Here’s a talk I gave a few months back to a peace group in Peoria. It’s still very relevant.

Target Iran: Historical Lessons Drawn from the U.S. Addiction to War and Intervention
Andrew Hartman
Bradley University
April 3, 2007

My talk tonight, made clear by my title, is going to focus on what the history of the US addiction to war and intervention can tell us about the likelihood of a coming war with Iran. My understanding of the history of US foreign policy is rooted in the work of a number of revisionist historians who came on the scene during the 1960s, especially William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko. Their importance as historians transcended the ivory tower, as they talked at a number of the so-called “teach-ins” that kick started the 1960s anti-war movement, whose activists always understood the importance of historical knowledge to the movement. It’s in that spirit that I want to talk to you tonight.

With Iran being in the headlines with increasing frequency, and with the Bush administration rattling its sabers and talking about Iran in much the same way it discussed Iraq back in 2003, a lot of people have understandably been asking the all-important question: Is war with Iran imminent?

I’m afraid don’t have a definitive answer. Historians are not in the habit of making such definitive predictions. If you learn one thing from studying history, it’s that the future is contingent and unpredictable. Historical actors were rarely able to predict the future, especially with regards to war, the most unpredictable of human interactions.

I will say, however, that US policies have created a context that makes such a war more likely, and this is a very dangerous situation, with possible grave results for the region and for the United States. I’ll come back to this. First, I want to elaborate some basic historical background about US foreign policy that might allow us a clearer understanding of what’s likely to happen and of what’s at stake.

The United States has been addicted to intervening in the affairs of foreign nations throughout the twentieth century, but this addiction became much more pronounced after World War II, from which the US emerged as the world’s most powerful military and economic force. This addiction to intervention has made the world much less safe. In fact, many of the dangers and instabilities in the Middle East are directly attributable to faulty US policies. The history of US policy with regards to Iran is a prime example.

As I hope most of you already know, the CIA mounted a coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. President Dwight Eisenhower authorized this coup – it was one of the first things he did when he took office in January of that year. The US then helped bring to power a brutal tyrant, the Shah, who was basically a despotic monarch, ruling with an iron fist for the next 25 years. The Shah was one of many murderous leaders in the world, one of the worst. The Shah’s power was entirely dependent upon US money and weapons. This history is instructive for our purposes in two ways.

First, it allows us to examine the motivations of US policymakers – the driving force of US foreign policy. Regarding the overthrow of Mossadegh, some of you more historically-minded people might say, “It was 1953, the heart of the Cold War. The coup must have had something to do with communism and the Soviet Union.” Good guess, but no. The large majority of US interventions during the Cold War had very little to do with fighting communism. If this were so, we should have expected to see a decline in the number of interventions since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. But the opposite has in fact happened. The US military is larger and more expensive than ever, and has been intervening and going to war with increasing frequency since the end of the Cold War. So what did propel the US to overthrow Mossadegh?

As Bill Clinton would have said during his 1992 campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Or rather, it’s the oil, stupid. Although most Middle East oil is exported to places other than the US (namely Europe, Japan and China), the nation that controls access to Middle East oil – and the nation whose currency is used to trade for oil – has greater ability to shape the global economy. Oil is power. Iran has the second or third largest exploitable oil reserves in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and perhaps Iraq. Thus Iran has long been of strategic consequence to US policymakers, which informed policy in 1953, when Mossadegh was overthrown.

Mossadegh was no communist and overthrowing him was not an anticommunist maneuver. Mossadegh was your basic liberal nationalist. He wanted to modernize Iran. But he needed funds to do this, and Iran was seriously in debt, so he decided to alter the preexisting arrangement Iran had with foreign oil companies.

What’s interesting is that, when Mossadegh came to power, British oil companies controlled most of the oil in Iran. The US wanted to change this. The US and Britain, although nominally allies, were in essence competing over who would control Middle East oil for the foreseeable future. Mossadegh thought he could play the British and US off one another, and perhaps the Soviets as well, to leverage a much better deal. This didn’t work – the US was far more committed to controlling and profiting from the oil than to ensuring Iran could pay off its debts – so Mossadegh and the Iranian parliament nationalized the oil. This spelled his demise. The US and the British then cooperated to get rid of him. But when the Shah was installed, the US removed British influence step-by-step. The Shah was a US puppet and US companies controlled Iranian oil.

You might then ask, if it’s only about oil, then why has the US intervened in literally dozens of nations that have no oil reserves? Also: why did the US wage a catastrophic fifteen-year war against Vietnam, which has no oil, dropping twelve times the tonnage of bombs on that nation that was dropped by all warring sides combined throughout World War II? Well, it’s somewhat complicated, because US motives are not very rational. Basically, the US has been committed to a naïve and utopian fantasy. It wants to remake the world in its own image. US policymakers, as has often been the case with the powerful throughout world history, confuse their interests with the interests of humankind. They think what’s good for Standard Oil and Halliburton is good for the people of the world.

