The U.S. military's role in preventing the bombing of Iran

The Washington Post's Dana Priest suggests there would be a military "revolt" if it was ordered to attack Iran.

Published September 28, 2007 10:25AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

The Washington Post's Dana Priest, one of the country's most knowledgeable and reliable reporters, made this rather extraordinary observation yesterday about the prospects that the Bush administration would bomb Iran:

West Chester, Pa.: History seems to be repeating it self as the drumbeat for war with Iran, based on accusations not backed up by any facts, intensifies. Do you think the Bush administration will launch a war (perhaps sending only the bombers) against Iran and if they do what are the likely consequences for the Middle East?

Dana Priest: Frankly, I think the military would revolt and there would be no pilots to fly those missions. This is a little bit of hyperbole, but not much. Just look at what Gen. Casey, the Army chief, said yesterday. That the tempo of operations in Iraq would make it very hard for the military to respond to a major crisis elsewhere. Beside, it's not the "war" or "bombing" part that's difficult; it's the morning after and all the days after that. Haven't we learned that (again) from Iraq?

There have been some equally extraordinary reports about what appears to be the virtual refusal of senior military officials to permit a war with Iran. Several months ago, it was reported that the CENTCOM Commander, Admiral William Fallon, blocked what had appeared to be the successful efforts by Dick Cheney and administration neocons to send a third aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf and "vowed privately there would be no war against Iran as long as he was chief of CENTCOM":

At a mid-February meeting of top civilian officials over which Secretary of Defence Gates presided, there was an extensive discussion of a strategy of intimidating Tehran's leaders, according to an account by a Pentagon official who attended the meeting given to a source outside the Pentagon. The plan involved a series of steps that would appear to Tehran to be preparations for war, in a manner similar to the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But Fallon, who was scheduled to become the CENTCOM chief Mar. 16, responded to the proposed plan by sending a strongly-worded message to the Defence Department in mid-February opposing any further U.S. naval buildup in the Persian Gulf as unwarranted.

"He asked why another aircraft carrier was needed in the Gulf and insisted there was no military requirement for it," says the source, who obtained the gist of Fallon's message from a Pentagon official who had read it.

Fallon's refusal to support a further naval buildup in the Gulf reflected his firm opposition to an attack on Iran and an apparent readiness to put his career on the line to prevent it. A source who met privately with Fallon around the time of his confirmation hearing and who insists on anonymity quoted Fallon as saying that an attack on Iran "will not happen on my watch".

And, as Priest noted, the Army Chief of Staff, General George Casey, warned on Wednesday that the Army was so depleted by the endless Iraq War that no other conflicts were even possible:

The Army's top officer, General George Casey, told Congress yesterday that his branch of the military has been stretched so thin by the war in Iraq that it can not adequately respond to another conflict -- one of the strongest warnings yet from a military leader that repeated deployments to war zones in the Middle East have hamstrung the military's ability to deter future aggression.

In his first appearance as Army chief of staff, Casey told the House Armed Services Committee that the Army is "out of balance" and "the current demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply. We are consumed with meeting the demands of the current fight and are unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as necessary for other potential contingencies."

Officials said Casey, who appeared along with Army Secretary Pete Geren, personally requested the public hearing -- a highly unusual move that military analysts said underscores his growing concern about the health of the Army, America's primary fighting force.

This is what you get when you have a Rush Limbaugh Nation -- a country filled with war cheerleaders whose insatiable appetite for new military conflicts is matched only by their steadfast refusal to volunteer to fight. It results in an army so weak and depleted that, according to the Army's top officer, it is incapable of fighting in any other conflicts (and therefore posing a meaningful deterrent threat). Casey's specific warning that they are incapable of "respond[ing] to another conflict" was obviously issued with Iran at least partially in mind.

For obvious reasons, it is not a positive development to have the U.S. military serve as the primary check on the crazed warmongers who have control of our government. In a country that lives under civilian rule, that really is not and should not be the role of the military. Priest's claim that "the military would revolt" if it was ordered to bomb Iran is, at least in one sense, disturbing.

At the same time, the reason this is happening seems clear. Neoconservative extremists want endless war, and they are supported by the most powerful faction in our government, led by Dick Cheney, who has prevailed in every significant conflict over the last six years. And their radicalism has eroded not only the standing and strength of the United States as a country, but is close to shattering our military forces as well. Even with Iraq draining away all of our resources, they are eager, hungry and increasingly impatient for a new war with the much more formidable Iranians.

They crave regime change in Iran, and, sitting safe and protected in the U.S., they do not care at all what the aftermath is, certainly not for the 160,000 American troops sitting in Iraq. There has been a long-simmering conflict of interests between the war-crazy neocons and the U.S. military -- evidenced, by among other things, the intense hostility of Gen. Franks towards Douglas Feith. Eventually, as neocons push their war agenda further and further, that conflict will inevitably grow, since the neocons' ideological obsessions comes at the expense of the military, which serves as pure cannon fodder for their goals. It is the American military that pays the real price for the neocon's pursuit of their endless war agenda.

What is most striking about all of this is that even after all of this time, even after it has become more or less conventional wisdom that the Iraq War is an unparalleled disaster, no real political checks on their extremism exist. The Cheney-led neoconservatives are still the most powerful force, by far, in the American government.

