"Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort to disarm as required by the international community... We have no indication that Saddam Hussein has ever abandoned his nuclear weapons program."
- U.S. Secretary of State Powell to UN Security Council, February 5th 2003
"As I have reported on numerous occasions, the IAEA concluded, by December 1998, that it had neutralized Iraq's past nuclear programme and that, therefore, there were no unresolved disarmament issues left at that time... We have to date found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear related activities in Iraq."
- IAEA Director ElBaradei to UN Security Council, February 14th 2003
"Time and again, (Iran) has failed to demonstrate that it's nuclear program is peaceful, and to meet its obligations to the United Nations."
- President Obama to UN General Assembly, September 25th 2012
"The NIE estimate tallies with the Agency's consistent statements over the last few years that, although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities, the Agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran."
- IAEA Director ElBaradei, Press Release, December 3rd 2007
Most Americans now understand that the U.S. war against Iraq was based on lies cleverly disguised as secrets. Instead of consulting its intelligence agencies and making a decision on war and peace based on objective analysis, the U.S. government made a political decision to go to war and then manufactured false "intelligence" to support that decision.
As Senator Bob Graham, who was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, explained in his book Intelligence Matters, the so-called "summary" of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was given to Members of Congress in October 2002 had nothing to do with the NIE that it claimed to summarize. It was a blatantly political document produced months earlier, crammed with false claims that were not in the NIE, such as that U.S. officials could identify 550 sites in Iraq where chemical and biological weapons were stored.
Paul Pillar, a senior CIA analyst who helped to prepare the bogus document, later told PBS, "The purpose was to strengthen the case for going to war with the American public. Is it proper for the intelligence community to publish papers for that purpose? I don't think so, and I regret having had a role in it." Secretary Powell has called his performance at the Security Council a "blot" on his record, but it was consistent with earlier compromises in his exceptionally political military career, such as his role in the Iran Contra affair.
Governments habitually use their military and intelligence advisers in this fashion, and they are rarely held to account for it. As AJP Taylor wrote in The Origins of the Second World War, "There is little evidence that the rulers of the democratic countries (or of the dictatorial ones for that matter) ever consulted their military experts in a detached way before deciding on policy. They decided policy first; and then asked the experts for technical arguments with which the policy could be justified... it was against their nature to reject in foreign affairs the policy of compromise and concession which they applied at home."
So decisions that wreck millions of people's lives are made, not based on serious efforts to come to grips with objective reality, but based on "political reality", in which what people think or can be induced to think carries more weight than objective analysis of the real world.
By 2003, Iraq was the most surveilled and inspected country in history, but Secretary Powell had no concrete evidence to match the photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba that Adlai Stevenson showed the Security Council in 1962. And so the world remained unconvinced. Ten days after he spoke, up to 30 million people took to the streets in 60 countries in the largest worldwide demonstrations in history to oppose U.S. and British aggression. And yet Powell's political theater won rave reviews from America's corporate media and rounded out the case for war in the American "political world" that was its real target audience.
Like Iran today, Iraq had been punished by years of sanctions that, together with the First Gulf War, caused at least 400,000 preventable deaths of children below the age of five. In the political world, sanctions are an alternative to war that "peacefully" punishes the demonized victim. In the real world though, imposing punitive sanctions on a country impoverishes and kills its people, not its leaders. Sanctions undermine diplomacy and trap both parties in a spiral of escalating hostility that only gets harder to resolve as they move closer to war.
In the political world, the "dual track" that President Obama took toward Iran in 2009, pursuing sanctions and diplomacy at the same time, was a compromise to satisfy both hawks and doves in his administration. In the real world though, the IAEA and a consensus of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies had already agreed that any nuclear weapons research that Iran may have conducted ended in 2003 once the threat from Saddam Hussein ceased to exist. And the IAEA has found no concrete evidence of nuclear weapons research in Iran either before or after 2003.
