Openly discussing the possibility of a US air strike against Iran no longer courts banishment from polite company. To see why, we need look no further than a remark volunteered by the new Senate Majority Leader in the US, Harry Reid, just a few weeks ago:
“Much has been made about President Bush’s recent saber rattling toward Iran. This morning, I’d like to be clear: The President does not have the authority to launch military action in Iran without first seeking Congressional authorization — the current use of force resolution for Iraq does not give him such authorization.”
Note Senator Reid was not backed into a corner when he delivered himself of this unusual statement. It was, it would seem, his attempt at a pre-emptive strike, made as part of the Democrats’ address on the State of the Union.
Tom Engelhardt, in a piece amusingly entitled “Thelma and Louis Imperialism” (well, it’s not really amusing at all nor of course was it meant to be) notes that although rumours of such an attack have been quietly circulating in certain circles for some years, it took a rapid fire sequence of events and announcements for “much of official Washington to panic”. Most alarming amongst these are the deployment of another carrier task force to the Persian Gulf together with rumours of a third, the emplacement of Patriot anti-missile systems in the smaller Gulf states, reports of the readying of new air bases in Bulgaria and Romania, the authorisation by George Bush for the military to take out Iranian agents anywhere in Iraq and of course the generally heightened anti-Iranian rhetoric.
Few knowledgable observers find anything much positive to say about such a venture. Indeed, many see it as an unmitigated disaster and one really needn’t exercise too much imagination to understand why. Quite aside from the moral consequences of another unprovoked American attack, there are the practical considerations: the further sidelining of moderates within Islam; the likelihood of a radical destabilisation of the whole Middle East, including, quite possibly, the fall of some friendly regimes; soaring oil prices; the real possibility that US forces in Iraq in particular will come under potentially fatal seige; and of course the bolstering of Ahmadinejad and his fellow radicals within Iran. Hence the “Thelma and Louis” analogy.
This isn’t the place to attempt to pursue the deeper reasons why such an improbable course of action seems to be under serious consideration. Any such analysis would I suspect soon have to venture into the quicksands of the psychological and emotional states of the small coterie who still hold the reins of power in America. And of those from the other side of politics who seem to share the obsession with Iran and the use of force. As to the broader question of why it could still happen despite the immense risks, the almost incoherent rationale, growing domestic criticism and a notionally empowered opposition, here I fear we quickly sink into the bogs of an alarmingly dysfunctional political system, one at odds with itself and largely gridlocked. One where the President since 9/11 has assumed the mantle worn hundreds of years ago in more primitive political systems by the monarch, with much of the nation sufficiently stunned to acquiesce. The waking up from this black sleep, although underway, is likely to be both slow and painful.
What may be more pertinent, and what finally prompted me to sit down and write this piece is the question of what all this might mean for Australia. A number of Troppodillians, amongst them D W Griffiths and more recently James Farrell in his Plans for Iraq series, have raised this issue as it pertains to our role in Iraq. Despite their best efforts, I don’t know that any of us have yet managed to make much headway with this vexed question, which is hardly surprising given the impasse it represents. I wonder, though, whether this Iranian business — given that it seems we may have no choice but to take the possibility seriously — mightn’t present Australia with a whole new calculus.
Much the same techniques as were used in the lead up to the Iraqi invasion seem to be in play now in regard to Iran. There is, however, a very different mood afoot than prevailed four years ago. Not only in the international community, which by and large was never terribly keen anyway, but also within the US where a bitter debate over Iraq is now very much front and centre. It would seem to follow that whatever it is that eventually tips the decision on Iran one way or the other may this time be the product of a far more delicate mechanism. One more subject to that small factor that could prove decisive.
It occurs to me that Australia’s stance on this question — good and stout friend that it’s been — might just, providing it were made known well beforehand, be that factor. Let me “just suppose” for a moment. If Australia, in sorrow rather than anger, let it be known that any action against Iran would result in its post-haste withdrawal from the coalition, might this not provoke a small firestorm over there? We are after all, I think, held in quite high regard within the US political establishment and our presence has undoubtedly been a boon for the administration through this very trying time. An explicit call of enough would not, I suspect, be so easy to air brush out. I don’t, of course, mean to exaggerate our influence but so little may in the end separate yea from nay in this case that such a clear statement of intent might just tip the balance. Nor, by the way, do I mean to suggest that the reason for any such stance should be to influence the US. If it did so, that would merely be a beneficial side effect of a policy decision that seems to me vital for Australia’s interests.
At the very least — setting aside what is quite likely a fantasy if for no other reason than I struggle to see the Howard government doing any such thing — might this not be something by which the Labor party could more clearly differentiate itself and bring pressure to bear on the government? I for one would certainly not like to have the task of defending Australiaâs cooperation, however marginal and unenthusiastic, in a pre-emptive US attack on Iran. Nor of reassuring the electorate about the safety of our servicemen and women in the Gulf during the chaos that would likely follow.