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Another March to War?

As a journalist, there’s a buzz you can detect once the normal restraints in your business have been loosened, a smell of fresh chum in the waters, urging us down the road to war. Many years removed from the Iraq disaster, that smell is back, this time with Iran.

You can just feel it: many of the same newspapers and TV stations we saw leading the charge in the Bush years have gone back to the attic and are dusting off their war pom-poms. CNN’s house blockhead, the Goldman-trained ex-finance professional Erin Burnett, came out with a doozie of a broadcast yesterday, a Rumsfeldian jeremiad against the Iranian threat would have fit beautifully in the Saddam’s-sending-drones-at-New-York halcyon days of late 2002. Here’s how the excellent Glenn Greenwald described Burnett’s rant:

It’s the sort of thing you would produce if you set out to create a mean-spirited parody of mindless, war-hungry, fear-mongering media stars, but you wouldn’t dare go this far because you’d want the parody to have a feel of realism to it, and this would be way too extreme to be believable. She really hauled it all out: WMDs! Terrorist sleeper cells in the U.S. controlled by Tehran! Iran’s long-range nuclear missiles reaching our homeland!!!! She almost made the anti-Muslim war-mongering fanatic she brought on to interview, Rep. Peter King, appear sober and reasonable by comparison.

Like Greenwald, I was particularly struck by Burnett’s freak-out about Iran’s nuclear program, about which she said, “No one buys Iran’s claim that [it is] for peaceful purposes.” She then cited remarks by Director of Intelligence James Clapper, which, she said, “drove that message home.” But then she ran a clip with Clapper’s quote, which read as follows:

Iran’s technical advances . . . strengthen our assessment that Iran is more than capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon if its political leaders, specifically the Supreme Leader himself, choose to do so.

In other words, “If Iran were to decide to be capable of making nuclear weapons, it would be capable of making nuclear weapons.” Unless I'm missing something, that’s a statement that would be true of almost any industrialized country, wouldn't it?

Virtually all of the Iran stories of late have contained some version of this sort of rhetorical sophistry. The news “hook” in most all of these stories is that intelligence reports reveal Iran is “willing” to attack us or go to war – but then there’s usually an asterisk next to the headline, and when you follow the asterisk, it reads something like, “In the event that we attack Iran first.”

An NBC report Greenwald also wrote about put it this way: “Within just the past few days, Iranian leaders have threatened that if attacked, they would launch those missiles at U.S. targets.”

There’s a weird set of internalized assumptions that media members bring to stories like this Iran business. In fact there’s an elaborate belief system we press people adhere to, about how a foreign country may behave toward the U.S., and how it may not behave. It reminds me a little of a passage in Anna Karenina about the belief system of noblemen in Tolstoy’s day:

Vronsky’s life was particularly happy in that he had a code of principles, which defined with unfailing certitude what he ought and what he ought not to do… These principles laid down as invisible rules: that one must pay a cardsharper, but need not pay a tailor; that one must never lie to a man, but one may lie to a woman; that one must never cheat anyone, but one may a husband; that one must never pardon an insult, but one may give one, and so on.

We have a similar gentleman’s code, a “Westernized industrial power” code if you will, that operates the same way. In other words, our newspapers and TV stations may blather on a thousand times a day about attacking Iran and bombing its people, but if even one Iranian talks about fighting back, he is being “aggressive” and “threatening”; we can impose sanctions on anyone, but if the sanctioned country embargoes oil shipments to Europe in response, it’s being “belligerent,” and so on.

I’m not defending Ahmadinejad, I think he’s nuts and a monstrous dick and I definitely don’t think he should be allowed to have nuclear weapons, but to me this issue has little to do with Iran at all. What’s more troubling to me is that we’ve internalized this “gentleman’s code” to the point where its basic premises are no longer even debated.

Once upon a time, way back in the stone ages, when Noam Chomsky was first writing about these propaganda techniques in Manufacturing Consent, our leaders felt the need to conceal – or at least  sugar-coat – these Orwellian principles. It was assumed that the American people genuinely needed to feel like they were on the right side of things, and so the foreign powers we clashed with were always depicted as being the instigators and aggressors, while our role in provoking those responses was always disguised or at least played down.

But now the public openly embraces circular thinking like, “Any country that squawks when we threaten to bomb it is a threat that needs to be wiped out.” Maybe I’m mistaken, but I have to believe that there was a time when ideas like that sounded weird to the American ear. Now they seem to make sense to almost everyone here at home, and that to me is just as a scary as Ahmadinejad.

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