There is an old Canadian joke that Maclean’s magazine will give you all the news that you can find in Time or Newsweek with only a six week delay. The latest issue of the Canadian weekly lives up this venerable gag by running a cover story asking “Is it time to bomb Iran?” The feature-length article, written by Michael Petrou, is premised on the notion that those dastardly Mullahs are working to acquire the bomb and something, anything, must be done to stop them. As a piece of war propaganda the article is fairly subtle: it doesn’t advocate a pre-emptive attack but rather raises the possibility that one might be necessary (while acknowledging the practical risks). The goal of the article is to make war palatable, understandable, and forgivable.
Unfortunately, the piece appeared the very same week that American intelligence agencies released an authoritative assessment that, in the words of the New York Times, “concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains frozen, contradicting a judgment two years ago that Tehran was working relentlessly toward building a nuclear bomb.” This new National Intelligence Estimate shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the issue. In an article that ran in the New Yorker on November 27, 2006, Seymour Hersh reported that the C.I.A. “found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program running parallel to the civilian operations that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency.” The Bush administration resisted these findings and kept acting as if an Iranian bomb was imminent, going so far as to warn of “World War III” if Iran weren’t stopped.
What makes Petrou’s article hilarious is the mistiming: it’s like some who started to wear a Beatles haircut in 1970 or adopted slang terms like “bling” and “phat” in 2004. Silly Maclean’s, they started to bash out the drumbeat for war more than six months after Commentary ran an article laying out “the case for bombing Iran.”
Yet for all its hapless timing, Petrou’s article stands as a prime example of disinformation in the Bush/Cheney era. A closer look at the context in which the article emerged is in order.
For at least the last year, Cheney and his supporters in Washington have been pushing for military strikes against Iran, a campaign that intensified in the fall of 2007. That was the period in which various neo-conservative organs (Commentary, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal) started making huffy noises about the looming Iranian menace, said to be a potential nuclear threat as well as a sponsor of the insurgency in Iraq. Fortunately, cooler heads in the military and C.I.A. resisted the reckless saber-rattling of the Cheney crowd, arguing with great cogency that evidence for Iran’s nuclear program and its support of anti-American forces in Iraq were, at best, murky. In fact, there is considerable evidence in the other direction indicating that key policy makers in Iran want to reach some sort of diplomatic agreement with the United States and Israel.
That’s what makes the Petrou’s article a piece of propaganda, albeit of an ingenious sort. The article simply took the neo-conservative argument for granted, that Iran is a regional menace and an emerging nuclear power. It didn’t quote any of the skeptical sources that Seymour Hersh found a year ago. The vast majority of the sources quoted are from functionaries at neo-liberal and neo-conservative think tanks, the same smart folks that gave us the war in Iraq. To put it mildly, these are not reliable people.
If the author had talked to Seymour Hersh or an informed critic of the U.S. government like Juan Cole, the article would have had genuine balance. Petrou claims to have spent a considerable amount of time in Iran, but Persian voices are virtually absent in the article, aside from one professor living in exile.
There is a moral dimension to this debate that is worth pointing out. Should we bomb Iran? The biggest argument against this policy is simple: any pre-emptive attack on Iran would involve killing civilians. “You would stand to kill a lot of Iranians,” think tanker Rosemary Hollis is quoted as saying. But this is discussed as a prudential problem (if we kills lots of Iranians they’ll become angrier and more nationalistic) but not as a moral problem. Is it really necessary to point out that killing people is wrong? That’s why decent people are always reluctant to go to war unless there is no other option.
In the article Jeremy Stocker, of the Royal United Service Institute, states the obvious: “The problem is, once you’ve gone ahead and attacked a country like Iran, then you’re effectively at war.” It is curious that Stocker feels it is necessary to make this point. That shows how glibly we now accept violence. Attacking another country doesn’t mean you’re “effectively” at war; such an attack is in and of itself an act of war.