Monday, November 8, 2010

Sliding Toward U.S.-Iran War

Leaders, not societies, cause wars, so any evaluation of the likelihood of war should pay close attention to the nature of the leaders. Concerning the question of whether or not a war may occur between the U.S. and Iran by mistake, the nature of the leaders is of particular concern.

One of the primary factors contributing to the health and functioning of a political system is the nature of the leadership. Attitude toward skeptics, attitude toward new information, attitude toward colleagues, and attitude toward tradition on the part of leadership and opposition circles in the U.S., Iran, and Israel suggest a degree of dysfunctionality serious enough so that it could provoke a U.S.-Iranian war by mistake. The Leadership Cohesiveness chart enumerates half a dozen continua along which a political leadership can be evaluated. These “continua” or “axes” constitute a set of lens that can be used to reveal how effectively the leaders of the U.S., Iran, and Israel can be expected to manage their respective countries’ national security. Several of these axes suggest that the leadership in the U.S., Iran, and Israel will in the next few years be increasingly exclusive, dogmatic, and scornful, posing severe obstacles to any effort to reevaluate strategies, cool tempers, or search for pragmatic positive-sum solutions in a negative-sum national security environment poisoned by the fear of terrorism, the fear of aggression, and religious prejudice.


On the other hand, some politicians apparently actually do want a war between the U.S. and Iran, as suggested by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham's barbaric ravings after the U.S. mid-term elections about "taking containment off the table" and "neuter[ing]" Iran.

Attitude Toward Skeptics. The more inclusive the attitude toward skeptics, the more likely a regime will be to give serious consideration to alternative perspectives, thus enhancing its ability to find a solution. In both Iran and Israel, an extreme right-wing regime rules with little evident interest in considering the opinions of actors outside the ruling faction. The present U.S. regime appears much more inclusive, but its policy toward Iran over the past two years has in substance closely adhered to the Neo-Con handbook for intimidating adversaries, and the recent electoral defeat appears likely to strengthen that bias. In none of these countries, does a conciliatory attitude offering the adversary genuine accommodation appear likely to gain even a fair hearing, much less become official policy.

Attitude Toward New Information.  Both stress and ideological commitment are likely to impair the receptivity of leaders to new information that challenges their belief structure. In the U.S. the heating up of the political environment resulting from the combination of unusual levels of hostility between the parties, the approach of the presidential election, and intense factionalism within the Republican Party seem likely to constitute increasingly severe obstacles to open-minded analysis, a trend that can be expected to intensify if the extremist (judging from their rhetoric) Tea Party advocates gain further power. The emergence of a moderate cross-party faction would of course alter this prognosis but currently appears unlikely. In the aftermath of the failure of the Brazilian-Turkish nuclear initiative, the domestic repression of moderates following Ahmadinejad’s reelection, the uncompromising attitude of senior clerics supporting Khamenei, the steady rise in the power of the (anti-Saddam) War Generation, and the failure of Obama to make a convincing case that his administration is ready to deal with Iran in a fair manner, it is likely to take a great deal of new information indeed to overcome Iranian distrust of the U.S. and to make a conciliatory attitude toward the U.S. politically viable in Iran. As for Israel, the rising tide of fascism appears so far to face virtually no serious, organized opposition: rising settler violence with police support; Netanyahu’s successful and publicly insulting defiance of Obama combined with Obama’s timid retreat; the collapse of the Israeli left; the weakening of Israeli democracy and strengthening of overtly racist laws all suggest a declining willingness to consider new information.

Attitude Toward Colleagues:  In all three countries, public rhetoric is enflamed and attitudes toward colleagues in other factions or parties hostile to the point of undermining domestic political stability. In both Israel and Iran, armed groups are using violence to make political points, while demonstrations are held to provoke opponents in ways reminiscent of Ireland in years past. In the U.S., be it accusations that Democrats opposing the neo-con wars were somehow unpatriotic, insulting remarks about Obama, or Tea Party attitudes toward violence as a political tool (also here on immigration and here for a general review), evidence of a breakdown in the norms of political behavior is mounting, as well. Congressional behavior in the health care debate also suggests an increasingly contemptuous attitude toward colleagues based on an assumption that winning, rather than making good policy decisions, has become the primary goal of many.

Attitude Toward Tradition:  Rising racism at the center of the Israeli regime is a clear challenge to the Israeli tradition of democracy. In Iran the post-revolutionary tradition of clerical control is being challenged by the military. In the U.S., a whole range of traditions—protection of U.S. civil liberties, non-use of nuclear arms for aggression against non-nuclear powers, “empire-lite” by persuasion rather than overt invasion—have been undermined since 9/11. In all three countries, tradition is becoming a weaker and weaker bulwark against sudden, emotional shifts in behavior.

The U.S./Israeli/Iranian Ca
To the degree that skeptics are excluded from the debate, new information is viewed with a dogmatic attitude, colleagues are treated with scorn, and traditional values are challenged, policy becomes the captive of the emotional tide of the moment. With numerous political actors in each country pouring gasoline on the fires of national security fears for a host of personal and ideological reasons, massive nontraditional military moves (Israeli threats of aggression against Iran, U.S. armada in the Persian Gulf and its huge Mideast/Central Asian archipelago of new military bases surrounding Iran, and the Iranian nuclear program), and a continuing jihadi effort to provoke civilizational confrontation, the danger of a U.S.-Iranian war by mistake seems only likely to increase in the absence of a fundamental shift in strategic thinking.

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