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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Tuesday, 11 April 2006
Thought Experiment -
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Thought Experiment - 'When a culture is as historically clueless and morally desensitized as this one appears to be...'

The story hit the wires over the weekend and was the buzz on Monday the 10th - Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker reporting that his many sources developed over many decades of reporting in Washington told him the administration was planning a nuclear first strike on Iran to significantly slow down their progress at developing nuclear weapons (no one believes we can eliminate forever their ability to develop them). The Hersh item is here, saying these are not contingency plans, but operational plans. The Washington Post on its front page Sunday had this, offering independent confirmation. This was discussed in these pages here over the weekend, and again on Monday here.

The details are fascinating, if beyond depressing - top brass at the Pentagon threatening to resign if the administration doesn't take the "nuclear first strike" off the table, the idea the president wants to make taking out Iran's nukes his legacy, as the Iraq thing didn't go so well, the idea his poll numbers are so low he has nothing really to lose, and he's got this "messianic" thing going, and there's the current neoconservative theory that the nuclear blasts and the wide-spread deadly fallout will create a popular uprising in Iran and everyone there will throw out their current leaders for creating the conditions where the United States had no choice but to nuke their country. (The New York Times says this - "An American bombing campaign would surely rally the Iranian people behind the radical Islamic government and the nuclear program, with those effects multiplied exponentially if the Pentagon itself resorted to nuclear weapons in the name of trying to stop Iran from building nuclear bombs" - but what do they know?)

There's a ton of analysis and speculation bubbling around all over, all centered on whether we'll really do this. No one knows, but the British foreign minister says the idea of using nuclear weapons is just crazy. The president himself called it all "wild speculation." And it could be the idea was just to get the story out there to scare the Iranians into stopping their development programs, because if they don't stop they'd be dead, or glowing with a nice green sheen, or both.

Think of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry in the move where he says, fondling his Magnum in a phallic sort of way, "Do you feel lucky, punk?" It's that sort of thing, maybe. (The full quote - I know what you're thinking. "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?)

Well, instead of Iran cowering like the bad guy in the movie, Tuesday, April 11, we get this - "Iran announced a technological breakthrough yesterday that could lead to the development of a nuclear bomb, in a move that appeared to catch the west off guard."

And this - "Iran's hard-line president said Tuesday that the country 'has joined the club of nuclear countries' by successfully enriching uranium for the first time - a key process in what Iran maintains is a peaceful energy program."

It seems Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, isn't familiar with the Eastwood films. He doesn't understand his role, a fairly conventional one in our collective pop mythology - the cowardly bad guy who gives it up when the alpha-male gets all squinty-eyed and deadly calm. He seems to think he's not the bad guy, or if he is, he's just not doing the "blustering bully now trembling in fear" thing. So there does seem to be a problem with using Hollywood movies as a template for how we manage difficult international relations. Not everyone has seen the movie, and they sure don't know the script.

But would we do this?

Our reaction to the news from Iran was muted and diplomatic - Iran is "going down the wrong road." And there was this - Talk of US military strikes on Iran are 'fantasyland': Rumsfeld.

We say we'll talk, but there was our position on North Korea, no one-on-one talks with them because that would be rewarding bad behavior. So the talks had to be multilateral, with lots of other countries at the table - otherwise we'd be giving "evil" equal footing with us. So we're also delaying any talks at all with Iran, even on lesser matters, and the North Korean discussions are dead, as in this - "Chances of a breakthrough in stalled six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear arms program faded on Wednesday after diplomatic efforts failed to narrow gaps between the two main protagonists, Washington and Pyongyang."

We say we'll talk this time. But we're not talking, and the idea that the administration has to do something dramatic, and perhaps nuclear, in reaction to bad news, is not so far-fetched.

Bad news? Maybe this, as Tuesday the 11th we lose five more of our guys, and this AP item notes that makes thirty-one this month so far - and that was the total for all of March so we will have a new record in April. And there's this - three Marine officers relieved of command, one a brigade commander - the three officers were relieved of their command "due to lack of confidence in their leadership abilities stemming from their performance during a recent deployment to Iraq." This seems to have something to do with marines from the 3rd Battalion perhaps deliberately killing fifteen Iraqi civilians in Haditha in November after a Marine was killed in a roadside bombing (discussed in these pages a few weeks ago here and mentioned again here).

It's time for a diversion. A change of subject. A nuclear attack to stop Iran from doing what they might do might be just the thing.

But then, as a thought experiment, forget all this stuff about whether we really will launch an unprovoked nuclear attack against Iran. The question of "if we will" will work itself out.

