The Fog of Selling a War


by Paul R. Pillar

The “fog of war,” about which Carl von Clausewitz wrote, refers to the confusion and lack of knowledge of what an adversary is up to on a chaotic battlefield. Currently, those promoting or welcoming a war with Iran are using a different kind of fog. It should be easier to see through the current war-selling fog than it was to see what was happening on smoke-filled battlefields of Clausewitz’s time. It only takes a little effort to do so. But that effort cuts against some common human tendencies, including inattention, fear, and a desire for revenge.

Much of the current war-selling fog is remarkably similar to the selling of the Iraq War of 2003, in which the sales campaign depended on fear and an unthinking thirst for revenge after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The apparent failure to have learned lessons from that blunder reflects another common human tendency, which is to focus narrowly on events of the moment while losing sight of context, background, and history, even recent history. The recent sabotage of tankers in the Gulf of Oman has led to a preoccupation with the question of whether Iran was the perpetrator—as if the answer to that question would provide a ready-made prescription for a policy response, which it doesn’t—with less attention paid to the more important question of why Iran might do such a thing. The clear answer is that Iran is responding directly to the Trump administration’s unlimited economic warfare campaign, saber-rattling, and other aspects of its “maximum pressure” policy.

An analogue in the Iraq War case was the preoccupation with the question of whether Iraq had so-called weapons of mass destruction—as if the answer to that question should have been enough to determine the right policy toward Iraq, which it didn’t. Even if the Iraqi regime had possessed the feared weapons, the Iraq War would have been just as much of a civil-war-inducing, region-destabilizing mess as it in fact was. (Actually, it would have been even messier and bloodier, because Saddam Hussein probably would have used such weapons in response to the U.S. invasion.)

An even more direct analogue with the selling of the Iraq War is the effort to associate the targeted regime with undisputed bad guys such as terrorists of the al-Qaeda ilk. Here the fog consists of playing upon confusion over what some “link” or “connection” between a group and a regime really means, no matter how nebulous or outdated any such connections may be. The makers of the Iraq War were so successful in exploiting this part of the fog that they induced a large proportion of the American public to believe that Saddam had been directly involved in the 9/11 attack. The would-be makers of a war with Iran evidently were so impressed with this success that they have copied this part of the Iraq War playbook almost verbatim. They also are using the issue to perform an end-run around Congress by claiming that a post-9/11 resolution authorizing force against al-Qaeda would apply to a war with Iran.

The use of this page of the playbook is just as fraudulent in the case of Iran as it was with Iraq. There is no evidence of Iran being an ally or operational partner of al-Qaeda or of offshoots such as the Islamic State. To the contrary, Iran has been a target and victim of attacks by such groups, including attacks in the heart of Iran. Iran has been the leading source of support to the government of Iraq in combating one of the more destructive ramifications of the U.S.-led war there, which was the emergence of the Islamic State.

Perhaps the most authoritative word on this subject comes from al-Qaeda members themselves as recorded in declassified documents seized in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The documents date from 2004 through the week of the raid in 2011. The documents say nothing about any terrorist collaboration between Iran and al-Qaeda. They say a great deal about antagonism and mistrust toward Iran on the part of the al-Qaeda members.

