BAD ADVICE

03.09.12

Leslie H. Gelb: The Dangers of Warmongering on Syria, Iran

Beware of foreign policy experts bearing truths and certainties and treat them as snake oil salesmen, especially on Iran and Syria. By Leslie H. Gelb.

I’m not supposed to tell you this. I’m violating the code. I’m giving away the deepest, darkest secret of the foreign policy clan: even though we sound like we know everything, we know very little, especially about the intentions of bad guys and the consequences of war. But since the media keeps treating us like sages and keeps ignoring our horrendous mistakes, we carry on with our game, and do a lot of damage. Let me give you of few of the more recent examples of how ignorant and dangerous we are, and why you should be wary of any flat out “truths” and certainties uttered by my clanspeople.

Take Iran. Those who can’t wait to start a war with Iran tell us that Tehran is within three seconds, three months, or a year of developing a nuclear weapon. I promise you they don’t know this for anything near a fact. They’re trying to push Israel and the United States into a military attack against Iran.

Here’s all we do know for sure: Iran is enriching uranium and has the capacity to enrich enough of it to a level of purity sufficient to make nukes—maybe, perhaps, in a year or two or more. Iran may have or may be developing related capacities to place this uranium into explosive form in a bomb or missile warhead. We have suspicions about the latter based on various kinds of imaging and listening intelligence.

Now, are these activities something to worry about? Absolutely! But it is not a basis for going to war now or soon. It is a basis for Americans, Israelis, and others to find out more as quickly as possible through better intelligence and diplomacy. Yes, diplomacy, because we can argue forever about exactly what the Iranians have and intend, but making diplomatic proposals allows us to test our hypotheses. If Tehran rejects reasonable proposals, then there are grounds for raising suspicions and waving the war wand.

By the way, this isn’t just my view. It is the consensus position of U.S. intelligence agencies. Equally telling, it is what retired senior Israeli intelligence chiefs and military officers have been shouting from the rooftops publicly, totally contrary to the code of silence on these matters.

Israeli and American hawks are also proclaiming that we need not worry about the consequences of an attack on Iran, that the Iranians could not or would not do anything that should trouble us deeply. Hold on to your wallet here. How do they know if Tehran will strike back at, say, Saudi or Iraqi oil fields and drive oil prices into the stratosphere, or launch terrorist attacks against American, Israelis, and others worldwide? Of course, I don’t know either. But these are real risks that we must accept and reckon with before attacking Iran.

Take Syria. The war twins, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, along with the usual cohort of neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists, are urging military action. They want airstrikes and arms for the Syrian rebels, no-fly zones, and so forth. They can’t stand President Bashar al-Assad killing his people. None of us can. But why are the neocons so riled up about several thousand Syrian deaths, when they are practically mum about the millions killed and being killed in Africa? Why don’t they advocate arming the Tibetans? Well, we know why they don’t want war with China. For the time being, all they desire is to beef up U.S. military spending and presence in Asia. Then, we’ll see.

If the questioners don’t do their job once again, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, then we’ll be in wars once again. And once again, we’ll be very sorry.

So, one might suspect that their passion for Washington “to lead” on Syria and get into another war there turns on something other than saving lives. Try Iran. They want to weaken Iran’s position in the Arab world, with its great Syrian ally, and with Iranian-backed extremists like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. It is a noble goal.

But again what of the consequences, or better, the risks? The interventionists, for example, plead to arm Syrian rebels. But who are those rebels exactly? Oh, former Syrian soldiers. Oh, people fighting against Assad’s tyranny. That’s fine. But who else are they? Are there major al Qaeda elements among them, or other Muslim extremists? Would they be a bigger threat to Israel and to Arab neighbors like Jordan than Assad himself? The warmongers say not to worry, but they don’t know the answers to any of these questions. Nor do they have any idea what these “freedom fighters” would do with Assad’s chemical weapons. Nor have the interventionists begun to explain how they would conduct air operations over Syria, and what more they’d be prepared to do if those air attacks failed to stop Assad’s killings.

There’s an even longer list of questions that the war humanitarians should be made to answer before any president lifts his sword. Americans need protection from these snake-oil salesmen, and that protection depends almost entirely on Congress and the media. They have got to be much tougher with the experts, pin them down on what they know and don't know and what facts their views are based on. They've got to demand real answers, and not let the experts escape with slogans like “lead” and “take action,” or “that will all work out.” But it is the rarest of occasions when legislators or journalists bear down on the experts. If the questioners don’t do their job once again, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, then we’ll be in wars once again. And once again, we’ll be very sorry. But the interventionists won’t be. They never are. They’ll just want to keep fighting every war forever until we “win.”