By William R. Polk / Informed Consent
Cassandra and Yogi Berra are an unlikely pair, but I hear both of their voices today. Cassandra, like some of us, was cursed to be always disbelieved as she correctly predicted the future while baseballer Yogi Berra will be remembered for his penetrating insight into the flow of history, “This is like deja vu all over again.”
It is through the unlikely medium of U.S. News and World Report that Cassandra speaks. The March 12 issue gives us “6 signs the U.S. may be headed for war in Iran.” The first tip the magazine highlights is the firing of Admiral William Fallon. While Fallon is hardly a “dove,” he apparently – to judge by hints he gave in an interview with Thomas Barnett published in the March issue of Esquire – had argued that an attack on Iran made no military sense. If this really was his judgment, he obviously was not the man to be “CINC [Commander-in-chief] Centcom.” That is, if the Bush administration really is intent on an attack.
Among other straws U.S. News and World Report found in the wind blowing out of Washington was the projected trip by Vice President Dick Cheney to what the magazine correctly described as a “logistics hub for military operations in the Persian Gulf,” Oman, where the Strait of Hormuz constitutes “the vulnerable oil transit chokepoint into and out of the Persian Gulf that Iran threatens to blockade in the event of war.”
Here is where Yogi Berra begins to come into the picture. As the U.S. News and World Report notes, “Back in March 2002, Cheney made a high-profile Mideast trip to Saudi Arabia and other nations that officials said at the time was about diplomacy toward Iraq and not war…” It was, as we now know, one of the concerted moves in the build-up to the already-decided-upon plan to attack Iraq. Is Cheney’s 2008 trip “like deja vu all over again?” That certainly is the inference drawn by U.S. News and World Report.
Then, U.S. News and World Report introduces the Israeli card. It reports the widely held belief that the Israeli air attack on Syria, analyzed by Sy Hersh in one of his insightful pieces of investigative reporting on February 11, 2008 in The New Yorker, was not what it was proclaimed to be, an attack on a presumed nuclear site, but a means to force the Syrians to activate their anti-aircraft electronics – as America used to do with the Russians – to detect gaps along what might be a flight path from Israel toward Iran.
Why a flight path across Syria? Both because Turkey might not allow the use of its airspace and because using Jordan’s airspace, as Israel did in its June 7, 1981 strike on the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osiriq, might seriously weaken the Jordanian regime which Israel would like to keep in place, at least for the time being.
Is a flight across Syria and Iraq to attack Iranian targets feasible? The short answer is yes: the aircraft the United States has supplied to Israel have the range and presumably could be refueled on their return at a remote base among the 14 or so bases the U.S. has built and maintains in Iraq.
U.S. News and World Report also drew attention to the stationing of a guided missile destroyer off the Lebanese coast as another indication of preparations for war. The article does not explain why but points out that the destroyer has an anti-aircraft capability; so, the inference is that it would shoot down any Syrian aircraft attempting to hit Israel.
The article curiously passes over in silence the much more impressive build-up of naval power in the Persian Gulf. As of the last report I have seen, a major part of the U.S. Navy is deployed in and around the Persian Gulf. The numbers are stunning and include not only a vast array of weapons, including nuclear weapons, cruise and other missiles and hundreds of aircraft but also “insertion” (invasion) forces and equipment. Even then, these already deployed forces amount to only a fraction of the total that could be brought to bear on Iran because aircraft, both bombers and troop and equipment transports, stationed far away in Central Asia, the Indian Ocean, Europe and even in America can be quickly employed .
Of course, deploying forces along Iran’s frontier does not necessarily mean using them. At least that is what the Administration says. However, as a historian and former participant in government, I believe that having troops and weapons on the spot makes their use more likely than not. Why is that?
It is because a massive build-up of forces inevitably creates the “climate” of war. Troops and the public, on both sides, come to accept its inevitability. Standing down is difficult and can entail loss of “face.” Consequently, political leaders usually are carried forward by the flow of events. Having taken steps 1, 2 and 3, they find taking step number 4 logical, even necessary. In short, momentum rather than policy begins to control action. As Barbara Tuchman showed in her study of the origins of the First World War, The Guns of August, even though none of the parties really wanted to go to war, none could stop the process. It was the fact that President Kennedy had been reading Tuchman’s book just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, I believe, that made him so intent on not being “hijacked by events.” His restraint was unusual. More common is a surrender to “sequence” as was shown by the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It would have taken a major reversal of policy – and considerable political bravery — to halt either invasion once the massive build-up was in place. No such effort was made then. Will it be now? I think the odds are against it.
William R. Polk was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia from 1961 to 1965 and then professor of history at the University of Chicago where he founded the Middle Eastern Studies Center. He was also president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. His most recent book is Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism & Guerrilla Warfare from the American Revolution to Iraq (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).