Such an ideology, which has long been a part of US political culture, might otherwise be thought of as a way to rationalize a foreign policy driven by economic interests, or by what is known as the “Open Door Policy.” The US demands open and unfettered access to the markets, resources, and labor of the world, especially in the underdeveloped nations of the world. This has been the driving force of US foreign policy since at least 1900, when the US demanded an open door to China. No surprise, the US has been hypocritical in its application of the open door, never really allowing other nations a reciprocal open door but for a few exceptions.

But this doesn’t detract from the larger point: US policymakers believed that it was in the interests of everybody, everywhere, for the world to be remade in the image of the US. Of course, in the process of attempts to fulfill this fantasy, they often came to the hard realization that such a dream was impossible. Thus, US leaders committed themselves to the somewhat more realistic goal of aligning with authoritarian leaders who would protect US interests. People like the Shah.

Another problem then arises. Once one of the corrupt little puppets to which the US had committed money and guns was threatened, the US believed it was in danger of losing “credibility” in the eyes of all of the other corrupt little puppets to which it had committed money and guns. This is the real “domino theory,” which had little to do with communism except rhetorically. So the US became addicted to intervention and to “credibility.” You still hear this today, over and over again. Our credibility is at stake in Iraq, our leaders tell us. Our credibility will undoubtedly be at stake with regards to Iran’s nuclear program. We said we can’t allow for such a program, thus we must stop it by any means necessary or risk losing credibility.

So let’s review: the history of US intervention in Iran is instructive because it shows that US foreign policy is driven by economic pursuits, which is tied up in an ideology of what historians term “American exceptionalism.” According to those who view America as exceptional, the overwhelming power and goodness of the US means that it, unlike other nations, should not be constrained by reality. This leads us to the second way in which Iran is instructive for our purposes: US policy was and is in fact constrained by reality. Reality has a way of smacking even the most stubborn and intransigent nations in the face, even the US, which is the last remaining nation that believes it can act across the globe with impunity. And the reality was and is this: no matter how powerful, no matter how technologically advanced its weapons systems, the US could not and cannot dictate the terms of the planet. Period. And attempts to do so, especially by force, have been disastrous.

In other words, wars have unintended consequences. The only certainty of war, other than death and destruction, is that there will be unintended consequences. In Iran, the unintended consequence of overthrowing Mossadegh in 1953 and replacing him with a brutal proxy regime was the Iranian Revolution of 1979. A government hostile to the US came to power, and remains in power. And say what you will about the theocratic nature of the Iranian government since 1979, it determines its own economic policy, unlike most of the other nations of the Middle East. And this is why it is an enemy of the US. Iran is a target because they are one of two remaining oil-rich countries in the Middle East – Syria being the other – that has refused to submit to US rule. Iraq under Baathist rule used to be such a nation.
Let me give you some other examples of the unintended consequences of war in the twentieth century, which saw more warfare than any century in human history. World War I – which, by the way, was launched by myopic leaders who wrongly believed that military victory would be swift, much as Bush wrongly believed with regards to Iraq, not to mention Truman in Korea and Johnson in Vietnam – created the instability that brought about both the Bolshevik Revolution and Nazism. In fact, where communists came to power they basically acted as a force for stability. They brought stability to areas of the world made unstable by war. Russia is a good example. So is China. It’s hard to imagine a Bolshevik Revolution without World War I and hard to imagine a Chinese Revolution in 1949 without the brutal World War II Japanese invasion and occupation.

What about Vietnam? One of the unintended consequences of US military strategy in that war was to ensure a US defeat. The large majority of US bombs were dropped on the peasantry in the south, the base of support for the Viet Cong. The cynical idea on the part of US policymakers was that they would make the Vietnamese countryside uninhabitable for those who supported the enemy. As a US military commander infamously said, “Sometimes you have to destroy a village in order to save it.” This policy worked insofar as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese peasants, those who didn’t die, were forced to migrate to cities like Saigon. However, this forced migration created levels of instability to which there were no military solutions, much like Baghdad today. In short, it ensured US defeat.

At the risk of belaboring this point: one might say that Iran’s fledgling nuclear program is an unintended consequence of the war in Iraq. The Iranian government learned its lesson: whereas nations without the bomb (Iraq) are subject to invasion, nations with the bomb (North Korea) aren’t.

Along this same line of thinking, it’s easy to argue that increased US-Iranian tensions are a direct result of the occupation. Imagine a counter-factual scenario if you will: imagine that Iran had invaded and occupied Mexico in 2003, sparking a bloody factional civil war. Are we then also to imagine that the US wouldn’t find ways to influence this civil war, considering it would have the most to gain or lose (other than the Mexicans themselves)?

Another unintended and ironic consequence of the Iraq War is that it has made Iran much more powerful and influential in the region. The US destroyed the counter-balance to Iran that it helped cultivate during the 1980s: the Hussein regime. And now it has empowered the Shiite majority in Iraq, which has ties to Iran. This speaks to the seeming lack of logic behind recent Bush attempts to link Iran to the killing of US soldiers. The large majority of American deaths have come at the hands of the Sunni resistance.

