As a journalist who covered Washington in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, I recall the many “urban legends” that were circulating at that time.
In his January 11 televised speech on U.S. policy in Iraq, Bush had accused Tehran and Damascus of fueling the insurgency in Iraq and expressed disagreement with proposals, including from the Iraq Study Group (ISG), to negotiate with both countries as part of an effort to reach peace and stability in Iraq. He said: “We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” Bush also announced that he would dispatch another aircraft carrier battle group and deploy Patriot antimissile batteries in the Persian Gulf.
Generally speaking, an urban legend is a widely circulated, folklorish story—often based on exaggerated or distorted fact—that is believed to be true by many who repeat it.
So, let's see. Many reports circulated in Washington and elsewhere in 2002 and early 2003 that, notwithstanding Bush's stated commitment to deal with Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) through diplomatic means, the White House was already considering plans to militarily oust Saddam Hussein. It seems that Bush et al. would characterize such “pre-invasion preparation” speculation as urban legend. After all, Bush and his advisers denied the reports—much in the same way they are challenging the current reports on the possibility of U.S. preparations to attack Iran.
I suppose that when it comes to Washington, DC, something that is urban legend-esque ceases to be a legend only after we read one of Bob Woodward's post-mortems in which we end up discovering that those who had been accused of “spreading rumors” were actually telling the truth. We might then learn that the press secretary who had dismissed these facts as nothing more than “rumors” was probably just out of the loop. (“Out of the loop” is what “insiders” call a government official who doesn't have access to information about what the Decider and his Vice are really planning.)
As a journalist who covered Washington in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, I recall the many “urban legends” that were circulating at that time. These included rumors about how Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were pushing for a war with Iraq; about how their aides were pressuring the intelligence agencies to come up with “estimates” to help exaggerate the Iraqi WMD threat and Baghdad's alleged ties to al-Qaida; about how the Americans and the British were secretly drawing up a strategy for a military confrontation with Iraq while pledging to continue to pursue diplomacy; and about how some of the leading Iraqi exiles lobbying for the “liberation” of Iraq, like Ahmed Chalabi, were untrustworthy characters.
I read some of these reports in the press; others reached me through the grapevine. They were all immediately denied by the White House press officer. Yet after the war had been raging, most of these “rumors” proved to be based on fact. In a way, any political analyst familiar with the way Washington works and the way decisions are made here—who could read between the lines of media reports and official statements, and who would deconstruct the modus operandi and body language of Bush and his aides—had no choice but to conclude that war with Iraq was inevitable. In that case, the conventional wisdom got it right.
So it's not surprising that journalists and pundits who continue to follow their professional instincts are experiencing a certain sense of déjà vu all over again as they begin to wonder these days whether Bush and his aides are planning to expand the current war in Iraq to Iran (and Syria). The initial source of this “urban legend” was Bush's infamous “Axis of Evil” speech, in which he lumped Iran together with Iraq and North Korea as deserving U.S. punishment. The speech was followed by various pledges, including public statements, press leaks, and even the commitment of U.S. financial resources to “export” democracy to Iran. And in the aftermath of ousting Saddam from power in Baghdad, there were even a few hints here and there about “regime change” in Tehran. Interestingly, the administration denied press reports about Iranian attempts to negotiate a diplomatic deal with Washington over Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine.
Finally, at the center of the U.S. anti-Iran campaign was the effort to end Iranian plans to develop nuclear weapons—allegations based on questionable intelligence estimates from Washington and Jerusalem—either through diplomatic means or, the efforts implied, otherwise.
For a while, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that against the backdrop of the ensuing mess in Iraq, the neocons were losing influence, the “realists” were gaining power, and that the Bush administration was going to move toward some sort of diplomatic “engagement” with the Iranians along the lines proposed by the ISG, other respected foreign policy experts, and leading Democrats.
But after Bush and Cheney politely rejected the ISG recommendations, and after signs that Bush and Cheney were getting ready to “do something” about Iran, the conventional wisdom concluded that the White House has now embraced further military escalation in the Persian Gulf.
The Israelis, led by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have been playing to the hands of U.S. warriors by suggesting that an Iranian nuclear bomb would pose an “existential” threat akin to the European Holocaust and that if U.S. diplomatic and/or military power failed, Israel would have no choice but to “take care of the problem.” The warnings were buttressed through a series of public statements, including a visit by Olmert to Washington, and leaks to the press, including a recent British newspaper report that Israel could use tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Iran's nuclear military sites.
At the same time, the Saudis have been warning that a nuclear Iran would help transform Tehran into a hegemonic power in the Persian Gulf and provide it with an opportunity to lead an alliance of Shiite Mideast factions, from Iran to Israel/Palestine through Lebanon, in a way that would threaten Saudi Arabia and other pro-U.S. Arab-Sunni regimes. The sense of alarm perpetuated by the Saudis was reinforced through press leaks suggesting that the members of the hawkish wing of the Saudi royal family, led by former Saudi Ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan, were gaining strength, and that the Israelis and the Saudis, backed by Washington, have been conducting secret talks to coordinate the anti-Iran strategy.
