Monday, April 10, 2006

Not just wagging the dog
By now, everyone should have at least heard of Seymour Hersh's scary article in the New Yorker. If you've only read summaries or excerpts from it, you really should go read the whole thing. It's not that long. If you haven't read or heard of it, Hersh says that the Bush administration is planning for war with Iran, not merely planning for contingencies, which every administration should do, but actually planning for a bombing campaign in the near future to destroy their nuclear capabilities and bring about regime change. They are seriously considering using tactical thermonuclear weapons to get at some of Iran's underground research facilities. The most frightening thing about the article is that Seymour Hersh has a record of being right about these things.

Some bloggers on the left are looking at this a wagging the dog stunt aimed at next fall's election. While I think that Bush is also wagging the dog, I think that we make a mistake of underestimating just how insane Bush is if we look at this as only wagging the dog. Keep in mind that while Bush used the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in a wagging the dog manner during the 2002 mid-term election, the election wasn't his primary reason for the war, or even in his top three reasons (the top three were: he wanted to be the guy who got rid of Saddam, some neo-con nonsense about making the Middle-east a happy land of flowers and ponies, and he really, really wanted to be the guy who got rid of Saddam). Bush was planning that war long before he was appointed president. The 2002 election and 9/11 merely provided the convenient time and excuse to have it.

Wagging the dog used to be called social imperialism. The idea was that a leader would engage in foreign adventures in order to distract the public from domestic problems. That is, it was imperialism for purely social reasons, as opposed to economic or strategic reasons. Of course, in classical social imperialism the foreign adventure is supposed to be successful. The leader's successes abroad were supposed to eclipse his failures at home.

Bush has managed to turn that formula on its head. If Iraq is social imperialism, it works by being a failure so large that it makes his failures at home look insignificant in comparison. My Dad had a theory that the best treatment for a headache was a swift kick in the knee. Your knee would hurt so bad that you would forget about your headache. We always went to Mom when we had a headache.

Iran is even less likely to work as social imperialism than Iraq did. Are we supposed to forget about his last failed foreign adventure by going on an even bigger foreign adventure that is even less likely to succeed?

Bush became president with a very short and unimaginative agenda. After using his position to reward and enrich his cronies and supporters, he only had two items on which to base his historic legacy: he wanted to cut taxes and get rid of Saddam. Neither of those has worked out very well for him.

This is where I go all psychological on you. Many writers have commented on Bush's messianic streak. The shock of 9/11 was something a transforming moment for Bush. He seems to truly believe that he is on a mission from God to rid the world of evil-doers and heal the Middle-east. This alone makes him a frighteningly dangerous man. However, Bush is also an incompletely reformed alcoholic. While he may be dry, he has never dealt with the cause of his addiction. Such addictive people often turn to another destructive addiction.

Bush is behaving like a problem gambler. One type of problem gambler doesn't just play games of chance or continue long after they should stop; these problem gamblers escalate their bets beyond all reason. Their response to losing a bet isn't to stop or play more cautiously; it's just the opposite. They make their bets larger in hopes of scoring one big win that will wipe out all of their past losses and propel them to the top. Look at Bush's Iran strategy through that lens.

According to Hersh, the Bush team is planning to go to war with a much larger power than Iraq using our now run-down army. Where Iraq was a country deeply divided by religion, language, and culture, Iran has a large majority united by one of the oldest and proudest nationalisms on the planet and a comparatively small (though not insignificant) minority problem. Invading Iran could have disastrous results in the Muslim world leading the radicalization of millions of new terrorists and causing the fall of the few moderate or friendly governments in the region. Rather than helping Israel, it could encourage Arabs to attack Israel in retaliation. War in the Persian Gulf would inevitably cause oil prices to spike. Using nuclear weapons in a first strike would alienate our last allies in the west and certainly end any kind of arms talks anywhere else in the world. Along with oil prices spiking, there is a very real possibility that the rest of the world would respond with economic boycotts.

But a gambler doesn't look at the downside. A gambler only looks at the possible winnings. War might be a Gordian knot* cutting blow that forces the Middle-east to change its ways. A humiliating blow against the Iranian government might cause the Iranian people to overthrow the government and install a nice pluralistic democracy. A big macho display of American power might convince others of the inadvisability of fighting and lead them to find peaceful solutions to their problems. It might turn out that the Mullahs were the real source all the world's terrorism and getting rid of them will simply turn off the spigot of bad guys. With the terror ended and everyone in the Middle-east making nice, prosperity will come to the region, oil prices will go down for consumers, and business opportunities will open up Bush's friends. Everyone will finally realize that George Bush was the only one with the strength and foresight to do what needed to be done. Then won't all those liberal peaceniks be sorry they were mean to him? And, oh yeah, the Republicans will win in November and rule forever and ever, amen.

In his own mind, Bush has plenty of reasons for betting the farm on another, bigger war. He would want this war even if the Republicans were in great shape for the election. Wagging the dog is the least of our worries.

* Ironically, Gordia is the ancient name for Kurdistan.

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