By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Going nuclear

Along with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, the Iranian regime is the scariest on earth. I’ll go so far as to say it’s scarier than North Korea. As best as anyone can tell, Kim wants nukes to ensure that the world will leave him alone. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, seems like a dead cinch to nuke Tel Aviv as soon as he has the capability. We actually find ourselves in the rather excruciating position of hoping that Ayatollah Khamenei, the real power in Iran and not exactly a nice guy himself, is able to keep the Holocaust-denying hothead in check.

Which is why it was so depressing to read Seymour Hersh’s latest New Yorker blockbuster, this one reporting that the White House is increasingly talking about going to war against Iran, and is refusing even to rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. The generals, according to Hersh, are up in arms at this insane idea. The administration appears to have learned nothing from its tragic misadventure in Iraq.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest tragedy of Iraq is that it has completely hampered our ability to do anything about genuine threats such as Iran and North Korea. Who could trust the White House now? I happen to be one of those who believes that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney did not lie about Saddam Hussein’s weapons capabilities and ties to Al Qaeda; rather, they were the victims of their own insular beliefs. But, in the end, what does it matter? No matter what they say now, it will come off as Chicken Little warning us that the sky is falling. Again.

William Arkin, the Washington Post’s national-security blogger, referring both to Hersh’s story and to this front-page Post article, acidly observes:

A war with Iran started purposefully or by accident, will be a mess. What is happening now though is not just an administration prudently preparing for the unfortunate against an aggressive and crazed state, it is also aggressive and crazed, driven by groupthink and a closed circle of bears.

Sadly, “aggressive and crazed” sounds just about right.

Over at Slate, Fred Kaplan doesn’t seem too worried about the chances of Bush and Cheney nuking Tehran anytime soon, believing, instead, that they are merely trying to scare the Iranians, the Europeans both. But who knows with these guys? Indeed, here’s how Kaplan closes:

[M]aybe there’s no gamesmanship going on here, maybe Hersh is simply reporting on a nuclear war plan that President Bush is really, seriously considering, a “juggernaut” that might not be stopped. If it’s as straightforward as that, we’re in deeper trouble than most of us have imagined.

Did Hersh get it right? His story is, for the most part, anonymously sourced, and as Arkin notes, short on details. Still, who can argue with Hersh’s record? In the opening weeks of the Iraq war, he took a lot of heat for passing along the generals’ fear that the war was getting bogged down in unexpected ways — a concern that seemed greatly exaggerated after the first phase of the war was wrapped up quickly.

Several weeks ago, though, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote (sub. req.) a much-commented-upon column in which he noted that it’s now clear — and, in fact, it was clear then — that the unconventional resistance that U.S. troops encountered during those opening weeks was the beginning of the insurgency. And that the commanders on the ground understood it needed to be dealt with, even if Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks did not. Brooks does not name Hersh, but he should have. For it was Hersh’s journalism that proved particularly prescient.

Last night I caught a few minutes of Christopher Lydon’s “Open Source,” which devoted a full hour to the topic. It looks like mandatory listening. I’m going to grab the podcast and give it a listen tomorrow morning. As Lydon said last night, this is the only story that adults are thinking about at the moment.

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  1. Anonymous

    Please take a step back and dissect the situation better, Dan.You seem to fall into that frenzy paranoia category.Read the situation better please, if you can’t, refrain from scaring people.Nukes almost showed up at Florida’s doorstep decades ago and we are fine today and on relatively god terms with Russia.There are many ways to defuse things like this and this is far from being a done deal.Don’t give up yet, Dan. We’ll all be alright as well as our friends here and everywhere. Have some faith.N.