The specific story those members tell involves fleeing from Afghanistan to Iran out of “necessity” after the fall of the Taliban. Iranian authorities initially let them stay temporarily, under strict conditions that prohibited any communications with jihadists elsewhere. When the jihadists violated those conditions, Iran’s policy switched to one of arrests and deportations. The policy evolved further after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the resulting rapid rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group that under a changed name and different leadership became the Islamic State. According to the al-Qaeda record in the documents, Iran detained their “brothers” as a “bargaining chip.” Among the detainees were members of bin Laden’s family, held to put pressure on bin Laden himself. When Iran finally began releasing some of the detained jihadists in 2009, it was, according to the al-Qaeda account, because of the pressure the group exerted in return on Iran, including “the threats we made” and the kidnapping of the Iranian commercial counselor in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Amid the fog of war-selling, contradictions get overlooked and individual assertions become part of the mix. Thus, administration spokespersons can express with a straight face concern about Iran possibly exceeding limits of the same nuclear agreement that the Trump administration has itself blatantly violated and unremittingly trashed. The administration can both assert that sanctions have tamed aggressive Iranian behavior and claim that, amid the current tensions in the Persian Gulf, Iran is more aggressive than ever. And as Joe Cirincione and Mary Kaszynski observe, today’s warhawks assert that “somehow Iran is so powerful that it is the source of all evil in the Middle East, yet so fragile that a small cruise missile attack on an Iranian civilian nuclear plant will cause it to crumble.” (Herein is another analogue to the selling of the Iraq War—if you liked that cakewalk, how about another one?)

And amid the fog, roaring illogic gets overlooked. When asked about Iran indicating that, after more than a year of the United States reneging on its obligations under the nuclear agreement, Iran may start exceeding some of the limits on low-enriched uranium, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared, “This tells you how flawed the deal was, right?” The absurdity of that statement—attributing to an agreement a problem that directly results from a U.S. assault on the agreement—is breathtaking. But devoid of any context about what led to the current state of affairs, and how the agreement in question was working fine before the administration set about to destroy it, an utterance like Pompeo’s probably will sway some ill-informed minds.

As noted earlier, it does not require much effort to cut through this fog. It is up to editorial boards, other opinion leaders, and especially Congress to make that effort.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. George W. Bush invaded Iraq because that was what AIPAC wanted a and it’s the same this time but more. In the Bush administration, then Secretary of State Colin Powell was an unwilling advocate. This time the Secretary of State Pompeo has actually being one of the strongest proponents of war with Iran and is willing to go to any extent to have that war and make it possible . This time also factor in the butchers of Saudi Arabia and the financial impact they have now and in the future on our President and his family. Lest we forget their is John (Iran is responsible for everything going wrong in the world including weather patterns) Bolton .

  2. The ‘fog’ of selling a war may have a name though: Israel, a word that might have become rather unpronounceable these days in Washington and in many capitals including of course London which has not only quickly drunk on Pentagon explanations about Iran’s ‘evil-doing’ but that has also sent troops to the Persian Gulf at the side of the recent 1,000 added by the U.S. Except that objectively the only real change happening in the Middle East is the Shi’ite growth in power after the Bush big misdemeanour in Iraq, which as a logic consequence opened the doors to Iran in the region as new power-breaker player. And this was immediately registered by the Israeli army that is now feeling the heat… too many Shi’ite militias around… And many don’t have doubts, Israel is the most important factor playing in the minds of Bolton and Pompeo… Trump is trying to catch up although he needs to learn how to use little more complicated words, perhaps beyond the reach of a Tweeter player…

  3. What meant Clinton when speaking about “the new and dynamic Middle east”. Iraq war was part of a big puzzle sought for ME by US corp. Ltd. shareholders, then the dissolution of Iraq army to recruit for ISIS as a second SA in the region to reconcile with Israel as does SA already. Then they evacuated Iraq to let IS (or the “dynamic” part created by deep understanding and support of Arab leaders who attended the clinton’s course) do the job but the Iran meddling to save itself and Iraq spoiled the whole scenario. US came back to Iraq trying to keep the tide in favor of IS and when it became impossible they joined the Kurds in hope of a new managed instability source in the region. The failed independence of Iraqi Kurdistan was the next step. And now lacking a credible source of managed instability the US is forced to create another by the abolishment of JCPOA.
    See! It is not that much hard to understand!
    And now the US is appointed by God to save the Hormoz strait! Or manage the instability by her own!

  4. Thanks for the report on and link to the Nelly Lahoud article in Iran Source, Atlantic Council, Sept 12, 2018. Her tremendous translation and analysis work on the bin Laden archives deserves much credit and greater publicity.

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