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Tom Engelhardt
TomDispatch / Op-Ed
Published: Monday 12 March 2012
“Obama Breaks New Ground When It Comes to War With Iran.”

The 0% Doctrine

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When I was young, the Philadelphia Bulletin ran cartoon ads that usually featured a man in trouble -- dangling by his fingers, say, from an outdoor clock. There would always be people all around him, but far too engrossed in the daily paper to notice. The tagline was: “In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.”

Those ads came to mind recently when President Obama commented forcefully on war, American-style, in ways that were remarkably radical. Although he was trying to ward off a threatened Israeli preemptive air strike against Iran, his comments should have shocked Americans -- but just about nobody noticed.

I don’t mean, of course, that nobody noticed the president’s statements. Quite the contrary: they were headlined, chewed over in the press and by pundits. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich attacked them. Fox News highlighted their restraint. (“Obama calls for containing Iran, says ‘too much loose talk of war.’”) The Huffington Post highlighted the support for Israel they represented. (“Obama Defends Policies Toward Israel, Fends Off Partisan Critiques.”) Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pushed back against them in a potentially deadly U.S.-Israeli dance that might bring new chaos to the Middle East. But somehow, amid all the headlines, commentary, and analysis, few seemed to notice just what had really changed in our world.

The president had offered a new definition of “aggression” against this country and a new war doctrine to go with it. He would, he insisted, take the U.S. to war not to stop another nation from attacking us or even threatening to do so, but simply to stop it from building a nuclear weapon -- and he would act even if that country were incapable of targeting the United States. That should have been news.

Consider the most startling of his statements: just before the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, the president gave a 45-minute Oval Office interview to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. A prominent pro-Israeli writer, Goldberg had produced an article in the September issue of that magazine headlined “The Point of No Return.” In it, based on interviews with "roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers about a military strike," he had given an Israeli air attack on Iran a 50% chance of happening by this July. From the recent interview, here are Obama’s key lines:

“I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”

Later, he added this chilling note: “I think it's fair to say that the last three years, I've shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I believe it is in the core national interest of the United States, to direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks.”

The next day, in a speech meant to stop “loose talk about war” in front of a powerful pro-Israeli lobbying outfit, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the president offered an even stronger formula, worth quoting at length. Speaking of seeing the consequences of his decisions to use force “in the eyes of those I meet who’ve come back gravely wounded,” he said:

“And for this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand it... We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said that, Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States -- just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs. I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power... and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

“Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”

An American president couldn’t come closer to saying that, should American intelligence conclude the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon, we would attack. The next day, again addressing an AIPAC audience, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta set the president’s commitment in stone: “No greater threat exists to Israel, to the entire region, and indeed to the United States, than a nuclear-armed Iran... Military action is the last alternative if all else fails, but make no mistake: When all else fails, we will act.”

The Power of Precedents

To understand what’s truly new here, it’s necessary to back up a few years. After all, precedent is a powerful thing and these statements do have a single precedent in the atomic age (though not one the president would profess to admire): the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. After all, one clearly stated reason for the invasion was Saddam Hussein’s supposed nuclear program as well as one to produce biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

In a series of speeches starting in August 2002, President George W. Bush publicly accused the Iraqi dictator of having an active nuclear program. His vice president hit the news and public affairs talk show circuit with a set of similar accusations, and his secretary of state spoke of the danger of mushroom clouds rising over American cities. (“We do know that [Saddam] is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon... [W]e don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”)

At the same time, the Bush administration made an effort -- now long forgotten -- to convince Congress that the United States was in actual danger of an Iraqi WMD attack, possibly from anthrax, in the immediate future. President Bush suggested publicly that, with unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), Saddam might have the ability to spray East Coast cities with chemical or biological weapons. And Congress was given fear-inducing classified private briefings on this.

Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, for example, claimed that he voted for the administration's resolution authorizing force in Iraq because "I was told not only that [Saddam had weapons of mass destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard."

Driving the need to produce evidence, however fantastic or fabricated, of a possible threat to the U.S. was a radical new twist on war-making 101. In the days after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney proposed that even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, must be dealt with as if it were a certainty. Journalist Ron Suskind dubbed it “the one percent doctrine.” It may have been the rashest formula for "preventive" or "aggressive" war offered in the modern era.

