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John Steinberg - Raw Story Columnist
Published: Sunday April 2, 2006

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Remember the movie "Wag the Dog"?

Major studios rarely take on Washington, and cynicism about the way the media manipulate public opinion is rarer still, but Wag the Dog told the story of a President using the invasion of another country to drown out a damaging scandal. Although the story's closest historical referent was Reagan's invasion of Grenada (which conveniently distracted Americans from the death of 241 American soldiers in a single Beirut suicide bombing), and the movie's substitution of a sex scandal for the Beirut tragedy made the story more Hollywood (and more Clinton). When life returned art's favor, and Clinton bombed an alleged chemical weapons plant in Sudan and heaved some cruise missiles into Afghanistan at a relatively unknown dissident Saudi named Osama-something, Republicans were quick to argue that Clinton's Monica troubles were the real reason for the attacks.

George Bush has a far bigger disaster to conjure away. In addition to nearly 3000 dead American soldiers, he has killed tens of thousands of civilians and destroyed a country. But that is not the disaster they are concerned with: One of the reasons President Bush has been so slow to admit failure in Iraq is because, in his mind it still isn't a failure. As I argued a year and a half ago, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was and remains a success in Bush's view. Halliburton and oil company profits are up. Bush was re-elected. His endless war has made all of this possible. The only fly in the ointment is the war's domestic unpopularity. As public opinion has turned, the gravy train is increasingly endangered.

In a rational world, Bush's dismal track record (by our standards) would hasten the handing of the car keys to a designated driver. In the strange world that Bush and Karl Rove inhabit, it means that a bigger distraction must be created.

The public groundwork for that new distraction is now being laid. The threat posed by Iran is now being trumpeted; the doctrine of preemptive war is being defended; and the pundits are already discussing the salutary effects another preemptive war.

I don't mean to dismiss Iran's history of bad acts or its potential to wreak future havoc. There is evidence of both. But our approach should acknowledge that there is a huge difference between Iran and Iraq from a military standpoint. Much of Iraq's military strength was destroyed in the first Gulf War; more than a decade of sanctions further reduced the effectiveness of what remained.

Iran, in contrast, has used the nearly two decades since the end of the Iran-Iraq war to create a formidable military. One aspect of that force is especially important now. More than a year ago I linked to a positively chilling article by Mark Gaffney about Iran's military advantage -- that's right, advantage -- over the United States in a theater war. If you have ever clicked on a link in an editorial, you need to click on this one.

The short version is that Iran has Russian anti-ship missiles that are to the Exocet (the weapon that nearly defeated the British in the Falklands) what an F-22 is to a WWII-era Spitfire, and that there are no effective countermeasures. Our Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf, is completely vulnerable.

The first several times I read Gaffney's article, I was reassured by the belief that the powers that be must know far better than I do that an attack on Iran would result in devastating losses to the Fifth Fleet. I assumed, therefore, that our saber-rattling was nothing more than that, and that even George Bush was not crazy enough to risk such horrible losses by actually attacking Iran.

But George Bush and his enablers apply a calculus not grounded in conventional morality. So we must consider branches of the decision tree that sane people would not. I recently re-read Gaffney's article, and had a premonition more horrifying than any of the other nightmares with which I have darkened this space.

What would happen if, for whatever reason, Iran sank a couple of American warships? George Bush would find another megaphone and another telegenic pile of bubble to stand on. The Andrew Sullivans and Thomas Friedmans of the world would drag their laptops and their Huggies with then as they dive under their beds, and again write trembling jibberish praising their Savior in Chief. And millions who only recently wandered out of Camp Jingo would scurry back in mortal fear.

The cowed millions would demand action, and action they would get. Bush would round up his nuclear posse and unleash an unprecedented retaliation. Iran would glow for millennia with the radiation of a thousand nuclear warheads in the first all-out nuclear strike in history. Millions of Iranians, or perhaps tens of millions, would die. And Red State America would cheer. Bush's poll numbers would regain their former heights, and talk of censure and Valerie Plame and Katrina would dissolve into the radioactive haze that would blanket the planet.

The civil war in Iraq would probably subside. Or perhaps we would withdraw regardless, having made a superseding, definitive statement of Texas testosterone. Either way, an Administration currently besieged on all sides would again ride high.

My nightmare is that our rulers are now trying to figure out how to achieve this desirable result. Absent provocation like the sinking of a few U.S. ships, Bush will never get away with going nukular against Iran. So how to provoke Iran into taking the gambit? "Incredibly, we are on now upon the second iteration of that genus of questions. We know that Bush talked with Tony Blair about how to goad Saddam into throwing the first punch against us three years ago." It is probably safe to assume that such high-school logic still prevails. So the Administration will look for ways to provoke such an attack again.

One possibility we cannot dismiss out of hand is a "false flag" strategy. There are many viable options: we could attack Israel pretending to be Iran; Israel could attack us pretending to be Iran; we could attack Iran pretending to be Israel. In the superheated environment we have helped to create, it won't take much to ignite an inferno.

Another is the possibility that Bush will ask Israel to take credit for starting the fight. And in fact it has been reported that Israel has already drawn up such plans, and that the Pentagon is seriously considering them. And let's not forget that Israel bombed a nuclear facility in Iraq in 1981. The United States publicly objected after the attack, but (a) Dick Cheney has since cited it approvingly and (b) I find it hard to believe that the Reagan Administration was unaware of the plan, despite the fact that U.S. would soon back Iraq in its war with Iran, which had just released the American embassy hostages a few months earlier.

Whatever the contrived provocation, Dubya can probably count on President Ahmadinejad to respond to even a small-scale strike with a retaliation that would cost us at least an aircraft carrier. And the loss of even a single ship would trigger a "Remember the Maine" conflagration that would widely and properly be seen as a holocaust.

What would be the consequences of such a war crime? Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans would die in a day as the Fifth Fleet was sacrificed. Bush would see no disincentive there -- the thousands of American soldiers killed so far have not altered his calculus. Iranian casualties from the U.S response could reach into the millions, but there are Americans who would welcome such a result if they believed Iran attacked us first. 125 billion barrels of proven oil reserves -- ten percent of the world total -- would be wiped out, which would perhaps double gasoline prices overnight. General Motors and Ford would sink absent massive bailouts our resurgent spendthrift emperor will be happy to disburse. Exxon and its ilk will cry all the way to the bank. Many thousands of square miles of Iran would become uninhabitable for thousands of years, dwarfing Chernobyl in scope, but what right-thinking Christian would want to live there anyway?

Do those costs outweigh a thirty or forty point jump in Bush's approval ratings? I am afraid it depends upon who you ask.

Like Mark Gaffney, I recoil from my own logic. No sane person can look at the possibility of such horrors and not shiver with revulsion. But recent history shows that there are no sane people making these decisions. When sanity again prevails in the White House, I will gladly dismiss the unthinkable as impossible. For now, I fear Armageddon.


Editor's note: An earlier version of this column substantially erred on the number of casualties in the Beirut attack. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

John Steinberg is a Senior Recidivist with the Poor Man Institute for Freedom and Democracy and a Pony. He bloviates regularly @ .