So why is the Bush administration targeting Iran now? Perhaps because they are attempting to deflect attention away from the unmitigated disaster that is Iraq? Perhaps because it needs a scapegoat? Does the Bush administration actually intend to invade and occupy Iran? This seems unlikely given that support for the current war has fallen precipitously and US military capabilities are stretched thin. The more likely scenario is the current course. The US will continue to pressure Europe to impose economic sanctions on Iran that will hurt ordinary Iranians while doing nothing to lessen the power of the government. The US will continue to covertly aid anti-regime elements in Iran, hoping that such elements will create an atmosphere for civil war.

The US might even undertake “precision bombing,” an oxymoron if there ever was one. Of course, it’s easy to imagine that any of these scenarios could provoke a larger war – which the US would have to fight in order to not lose credibility. Bombing campaigns bring about horrible consequences. Take Cambodia, which the Nixon administration illegally bombed during the early 1970s in an attempt to destroy the Viet Cong network. This bombing campaign drove millions of Cambodian peasants into the cities, which led to incredible disorder. This then created a climate, or political vacuum, for the rise of Pol Pot, who proceeded to force the peasantry back to the rural areas, killing over a million in the process. A bombing campaign does not end when the target is destroyed.

We can talk more about the potential likelihood of war with Iran in the questions and answers session if you like. For now, I want to leave you with three warnings. First, DO NOT believe a word that comes out of the mouths of the Bush administration. Governments lie, plain and simple, even those that are supposedly democratic like ours. Some might say that the Bush administration lies more than others, which is plausible. Many of those who have advised Bush over the past six years are disciples of the late University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss, the “father of neo-conservatism,” who, as a modern day incarnation of Machiavelli, advised his would-be princes that subjects aren’t capable of understanding the complexities of the world. Therefore, political leaders must lie. Strauss was especially adamant that, in order for leaders to be given free reign, the people must be afraid. When people are afraid, they’ll believe just about anything said by those in power.

But the Bush administration has no monopoly on lying. Harry Truman knowingly lied in 1947, overestimating the power and threat level posed by the Soviet Union abroad and communists at home. In the words of Senator Arthur Vandenberg, he “scared the hell out of Americans” in order to convince a reluctant American people to commit to his extremely expensive foreign policy plans, which included the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the creation of NATO. Franklin Delano Roosevelt also deceived the American public, hiding from view his dangerous brinksmanship with Japan, which is why Pearl Harbor was a surprise to everyone but FDR and his closest advisors. Both Truman and FDR were Democrats, beacons of liberalism. Republicans and Democrats lie alike.

This leads me to my second warning. DO NOT trust for one second that things are likely to change if a Democrat gets elected president, whether it’s Hillary or Obama or whomever. There has been a solid two-party consensus on matters of foreign policy since World War II. These parties might at times differ in style – which is why the same Europeans who seemed so smitten with Clinton now hate Bush. But when it comes to the substance of war and intervention, these parties do not differ in any significant way. The institution of the presidency forms the person, not vice versa. This is not to say that this can’t change. Most of those who opposed the Iraq War from the beginning usually vote Democratic. But the Democratic Party leadership has yet to be compelled to jump ship from this two-party consensus.

Third and last warning: DO NOT trust the media to give you the correct answers to these questions. For example, the media has been incredibly helpful to the Bush administration in demonizing the Iranian leadership. Any comments made by Ahmadinejad are dubiously translated and meant to convince us that he is a crazy man, a loose cannon when in fact he has little control over Iranian foreign policy, which rests in the hands of his superior, the Ayatollah Khamenei. Ahmadinejad says a lot of things, often contradictory, which the US media reports very selectively. When he calls for the destruction of Israel – front page. When he says that he agrees with the Arab League with regards to the two-state solution and to normalization of relations with Israel – buried, if even mentioned.

It is your obligation to read widely and independently in order to get some handle on the truth. Take the example of New York Times, which claims to be “all the news fit to print.” In the run-up to the Iraq War, the Times printed story after story that bought the administration argument hook-line-and-sinker. This speaks to two things: the executive branch’s incredible power at being able to dictate the terms of the national discussion. Because every major press corps has reporters whose only function is to cover the White House, when the White House makes an announcement, it automatically becomes a lead story. Of course, this doesn’t then entail that reporters have to believe what the administration is telling them, especially those anonymous “senior officials.” But they do. Especially Times reporters. Two reporters are especially guilty of this, Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, who uncritically parroted the administration WMD argument. Since then, the Times has issued an apology, and Judith Miller is no longer with the paper. But Michael Gordon, as chief military correspondent, recently echoed administration claims about how makeshift bombs used to kill American soldiers originated in Iran. Just like with WMD, he cites “senior officials” to support his claims without any useful or corroborating evidence.

This leads me back to one of my original questions: is war imminent? I can’t answer that, but it sure does feel like we’ve been here before.

Andrew Hartman