Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Uh, This Is Saber Rattling Isn't It?

The position that I have been clinging to with an ever loosening grip on the issue of military confrontation with Iran - that we have been more or less rattling sabers since there is no viable military option - has always been a minority stance on the left side of the spectrum. And it's getting even minoritier. Matt Yglesias passes along some truly disturbing chatter:

Fred Kaplan wonders if the "prepare to deploy" order that's "been sent out to U.S. Navy submarines, an Aegis-class cruiser, two minesweepers, and two mine-hunting ships" means we're going to war with Iran. Sam Gardiner, former US Air Force Colonel, concludes that we are in a new report (availble in PDF) for the Century Foundation. Gardiner says the preparations for war "will not be a major CNN event." Instead, they "will involve the quiet deployment of Air Force tankers to staging bases" and "additional Navy assets moved to the region." Gardiner makes the point that while nobody's talking about a land invasion of Iran, significant elements in the government do have more ambitious goals than simple surgical strikes at Iranian nuclear facilities. Such strikes are very unlikely to actually resolve the perceived Iran issue, and there are administration figures who've convinced themselves that a sufficiently wide air target set will prompt regime change in Iran.

Fred Kaplan does note that the Time magazine story that he cites is reliant on "sources" within the DOD, and is heavily caveated with conditional language and the like. Kaplan quotes the Time article's author, Michael Duffy:

"The U.S. military routinely makes plans for scores of scenarios, the vast majority of which will never be put into practice." As one Pentagon official tells [Duffy], "Planners always plan."

Nevertheless, the "planning" described in that piece, as well as Gardiner's piece, has taken on an all too realistic hue. As such, Kaplan gives a fair airing to the two most prominently voiced possibilities: First, that this is actually what it seems - the preparations for war with Iran (or advanced aerial strikes). Or, in the alternative, that this is saber rattling in order to compel sought after diplomatic concessions from Iran with respect to its nuclear program (which has been my theory).

To the Bush administration's credit, if this is really saber rattling, they're putting on a fine show of it. Enough to prompt a little nervous laughter on my part, with my previous confidence unsettled by the possibility that this isn't in fact an elaborate ruse.

Of course, it may not be as black and white as the two choices alluded to above would have it. As I have acknowledged all along, there are competing power nodes in the White House, and the rhetoric, planning, preparations and intentions could mean different things to different factions. Kaplan ponders this possibility, as well as the potential for a hybrid. Neither are particularly comforting:

This leads to a third possibility: that the Bush administration is trying to pressure the Iranians and really preparing to attack. The two are not mutually exclusive, especially since various factions within the administration are split on the issue. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems genuinely to be doing what secretaries of state tend to do—seek a diplomatic solution. Vice President Dick Cheney seems to be doing what he tends to do—heighten the confrontation.

Faced with internecine conflicts of this sort, President Bush has a striking tendency to avoid making a decision and to let the factions fight it out. It's possible, in other words, that the administration is playing both approaches—mobilizing as a tool of diplomatic pressure and mobilizing as an act of impending warfare—not as a coordinated strategy but as parallel actions, each of which will follow its inexorable course.

Once the weapons are in place, the airstrikes wouldn't follow automatically; the president would have to give the order. But if the attack is ready to go, and if the Iranians are still thumbing their noses, would this president call it off and start over? It's best not to face the situation to begin with. An attack, however tempting, would be a huge mistake, for several reasons.

It's a murky situation to say the least, and one fraught with peril. Any military confrontation with Iran would be a monumental blunder at this juncture, so this game of chicken (which is the best possible interpretation of events) is considerably risky. Still, I'll stay with my first impulse on this matter, and maintain that these events have more to do with saber rattling than actual war plans - although I admit that wishful thinking is taking on an increasingly pronounced role in this thought process.

And don't even get me started on what Matt calls the "Craziest Goddamn Thing I've Heard In a Long Time." Are there really two more years of this madness?

(hat tip to Kevin Drum, who has more)

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