The more interesting question whether anyone in the United States will really care. As Digby at Hullabaloo notes here, nuking Iran "might serve everybody's interests quite ably." And he adds this - "Damn if it won't be a heckuva show, the kind we really love with handsome flyboys taking off from aircraft carriers and big beautiful explosions that make us all feel good about how our high tech 'surgical' weaponry only kills the bad guys."

The whole question is worked out by Bill Montgomery in Mutually Assured Dementia, a "thought experiment" that opens with this -
Maybe it's just me, but I've been at least a little bit surprised by the relatively muted reaction to the news that the Cheney Administration and its Pentagon underlings are racing to put the finishing touches on plans for attacking Iran - plans which may include the first wartime use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki.

I mean, what exactly does it take to get a rise out of the media industrial complex these days? A nuclear first strike against a major Middle Eastern oil producer doesn't ring the bell? Must every story have a missing white woman in it before the cable news guys will start taking it seriously?
And it is not being taken as more than another news story -
Even by the corrupt and debased standards of our times, this is a remarkable thing. The U.S. government is planning aggressive nuclear war (the neocons can give it whatever doublespeak name they like, but it is what it is); those plans have been described in some detail in a major magazine and on the front page of the Washington Post; the most the President of the United States is willing to say about it is that the reports are "speculative" (which is not a synonym for "untrue") ...
But we get more missing white women story, so -
It appears our long national journey towards complete idiocy is over. We've arrived.

Idiots, of course, don't need a reason to be idiots. But to the extent there is a rational excuse for treating a nuclear strike on Iran as the journalistic equivalent of a seasonal story about people washing their cars, it must be the cynical conviction that the Cheneyites aren't serious - they're just doing their little Gen. Jack Ripper impression to let the Iranians know they really mean business.

This may seem plausible - that is, if you were in a catatonic stupor throughout 2002 and the early months of 2003 (which is just another way of saying: if you were a member in good standing of the corporate media elite.) But the rest of us have learned that when Dick Cheney starts muttering about precious bodily fluids, you'd better pay attention. He really does mean business, and when Dick Cheney means business, bombs are likely to start falling sooner rather than later.
But the main point is this -
Maybe the idea of the United States would launch a nuclear first strike - albeit a "surgical" one - is too hard for most Americans, including most American journalists, to process. ... It's even harder to square with our national self-image than the invasion of Iraq. We're the global sheriff, after all - Gary Cooper in a big white hat. And while Gary Cooper might shoot an outlaw down in a fair fight at High Noon, he wouldn't sneak into their camp in the middle of the night and incinerate them with nuclear weapons. That's not how the Code of the West is supposed to work.

Even my own hyperactive imagination is having a hard time wrapping itself around the idea. I'm familiar enough with Cold War history to know the United States has at least considered the first use of nuclear weapons before - in Korea and even in Vietnam - and I know it was long-standing U.S. strategic doctrine never to rule out a nuclear response to a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe. But the current nuclear war gaming strikes me as much more likely to end in the real thing - partly because the neocons appear to have convinced themselves a "tactical" strike doesn't really count, partly because of what Hersh politely refers to as Bush's "messianic vision" (Cheney may have his finger on the bureaucracy, but Shrub is still the one with his finger on the button) but mostly because I think these guys really think they can get away with it. And they might be right.

I've been trying to picture what the world might look like the day after a U.S. nuclear strike on Iran, but I'm essentially drawing a blank. There simply isn't a precedent for the world's dominant superpower turning into a rogue state - much less a rogue state willing to wage nuclear war against potential, even hypothetical, security threats. At that point, we'd truly be through the looking glass.

One can assume (or at least hope) that first use of nuclear weapons would turn America into an international pariah, at least in the eyes of global public opinion. It would certainly mark the definitive end of the system of collective security - and the laws and institutions supporting that system - established in the wake of World War II. The UN Security Council would be rendered as pointless as the old League of Nations. The Nuremberg Principles would be as moot as the Geneva Conventions. (To the neocons, of course, these are all pluses.)

Nuclear first use would also shatter (or at least, radically transform) the political alliances that defined America's leadership role in the old postwar order. To the extent any of these relationships survived, they'd be placed on roughly the same basis as the current U.S. protectorate over Saudi Arabia - or, even worse, brought down to the level of the old Warsaw Pact. They would be coalitions of the weak, the vulnerable and the easily intimidated.

In other words, the current hegemony of American influence and ideas (backed by overwhelming military force) would be replaced by an overt dictatorship based - more or less explicitly - on fear of nuclear annihilation. U.S. foreign policy would become nothing more than a variation on the ancient Roman warning: For every one of our dead; 100 of yours. Never again would American rulers (or their foreign counterparts) be able to hide behind the comfortable fiction that the United States is just primus inter pares - first among equals. A country that nukes other countries merely on the suspicion that they may pose a future security threat isn't the equal of anybody. America would stand completely alone: hated by many, feared by all, admired only by the world's other tyrants. To call that a watershed event seems a ridiculous understatement.
But the idea is being bandied about. And the would be more immediate consequences, the price of oil through the roof and perhaps financial turmoil. Or not.

