Can Obama Prevent an October Surprise Attack on Iran?
"Naturally, the common people do not want war . . . but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country."
- Herman Goering at the Nuremburg trials
The Obama campaign has undoubtedly considered the possibility that a desperate Republican Party will try to manipulate this Fall's election by waging war against Iran between now and November. An attack against Iran -- either by the US Air Force or using the Israelis as a proxy -- would be so dangerous that the possibility requires the Obama campaign to strategize not in terms of how they would respond politically to an October surprise, but to consider what they can do now, proactively, to make the political risks of an attack poisonous to a political party that has repeatedly shown itself to be willing to pursue, for short-term political gain, policies that undermine legitimate American foreign-policy interests and cost American lives.
From the Bush Administration's selling of the Iraq War (and countless past wars in all times and places), we can predict that an attack would be justified -- most likely after it actually occurs -- by a claim that the US had secret intelligence that Iran was on the verge of a nuclear or other WMD attack on us or Israel. Once we have launched an attack, any questioning or criticism will be silenced as traitorous: we will all be exhorted to support our brave troops. The media will be intimidated into serving as an echo chamber. The opposition party and its candidates, especially Obama, will be handcuffed against showing any opposition, and McCain as the ultimate military insider will inevitably be elected -- all before there is time for the whole thing to be exposed as a fraud.
A military attack on Iran -- whether led by U.S. forces or Israeli ones -- would be a disaster for the Middle East and for genuine American interests. In the short term, the Iranians could very easily mine the Strait of Hormuz, immediately cutting off somewhere between 20 and 40% of the world's oil supply and raising oil prices to the $250/barrel range. Or the Iranians could have their clients in Iraq, inside and outside the government, attack U.S. forces there -- not to mention the possibility of retaliatory terror attacks on American soil. In the long term an attack on Iran would likely guarantee, as even the current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has said, that "we'll create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America."
Despite this, there is ample evidence that the Cheney faction within the Bush Administration has been lusting for war against Iran for quite some time. As early as August of 2003, a British official knowledgeable about Bush Administration planning told Newsweek, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran." In January of this year, a minor (but potentially very dangerous) incident occurred in the Strait of Hormuz, in which five Iranian speedboats were alleged to have provoked three US warships. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh has reported that after this event, officials met in Cheney's office to discuss how to provoke or even manufacture another naval incident to open a state of war between Tehran and Washington. Clearly, when considering an attack against Iran, the administration will not be restrained by international law, ethics, or the truth.
What "poison pills" can the Obama campaign bring into the campaign to help prevent such an attack? First of all, Obama can continue to press his general point that the GOP has essentially thrown away American diplomatic power by its continuing policies of shooting first and talking later. The campaign should also, however, integrate criticism of GOP foreign policy calamities into an overall narrative about John McCain. We recommend that this narrative be centered in words like "trigger-happy," "impulsive," and the like -- words that are reinforced by McCain's unvetted selection of Sarah Palin as running mate, by ludicrously childish actions such as his singing "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" at a town hall meeting in South Carolina this past April, and by McCain's increasingly well-known temper tantrums. Even one of McCain's fellow Republican senators, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, has said, "the thought of (McCain) being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me."
Obama also has the opportunity given him by the split between the most bloody-minded neocons -- who are extremely well-represented in McCain's foreign policy team -- and "realist" figures such as Robert Gates and Admiral William Fallon, former head of the U.S. Central Command, who this past spring felt it necessary to publicly speak out against a possible attack on Iran, and was forced to resign.
The McCain campaign has already begun exploiting the Iran situation, and lying about it, by having both surrogates and McCain say that Obama has called Iran "a tiny problem" (in fact, Obama said on May 18 that the challenge Iran poses is tiny in comparison to that of the Soviet Union during the Cold War). In discussing Iran, Obama should emphasize the lies his opponents have told about his position -- as a means of turning the conversation to the fact that the GOP has an obvious record of lying about foreign policy in general. This gives Obama the opportunity to first reiterate how we managed to ramp down the Cold War diplomatically (and how Republicans participated in that process) and to begin emphasizing how much of the neocon belligerence at the center of McCain's foreign policy is based on lies. The campaign should also not be afraid to use the word "lie." If needed as proof, there is one very prominent and concise example of Bush Administration telling an obvious lie to justify aggression: Donald Rumsfeld's statement about Iraqi WMD that "We know where they are."
By taking on the experienced and rhetorically uninhibited Joe Biden as Vice-Presidential candidate, the Obama campaign can begin taking control of the conversation about Iran -- and other foreign policy challenges such as Russia and Pakistan -- and demonstrate that bombs dropping will not necessarily lead to more GOP votes. The Democrats have bowed to right-wing "strength" on security policy all too often -- "strength" that's cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars we could put to use at home. We are at a unique juncture in American life and the war party has overplayed their hand tremendously. The American people are sick of Iraq, sick of being manipulated by fear.
Obama has the opportunity to start overturning a generation's worth of foreign policy discourse that has been fundamentally dishonest, wasteful of American resources and hundreds of thousands of human lives, because that discourse is centered in Goering's ideas of how to manipulate the public. The Obama campaign's hope for success, as well as basic patriotism, requires that he change our course.