well George Bush and Dick Cheney must hear - loud and clear - from the American people and the Congress: you don't have our support, and you don't have our authorization for another war.Let's hear from other candidates and members of Congress.