But as for most Americas, consider this -
... the initial impact of war with Iran could play out in the same theatre of the absurd as the first Gulf War and the opening phases of the Iraq invasion - that is to say, on their living room TVs. And if there's one place where a nuclear first strike could be made to appear almost normal, or even a good thing, it's on the boob tube.

After all, the corporate media complex has already shown a remarkable willingness to ignore or rationalize conduct that once would have been considered grossly illegal, if not outright war crimes. And the right-wing propaganda machine is happy to paint any atrocity as another glorious success in the battle for democracy (that is, when it's not trying to deny it ever happened.) Why should we expect something as transitory as a nuclear strike to change the pattern?

Let's be honest about it: For both the corporate and the conservative media, as well as for their audiences, an air campaign against Iran would make for great TV - a welcome return to the good old days of Desert Storm and Shock and Awe. All those jets soaring off into the desert twilight; the overexposed glare of cruise missiles streaking from their launch ships; the video game shots of exploding aircraft hangers and government buildings, the anti-aircraft tracers arcing into the night sky over Tehran - it would be war just the way we like it, far removed from the dull brown dust, raw sewage and multiple amputees of the Iraqi quagmire.

And to keep things interesting, we'd have the added frisson of nuclear weapons - a plot twist that would allow blow-dried correspondents to pose in borrowed radiation suits, give Pentagon flacks the opportunity to try out new euphemisms for killing people, and encourage retired generals to spice up their on-air military patter with knowing references to blast effects, kilotons, roentgens and fallout patterns.

What I'm suggesting here is that it is probably naive to expect the American public to react with horror, remorse or even shock to a U.S. nuclear sneak attack on Iran, even though it would be one of the most heinous war crimes imaginable, short of mass genocide. Iran has been demonized too successfully - thanks in no small part to the messianic delusions of its own end-times president - for most Americans to see it as a victim of aggression, even if they were inclined to admit that the United States could ever be an aggressor. And we know a not-so-small and extremely vocal minority of Americans would be cheering all the way, and lusting for more.
Sure, we can rationalize most anything, because we have to be the good guys. That's the way it is. And we can trivialize and dispose of most things -
We've already seen a lengthy list of war crimes and dictatorial power grabs sink into that electronic compost heap: the WMD disinformation campaign, Abu Ghraib, the torture memos, the de facto repeal of the 4th amendment. Again, why should a nuclear strike be any different? I can easily imagine the same rabid talk show hosts spouting the same jingoistic hate speech, the same bow-tied conservative pundits offering the same recycled talking points, and the same timid Beltway liberals complaining that while nuking Iran was the right thing to do, the White House went about it the wrong way. And I can already hear the same media critics chiding those of us in left Blogostan for blowing the whole thing out of proportion. It's just a little bunker buster, after all.

Why should anyone or anything change? When a culture is as historically clueless and morally desensitized as this one appears to be, I don't think it's absurd to suppose that even an enormous war crime - the worst imaginable, short of outright genocide - could get lost in the endless babble of the talking heads. When everything is just a matter of opinion, anything - literally anything - can be justified. It's only a matter of framing things so people can believe what they want to believe.
And he's probably right - historically clueless and morally desensitized is about it. A few generals, who know their history and still believe that stuff about duty honor and country, may be resigning? Like that matters?

Note this, after Montgomery admits he could be wrong about the long and short term effects of launching a "preventative" nuclear war against a nation that doesn't yet have nukes -
But my thought exercise - What if we started a nuclear war and nobody noticed? - is still useful, if only as a reminder of how easy it can be to lead gullible people down a path that ends in a place no sane human being would ever want to go. A nation that can live with the idea of launching a nuclear first strike isn't likely to have much trouble with the rest of the program - particularly when its people, like their leader, are convinced they've been chosen to save the world.

What's truly scary, though, is the possibility that even though the other members of what we jokingly refer to as the international community don't share Bush's delusions, they may be willing to humor them as long as it is in their own narrow self-interest to do so (in other words, as long as they're not the ones being nuked.) Maybe power really is all the justification that power needs. In which case the downhill path for America - the most powerful country that ever was - is likely to be very steep indeed.
And that's just a few excerpts. You might want to read the whole thing. It seems the real cost of doing such a thing is, in many nasty ways, quite low.

Expect the announcement it's underway one of these days now.

Posted by Alan at 22:10 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 11 April 2006 22:13 PDT home

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