Friday, February 16, 2007

Making the case for war by innuendo

The Bush administration’s saber-rattling on the subject of Iran has an eerie familiar sound to it: Significant conclusions with potentially dire consequences drawn from scraps of evidence originating from unknown sources and provided to the American media via off-the-record background briefings. In other words, taking the first steps towards war by the use of innuendo. It was five years ago that stories in the media were popping linking the then government of Iraq with al-Qaeda to stoke the pro-war sentiments in the United States and the international community. Of course, the links turned out to be fabrications and the opportunies for al-Qaeda in Iraq came later in the chaos resulting from the bungled war and reconstruction by U.S. forces.

Administration officials have been making a big deal of explosive devices found in Iraq that allegedly originated in Iran. The insinuation is these are somehow provided on orders of the highest levels of the Iranian government with the exclusive purpose of targeting American troops. Despite this administration’s very poor record in successfully fighting wars, it is no secret that many in this administration are itching for a third war in the Middle East -- this time against Iran.

Spencer Ackerman explains in today’s Guardian:
… three facts emerged: Iranian-made weaponry had been discovered in Iraq; this weaponry had been used in attacks on US troops there; and operatives of Iran's Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, had smuggled the weapons in.

Beyond those three facts lies the real question: whether or not the Iranian regime had approved the smuggling to deliberately attack US forces in Iraq. And, to that question, the administration didn't present a direct answer. One of the briefers said that the Quds smuggling occurred with the support of the "highest levels of the Iranian government." But within days, intelligence officials frantically attempted to walk back on the statement, explaining that the briefer misspoke. The official Iranian policy remains completely unclear - as does US intelligence's actual assessment of it.

That's understandable, since, in the absence of actual evidence, competing interpretations are available. Most attacks that US officials describe have occurred at the hands of the Sunni insurgency. Yet officials at the briefing asserted that the weapons were going to Shia militias - raising the prospect that Iran is seeking instead to arm its Shia Iraqi allies, and some of its weaponry has found its way into the hands of Sunni insurgents through Iraq's thriving blackmarket arms trade. I asked officials at US Central Command to explain where in Iraq attacks on US forces featuring Iranian-made weapons has occurred - Sunni, Shia or mixed areas, in other words - in order to get some sense of who was carrying out the attacks, or a clue as to whether Iran's allies or enemies are using Iranian weapons. It probably won't come as a surprise that the military hasn't responded to my question.

None of this uncertainty has stopped the Bush administration from suggesting... well, something. Speaking on Wednesday, Nicholas Burns, the number three official at the State Department, generically declared that the Quds Force "is a major part of the Iranian government. Therefore, the actions of that force are the responsibility of that government." White House spokesman Tony Snow angrily chastised the press for not focusing on the "central fact" that weapons from Iran are being used on US troops. For his part, President Bush said he was agnostic as to whether or not the Iranian government meant to attack US troops - "which is worse?" he asked rhetorically in a press conference - but as far as he's concerned, the Iranians are doing... something bad.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Before the Iraq war, administration officials spoke in generic terms about how they knew members of al-Qaeda were "in Baghdad." By this artful formulation, they accomplished two important goals: first, they let the American public to draw the conclusion that Saddam Hussein and bin Laden were actively allied; and second, they did so without making an explicit and disprovable claim. During the build-up to the war, CIA Director George Tenet occasionally warned the White House to remove elements of specificity in its statements, in order to insulate President Bush from becoming a "fact witness." Innuendo was far more valuable. It allowed the White House to portray its critics as shortsighted and irresponsibly cautious - obsessed with one complexity or another when the broader picture was so clear and so dire.

Only it wasn't clear at all - and, it turned out, also wasn't so dire Now, with Iran, the administration is reshaping the picture. Yet it can't seem to learn its lesson. Bush won't solve his credibility problem by restricting the specificity of the facts at hand. He'll solve it by jettisoning his innuendo and making statements that actually comport with those facts. That, however, would mean abandoning a strategy that's worked for him very well in the past.

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