Obama's push for tougher sanctions squandered the fragile goodwill that might have been nurtured by serious diplomacy, and strengthened the position of hawks in Iran who did not believe the U.S. was sincere in wanting better relations. Now we're further down the road of confrontation with even less goodwill than before, and Iran's civilian nuclear program has also progressed, raising the stakes in the political world where U.S. and Israeli officials use it to justify sanctions and threats.
Part of the pressure on the United States to move from sanctions and intermittent bombing to all-out war against Iraq in 2003 was precisely the result of reality starting to break through into its political calculations. Russia, China, France and most of the world were ready to move on after 12 years of sanctions that had failed to remove Saddam Hussein but had killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis. The sanctions regime was crumbling and Iraq was eager to expand its oil production with the help of new international partners. Faced with a choice between diplomatic defeat and criminal aggression, the United States chose the latter.
Now we are watching an only slightly revised version of the same scheme surrounding Iran. But in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the world's patience with Western threats of aggression is wearing thin. The Non Aligned Movement (NAM), which represents 120 countries and 55% of the world's population is standing by Iran, which happens to be its current chair. The NAM has formally endorsed Iran's right to enrich uranium and to continue its civilian nuclear program. But, as with Iraq, the prospect that the sanctions regime against Iran could collapse is increasing the political pressure on the U.S. and Israel to move from sanctions to all-out war before the diplomatic balance tips decisively against them.
The other powerful developed countries who have gone along with sanctions against Iraq and Iran have mixed motives that are unrelated to the fictitious dangers that are used to justify them. Since the end of the Second World War, their commercial interests have benefited from membership in NATO and other forms of political and military alliance with the United States, making them reluctant to openly oppose U.S. policy. France and Germany have occasionally asserted their independence, as they did in 2003, but then President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel restored closer relations with the U.S., and France took a newly aggressive role in NATO's wars in Afghanistan and Libya. President Hollande has not so far reasserted French independence, showing the same "continuity" with Sarkozy's military posture as Obama did with Bush's.
But appeasement of an aggressor is a dangerous game. By failing to challenge the false premises of sanctions against Iraq, the world encouraged the U.S. in the policy that led to the invasion and destruction of Iraq in 2003. In hindsight, we can see that a strong diplomatic push against the U.S. "regime change" policy when it was formulated in the 1990s might have stopped the inexorable march to war. By the time France, Russia, China, Germany and at least five other countries summoned the courage to stand up to aggression in the Security Council in 2003, it was too late to prevent it.
It seems incredible that "political reality" is pushing us toward yet another major war only 10 years after it slammed headlong into such a rude awakening in Iraq. But Western casualties have been light by historical standards in Iraq and Afghanistan (there's no guarantee that would continue in Syria or Iran). And America's plutocratic political system is more insulated from reality than ever by systemic corruption, an ever-growing class divide, a sophisticated propaganda system and correspondingly weak public education. Our leaders are still committed to militarism, and to impunity for major war crimes. They do not seem to believe that they will ever pay a heavy political price for aggression as long as it is "very carefully done", as one of the Downing Street memos put it in 2002.
H.L. Mencken wrote in 1926 that nobody ever "lost public office... by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people." But the march to war over Iran's fictitious nuclear weapons program may test the degree to which political reality can be completely divorced from objective reality.
Can American policy makers and politicians take for granted that they are ruling a nation of Homer Simpsons who can be duped into war by the very same trick that we just fell for ten years ago? Our leaders are being extra-careful not to say "WMD"s, but surely Bart and Lisa can connect the dots.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq tested the limits of the world's appeasement of U.S. aggression and militarism. Obama's charm offensive has provided political cover for continued military expansion and war crimes. But the escalating U.S. war against Iran could prove to be the last straw for the rest of the world. The American dream (or nightmare) of a unipolar world, in which the political class of one country selectively decrees life or death, prosperity or poverty and civilization or chaos for the rest of humanity, can in the end be only a short-lived dystopian experiment in the long and ever-changing history of world politics.