Friday, January 26, 2007

How Can You Consciously Contemplate, When There's No Debate?

The Washington Post is passing along a deeply disturbing story concerning the change of posture that US forces in Iraq will assume vis-a-vis Iranian operatives in that country. The headline says it all: "US Force Authorized to Kill Iranian Operatives In Iraq."

Previously, US forces operated under rules of engagement that only permitted capture and release of Iranian elements. Since many of these Iranians are in Iraq at the behest of elements of the "sovereign" Iraqi government, and since there is no evidence of Iranian agents directly attacking US forces, or vice versa, this was deemed sufficient. Now, however, there is a potential for US forces to commence unprovoked, offensive operations against Iranian operatives.

It's hard to predict how this will play out on the ground, but this is a very dangerous game to be playing. For instance, would the two recent raids that resulted in the capture and detention of Iranians (one on a SCIRI compound in the south and one on a quasi-consular outpost in Erbil in the north) have been conducted differently under the auspices of this new policy? Would our forces have barged in guns blazing, without restraint, resulting in a body count?

Regardless, such an aggressive mandate serves to greatly increase the odds that tensions between the US and Iran escalate to critical mass through some bloody confrontation - or a series thereof. This would be one way to provoke a war with Iraq without the need to engage Congress or the American people on the merits. Unsurprisingly, the usual cast of characters in the Bush administration are pushing hard for the adoption of the most unrestrained version of this policy shift. From the article:

In Iraq, U.S. troops now have the authority to target any member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, as well as officers of its intelligence services believed to be working with Iraqi militias. The policy does not extend to Iranian civilians or diplomats. Though U.S. forces are not known to have used lethal force against any Iranian to date, Bush administration officials have been urging top military commanders to exercise the authority.

The wide-ranging plan has several influential skeptics in the intelligence community, at the State Department and at the Defense Department who said that they worry it could push the growing conflict between Tehran and Washington into the center of a chaotic Iraq war.

Senior administration officials said the policy is based on the theory that Tehran will back down from its nuclear ambitions if the United States hits it hard in Iraq and elsewhere, creating a sense of vulnerability among Iranian leaders. But if Iran responds with escalation, it has the means to put U.S. citizens and national interests at greater risk in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Two officials said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, though a supporter of the strategy, is concerned about the potential for errors, as well as the ramifications of a military confrontation between U.S. and Iranian troops on the Iraqi battlefield.

Officials said U.S. and British special forces in Iraq, which will work together in some operations, are developing the program's rules of engagement to define the exact circumstances for using force. In his last few weeks as the top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. sought to help coordinate the program on the ground. One official said Casey had planned to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a "hostile entity," a distinction within the military that would permit offensive action. [...]

Advocates of the new policy -- some of whom are in the NSC, the vice president's office, the Pentagon and the State Department -- said that only direct and aggressive efforts can shatter Iran's growing influence.

With aspects of the plan also targeting Iran's influence in Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, the policy goes beyond the threats Bush issued earlier this month to "interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria" into Iraq....

A senior intelligence officer was more wary of the ambitions of the strategy.

"This has little to do with Iraq. It's all about pushing Iran's buttons. It is purely political," the official said. The official expressed similar views about other new efforts aimed at Iran, suggesting that the United States is escalating toward an unnecessary conflict to shift attention away from Iraq and to blame Iran for the United States' increasing inability to stanch the violence there. [emphasis mine throughout]

Facing an increasingly hostile Congress - with members of his own Party breaking ranks - and staring down steadily plummeting approval ratings, President Bush surely appreciates that should he desire war with Iran, he will not be able to achieve it through a factually challenged PR campaign and fortuitously timed Congressional resolutions, as was the case with Iraq.

That doesn't mean that those clamoring for more war won't be trying to sell this one to the American people. Literally in some instances (via Laura Rozen). Further, to our nation's detriment, there is more than one way to achieve war with Iran if that is the desired outcome of the Commander-in-Chief - or at least if he is foolish enough to take the advice of those close advisers seeking such an outcome.

Along those lines, there is an unsettling parallel between the current approach and the run-up to the Iraq war (and the Bush administration's policy apparatus more generally speaking). As insiders and those with access to the White House have observed repeatedly, the Bush adminsitration doesn't work like its predecessors in that the policy process does not operate through a legitimate debate about options, with the strongest emerging from the rigors of the dialectic. Instead, a policy is chosen a priori, and then the arguments are "fixed" around that policy.

It is the marketplace of ideas turned on its head - and the results have been consistently disastrous.

The current ratcheting up of tensions with Iran is yet another way to cut off the debate, and render dissenting views moot. If the present policy is employed as aggressively as some in the Bush White House would like, then the hawks can just stretch out, wait and let nature take its course.

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