  2. Anonymous

    I don’t doubt that there are real plans that Hersh has heard about. The military should *always* have a range of advanced contingency plans to deal with likely trouble spots. While no one in their right mind would advocate first-use of nuclear weapons, it would be irresponsible of Staff to not prepare a nuclear bunker-buster option for contrast with the conventional bunker-buster option.Based on the size and style of the Iranian bunkers in question, the conventional deep-penetrator is probably the weapon of choice anyway. And the strike will likely be by a different nation than U.S. ACW, DT ACW notes “coincidentally, […] Israel is purchasing 100 [conventional] GBU-28 [bunker-busters]s.” The reactionary blogs have some interesting points here. The media reaction may be harming diplomacy. SP. Iran *is* a rogue state. steyn.Your point that Iraq is a distraction from the real issues in Iran and NoK is well taken.– Bill R

  3. Anonymous

    another intersting long analysis at donklephant. — Bill R

  4. MeTheSheeple

    Maybe I’m just easily confused, but pre-emptive attack, in the case of threats by weapons of mass destruction, remains official United States policy. You can verify that at, for crying outloud. I’m still trying to figure out why the White House is trying to discredit Seymour Hersh, when the real story would be whether the military was _not_ planning how to attack Iran.

  5. Anonymous

    To those here disagreeing with Dan for one reason or another, a few questions:President Bush once famously listed 3 nations as belonging to an “Axis of Evil.” Can you name them?President Bush is a born again christian, has said he believes he is doing God’s work in the “war on terror,” and that we are engaged in a “crusade.” In this context, what should we infer about his use of the term “evil” in “Axis of Evil”?We now know that President Bush had already made up his mind to attack Iraq and had an approximate start date penciled in his calendar when he was publicly claiming to be pursuing diplomatic steps to avoid war. Given this, what should we make of his remarks yesterday about efforts to reach a peaceful resolution with Iran over their nuclear program?Leading administration officials still go around implying that Iraq had some WMD and that Saddam was somehow involved with 9/11. How firm is their grasp on reality?President Bush is so insulated from the world outside his bubble that he did not begin to grasp the severity of Katrina until someone prepared for him a DVD of recent TV coverage. How prepared is he to comprehend the realities of neocon foreign policy?Dick Cheney’s rider specifies Fox News only on the TVs. How willing his he to confront the realities of neocon foreign policy?

  6. JasonSpalding

    The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said “I declare here that the laboratory-scale nuclear fuel cycle has been completed and young scientists produced enriched uranium”. What was his definition of laboratory-scale? Laboratory scale characterization, small scale and pilot scale test method development.

  7. Sven

    If I’ve learned anything during the last five years, it’s that one can’t second guess administration policy based on a traditional anaylsis like Kaplan’s.The Bushies aren’t crazy per se, but they operate under a wholly different calculus. Maybe Hunter Thompson’s “Rhythm Logic” is a better barometer. The Bushies seem to put a lot of stock in displays of force as deterrence, a kind of international playground politics. They may see Iran as not only a nuclear rival, but as an interloper and impediment to progress in Iraq. They may therefore see an attack as killing two birds with one stone.

  8. Neil

    I agree with Dan’s point that Iraq has hampered our ability to do much elsewhere. But we have another limitation–a lack of insight. We have to avoid succumbing to the temptation to stereotype these various enemies. Do you really think Ahmadinejad is willing to commit national suicide to make some glorious world-ending show of solidarity with the Palestinians? Few Iranians give a shit about them, why should they. Ahmadinejad is not a madman, nor was Saddam Hussein. We have barely a clue about A’s true motivations. To what extent is his anti-Israeli rhetoric merely a way to distract the populace from the bleak domestic economy. Once again we are ignorant or disinterested in the complexities of the internal politics of a foreign nation. So we bounce between paranoid panic (I agree with N here), and making predictable threats (Bush’s approach, made, again, in ignorance.)I am not saying Iran poses no threat. Obviously they are making as much progress with nuclear weapons technology as they can. Which, as they point out, most of their neighbors already have. But I don’t like what our reaction says about us. Once again we see the lack of any interest on the part of Americans, from the top on down, to get past comic book levels of reaction (crazy Kim Jong-il! that nut in Iran!) and strive for some improvement in long-term understanding. Our foreign intelligence is a joke–why isn’t there an outcry about that! Do you think George Bush could find Iran on a map? How many Americans could? Ahmadinejad is no nut and no fool. He is having a great time yanking our chain, and we play right into his hands with our panicky reactions. Rather than committing national suicide by attacking Israel with a nuke, he may be more likely to provoke an attack by the US on his weapons dev sites, gaining more politically than he would lose materially. Like Saddam with his imaginary WMDs, he benefits more from the prospect of such weapons than their actuality.