Of course, the fact that Saddam’s Iraq had no nuclear program, no biological or chemical weapons, no functioning drones, and no way of reaching the East Coast of the United States proved strike three for critics of the Bush administration. Missed was what was truly new in the invasion: not just the 1% doctrine itself, but the idea -- a first on planet Earth -- of going to war over the possibility that another country might be in possession of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

Until then, such a concept hadn’t been in the strategic vocabulary. Quite the opposite: in the Cold War years, nuclear weapons were thought of as “deterrence” or, in the case of the two massively nuclear-armed superpowers of that era, “mutually assured destruction” (with its fabulously grim acronym MAD). Those weapons, that is, were considered guarantors, however counterintuitively, against an outbreak of war. Their possession was a kind of grisly assurance that your opponent wouldn’t attack you, lest you both be destroyed.

In that spirit, between the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and the Iraqi invasion of March 2003, seven countries -- the Soviet Union, England, France, China, Israel (though its large nuclear arsenal remains unacknowledged), India, and Pakistan -- all went nuclear without anybody suggesting that they be attacked simply for possessing such weapons. An eighth country -- white-ruled South Africa -- actually assembled six nuclear weapons, and later became the only country to de-nuclearize itself. South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, and Brazil all had incipient nuclear programs, though none produced weapons. Japan is today considered to be at a point the Iranians have not yet reached: “breakout capacity,” or the ability to build a nuclear weapon relatively quickly if a decision to do so were made. In 2006, North Korea set off its first nuclear test and, within years, had become the ninth active nuclear power.

In other words, in 2003, the idea that the possession of nuclear weapons or simply of an "active" nuclear program that might one day produce such weapons was a casus belli represented something new. And when it became clear that Saddam had no nuclear program, no weapons of mass destruction at all, that explanation for American war-making, for what Jonathan Schell once dubbed “disarmament wars” -- so visibly fraudulent -- seemed to disappear into the dustbin of history.

War and the Presidential “I”

Until now, that is.

Whether he meant to or not, in his latest version of Iran war policy President Obama has built on the Bush precedent. His represents, however, an even more extreme version, which should perhaps be labeled the 0% Doctrine. In holding off an Israeli strike that may itself be nothing but a bluff, he has defined a future Iranian decision to build a nuclear weapon as a new form of aggression against the United States. We would, as the president explained to Jeffrey Goldberg, be committing our military power against Iran not to prevent an attack on the U.S. itself, but a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

And by the way, note that he didn’t say, “We don’t bluff.” His formulation was: “I don’t bluff.” And that “I” should not be ignored. The Bush administration promoted a cult of presidential power, of (as they called it at the time) a “unitary executive.” No one in the White House uses such a term these days, any more than they use the term “Global War on Terror,” but if both terms have disappeared, the phenomena they named have only intensified.

The Global War on Terror, with its burgeoning secret military, the elite special operations forces, and its growing drone air force, controlled in part by the CIA, should be thought of as the president’s private war. In addition, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley wrote recently, when it comes to drone assassinations (or “targeted killings” as they are now more politely known), Attorney General Eric Holder has just claimed for the president the “authority to kill any American if he unilaterally determines them to be a threat to the nation.” In doing so, added Turley, “Obama has replaced the constitutional protections afforded to citizens with a ‘trust me’ pledge.” With terror in its crosshairs, war, in other words, is increasingly becoming the president’s private preserve and strikes on the enemy, however defined, a matter of his own private judgment.

It is no longer a matter of “we,” but of a presidential “I” when it comes to unleashing attacks in what has become a global free fire zone for those drones and special ops forces. War, in other words, is increasingly lodged in the Oval Office and a commander-in-chief executive. As the Libyan intervention suggested, like the American people, Congress is, at best, an afterthought -- even though this Congress would rubber-stamp a presidential act of war against Iran without a second thought.

The irony is that the president has propounded a war-making policy of unprecedented extremity at a moment when there is no evidence that the Iranians are pursuing a bomb -- not yet at least. The “supreme leader” of their theocratic state has termed the possession of nuclear weapons “a grave sin” and U.S. national intelligence estimates have repeatedly concluded that the Iranians are not, in fact, moving to build nuclear weapons. If, however -- and it’s a giant if -- Iran actually got the bomb, if a 10th country joined the nuclear club (with others to follow), it would be bad news, and the world would be a worse place for it, but not necessarily that greatly changed.

What could change the world in a radical way, however, is the 0% doctrine -- and the trend more generally to make war the personal prerogative of an American president, while ceding to the U.S. military what was once the province and power of diplomacy.

