Putting the Ignorant in Fear-Mongering

The Iran hawks
By Juan Cole

Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton think a tough line on Tehran will sell politically. They could be right.

Oct. 17, 2007 | Future historians may conclude that the key issue in the 2008 presidential campaign was not Iraq, but whether the United States should go to war with Iran. Sparring over Iran dominated the Republican debate in Dearborn, Mich., last week, while a Senate resolution condemning Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as terrorists divided the Democrats, some of whom (including Sen. Barack Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) feared that it might give Bush a pretext to launch another war. Unexpectedly, Tehran has emerged as a preoccupation of candidates — as a litmus test for attitudes toward war and domestic security.

The Republicans are competing to see who can wax most bellicose. The two candidates with the greatest need to compensate for their socially liberally pasts, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, have been extra warlike. Giuliani in particular seems to be running for velociraptor-in-chief.

In an ABC interview on Sunday, Giuliani made fun of Romney for saying during the Dearborn debate that he would seek the advice of counsel before launching a war on Iran. Moderator Chris Matthews had asked, “If you were president of the United States, would you need to go to Congress to get authorization to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities?” Romney had replied that the president “has to do what’s in the best interest” of the country “to protect us against a potential threat.” He said nothing about needing a congressional declaration of war; indeed, he was clearly suggesting that for him to strike Iran it would suffice to get a legal opinion that such an act did not require a formal declaration of war.

During his Sunday interview, Giuliani attempted to portray Romney’s brazen end run around the Constitution as evidence of wimpiness. “That’s one of those moments in a debate,” he told ABC News, “where you say something and you go like this [wiping his mouth with the back of his hand] … wish I can get that one back.

“Basically, right out of the box,” Giuliani continued, “first thing, you’re faced with imminent attack on the United States, I don’t think you call in the lawyers first. I think maybe the generals, the ones you call in first, they’re the ones you want to talk to.”

But Matthews, of course, had not asked Romney what he would do were the U.S. attacked. His question concerned a sudden U.S. strike on Iran’s nuclear energy facilities, and whether the president should seek congressional authorization for such an act of war.

During the debate itself, Romney also took heat for not mentioning the need for congressional authorization, although the rebuke came from a lonely voice out of the GOP’s isolationist past. “You’re not allowed to go to war without a declaration of war,” said Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. Paul declared flatly that the Constitution was clear and that Romney’s talk about consulting attorneys was “baffling.” He also maintained that “the thought that the Iranians could pose an imminent attack on the United States is preposterous.” When Giuliani shot back that Sept. 11 had been such an attack, Paul interrupted him. “That was no country,” snapped Paul. “That was 19 thugs. It has nothing to do with a country.”

Sen. John McCain tried to present himself as the voice of reason in the debate, saying, “Of course you want to go to Congress; of course you want to get approval.” Last spring, however, when badgered by a belligerent audience member at a South Carolina campaign event about how long the U.S. should tolerate Iran’s alleged bad behavior, McCain had been caught on camera singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb/ Bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the old Beach Boys hit “Barbara Ann.” If any major Iranian political figure had made a similar jest about striking the U.S., it would not have been quickly forgotten in Washington. McCain’s ditty, and the relative lack of controversy about it, speak volumes about the aggressive mood in the U.S.

Among the Republican front-runners, debate about Iran occurs in a dark, upside-down fantasy land, where a weak third-world regime with no air force to speak of plots a military strike on the planet’s sole superpower. The third-world regime is led by a genocidal commander-in-chief who serves a global conspiracy; to stop him, the president of the superpower might be compelled, after a quick chat with a lawyer and a few bars of a golden oldie, to launch an aggressive war. (And even the part about a conversation with an attorney is seen by some of the candidates as an abdication of manhood.)

Perhaps because of his chest-thumping contest with Giuliani, Romney especially has shown a talent of late for putting the ignorant in fear-mongering. During the Dearborn debate, Romney alleged that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had “spoken about genocide,” and said it was important not to “allow that individual to have the control of launching a nuclear weapon.” In an ad released after the debate, in a clear attempt to out-Giuliani Giuliani, Romney declaimed, “It’s this century’s nightmare, jihadism — violent, radical Islamic fundamentalism.” He told the cameras that the fundamentalists’ goal is to establish a “caliphate,” and wanted to “collapse” countries such as the United States as part of that goal. “We can and will stop Iran,” he added, “from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

President Ahmadinejad, whose job is more or less ceremonial, is not the commander-in-chief of the Iranian armed forces. He has never advocated “genocide,” and his expressed wish that the “occupation regime over Jerusalem” (i.e., the Israeli government) eventually vanish has been mistranslated.

As for the rest, the candidates simply assume that Iran has a nuclear weapons research program, which has not been proven. It certainly does not have a nuclear weapon at present, and the National Intelligence Estimate indicates that if it were trying to get one, it would take until at least 2016 — and then only if the international environment were conducive to the needed high-tech imports. (Ahmadinejad, by the way, will not be in power in 2016.) Also, someone really needs to let the Republicans know that Iran is Shiite, meaning it abhors Sunni fundamentalists and rejects the caliphate.

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