  9. Specks

    Consider your first sentence and realize that the nation you reside in is considered the scariest on this planet by over 75% of the global village.

  10. Bill Baar

    The United States never renounced the right to a nuclear preemtive first strike throughout the cold war.N. Korea probably already has nukes and has had them for some time.We’re allied now and embedded and training Muslim Armies with Muslim allies on either side of Iran in Iraq and Afganistan. We fight and die with Muslims today in a common cause. How we can be worse off for that stragically against Iran I’d like you to elaborate on.We never had a goof land invasion option with Iran. Our only military options are bombing.Finally, it’s not the possesion of nukes by Iran that’s so alarming, but instead it’s their leaderships belief they can launch an anniliating first strike against Isreal, ridding the middle east of Jews, and then withstand a second strike in retaliation with just damages. That’s the great threat facing the US, Isreal, and the world now.(IPS) One of Iran’s most influential ruling cleric called Friday on the Muslim states to use nuclear weapon against Israel, assuring them that while such an attack would annihilate Israel, it would cost them “damages only”.”If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave any thing in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world”, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told the crowd at the traditional Friday prayers in Tehran.Analysts said not only Mr. Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s speech was the strongest against Israel, but also this is the first time that a prominent leader of the Islamic Republic openly suggests the use of nuclear weapon against the Jewish State.

  11. Neil

    I finally got my New Yorker today (a bit silly to complain about that, in the face of such imminent peril?). I was sorry to see “nuts” references to the Iranian leaders by Robert Baer, and by one of Hersh’s “high-ranking diplomat” sources that “…some think the Iranian leadership are nutcases–one hundred per cent totally certified nuts”. The White House compares Ahmadinejad to Hitler. Terry Gross interviewed Hersh today for 20 minutes. It will be repeated at 9 PM today or you can listen online. Hersh says “The bellicosity coming out of America is stunning”, and it’s his belief that this attitude is making the Iranians feel they must get this technology developed as quickly as possible.Hersh respects Baer’s expertise but disagrees with him about who is actually in charge and the underlying pragmatism of the Iranians in spite of the loudmouth A. Hersh also reminds us that Iran is a nation of 80 million people “most of whom are instinctively pro-American and anti-cleric.”

  12. Bill Baar

    Read Teresa Heinz Kerry on the outragous silence of George Bush from last December.Our greatest ally is the Iranian people. Our best option is regime change and revolution.That’s why we should support the Iran Freedom Support actThe slogans for the global day of protest in SF last month were Support the Iraqi Reistance, Smash the Jewish State. Not hard to figure out who’s side ANSWER and the anti-war folks are on in this one.They should be bitterly condemed.

  13. Neil

    >Not hard to figure out who’s side ANSWER and the anti-war folks are on in this one.This is incoherent. But more important Bill, please strive to free yourself from your addiction to this logical fallacy. I see yet another example in your blog entry “It’s Jews again”. David Duke approves of X, therefore X is invalid. I think there is a support group for people with this problem. They sit in a circle and practice arguing cases on their merits. I know it’s tough but we will support you.By the way to the thousands of readers following along, if you right-click on the links that appear in these comments you can select “open in new window” using either IE or Firefox. If you don’t as you are probably aware the link opens in this same window and you can’t go back because there are no toolbars. 1-2-3-4 I declare a holy thumb war on this dratted blogger non-feature!

