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The moving target

March 1, 2007

In the runup to the 2004 presidential election and in its immediate aftermath, candidate Kerry, Congressman Jack Murtha and others in the opposition were vacillating on whether the current crisis in the Middle East rises to the Vietnam-era slur “quagmire.” Seymour Hersh’s latest New Yorker piece makes clear the word doesn’t come remotely close to the mess we’re in.

Let me explain.

The name administration and military officials are using in Iraq at the moment is “redirection.” And redirection, according to Hersh’s piece, means something like, now that we fear Shia-dominated Iran and Hezbollah even more than Al Qaeda, we’ve shifted to funding Al Qaeda indirectly, by supporting Sunni insurgents, and by antagonizing, and perhaps preparing to invade, Iran.

Hersh writes: “The U.S. has … taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”

Flynt Leverett, a former Bush Administration National Security Council official, tells Hersh, “This is all part of the campaign of provocative steps to increase the pressure on Iran. The idea is that at some point the Iranians will respond and then the Administration will have an open door to strike at them.”

Hersh quotes Bush from a January 10 speech: “Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We’ll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”

“In the following weeks,” Hersh continues, “there was a wave of allegations from the Administration about Iranian involvement in the Iraq war. On February 11th, reporters were shown sophisticated explosive devices, captured in Iraq, that the Administration claimed had come from Iran. The Administration’s message was, in essence, that the bleak situation in Iraq was the result not of its own failures of planning and execution but of Iran’s interference.”

[For a rebuttal of this case, see this.]

While the administration denies it’s planning for war with Iran, even key Republicans question this. Hersh quotes Senator Chuck Hagel’s rebuke to Condoleeza Rice:

“Some of us remember 1970, Madam Secretary. And that was Cambodia. And when our government lied to the American people and said, “We didn’t cross the border going into Cambodia,” in fact we did. I happen to know something about that, as do some on this committee. So, Madam Secretary, when you set in motion the kind of policy that the President is talking about here, it’s very, very dangerous.”

And with regard to potential indirect funding of Al Qaeda, the article points to things like this:

The United States has also given clandestine support to the Siniora government, according to the former senior intelligence official and the U.S. government consultant. “We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we’re spreading the money around as much as we can,” the former senior intelligence official said. The problem was that such money “always gets in more pockets than you think it will,” he said. “In this process, we’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don’t have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don’t like. It’s a very high-risk venture.”

American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.

Hersh’s pieces are always startling, but this one especially must be read. The analogies with Vietnam, made long ago and by Senator Hagel so recently, may only go so far.

The Bush administration went to Iraq after 9/11 to make sure Al Qaeda, who in fact had no ties there, could be stopped before they used Iraq as a base to attack the US. [And that attack could prove itself deadly with a mushroom cloud looming over it, was the rationale.] But the Al Qaeda presence, which the US invasion made come true, in the form of radical Sunnis sympathetic to Al Qaeda flooding into the country, is still what’s killing American soldiers most of all.

Only the Bush administration, seeing no progress, trampled at the polls, suddenly views Iran and Hezbollah (Shiites) as greater strategic threats. So–with virtually no debate (in utter secrecy, as Hagel suggests) and no evidence–we have a new enemy; not the groups who are kiling our boys in Iraq, but another group altogether. Incidentally, those who are killing our boys and who are tied most to the September 11th attacks are getting our indirect funding.

Vietnam was never that f*%^#ed up, was it? It’s no quagmire in Iraq; it’s a quagmire with a moving target.

And just as at the outset of the Iraq war, huge questions loom.

Does the Bush administration have evidence that Iranian-funded Shiites are killing US troops in Iraq? If so, does the Bush administration have the authorization to essentially make Iran the object of our next war? Hillary Clinton says no. But other questions are even fuzzier: Does the Bush administration have authorization from Congress for a proxy war with Iran? What’s to prevent the US military from sneaking across the border, as Hagel worries?

The administration is right to worry about Iran’s nuclear program; much of Europe and the Middle East is worried about it too (it has even united the Saudis and Israelis in a strategic alliance). But the problem suggests more clearly than ever how desperately the White House and the US needs new leadership–a new party at the helm. Congress should pass more than non-binding resolutions and, as they say, toothless rebukes. It looks now like they will.

The Bush administration, even talking about a legitimate potential nuclear threat, has absolutely zero credibility, and with Cheney pulling the strings, a lot could go wrong. The administration’s staggering incompetence and secrecy and failure to debate–to exchange perhaps workable ideas–should continue to alarm us all.

Especially since the way forward (when the target keeps moving, the enemy and rationales for fighting shifting) appears ever more remote, spectral, nebulous, futile and–to quote Hagel–very, very dangerous.

To read other blog entries by Joel Whitney or others at GUERNICA click HERE

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