The Dems Need an Iran Strategy ASAP

Democrats are almost giddy about their prospects of winning the presidency and increasing their majorities in the House and Senate. In fact, in the November/December 2007 issue of Mother Jones magazine, Simon Rosenberg and Peter Leyden of the New Democrat Network even predict a 50-year shift of power to Democrats.

Democrats are almost giddy about their prospects of winning the presidency and increasing their majorities in the House and Senate. In fact, in the November/December 2007 issue of Mother Jones magazine, Simon Rosenberg and Peter Leyden of the New Democrat Network even predict a 50-year shift of power to Democrats.

Due to the near-complete collapse of conservative ideas and policies, Democrats have an opening and perhaps even a strong hand to play, but they are underestimating the Republican trump card and Bush’s willingness to play it — national security. In fact, Democrats are woefully unprepared for what is likely to happen between now and next November.

The last three federal elections have been decided on security issues, with the Republicans winning two of them. Even in 2006, with the Iraq war collapsing around the Republicans, according to a Quinlin Greenberg poll, 22 percent of voters said “protecting America from terrorism” was their No. 1 voting priority and these “security voters” broke 74 percent to 24 percent for Republicans. On all other issues, Democrats maintain 20-plus point advantages over Republicans. In light of such facts, which are well-known, should we assume the Republicans, specifically Bush, Cheney and Rove (who continues to advise Bush) will let the election be dominated by Democratic issues? Shouldn’t we assume Bush/Cheney will play the one strong card they have? These people have proved their willingness to lie, cheat, manipulate, create fear and even go to war against a country which posed no threat when it served their political purposes. In short, we must assume the worst — that they will take aggressive action against Iran, most likely an air attack — before November 2008.

Democrats are not merely unprepared for this, they appear to be traumatized by it. Given a mandate by voters in November 2006 to wind down the Iraq war, they splintered, proved incapable of uniting and failed to use the authority expressly given to them by the Constitution — the power to withhold funding. In fact, many Democrats are continuing to blame Republicans for the impasse on Iraq, contending that they need a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate to put conditions on funding to stop or wind down the war when, in fact, all they need to stop continued war funding is a simple majority in the House (which they have) and 41 votes in the Senate (which they have). In short, if the Democrats were as resolute in what they believed as the Republicans, the Iraq war would be well on the way to meeting the Iraq Study Group Report recommendation of near-complete withdrawal by March 2008. Instead, Dick Cheney’s prediction in October 2006 that the November 2006 election results would not matter, as he and Bush would continue to prosecute the war regardless of the election results, has proved to be 100 percent accurate.

Democrats are fragmented and disorganized, blood is in the water and Bush/Cheney are set to exploit this disarray to the Republicans’ advantage.

Sometime in March 2008, soon after the Democratic presidential nominee is identified by the presidential primaries, we should expect the Republican drumbeat about Iran to crescendo and the Republicans in Congress to promote an Iran resolution much like the one they foisted on the Democrats in October 2002, shortly before the 2002 midterm elections, where they crushed the Democrats. They will claim the resolution will not specifically authorize war against Iran, that its purpose will be to strengthen Bush’s hand in negotiations with Iran, but which will be broad enough in its terms to be used for an attack on Iran by Bush/Cheney. Democrats will whine and moan, but the more conservative Democrats, approximately 75 in the House and 25 in the Senate, fearing accusations of not being “strong on defense,” will cringe and crumble and sign on with the Republicans. A charade of “negotiation” will ensue, punctuated by claims insurgents in Iraq are being supplied by Iran, and perhaps even that Iranians are moving into Iraq, and in late fall 2008 (my guess is Oct. 1) Bush will authorize an air attack on Iranian targets to (1) protect our soldiers in Iraq and (2) reduce the Iran nuclear threat (a still-unproven threat). Act One in this drama already has occurred, with the Republicans promoting a resolution (Kyl-Lieberman) in the Senate to brand the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a “terrorist organization” (the first time a part of any national army has been so branded). Predictably, 25 Democratic senators, including Hillary Clinton, voted for this resolution and it passed 76-22. The resolution was nonbinding, but the exercise displayed for all to see the inherent weakness and lack of self-confidence of Democrats on national security issues.