For more on Tom Engelhardt, click here.

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ABOUT Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished. Each spring he is a Teaching Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

The preemptive strike

The preemptive strike doctrine, attributed initially to Republican "neo-con" adherents of the Project for a New American Century, is apparently the "new normal" in international relations. Republicans and Democrats bought the argument when the Bush Administration made the case that a clear-and-present danger existed in Iraq. What is less excusable is that they continue to support such thinking after the WMD threat in Iraq proved false!

The foreign policy irony in response to Iran's nuclear ambitions is that in the name of safety and security we are more at risk of WWIII than ever! And yet as difficult as this reality is to miss in this "preemptive war era", the counter-intuitive nature of launching a war to prevent a war routinely flies over people's heads. What a difference a decade can make, especially when coupled with a staggering degree of collective memory loss on the part of Americans!

The "zero percent doctrine" applies to much, much more. Consider how liberals and conservatives got together to support the commodities and financial modernization acts under the Clinton Administration. When deregulation spawned the too-big-to-fail banks and unprecedented food and energy speculation commenced on the commodities exchange --- for which we are paying at the gas pump and in the grocery store --- lawmakers' before-the-fact collusion received a free pass from a largely uncritical media. All the while, beltway "talking heads" continue to go on cable news channels complaining about how a post-Depression system of regulations harms businesses and costs consumers money. Never mind the glaring fact that unchecked risk taking encourages an overly volatile, bubble-based economy! Don't they get it yet? When those bubbles burst we pay the piper too --- arguably to an even larger degree than we did when Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act restrictions were in place! And yet, in our lawmakers' irrationally exuberant millennial-inspired haste, liberals and conservatives glibly dismantled regulations in the energy, commodities and financial services sector. Hence we suffered the DOT-com crash, the collapse of Enron and now the housing bubble "credit crisis". This is no accident of mass stupidity. It's the predictable product of politicians' legislation in deference to lobbying firm perks and pressures --- many for the sake of a campaign donation, many more for the sake of scoring a juicy post-public service job for those very same industries!

The message seems to be: Display a God-like level of confidence that your legislative or war efforts are well founded, only to distance and disconnect yourself from the outcome when it crashes down and caves in. And the secret of all the madness is this: If you, as a politician, want people to ignore your corrupt ways, don't tax them sufficiently to pay for your misguided "reforms" and undeclared wars! (As long as it isn't coming out of taxpayers' pockets you can buy time before voters awaken to the bipartisan nature of the problem and begin to complain that elected representatives are abusing the public trust.) Until such time as the public awakens to the mass undoing of their interests by *both parties* politicians and pundits will continue to parrot the usual partisan talking points, diverting attention toward relatively inconsequential news-of-the-day topics even as the proverbial elephant in the room gets barely a mention in the presidential debates! Why? Because most voters fall for scapegoat tactics and cynical political posturing, failing to appreciate that the parties emphasize their differences for the camera while agreeing with one another on the major issues behind chamber doors.

When we're too busy to mind our democratic Republic we're bound to lose our democratic Republic. If not to outright takeover we are certainly opening ourselves up to the self-inflicted wound of bleeding money, lives and resources for military efforts we're unwilling to pay for (not to mention the troops we too often fail when they come home suffering from mental and physical injuries). Thanks now to the preemptive strike doctrine we've got trillion-dollar war deficits that make the impending social security finance fiasco pale by comparison. Little over ten years ago, who would have thought we would trade the threat of terrorism for the reality of insolvency --- a decline of our own making?

Apparently we as a country, whether as citizens, journalists or public servants, haven't given much depth-of-thought to anything we do and that's precisely the problem. It falls upon us --- the few of us who take notice --- to wake the rest of America up. It's now or never folks!

Thanks, Tom. This is an

Thanks, Tom. This is an excellent analysis (as opposed to much of the socialistic drivel so frequently plastered on this site.)

On the concerning side remains the fact that Iran is engaging in aggressively acts against the US now.

All in all, though, I think we’re much better off waiting for someone else to throw the first punch before we beat down the whole bar. The problem here, of course, isn't a few soldiers that we can crush while crossing a border, but a literal Armageddon. As tough as that might be, though, any good rule here should be used consistently regardless of scale—no punching until being punched.

Free Market Underdog

If you're looking for the

If you're looking for the return to the wisdom of the Foundng Fathers, take a look at Ron Paul. If you don't like all of his points, then look at the Libertarian Party.