At the beginning of this year, when the Democrats took over Congress, it would have been unthinkable -- truly -- to imagine the Congress expressly authorizing the use of military force against Iran. It was always certainly a strong possibility that the administration would find a way to provoke a war with Iran and then argue that they need no further authorization on the ground that the current Iraq AUMF implicitly authorizes them to defend our mission by attacking Iran. If that happened, it was and remains easy to imagine the Democratic Congress standing by doing nothing to stop them. But at least earlier in the year, the idea that Congress would vote to authorize force in Iran was unthinkable.

But after the events of the last few months, nothing is unthinkable when it comes to acts of accommodation by this Congress. And the fact that they lined up so passively, really so willingly this week to vote for the Lieberman-Kyl Amendment (with more Democrats in favor than against and only two GOP "no" votes) -- even in the face of Jim Webb's strident warnings that categorizing Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp as "a foreign terrorist organization" could "be read as tantamount to a declaration of war" -- makes clear that not only would Congress never actively stop a military strike against Iran if the administration wanted that, it is highly likely that they would affirmatively vote to authorize it. Given their behavior on Iran this week, just fathom how much more in line they would be in the midst of a massive right-wing-noise-machine P.R. campaign and media frenzy over the need to march to war with Iran.

So that is the environment in which the U.S. military seems to be taking a defiant stand against the neoconservative radicals in our government -- one in which all other political checks are far too broken and weak, if not supportive, to do anything to stop them in their ongoing Middle East war march. Steve Clemons' recent, much-discussed article in Salon emphasized the role military commanders have played in insisting that a military strike against Iran would be disastrous. And Clemons cited this post from Time's Joe Klein which reported that the Joint Chiefs, when asked last December by Bush about air strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, were "unanimously opposed to taking that course of action," and they warned that "the Iranian response in Iraq and, quite possibly, in terrorist attacks on the U.S. could be devastating."

I'm far from convinced that, as Clemons and Klein both suggest, these warnings have persuaded President Bush that he cannot pursue a military confrontation with Iran. That is not how Bush works. When he is convinced that there is a moralistic imperative to his actions, he will pursue it even in the face of military opposition. Indeed, as Klein's same post notes, during the same meeting where military commanders vehemently opposed military action against Iran:

Bush asked the Chiefs about the wisdom of a troop "surge" in Iraq. They were unanimously opposed.

But for Bush, remaining in Iraq is the Right Thing, so Bush ignored the military's advice and replaced the top Generals with David Petraeus, who told him what he wanted to hear. Bush continues to believe that Iran is part of the "Axis of Evil" and that his legacy depends upon destroying that regime, and particularly stopping them from acquiring nuclear weapons, no matter what the cost. It is hard to envision Bush accepting the notion that he cannot bomb Iran. The central lesson of this presidency has been that Bush does not accept limits of any kind on his decision-making powers -- whether such limits are grounded in the law or in the basic constraints of reality.

But that is all speculation at this point. Whatever else is true, it is a very significant and disturbing fact that the only possibility that has any remote chance of stopping the warmonger extremists in their pursuit of still new wars is outright defiance by the U.S. military -- what the cautious Dana Priest calls a "revolt."

The idea that our political press would subject an Iran war march to sufficient scrutiny is only slightly more ludicrous than the idea that this Congress would do anything to stop it. If the administration wanted a war with Iran, there would be some marginally increased opposition expressed by the political establishment, maybe even significantly more opposition.

But if the President decided that he wanted a military confrontation with Iran, would anyone have any real faith in the ability of any institution to stop him other than outright defiance by the U.S. military? It is a fairly sobering reflection of the profound failures of our political and media institutions that this possibility is even discussed.

UPDATE: In an excellent comment, Thomas C elaborates on Jim Webb's warning about the danger of the Lieberman-Kyl Amendment. Specifically, contrast that Amendment's finding that "Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps" is a "foreign terrorist organization" with the declaration under the 2002 Iraq AUMF that "the President has authority under the Constitution to take action in order to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States," and one could make a strong case that the Senate has just agreed that President Bush has inherent authority -- i.e., authority under the Constitution -- to attack Iran, given that its military unit is a "foreign terrorist organization."

Arguments could also be mounted against that interpretation, including the non-binding nature of the Amendment. Still, the fact that the Senate overwhelmingly, with a majority of Senate Democrats, would vote for something like this -- based almost exclusively on the testimony of Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and, as Webb noted, without so much as even holding a single hearing on the subject -- leaves little doubt that the Congress would never impede, and ultimately would likely support, an attack on Iran. What else could this week's vote mean?

UPDATE II: In comments, the late, great Billmon says: "I hate to tell you I told you so, but I told you so," regarding this post he wrote in August of 2006:

It is a stunning testament to the political devolution of this country that the most effective anti-war movement in America is inside the walls of the Pentagon or buried deep in the bowels of the CIA! But that is the reality, thanks in no small part to the Dems and the Israel lobby.

I had hopes once that the Democratic Party could be reformed, that progressives could burrow back in or build their own parallel organizations (like or even Left Blogistan) and eventually gain control of the party and its agenda -- much as the conservatives took over the GOP in the 1980s and '90s.

But I think we've run out of time. Events -- from 9/11 on -- have moved too fast and pushed us too far towards the clash of civilizations that most sane people dread but the neocons desperately want.

I don't share this view that All Is Lost, but it is increasingly difficult every day to find within the mainstream politcial establishment and the Democratic Party even small amounts of meaningful resistance to the most radical and war-seeking elements in the Bush administration. Anyone with doubts about that should just review what the Congress has done this year and what it has refused to do -- particularly concerning foreign policy and presidential powers -- and try to identify any substantive differences between what has happened and what would have happened had the Republicans won the 2006 election.

By Glenn Greenwald

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