Attacking Iran would be mostly symbolic, but would have disastrous consequences

Attacking Iran would not protect American soldiers in Iraq. Almost certainly, it would have exactly the opposite effect. American soldiers already are stretched to the max in Iraq; replacements and reinforcements are not available. According to Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton (ret.), who was commanding general in the Office of Security Transition in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003-2004, even without the added pressures of an attack on Iran, the current “15-month tours will break the Army.” Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said last week that “the answer to dealing with Iran will not be found in a military operation. The U.S. is currently bogged down in two wars. Our military is terribly overburdened, and we are doing great damage to our force structure and readiness capabilities.”

The United States does not have the capacity to widen a ground war and take on a nation with more than double the population of Iraq. Attacking Iran by air risks Iran retaliating by sending armed forces and advanced weaponry into Iraq, which, to date, Iran has not done. Iran also has the capacity to send armed forces into neighboring nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon, creating a wider war front, as well as increasing its political reach. Last week, Eaton confirmed that “the United States has insufficient forces in Iraq to defend from an Iranian attack.” He added, “Iran has the capacity to send thousands of soldiers into Iraq in 4-9 person teams, armed with rocket-propelled grenades to support the Iraq insurgency; the U.S. does not have sufficient forces to respond to this.” Eaton also said that Iran is believed to have “sleeper cells” throughout the Middle East, increasing the chance of widespread asymmetrical warfare the United States is not prepared to counter. The prospect of putting our soldiers in Iraq at much greater risk and transforming a one-nation war into regional war is real.

The downside to attacking Iran is even deeper. If Iran controls Hezbollah and Hezbollah is as dangerous as everyone says it is, attacking Iran could lead directly to “nonattributive” terrorist attacks on American soil. It wouldn’t take a nuclear device or dirty bomb to disrupt the American economy. A few suicide bombers and/or “suitcase bombs” in crowded transportation hubs, shopping malls, movie theaters or perhaps an NFL football stadium would cause major economic dislocations in the United States. Iran also could close the Strait of Hormuz, where 20 percent of the world’s oil supplies must pass, with sea mines and cut off oil to the West; Iran could attack Iraqi, and perhaps even Saudi, oil production. If world oil prices hit $200 a barrel, the world economy, already weak, would be seriously threatened — a global depression is even possible. And while the United States gets relatively little oil from the Middle East, China, Russia and Japan get most of their oil there. Are they going to sit by quietly while the United States threatens or diminishes their oil supplies? China and Russia have a great capacity for mischief and the unintended consequences of attacking Iran could be dramatic.

At a minimum, China has the capacity to stop buying U.S. bonds or even begin selling their huge supply of U.S. dollars, further depressing the value of the U.S. dollar, already at historic lows. And, Russia, which is building close economic relations with Iran, likely would provide more sophisticated weaponry to Iran in the event of a U.S. attack, including advanced anti-aircraft weapons. Hagel said last week, “The challenge of Iran will not be successfully met without Russia and China and the world community.” It will not successfully be met by jeopardizing China’s and Russia’s oil supplies.

Attacking Iran also will unite the Iranian population against America for a generation, the Arab street throughout the Middle East will become even more hostile to America and the world community, with the exception of Israel and possibly a few other nations, will condemn the United States Can our position in the world get worse? Yes.

Lastly, a “surgical strike” at Iran’s nuclear program would largely be a fiction. First, we should not assume U.S. intelligence about where Iran’s nuclear development sites are located is any better than the faulty intelligence about Iraq’s supposed WMDs. Second, current U.S. “bunker busters” (aka “penetrating warheads”) do not have the capacity to bust into deep underground bunkers. In fact, dropping a series of bunker busters would liquefy the soil around the bunkers and make them even more impregnable. The only way to knock out the bunkers is with nuclear weapons, but nuclear weapons and the radioactive fallout from them could cause millions of deaths and casualties, and not just in Iran. Last year, Gen. Wesley Clark stated that Iran’s nuclear program could not be stopped by an air attack alone, and last week Maj. Gen. Eaton confirmed that assessment. Thus, a Bush/Cheney decision to bomb Iran largely would be symbolic, designed perhaps for an audience of American voters, but not to fundamentally alter realities on the ground, except to diminish U.S. standing in world opinion — already at historic lows.

