Once again, notably in the wake of this week’s annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference and the visit here of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, there’s a lot of chatter about a possible attack by Israel and/or the United States on Iran. Olmert appears to have left the White House (and a dinner with Cheney Tuesday evening before the prime minister’s meeting with Bush) quite satisfied on this score, while rumors — most recently voiced by Daniel Pipes — that the administration plans to carry out a “massive” attack in the window between the November elections and Bush’s departure from office, particularly if Sen. Obama is his successor, continue to swirl around the capital.
What to make of this? Is this real? Or is it psychological warfare designed to persuade Tehran that it really does face devastation if it doesn’t freeze its uranium enrichment program very, very soon and/or U.S. allies, Russia, and China that they have to put more pressure on Tehran or deal with the consequences of such an attack?
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve generally been sceptical of the many reports over the last two years that an attack — either Israeli or U.S. — was imminent, as those reports had often warned at the time of their publication. After the release of the December NIE, I, like just about everyone else, became even more doubtful that Bush would order an attack before leaving office (and I didn’t think the Israelis would mount an attack without a green light from Washington), in part because neo-conservatives, who had been and remain the most eager champions of military action, seemed to simply give up on Bush and, in any event, were not showing any signs of orchestrating a major new media campaign to mobilize public opinion in that direction, as they did in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
Since the abrupt resignation of Adm. Fallon as Centcom commander, which I saw as a major blow to the realist faction in the administration, and Cheney’s subsequent visit to the region, as I noted at the time, however, I’ve been increasingly concerned about the possibility of an attack, and the past week’s events have done nothing to allay that concern.
Let me just lay out a few items, other than those mentioned above, that I find disturbing.
First, there were Olmert’s very confident comments about “vanquish(ing) the threat” after his meeting with Bush Wednesday. “I left with a lot less question marks (than I had entered with) regarding the means, the timetable restrictions and America’s resoluteness ot deal with the problem,” he said after the meeting. This, of course, was the day after Olmert had told AIPAC, “The international community has a duty and responsibility to clarify to Iran, through drastic measures, that the repercussions of their continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will be devastating.” (Emphasis mine]. Now, this may just be the hawkishness of a politically besieged Israeli prime minister dishing up red meat for a hawkish AIPAC audience, but I don’t think it can be so easily dismissed (in contrast to the even more bellicose remarks this week of Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz whose domestic political motivations are much more clear and who is now being blamed for much of the historic jump in oil prices Friday).
Second, there is the “Cheney” role which is becoming more prominent. I am referring not only to Olmert’s dinner with Cheney Wednesday evening in which the two men reportedly addressed “operational subjects,” whatever that means. (Remember, it was Cheney’s top Middle East aide, David Wurmser, who, during the spring of 2007 when the realists were clearly in the driver’s seat, was shopping around to sympathetic think tanks a scheme — from which the vice president’s office was later forced to disassociate itself — for forcing Bush into war with Iran by getting Israel to launch a cruise missile attack on some Iranian nuclear facilities and counting on Tehran to retaliate against U.S. forces.) In other words, Wednesday’s dinner was not just a courtesy call; the Israelis clearly believe that Cheney is a player.
But I am also referring to another Cheney, namely Elizabeth, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, who, during the opening plenary session of the AIPAC conference last Monday, took every opportunity to attack the policies of her former boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Liz was particularly harsh on Rice’s pet project, the effort to gain at least a framework peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority before Bush leaves office, arguing that the Annapolis process was a waste of time compared to the importance of dealing with Iran in what she called a “zero-sum game.” “When we focus on that kind of arrangement (Israeli-Palestinian peace talks), we don’t have time to focus on Iran,” she declared, suggesting as well that Tehran’s leadership was not “rational” and that previous efforts to engage it had also been a waste of time, or worse. Iran needs to be convinced that if it doesn’t heed Security Council demands to halt enrichment, “they will face military action. We do not have the luxury of time,” she said to (surprisingly) scattered applause.
Third, Liz Cheney’s remarks should be seen in the context of a more concerted attack by the hawks on Rice of which the recent hatchet job by the Weekly Standard’s by Stephen Hayes, the vice president’s favorite reporter, was perhaps the most important piece. Hayes accused Rice of betraying the Bush Doctrine and focused much of his essay on her backing for Chris Hill’s negotiations over the past year with North Korea, on which the State Department has already been forced on the defensive. Now comes Liz’s top-to-bottom repudiation of Rice’s Middle East policy — from favoring Palestinian elections in 2006, to initiating the Annapolis Summit and then inviting Syria to attend it, to welcoming the Doha Agreement on Lebanon. All of which, she charged, had given Iran a “real choke hold on the region.”
Now, I don’t think there can be any question that the views of both Hayes and Liz reflect those of the vice president. Moreover, because their closeness to the vice president is so clear and unmistakable, the fact that these views are so harsh and so public suggests to me that Cheney feels more confident than he has felt for some time. Moreover, the campaign to discredit Rice seems to have hit its mark. Not only did she sound defensive in her own speech to AIPAC Tuesday morning, but she assumed a more-hawkish tone on Iran than she had previously. And, as noted by the New York Times, she was also markedly more doubtful about achieving even a framework agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians by the end of Bush’s term than ever before. (In fact, Bush and Olmert reportedly spent much more time during their meeting on Iran than on the Annapolis process, suggesting that the president, who has never been as committed to the process as Rice, had, in that meeting in any event, accepted Liz’s notion of a “zero-sum game” in which Iran should take precedence over Israel-Palestine.) In other words, there appears to be a major battle over Bush’s Middle East “legacy” (apart from Iraq) between Rice, who has hoped to redeem her own “legacy” by concluding some kind of a credible Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, and the Cheneys, who believe confrontation with Iran is inevitable and, in Liz’s words, “we do not have the luxury of time.” Judging from this past week’s events, I would have to say the Cheneys have gained some ground.
That does not mean they will prevail. Again, all of the hawkishness on display last week — including the dire warnings coming from Israeli officials both here and in Israel — may simply be psychological warfare aimed at Europe (where former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, for one, seems increasingly alarmed) and Iran. Moreover, recent statements by Gates about both gaining “leverage” with Iran and recognizing that “they (Tehran’s leadership) need something, too” and warnings by the U.S. Navy commander in the Gulf, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, that war with Iran would be “pretty disastrous” and that an “incidents-at-sea” agreement with Tehran was highly desirable (reprising Fallon’s efforts over the previous year) suggest that the Pentagon remains as opposed to an attack as ever. And, despite Bush’s own effective repudiation of last December’s NIE, the intelligence community is sticking doggedly by it, if recent statements by the deputy DNI can be relied upon. Then there is the price of oil, whose record jump on Friday following Mofaz’s bellicose warnings offered some idea of what the U.S. (and global) economy will face if the Cheney faction prevails on Bush to either greenlight an Israeli attack or launch one himself. So, even if Cheney neutralizes Rice in the battle for Bush’s mind — or gut — he still faces some formidable obstacles. But I think he has made some progress. La lutte continue.