Free Market Underdog

Is there still democracy,

Is there still democracy, when the exceptions out-number the rules?

This is a continuation of the

This is a continuation of the Bush/Cheney coup, without imagination, the same.
Making an open threat guarantees the march of the Reich goes on while at once assuming dictatorial powers. Acting crazy enough to provoke an unnecessary war is no different than pretending to be sane.

It's quite a bit simpler than

It's quite a bit simpler than stated here. Iran, under its present administration, has shown itself enthusiastic and capable of aggressive killings throughout the Middle East and beyond. Ignoring for the moment the fact that we created the situation which led to our present mess - to ensure profits to Aramco - we still have prodigious stakes in permitting a whacko government to build & deploy nuclear weapons. We perhaps should have stopped North Korea, but nobody proposes that they are irrational. They're just vicious. But Iran? They are attacking all over the world, with particular emphasis on Great & Little Satan. They have proxy armies in Lebanon & Gaza, and a proxy nation in Syria. They also would provoke a massive nuclear arms race in the one part of the world where reason plays no part whatsover in social and political discourse. So if Iran gets the bomb, then Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the lesser Achilles minions would feel overwhelmingly threatened, would build, and eventually someone would shoot.

Furthermore, contrary to what is implied here about delivery, Iran already has a very threatening delivery system, with a capacity to attack Europe and soon the US. They would only need one nuclear weapon to disable our entire country with an EMP blast. If their work was so innocent, their intentions so honorable, why did they so thoroughly lie to the UN about their nuclear operations? Would you trust a government which is already shooting at anyone they don't like to not take such an easy shot at us? I certainly wouldn't.

I feel like the choices in

I feel like the choices in the ensuing election are all so abysmally poor that we would be best served with no president, no executive branch. If this were a choice, I might consider voting.

Yipes! I agree with those

Yipes! I agree with those who have questioned the quality of this article. I was shocked, and looked back to see who published this and where it came from. I never could figure out if this man was a dairy farmer or a milkman. The 2 photos looked like a before and after advertisement in the National Enquirer. This is not April 1st.

Yana,you've had to much wine

Yana,you've had to much wine tonight Dear, you're responding to a totally different story.

Barry will say anything to

Barry will say anything to get the jewish and their psycho-christian cronies vote. It's a shame that the killing non-jews and non-christians as a religious test to be passed has become a prerequisite for being an American president.

The President as King and us

The President as King and us as the new british empire. For all the lies and disinformantion noone seriously felt threatened by Iraq but did at the time naiively think maybe they were up to something due to 10 years of saturation reporting that Saddam was hiding something and playing us for fools... when we were the one playing him, first off against Iran, then provoking and watching him go into Kuwait to be incubatored to death, then to prune the herd of his army in a literal massacre and tear out the throat of his infrastructure, finally to concoct a lie to invade for a demo war of shock and awe while they didn't even have a defense at all.
Now it is regime change in Iran, nuclear excuses are just that, hoping to do it covertly and with more sanctions but if not it will soften them up just like Iraq was so we can thinthe middle eastern herd a little bit more... it's not personal we are in the process if thinning ourselves too and starving some of us out right now!!!

He's got a lot of competition

He's got a lot of competition with himself. Declaring and exercising the right to assassinate with no due process, codifying into law his authority to indefinitely imprison people based on accusations and -- again -- with no due process, authorizing the attack of Libya after congress voted against it, authorizing covert wars of aggression where none are declared, repeatedly ordering drone strikes that kill hundreds of children, as well as countless (uncounted) innocent adults, sanctioning other war crimes (such as torture) by Americans and other regimes, aggressively and viciously pursuing and harming whistle-blowers while protecting the high-level government and corporate perpetrators of serious crimes...

This is the worst thing

This is the worst thing President Obama has done.

Michael, this may at first

Michael, this may at first sound trivial by comparison, but I think the worst thing Obama did was in the restructuring of General Motors. There he ignored the established priorities of the uniform commercial code by effectively giving unions and their employees higher priority than certain other creditors. It may not sound like much, but it establishes a horrendous precedent to have a president—an attorney and law professor, no less—so blatantly snub his nose at the law. This is potentially upsetting to markets, may make lenders less willing to lend, displays a disdain for the law when politics is involved, and is just plain wrong. It is disgusting and socialistic.
Free Market Underdog

Michael James M : You mean

Michael James M : You mean since the last worst thing that he has done, right ?

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