In the alternative, Bush could attack the many Iranian Revolutionary Guard encampments. Of course, the Democrats who voted to condemn the Revolutionary Guards as “a terrorist organization” have left themselves wide open to this; if the guards are “terrorists,” how will those Democrats be able to object to an air attack? Remember, Bush/Cheney were not the ones who made “regime change” in Iraq official U.S. policy; credit for that belongs to Bill Clinton and congressional Democrats who collaborated with Republicans in 1998 to accomplish this. Democrats play chess one move at a time; Republicans seem to be able to see the whole board.

If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, and her past behavior is a guide, we can expect cautiousness and triangulation on Iran, and perhaps even outright support for military action. Already, she has fallen into the Republican trap of supporting the Kyl-Lieberman Senate resolution characterizing a part of the Iranian national army as a “terrorist organization.” This is the kind of rhetoric which Sen. Hagel recently called “the lowest common denominator of ‘who can talk the toughest’ and who is the ‘meanest cowboy on the block.’ That kind of rhetoric … political as it may be … will only drive the world further away from America and deepen a world crisis … that we may not be able to recover from.” Democrats falling in line with Republican “cowboy” rhetoric and behavior on Iran sets up the prospect that the 2008 election could mirror 1968, when progressive opponents of the Vietnam War, outraged by Democratic inaction, deserted the Democratic Party, thereby helping to elect Richard Nixon. We could even see the rise of one or more third parties. Given Clinton’s already record-high unfavorable poll numbers and her weak matchup poll numbers with Republican presidential candidates, it won’t take much to tip the election to the Republicans.

Will the military dtop Bush/Cheney?

Important components of the U.S. military are opposed to military action in Iran. It has been reported that Adm. William Fallon, head of Central Command in Iraq (i.e., General Petraeus’ boss) has said there will be no attack on Iran “on my watch.” Think Progress, And, it is rumored that 20-plus high-ranking army officers have already tendered resignations in case Iran is attacked. We should salute these brave officers for keeping sight of America’s long-term interests in the Middle East mind, not the short-term political needs of Republicans, but the American tradition is civilian rule, not mutiny, and we should expect that no matter how many courageous military officers object, when the order is issued to attack Iran, it will be followed.

What can Democrats do?

Democrats cannot outbid, outspend, outcowboy or outhawk the Republican hawks; if Democrats play the “tough on Iran” military card, they will be chasing Bush/Cheney all the way into another unwinnable, war. From a strategic game-theory standpoint, those who are posturing “tough on Iran” are putting control of the game totally in the hands of the opponent. Isn’t this the one lesson from the runup to the Iraq war that every Democrat should have learned? Democrats need to get ahead of this issue, not continue passively to respond to hawkish initiatives, like the Kyl-Lieberman resolution, which accept all the hawk assumptions and set the table for war.

The “hooks” Bush likely will use to justify attacking Iran will be twofold: (1) He is protecting American troops in Iraq, and (2) he is preventing World War III by stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Democrats need to attack, as well as put into context, both claims. While there may be some Iranians in Iraq supporting their Shiite compatriots, and some of the IED’s found in Iraq may have been manufactured in Iran, Iran has been remarkably cautious about arming or supporting Iraqi insurgents, particularly given the fact that Iran has 300,000 American soldiers and mercenaries on its borders. While Ahmadenijad — like Bush and Cheney — has been bellicose, Iran’s actual behavior in Iraq has been cautious. One prominent national security expert, Peter Galbraith, even has argued that Iran is our natural ally in Iraq, as Iran does not want continued instability on its borders, and both Iran and the United States support the Shiite-dominated Maliki government in Iraq. This provides Democrats the opportunity to make the case — perhaps through investigative hearings featuring testimony by military commanders — that attacking Iran will put American soldiers in Iraq more at risk, not less. Adm. Fallon, testifying in Congress about his doubts about taking military action against Iran and his “not on my watch” statement, might take the initiative from the Bush-Hawks and change the terms of public debate in more sensible directions. Army commanders testifying in public about “breaking the Army” with multiple 15-month tours of duty and not having sufficient forces available in Iraq to contend with Iranian retaliation might change perceptions about which party “supports the troops.”

