In August 2001 I arrived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a job. A few weeks later the 9/11 attacks occurred. I lived in the KSA for the next five years as the Afghan and Iraq wars unfolded. I rode to work every day with a young Canadian who insisted that the US would never invade Iraq. I told him again and again that it was clear that their rhetoric proved that the administration had already decided to do so. He insisted that their wild rhetoric was meaningless, symbolic, political posturing. I insisted that it was laying the groundwork for war…
This being the 10th anniversary of our invasion of Iraq, the media (in which I include commentators on this site) is engaged in a great deal of reflection on that tragic event. At the same time, discussion of the very real, ongoing efforts by some to lay a groundwork for military action against Iran seem to be getting less attention. That is a pity, because if we hope to defuse the Iranian issue peacefully, the time to get to work is right now. The struggle to confront S RES 65 is a good place to start.
The Bush administration was able to move this country to war in Iraq largely because it manipulated symbols and language in powerful (albeit highly dishonest) ways. Of course they had a huge head start because of the existing negative stereotypes of Arabs and of Islam that have been present in western culture since the middle ages. In other words, it wasn’t a set of real facts that convinced the country to back the Bush invasion, it was a set of evocative images that were woven together into a seductively plausible (but as it turned out, utterly false) narrative.
In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration conflated the symbol of Osama Bin Laden with the symbol of Saddam Hussein. Having succeeded in that, every drop of Ricin was made to seem equal to a million dead Americans. Every potential “threat” (you know, like someone setting their underwear or shoes on fire next to you on a plane) was another potential 9/11. A model plane powered by a lawnmower engine was a threat that could cross the Atlantic, all white powder became anthrax, and so on. Similarly, if congress or other branches of the government agreed to vague assertions (such as those listed in S RES 65) they became “facts of record.” So Cheney could cite Wolfowitz, who would cite Rice, who would cite Powell, who would cite Rumsfeld, who would cite the President, who would cite Cheney,… Needless to say, we never got good facts—or really any facts— from this process. Yet it was, and remains, a powerful example of how symbols can be manipulated to produce political actions that kill real people in a real world. In short, our debacle in Iraq was the direct result of the manipulation of “symbols.”
Unfortunately, many comments on the Iran war issue and on S RES 65 that I have seen on this site and elsewhere reflect a disturbing inability on the part of some parties to understand how language, symbols and politics all work to mobilize action in the real world.
As Professor Edward Said pointed out, “Orientalism” (the systemic tendency to represent eastern cultures in derogatory ways determined by the norms of western cultures) is often simply a system of citation. In other words, you plant a lie in your own media and then refer to it incessantly until it becomes accepted as “truth.” In S RES 65, there are several such self-referential assertions. Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas are all terrorist organizations because we (the Senate or some administration official) has previously said they are. And maybe they are, but if the only evidence is an assertion to that affect by a congress that so clearly takes its marching orders from the AIPAC lobby, then excuse me if I am skeptical. Our march to war in Iraq began in much the same way.
In fact, to my mind, the most serious lasting harm that comes from symbolic gestures like S RES 65 (that according to some have ‘no real standing in law’) is that they plant a false narrative in the official thinking of our government on issues like war and peace. When assertions like this gain the force of historical record, the whole process of real academic discourse—the search for real facts and rigorous analysis— becomes a travesty.
So those who have been minimizing the practical implications of S RES 65 are dead wrong, mainly because they share a dangerously skewed view of the power of symbols in politics. Symbols—and the power to control them—are a real political force. Consider the discussion we are having about Iran on the “Native” and the “Flashcat” streams here on the Daily Kos. One writer seized on my assertion that Iran has been behaving as a “rational actor.”
My stress on the fact that the Iranian leadership has largely behaved like a “rational actor” is my response to the fact that for years folks in AIPAC and other Islamophobic forces (and I include our former president in that group) have tried very hard to portray the Iranian leadership as a bunch of “Mad Mullahs” who would be happy to get a single bomb—at an enormous cost to their nation— and then fire that single, untested weapon at Israel on an unreliable delivery system. In other words, that they will act in a violently irrational and nationally suicidal way because they long for martyrdom.
Alternatively, so the same narrative goes, they MIGHT be willing to pack that same bomb into the camel bags of any passing terrorist who happens to wander by. Both scenarios are absurd—yet groups like AIPAC have been very successful in making them symbolically real to many Americans. Serious policy decisions can (and have been) based on exactly this kind of symbolic reworking of reality. Didn’t you all watch the early GOP primary debates? They really believe this stuff.
So the fact that we are talking about who is “rational” and who is “not rational” is an example of how far the symbolic narratives of AIPAC have distorted the shape of the real debate we should be having. I didn’t explicitly question the rationality of the US or Europe or Israel simply because their “rationality” has never been on the table in the same way that the “rationality” of the Iranian leadership has been. (More’s the pity…)
A real debate on the Iranian nuclear issue would involve questioning whether the basic assertion underlying this whole messy debate even comes close to holding water: that is the assertion that the acquisition by Iran, of a nuclear weapon, would be “unthinkable.” It is similar to the popular belief, prior to the Iraq war, that it was “unthinkable” that Iraq DIDN’T have WMDs.
