Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

To nuke or not to nuke: Bush decides

There will be an attack; that much is already assumed in Washington. Whether it should be nuclear is a matter of intense debate. The verdict may depend upon the wild card of the president's Messianic complex.

by Andrew Stephen

New Statesman Cover story (April 17 2006)

So the Third World War is imminent and the madman in the White House bunker is about to nuke Iran. That, at least, is the message from the veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker. The American media, however, seem far less concerned than the British: on the morning the story was making headlines in the UK, Iran did not even make the front pages of the Washington Post or New York Times. "Military fantasies on Iran", a New York Times editorial sniffed on 11 April.

So who is right? Is this news or not? It depends on your point of departure. This may surprise people in Britain, but Washington is already working from the assumption that the US will launch some form of conventional-weapon attack on Iran during this presidency. That much is not news here. Indeed, the Bush administration is assuming that when that attack happens it will have the support of Britain and Australia.

Nuclear weapons, however, are another matter. Whether they might be used against Iran is a critical issue in the struggle under way between foreign-policy pragmatists and ideological zealots. Washington is divided between these two camps, of which the former is by far the bigger. It consists of sensible people inside the administration itself, the State Department, CIA, Pentagon and the powerful think-tanks, and its numbers are growing exponentially as the president's incompetence becomes undeniable to all but the most fanatical. Every day brings more defections. Even Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, has fallen out with Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, and is on the verge of abandoning the ideological ship - just as Colin Powell did in private over Iraq, but not publicly until it was far too late.

The second Washington faction is tiny, but unstable and dangerous. It consists of a tiny handful of people. Only last month, after watching the German film Downfall, I wrote of the White House as a bunker, because that is what it is like: Bush, Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, attended by a dwindling band of neoconservatives, sit in their bunker, increasingly detached from reality, still insisting on viewing the world and plotting its course as they choose to do, unhindered by inconvenient realities. (American readers: I am not saying that Bush is like Hitler, but referring to the bunker mentality.)

The first faction overwhelmingly agrees with the British, French and German view that Iran must be isolated diplomatically rather than militarily, and it is solidly behind the tough UN Security Council statement of 29 March on Iran. Its members are terrified, however, that in the meantime the madmen in the bunker will lose it completely. Jack Straw is echoing their view when he says it is "completely nuts" to think that the United States is contemplating a pre-emptive nuclear strike; his conduit into the Bush administration is the increasingly marginalised Rice - in effect now a member of faction number one.

The second faction ... well, who can peer into the mind of George W Bush? I doubt if the 43rd president himself knows whether the US will launch nuclear missiles at Iran. (It would be reassuring, by the way, to add that the Democrats comprise a third influential faction, except that these days they barely figure on Washington's political map.)

The uncertainties leave a vacuum between pessimists and optimists. There are many, including people at the United Nations, who believe that Bush can and will press the nuclear button. Yet a clear majority in Washington believes that an all-powerful establishment, from the might of the top brass at the Pentagon to the consensus wisdom of practically every senior politician, will prevail against even an out-of-control president.

We cannot be totally confident that Sy Hersh has got it completely right, either. The 69-year-old reporter is rightly admired for his countless scoops, from the My Lai massacre in 1968 to the Abu Ghraib outrages 35 years later. But he has also made mistakes: he had to write a 3,000-word retraction for the New York Times in 1981 after getting the Pinochet coup in Chile hopelessly wrong, and in 1997 he was fooled by faked documents purporting to tell all about the relationship between JFK and Marilyn Monroe.

Yet perhaps most pertinent in this context is that Hersh is close to Israeli intelligence. Disinformation from Mossad fuelled the US neo-cons' miscalculations over Iraq, and Israel has a clear interest in persuading Bush to strike first against a country that threatens to be a nuclear rival in the Middle East. It could be provoking the ideological struggle in Washington in the hope that the publicity itself might prove self-fulfilling.

There are two main areas where I, too, disagree with Hersh's interpretation. First, he makes much of the United States already having covert agents in Iran. But who could be surprised by that? The US, after all, has covert agents operating in London, Paris and Rome, and it has been interfering in Iran's internal affairs for decades.

Second, Hersh provides highly plausible detail about US contingency plans for using nuclear missiles on Iranian sites such as the uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. My information, differing slightly from his, is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff did present the White House with a strategy to nuke Iran - but with the strong recommendation that it should not be carried out. That such a strategy existed, moreover, should be no surprise, as drawing up such things - contingency planning - is one of the things the Pentagon exists to do. I e-mailed a senior defence and intelligence analyst friend here about just this point, and will quote his reply verbatim because it precisely conveys the mindset inside the Pentagon:

"The Defence Department commonly works up plans for all kinds of contingencies. The Department would not be doing its duty if it were not examining all kinds of contingency plans. Only a tiny minority of the Department's contingency plans ever become the basis for action. Plans are even done on occasion not because they are going to be used, but to demonstrate that certain ideas are impractical or unwise, or to show ourselves we are thoroughly prepared to prevail in a designated contingency. In my opinion, this news is a tempest in a pot of tea."

Then I asked a former senior nuclear strategist with Nato about the practicalities of the US launching nuclear strikes against 400 separate sites, most of them underground, in Iran. His answer was blunt. "The only nuclear weapon that might penetrate a little before exploding is the B-61 bomb", he said. "If you penetrate a bunker, you create a Chernobyl. The fallout would spread all over the Middle East and who knows where else." There were too many targets, the Shias and Hezbollah would make Iraq even more hellish than it is, and the price of oil would immediately rise to more than $100 a barrel.

So that, one would assume, settles it. Here are two experts who know as much as anybody in the world about nuclear weapons as tactical deterrents, and they make the idea seem insane. But the second man, now safely out of Nato and the Pentagon, also said darkly that the Bush administration's denials over Iran sound horribly like its pre-2003 denials over Iraq. There are midterm elections coming up in November, he noted, and, although not all military men are right-wing hawks, not by any means, "Bush is a jackass who needs to prove his manhood".

Here we come full circle, back to the struggle being fought in Washington. The dominant view, including from the Pentagon, is that nuclear strikes against Iran would be disastrous, militarily and politically. Yet there remains the terrifying wild card of what Hersh so rightly calls Bush's Messianic complex.

It is a sign of how dangerous the situation has become that the current focus on the possibility of a nuclear attack actually makes the prospect of a conventional strike seem like a soft option.

Inside the bunker, Rumsfeld has already written off Rice (and, in effect, Straw), dismissing her admission that the Bush administration has made thousands of mistakes in Iraq. "I don't know what she was talking about, to be perfectly honest", he said, adding that her comments probably reflected "a lack of understanding ... of what warfare is about". She's only a woman, you see, and one now tainted irrevocably by all those commies in the State Department.

But he-men like himself and Bush and Cheney are made of sterner stuff, ready to nuke the world if they have to do that to save it, whatever the wimps outside the bunker may say. Whether the increasingly united Washington establishment will let those hunkering down in the bunker prevail is a different matter.

Copyright New Statesman 1913 - 2006

Bill Totten


  • Actually our president really has no choice. Its either harm the nucleur facilities in Iran with deep tactical nukes OR let Israel nuke them with 50 10Megaton nukes.

    Which would you prefer if you were president?


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:43 AM, April 24, 2006  

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