Democrats also need to deal with the Iran nuclear threat for what it is — a potential long-term threat, but not an immediate threat. In fact, many security experts, including United Nations chief inspector El Baradei, say Iran’s nuclear threat will not be realized for five years or more. We know it is possible to deal with such threats diplomatically because last February the Bush administration made a deal with another member of the “Axis of Evil,” North Korea, to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program in favor of promises of economic aid. Bush has been remarkably quiet about this — perhaps his one legitimate foreign policy success — but there is no reason for Democrats to be quiet about the possibility of diplomacy working, as it worked in North Korea. Furthermore, there have been efforts by Iran to forge a game-changing deal with the United States. As Trita Parsi’s book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States shows, in May 2003, the Iranian government sent a proposal to the United States via its Swiss ambassador proposing a deal in which Iran would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for an end to U.S. hostility. As explained in the book, as well as Peter Galbraith’s article published in AlterNet, the deal was summarily rejected by Bush/Cheney, but now with the United States so much weaker in Iraq, and with its real options limited in Iran, diplomacy, and a deal, should be pursued, just as the Iraq Study Group Report recommended. In short, there is no reason for Democrats, or anyone, to assume diplomacy has no chance of success.

Last week, Sen. Hagel gave a thoughtful, well-reasoned speech about Iran and the Middle East. Echoing the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group Report, he called for direct talks with Iran: “[N]ow is the time for the United States to actively pursue an offer of direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks with Iran … We should make clear that everything is on the table — our issues and Iran’s — similar to the opportunity we squandered in 2003 for comprehensive talks with Iran.” Hagel added, “We must be clear that the United States does not … does not … seek regime change in Iran. There can be no ambiguity on this point. This should include offering Iran a credible way back in from the fringes of the international community, security guarantees if it is willing to give nuclear weapons ambitions, as well as other incentives … Creative approaches like these, rather than war speeches and talk of World War III, would strengthen our ability across the board to deal with Iran. Our friends and allies and international institutions would be more confident to stand with us, not just because of our power, but rather because they trusted our purpose, our words and our actions. It could create a new dynamic in U.S.-Iran relations, in part by incentivizing the Iranians to react to the possibility of better relations with the West because it is in their interests … By refusing to engage Iran in direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks, we are perpetuating dangerous geopolitical unpredictabilities.”

Let us salute Republican Sen. Hagel for his insights and courage to speak forthrightly about Iran, but shouldn’t we expect the same from Democrats?

Two weeks ago, Rep. John Tierney, who sits on the House Select Committee on Intelligence and chairs a National Security and Foreign Affairs subcommittee, initiated a series of subcommittee hearings, inviting experts to teach Congress about Iran, such as what the Iranian people want, where power lay in the Iranian government, how Iran might be engaged diplomatically, what the costs of military intervention in Iran might be, etc. And, recently, Sen. Jim Webb (former Secretary of the Navy) sent a letter to President Bush contending “that offensive military action should not be taken against Iran without the express consent of Congress.” As Steve Clemons, who directs the American Strategies program at the New America Foundation, and others, have argued, in light of the Kyl-Lieberman resolution, Democrats need to get 50 votes on something, even a nonbinding resolution, even a letter to the president, showing that a majority of the Senate opposes an attack on Iran. This is an opportunity for leadership from Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Christopher Dodd and Joe Biden — the Democratic presidential candidates from the U.S. Senate. Can one, or more, of them rise to the occasion and bring some sanity to the discussion of Iran?


Three months ago, I attended a two-day Democratic Party policy discussion. The featured luncheon speaker on the second day was famed Democratic strategist James Carville, whose topic was the 2008 elections. Carville provided a rousing, rosy picture of Democratic opportunities in 2008, but missing from his discussion was any mention of national security contingencies. During the Q & A, a major Democratic donor asked Carville how the Democratic Party would respond to a major act of terrorism or a manufactured security event, such as Iran. With Nancy Pelosi sitting nearby, Carville answered, “I don’t have a clue; that is way above my pay station.”

If the Democrats hope to avoid another crushing, demoralizing defeat in a presidential election, as well as prevent America from digging an even deeper hole in the Middle East, they will need more than a clue, they will need a coherent strategy about what to do about Iran, and the sooner the better.