Byline by MJ Akbar: America 1968
Washington: America has returned to 1968. On 31 August, a vital deadline at the very top of George Bush’s agenda passed, and no one died at the deadline. Instead, the intended victim was frisky to the point of being cocky. Thursday was the day given by the international community, led by the United States and followed by the United Nations, for Iran to submit to pressure and abjure its nuclear programme. The weight of the Security Council lay behind the ultimatum. Far from cowering, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad invited over a hundred and fifty journalists to Tehran, including the powers that be from American media, to taunt Bush to a one-to-one debate, lecture America and its allies on good and evil, and litter the world with one-liners. In essence he had asked two questions (to echo Stalin’s question to the Pope): How many divisions does the Security Council have? The second question was to America: How many divisions does the Pentagon have to spare for Iran?
Washington, for a change, did not need additional evidence in its search for the fabled "weapons of mass destruction," this time in Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported this week that Iran continued to produce enriched uranium, albeit on a small scale and at relatively low levels, at its Natanz facility. Iran’s answer remained what it has always been, and one which should be familiar enough to the Indian subcontinent: its nuclear facilities were there only for peaceful purposes.
On the domestic front, Ahmadinejad is a touch more forthcoming. He accuses the West, alias America, of mouthing human rights while maintaining the world’s most notorious prisons, and being the source of all the problems we face, while behind him banners declare: "Nuclear Energy Is Our Inalienable Right."
Compared to Ahmadinejad on a nuclear future, Saddam Hussein was an overblown mouse when shock and awe smashed his regime and toppled his preposterous statue. Saddam was always less than met the eye and, like any bully-cum-dictator, vulnerable to a deal. Ahmadinejad is not interested in stupid statues. Everyone who has met him has returned impressed with his intelligence. He could be more than meets the eye.
Strength is a relative matter. You are not as good as your arsenal. You are only as good as your capability. When George Bush was planning the invasion of Iraq, one country that kept very quiet indeed was Iran. Three years later, Iran is doing the talking, and America is wondering what to do. Bush has snared America in a self-made trap, and Iran is laughing all the way to a nuclear bank. It is still a long walk. Iran is nowhere near weapons-making capability yet. But it is on the way.
If there is one alphabet that George Bush would love to have changed in the four-letter word that has begun to haunt him, it is surely "q." He will never say this himself, but everyone around him, both his friends and his opponents, are saying it. There is a palpable sense of regret in Washington that a mistake was made three years ago. The mistake was not going to war. The mistake was going to war with the wrong country. How they wish today that Bush had gone to war with Iran rather than Iraq. This is the unstated, or at least understated, revisionist view. After all, the rationale against Iraq was simulated, so it could easily have been whipped up against Iran — mullahs make a better target for racial profiling in any case than clean-shaven Baathists.
David Remnick of New Yorker gave some hint of this manipulation of the media recently: "...the Administration and its surrogates have issued a stream of disinformation about intelligence and Iraq; paid friendly ‘columnists’ like Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher tens of thousands of dollars to parrot the White House line; accredited to the White House press corps a phoney journalist and ex-prostitute (Jeff ‘Bulldog’ Gammon aka James Dale Guckert) as a reliable pitcher of softball questions; lightened the Freedom of Information Act requirements; and pioneered a genre of fake news packaged video ‘reports’." He goes on, but I won’t.
If only all this had been directed against Iran ... Bush might even be triumphantly holding a few traces of future weapons of mass destruction before the cameras, possibly protected by some spacesuit type of clothing.
Iran’s current confidence is based on some solid parameters. Start counting.
1. The Pentagon’s infantry capability is seriously degraded by Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the British, who always brought up the tail, have stopped wagging. There have been cases where infantry units sent on leave have been turned back after barely touching down in the United States, such is the shortage of troops.
2. The proponents of the air-power-is-sufficient school have plaster on their lips after Lebanon. Israel’s failure to destroy the Hezbollah despite overwhelming air power has made the old wisdom the new wisdom: air power alone cannot bring victory. Ground troops have to follow through. So what will the bombing of Iran achieve, except a political fallout that might go out of control?
3. On the ground, the two most powerful militias in the region are allies of Iran: Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah in Lebanon and Moqtada Sadr’s militia in Iraq. By one of those ironies made in heaven, both are also functioning members of their respective governments — and so leave America in the unhappy position of not knowing quite what to do. Sadr’s men inflict serious casualties on Iraq’s America-sponsored Army whenever the Army attempts to control them. America’s human losses in both Iraq and Afghanistan are rising at haemorrhage levels, without a bandage in sight.
4. The credibility of both America and its principal ally in the region, Israel, has been damaged. There is a new mood in the air. This has affected America’s political credibility as well in the world’s toughest neighbourhood.
5. Washington’s seemingly inexhaustible treasury has been discovered to have limits. Bill Clinton, who has begun campaigning for his wife Hillary, has gone on the offensive. He left a budget surplus, he says: Where has this five trillion plus dollar deficit appeared from? Misadventures, of course.
6. The sanctions aimed against Iran are either innocuous or unimplementable. The best that Nicholas Burns (he who negotiated the nuclear deal with India) can come up with is sanctions against nuclear parts, a freezing of Iran’s overseas assets and a ban on the travel of their officials who have anything to do with their nuclear programme. Iran has long removed its assets away from American reach, and Vladimir Putin has already asked why any sanctions should apply to Iran’s peaceful nuclear sites, as for instance at Bushehr, where Russia is supplying equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars. No one has any answer. Burns incidentally did tell American television that even India had agreed to sanctions against Iran. He is cashing his chips even before the nuclear deal with India has gone through.
Nuclear poker is not easy when you don’t have too many cards.
The most important change in America is that of public opinion. The majority seems finally to have lost its appetite for war, and does not believe that Iraq has anything to do with the war against terror. A desperate Bush is raising the most extraordinary demons. He now considers the "Islamic" threat to be as dangerous as Fascists, Nazis, Communists and other totalitarians of the 20th century. Each one of those threats had the power and institutionalisation of a state. Bush’s "Islamic fascists" have become as big a danger to the world as Communists without being in power in a single country, from the shadows. For Bush, "It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century."
This is what makes America 2006 akin to America 1968. The mood had begun to shift against Vietnam in 1967, but it was in 1968 that the shift became decisive. The response of the establishment then (which was Democratic) was to call the battle against those dirty Vietnamese Communists the "decisive ideological struggle of the 20th century".
It didn’t work in 1968.
It won’t work in 2006.