  14. Bill Baar

    It’s not guilt by association.The slogan was smash the Jewish State.Rafsanjani is committed to anniliating the Jewish state with nuc weapons and believes Iran can withstand retaliation with just damages.These folks are on the same side. They’re going to rid the world of Jews.It’s not as though this hasn’t been tried before to some success.

  15. Dan Kennedy

    Bill — To conflate the antiwar movement with the hatemongering tin-foil-hatters from ANSWER is one of the lowest things I’ve ever seen on Media Nation. Congratulations.

  16. Bill Baar

    ANSWER and Workers World Party have a big rule in organizing the anti-War and anti-Immigration ralliers. Their signe dominate.MSM overlooks them and doesn’t mention them. Somebody is funding them.Vital Perspectives has some video and good post on them.

  17. Bill Baar

    Read The ‘Answer’ Question Poses Difficult Choices for LiberalsThe answers have been bad ones. Liberals clueless who their maching with but Sam Marcy’s ghost is dominationt now in the anti-war and now the immigration rallies.

  18. Bill Baar

    Finally, sorry for three in a row, but here is Ed Driscoll writing ANSWER And The Victorian Gentleman on MSM overlooking ANSWER’s large hand in the immigration rallies.

  19. Neil

    Guilt by association: X who wants to kill Jews marched with thousands of people some of whose opinions overlap with yours, therefore your opinion is invalid.Rafsanjani claims to want to kill Jews too. Somehow this taints an “anti-war” position (not even talking about Iran now, but Iraq?) You haven’t made any logical connection, you have only associated the odious beliefs of persons X and Y, with the position of people with whom you disagree. Step 1: Admit you have a problem.ANSWER is irrelevant to the topic, as is immigration. You’re all over the place. Focus Bill, focus! And don’t let links do your talking for you–express yourself, yourself. Cleansing breaths! Let the merits of the case be your mantra. We’re here for you Bill. At least till Dan turns the comments off ha ha.

  20. Dan Kennedy

    So, Bill — Essentially you’re saying that Jack Murtha is the moral equivalent of Ramsey Clark. Neil’s right — you should try to, uh, “answer” that, so to speak, and not rely on links to blogs I’ve never heard of.

  21. Anonymous

    Somewhere in the middle between the nutjobs and thugs that are behind all this violence and arms race in the MIddle East/Asia and the nutjobs here like the Bill Baars of the world, are some reasonable pragmatic people that will lead towards answers and solutions.It looks like Bill has been lunching too much with Judy Miller and Pipes.It is a great sign that reasonable people like Neil here and elsewhere are able to see through the noise and have the cool head and action plan to go about solving this.Bill, I am sure you are bunkered down somewhere with a good supply of water. I only have pity for you and your dishonesty.One such advocate of chaos is none other than Batchelor and even HE had to cool it down recently and not go all gun-ho. His pieces now are mostly about art and books and other softer sunjects. Gone is his favorite 10:30 “optimistic” guest. They can’t sell they frentic message anymore. People want more reasonable people to the front.N.

  22. Bill Baar

    Read Wade Zirkle in Today’s Wash Post, and then download the video of Murtha, Moran, and Sgt Seavey from Michelle Malkin’s site.Guilt by association; sure if you associate with people who’s agenda is smash the Jewish State you’ve got some explaining to do.Bill Buckly threw the anti-semites out of the conservative movement in the 50s and 60s. AFL-CIO drove the Communists out of the labor movement.Today’s Liberals aren’t being careful who their getting into bed with today.I’m not hunkered down hiding anywhere. I signed the Euston Manifesto today. Read it here and about it in The New Stateman.If you find you can’t sign it, you really need to examine who’s side your on.

  23. Neil

    Read this read that. What do you have to say?>if you associate with people who’s agenda is smash the Jewish State…Who is the “you” here? Are you referring to me, to Dan, to N? Just because an anti-Israeli state guy, maybe a kook, marched in the same march with thousands of others (but not any of us anyway), doesn’t mean we “associate” with such a person, or agree with their views. Nor does it say anything about the validity of one’s view on what to do about Iran (remember that? the topic after all.) I don’t do marches but if I did I would expect to see plenty of extreme views. Marches are big tents that attract a shall we say, colorful crowd.You simply cannot stick to the topic I guess, or present an argument on your own without the help of links, or resorting to guilt by association or the use of labels like liberal and anti-Semite. Merits Bill, merits!