Let’s all think about the “unthinkable” about Iran for a minute.
As a rational actor, one with many threats on its various borders (some of them nuclear), Iran would probably never dream of actually launching a nuclear warhead at Israel, a country which is 1,000 miles away. To do so would be ‘assured unilateral destruction’ (and I do hope that AUD becomes as popular an acronym as MAD was). First of all, 1,000 miles is the extreme range for any existing Iranian missile. Their missile systems are not very reliable and their “nuclear warhead” exists only in the realm of hypothesis. It would be a shot in the dark.. Iran would immediately cease to exist under a hail of Israeli warheads (they have over 300 hundred now by most counts.) At last count, even with all the uranium that Iran has enriched to date, they might (in time if all goes well) be able to produce a couple of warheads (one at least has to go for testing)—and after that they might be able to produce about a warhead a year… firing off one of their two or maybe three warheads would virtually disarm them.
So logically, if Iran should actually obtain a weapon, they will not squander it on offense--they test it to show they have it and then hold on to it for an extreme circumstance… It would be a great DEFENSIVE weapon for them because it would make Israel and the US seriously reconsider the notion that they could launch a casual set of airstrikes with impunity. We also might be less casual about keeping our carrier groups in the Gulf and the threat such a weapon would pose to nearby Saudi Arabian oil ports (and to US And European interests) is obvious. As to Israel, Iran simply has no real interests at stake there that make it anywhere close to being a worthwhile target for Iran. Iran issues verbal threats against Israel mostly in order to irk the US –and as a way of slyly pointing out to its Sunni Arab rivals how badly they have failed in protecting the rights of Palestinians.
The right question to ask then is: Should we risk (or let Israel risk) a pre-emptive strike with nuclear implications just in order to deprive Iran of the ability to defend itself? Wow. That would be a really bad precedent and stretch the notion of pre-emption beyond defensibility.
In other words, in the context of this real argument that I have just suggested, the word “CONTAINMENT” would figure prominently. So why doesn’t this word appear in what some folks try to insist are purely “symbolic” discussions? If “symbolic” discussions are indeed as benign as some writers have suggested, wouldn’t that be a perfectly safe place for them? The AIPAC, Irano-phobic, Islamophobic, argument clearly says that it’s not. Why? Because contrary to some denials of the fact, symbolic discussions do matter very much in shaping agendas and conversations that at some point become the basis for policy and action. As I have just pointed out “Mad Mullahs” have been ruled “in” and “containment” has been ruled out.
Now, the reason S RES 65 is so clearly part of an effort to soften up the US political terrain and make it more amenable to a war with Iran is that the wording of S RES 65 slyly shifts from ‘supporting our president’s intention to stop Iran from a acquiring a “nuclear weapon”’ to stopping it from “acquiring a nuclear weapon capability.” If that is not a determined effort to lower the bar for action, I don’t know what is. Let me quote from the testimony of David Clapper, Director of National Intelligence as explained by Trita Parsi on a recent Huffington Post Blog:
“Clapper indirectly explains why efforts by the Israeli Prime Minister and the U.S. Congress to draw a red line for war at the point where Iran would have the "capability" to build nuclear weapons is unwise. In short, Clapper indicates that Iran already is there. Drawing this red line would mean war. The Director of National Intelligence writes:
“Tehran has developed technical expertise in a number of areas -- including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles -- from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons. These technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.” (my emphasis)
So bingo, the “purely symbolic” language of S RES 65 becomes an (almost) actionable document. All you need to do is take the same language and the same lame arguments back to the spineless politicians who already signed it and say “now put your money where your mouth is—or face the ensuing recriminations about how you are not true to your word.” That’s hardly a scenario any politician would relish. My simple point is that these supposedly “purely symbolic statements” matter, and they matter very much.
No in all, about seven “Whereas” clauses in S RES 65 simply take wild statements by various Iranians and pose them as “the real intentions of the current regime.” They no more reflect the “real intentions” of Iran any more than the statements over the last year by the likes of Michelle Bachman and Louis Gomert reflect the real intentions of the Obama administration. Nevertheless, approval of them by a majority of the Senate helps turn their symbolic value into something much more durable—and eventually—actionable.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the fact that, even in the much wider public debate that took place during the lead-up to the Iraq war, some arguments would seemingly disqualify people from any consideration as “real” commentators. It seemed pretty clear to me that to be taken seriously at all in the mainstream debate, one needed to pay lip service to certain kinds of “common wisdom.” So just as we apparently can’t talk seriously today about the “containment” of Iran if it should go nuclear, we couldn’t during the run up to the Iraq War, even admit the possibility that Iraq DIDN’T HAVE ANY WMDs AT ALL. I remember reading article after article, even by people who were passionately against our invasion, that immediately ceded the point that “of course Iraq had WMDs!”
And of course functional WMDs were never found…
So that kind of false premise helped shape the whole debate. And of course given all the other “purely symbolic” softening of the political terrain that had already taken place, the argument against the necessity for a war with Iraq was an easy one to lose. All in all, looking at the record, anyone who is complacent about the kind of tactics deployed by AIPAC in S RES 65 should take a long hard look at their assumptions.
I also hope that those who agree with my position here will take the time to write their Senators and urge them to hold the line against S RES 65.