Lieberman Uses Iraq Arguments on Iran

Senator Joseph Lieberman’s speech on Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington DC laid out his vision for “The Future of American Power in the Middle East” and echoed his calls to action from 2001 to 2003 when he, as a member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, made the case for the invasion of Iraq.

While Lieberman’s speech hit on many neoconservative talking points — for example, the argument that Israel will act unilaterally against Iran if the U.S. fails to act first– several of the arguments presented at CFR were eerily reminiscent of his rhetoric in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

In his speech Wednesday, Lieberman warned of the dangers of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and the possibility of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.

He said:

It goes without saying that Iran’s illicit nuclear activities implicate broader global interests of the United States as well — foremost the international nuclear nonproliferation regime. As President Obama has repeatedly warned, a nuclear Iran could drive other states in the region to seek to acquire their own atomic arsenals. And, have no doubt: the more nuclear-proliferated the Middle East becomes, the greater the odds that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists who will try to use them against the U.S.

On March 20, 2003, Lieberman issued similar warnings about Saddam Hussein passing his weapons of mass destruction — which turned out to be nonexistent — to terrorists.

At that time, he said:

What we are doing here is not only in the interest of the safety of the American people. Believe me, Saddam Hussein would have used these weapons against us eventually or given them to terrorists who would have. But what we are doing here, in overthrowing Saddam and removing those weapons of mass destruction and taking them into our control, is good for the security of people all over the world, including the Iraqi people themselves.

Warning that Iran’s motivation for acquiring nuclear weapons is to “remake” the Middle East, Lieberman told the CFR audience that:

The Iranian regime’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability cannot be separated from its long-term campaign of unconventional warfare, stretching back decades, to destabilize the region and remake it in its own Islamist extremist image.

The same warning of a revolutionary power in the Middle East which threatens both the U.S. and its Arab and Israeli allies was voiced by Lieberman in a September 13, 2002 floor statement in which he said:

Every day Saddam remains in power is a day of danger for the Iraqi people, for Iraq’s neighbors, for the American people, and for the world. As long as Saddam remains in power, there will be no genuine security, and no lasting peace in the Middle East among the Arab nations, or between the Arabs, Israelis, and Christians who live there.

On Wednesday, Lieberman also said that the U.S. is at risk of losing credibility with its regional allies if it fails to use its overwhelming military force again Iran.

Some have suggested that we should simply learn to live with a nuclear Iran and pledge to contain it. In my judgment, that would be a grave mistake. As one Arab leader I recently spoke with pointed out, how could anyone count on the United States to go to war to defend them against a nuclear-armed Iran, if we were unwilling to go to war to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran? Having tried and failed to stop Iran’s nuclear breakout, our country would be a poor position to contain its consequences.

I also believe it would be a failure of U.S. leadership if this situation reaches the point where the Israelis decide to attempt a unilateral strike on Iran. If military action must come, the United States is in the strongest position to confront Iran and manage the regional consequences. This is not a responsibility we should outsource. We can and should coordinate with our many allies who share our interest in stopping a nuclear Iran, but we cannot delegate our global responsibilities to them.

Similar warnings were issued by Lieberman in an October 29, 2001 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, in which he wrote:

Throughout this war, we should remember three things: America is very strong; more than 3,000 Americans have been killed by terrorists; and, in the end, we — not our coalition partners — have the moral obligation to determine our response to terrorism.

That is why it is imperative that we hold firm to the Bush Doctrine: to be unshakable in our support for allies who are steadfast, and unyielding in our challenges to those who are not; to be uncompromising in our demands that countries like Syria and Iran end their support of terrorism before we open our diplomatic and economic doors to them; and to be unflinching in our determination to remove a uniquely implacable enemy and terrorist, Saddam Hussein, from power before he strikes at us with weapons of mass destruction.

And he concluded his CFR speech by hearkening back to Woodrow Wilson’s attempts to frame American interests in the context of a broader international system and the consequences of American isolationism, saying:

Iran presents us with daunting and difficult challenges. By now, I suspect, some of you may be getting wistful for the days of Woodrow Wilson when discussions about America and the Middle East could focus on Persian poetry. But before you get too wistful—also remember that those were the days when the principal strategic challenge confronting the President of the United States was a great power conflict in the heart of Europe between Germany and her neighbors—a conflict of nationalistic hatreds and geopolitical rivalries that twice ignited into world war and claimed the lives of tens of millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of Americans.

In an October 7, 2002 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Lieberman concluded his remarks about “Post-Saddam Iraq” with a similar reference to Wilson.

In his address to Congress on April 2, 1917, asking for a declaration of war, President Wilson said, “We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts: for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments…for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”

We won that war. But we lost the peace. We lost it because America was not ready to take on the international responsibility that Wilson understood we must accept to secure the peace. We learned the folly of that withdrawal and isolationism as instability and despair created fertile soil for fascism and eventually another world war.

Lieberman, much like his neoconservative fellow travelers who we have mentioned in recent weeks (see our posts on appeasement and reverse linkage), is using the same talking points and arguments to justify yet another preemptive war in the Middle East. On Wednesday at CFR he argued that: Iran is a grave threat to U.S. interests since Iranian nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists; the Iranian mullahs seek to remake the Middle East and destroy U.S. allies; U.S. credibility in the region hangs on whether we are willing to act militarily; and that a failure to act will lead to the same disastrous consequences as when the U.S. adopted an isolationist foreign policy after World War I.

While it was surely unintentional, the parallels to his arguments for the invasion of Iraq under the false pretenses that Saddam Hussein was hiding a chemical weapons program are unmistakable.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. The senator from Israel has his say before the CFR. Surprise, surprise.

  2. Reluctantly, I take my hat off to Lieberman for his skillful use of words (I’ve spent the last three days interviewing job candidates, and separating those who can talk the talk from those who can walk the walk).

    There’s actually nothing wrong with the first quotation from his CFR speech (unless you’re convinced that Iran’s nuclear research and development is SOLELY peaceful).

    It’s what he doesn’t say that you have to focus on – and that makes it more difficult to rebut his arguments. He doesn’t mention the threat to Middle East stability posed by Israel’s nukes, not that I would have expected him to. We have to introduce that subject, and then withstand the accusations that it’s not the same thing, that we’re changing the subject, etc.

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