Indeed, according to Israeli press reports, Olmert and Prince Sultan have met to discuss Iran and related issues. The meeting and other signs of coordination on Iran between Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh have raised the possibility that the Bush administration was trying to draw the outlines of a new strategic consensus involving it, Israel, and the pro-U.S. Arab-Sunni regimes (Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states, and Egypt and Jordan). These reports recalled a similar “strategic consensus” that evolved in the 1980s during the Reagan administration, when the Americans, Israelis, and Saudis—and, yes, then-U.S. partner, Saddam Hussein's Iraq—were cooperating in dealing with both the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and with the challenge from revolutionary Iran. And anyone who knows how to assess the balance of power in Washington will tell you that when the Americans are joined by the Saudis and the Israelis and their powerful supporters in Washington in a coordinated effort to harm you, run fast for cover. Both the Soviets fighting against Osama bin Laden and his mujahideen allies (assisted by Washington) in Afghanistan and the Iranians attacked by Saddam's Iraqi military (assisted by Washington) learned that lesson in the 1980s.
In addition to the pressure exerted by the Saudis and Israelis on Washington, President Bush in his January 11 speech blamed the Iranians for targeting U.S. troops in Iraq and threatened to use U.S. military power to disrupt such actions. The next day Bush announced that he was sending an aircraft carrier to visit Iran's neighborhood, and the military ordered U.S. troops to raid an Iranian consulate in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil. Such actions could lead even a low -level intelligence analyst to see “signals” coming out of the White House aimed at Iran.
Moreover, the decision by the Bush administration to appoint Adm. William Fallon to oversee U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has raised many red flags among observers in Washington. Why choose a navy admiral to lead two ground wars in the Middle East and South Asia, unless you regard that as a preparatory step for a strike on Iran's nuclear military sites ? If that happened, Iran would retaliate by attacking oil platforms and tankers, closing the S trait of Hormuz, and perhaps hitting oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia; the U.S. Navy would probably play a key role in protecting the oil flowing from the Persian Gulf.
Many members of Congress have also been reading the signals, and they are worried that the Bush administration may be making the conditions for another war in the Middle East. During testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted that the administration had no plans to cross Iraq's borders into Iran to attack supporters of the Iraqi insurgency and militias. But Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) compared Bush's strategy to former President Richard Nixon's escalation of the Vietnam War. “You cannot sit here today, not because you are dishonest or don't understand—once you get to hot pursuit, no one can say we won't engage across border,” he said. “Some of us remember 1970 and Cambodia, and our government lied to us and said we didn't cross the border. When you set in motion the kind of policy the president is talking about here, it is very, very dangerous.”
Other Democratic and Republican lawmakers expressed similar concerns that the rising tensions with Iran could ignite a full-blown war and demanded that the White House consult Congress before going to war with Iran. But Bush-Cheney and their neocon advisers may have found a way to overcome the threat of congressional and Democratic opposition, and it has to do with the potential Israeli role in a crisis with Iran. If Israel decides to attack Iran's nuclear sites, many of the same lawmakers would probably applaud the move, a reflection of their pro-Israeli disposition. After all, can anyone imagine presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) bashing the Israelis on the eve of the primaries or the general election? But any retaliation from an Israeli attack on Iran would probably necessitate a U.S. response, which Congress would have no choice to support. It is quite likely that if Iran also decided to unleash its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon and encouraged them to attack Israel, the Israelis would respond by invading Syria and forcing out Bashar al Assad—another “regime change” that might benefit the interests of U.S. allies in Lebanon. And of course, the Bush administration would then dismiss the notion that the strike by a client state received a green (or at least a yellow) light from the White House as another “urban legend.” (We'd probably have to wait for Bob Woodward's next volume to learn that while U.S. lawmakers were whining, the green light was flashing as the Americans, Israelis, and Saudis were readying for a war with Iran.)
But it's also possible that such a book would not conclude with a neoconservative-scripted, happy ending in which the Bush administration celebrates the triumph of Pax Americana. Bush, Cheney, and their neoconservative aides have already tried to use Israel's strategic services, when they gave Olmert a green light to attack Hezbollah infrastructure in Lebanon in summer 2006, hoping that devastating the partner of Iran and Syria would serve as a blow to Tehran.
But the best-laid plans of mice and neocons often go awry. Hezbollah resisted the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon and emerged with a political victory in the aftermath of war, providing Iran and Syria with a win. Similarly, an Israeli strike against Iran could fail and/or result in thousands of civilian casualties. The Shiite-led government in Iraq could be forced to ally with the Iranians and demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, while anti-U.S. sentiments in the Middle East and the Muslim world would skyrocket. Other possible consequences could include a dramatic increase in energy prices, especially if Venezuela decides to join an oil embargo; demonstrations by outraged citizens in major European (not to mention U.S.) cities; and most importantly, growing pressure from the European Union, Russia, and China on Washington to convene an international conference on the Middle East.
While the United States and Israel could emerge victorious from the military campaign (not unlike the British, French, and Israelis after the 1956 Suez Campaign against Egypt), they could also find themselves totally isolated in the international community, facing enormous diplomatic and economic pressure to reverse their policies. That is what happens when history transforms an urban legend into a tragedy.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org), is author most recently of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2006). He blogs at globalparadigms.blogspot.com.