  24. Neil

    At the risk of complaints (oh no!) about excessive length and not enough links to support my point of view, into the breach…We seem to lack a “trash talk” filter when it comes to the Iranian leaders. We take their every utterance at face value and throw fits when they say something outrageous. We need to recognize that there may be motives for what they say that are unapparent to us credulous Westerners. The Iranian leaders are canny, otherwise they would not have reached power or been able to hold it. Why might Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani say the things they say–because they’re crazy apocalyptic Shiites? That’s too easy and gives them too little credit. It is likely that their motives are more pragmatic than apocalyptic. They are experts at gamesmanship. Every time they talk some anti-Semitic crap the West howls in predictable outrage. It’s an easy hit for them. What greater joy for a bullshit artist than to produce such an effect! Ahmadinejad has gone from just another pipsqueak to hero to millions for standing up to the great Satan, thanks to our reaction to his cheap talk.What are they really thinking, behind their public mischief? To figure that out we need to have the patience to get close to them. I spent six months or so in the middle east many years ago including about ten days in Iran. Thirty years ago today in fact I was in Jerusalem (which may explain this reminiscent outpouring) preparing to return to Jordan on Easter Sunday. I wrote about it in a blog entry “me and the Jews” a while ago. I passed several pleasant afternoons drinking mint tea and listening to stories by people who I didn’t trust for a second. They wanted to talk to me because I was an American (obviously–a long time ago!) Usually, but not necessarily, they had an ulterior motive–typically to sell me something. I learned to withold judgment and just enjoy the tea and the theatrical nature of the meeting and not take what people said at face value. Relax, but be aware that you may be being played for a patsy. The relationships involved a mix of opportunism, sincerity and bullshit all at once. And the only way to know the proportions for sure was to spend more time getting to know the people and the surroundings than most impatient visitors were willing to do. That period in my life was a real education of the type that I’m afraid our Dear Leader has never experienced. Sometimes I think of Dubya, the classic bumpkin (fool me once, shame on uh…), wandering in the bazaar in Mashad. He’d believe everything everybody told him, like he believed Saddam’s WMD bluster, and be stripped clean of everything but his cowboy hat in an hour.Drinking tea doesn’t lead to world peace. But the whole notion that understanding takes time and engagement rather than swagger and threats is just completely missing from American public discourse and it follows the example from the top down. The administration won’t even talk to the Iranians directly and only grudgingly through intermediaries. Like we didn’t learn a damn thing from the mistake in Iraq. Our arrogance, our disinterest in going to the bother of trying to sort out such nuances as who really has power, is our great weakness. (Hersh by the way quotes a diplomat as saying power in Iran is “diffuse” and as Dan mentions the Ayatollah Khamenei has more power at least nominally.) We are clumsy and impatient. We have the power but not the attention span for this game. We can’t even be bothered to get Ahmadinejad’s name right. (People just roll their eyes–ooh it’s so long and foreign-sounding!) We took Saddam at his self-aggrandizing word (I have WMDs!) because we lacked the patience to get the truth behind the words. We’ll continue to be played for fools, till we make a better effort than we do.

  25. MeTheSheeple

    Bill, let’s parallel your arguments to early World War II, say, 1940.If you are an interventionist, you support U.S. entry into a European war, supporting a Russian dictator busy executing as many as 18 to 24 million people.If you are an isolationist, you oppose U.S. entry into a European war, thus you support a German dictator busy executing some 12 million people.In short, if you breathe, you support at least one mass murderer.

  26. Sven

    If you find you can’t sign it, you really need to examine who’s side your on.Er, okey dokey, Captain Black. I’ll get right on that.

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