my pissant two cents

Friday, November 19, 2004

the lame duck who cried wolf

lame-duck secretary of state colin powell scared the bejesus out of everyone wednesday, when he said iran is working hard on its nuclear weapons program.

this seems like an odd pronouncement from someone who not only is a short-timer of the highest order, but also was lauded for his reserve and sensibility as the nation's top diplomat. what is more unusual is the speed and vigor with which the bush administration responded to distance itself from powell's comments. could it be that powell has gone maverick in his final days at the helm?

it certainly appears so, at least to some extent. while national security and intelligence insiders quickly stated that the information had not been vetted and thus should not be considered reliable, one calling the evidence "weak," state department officials backed powell's claims. powell himself said this is old information that "shouldn't surprise anybody."

the timing of powell's disclosure is somewhat surprising. particularly to the german, french, and british diplomats who recently reached an agreement with iran to curtail its uranium enrichment program in exchange for trade incentives. the multilateral approach that the bush administration rejected in dealing with iraq seems to have panned out pretty well in tehran, though powell's outburst seems to be something of a monkeywrench in the works. to calm the nerves of its european allies, the bush administration announced yesterday that powell had "misspoke." meanwhile, the new york times reports that many in the administration are at least implicitly pursuing a policy of regime change in iran.

the controversy is based on unauthenticated documents supplied to the u.s. by a "walk-in" source, believed to be affiliated with an exile group, the national council for resistance in iran, that is known to have provided inaccurate information in the past (shades of chalabi's iraqi national congress?). the group is also designated as a terrorist organization by the state department.

according to anonymous sources in the intelligence community, the documents describe an effort by iran to modify its conventional weapons missiles, which are said to have the capacity to hit israel, to carry a nuclear payload. at least one missile expert, john pike of globalsecurity.org, says that intelligence indicates the iranian military has developed a new nosecone for its shahab-3 medium range ballistic missile. (a distinction to be drawn here is that the european agreement deals with the fissionable material necessary to make bombs, while the developments powell claims to be exposing involve the vehicles to deliver them.)

the great unanswered question is, why would powell go out on a limb with this information now? david kay, the weapons inspector who headed the u.s. investigation in iraq, told the los angeles times that "if there was anyone in the administration who had been sufficiently burned by such sources, it would be powell." remember that powell refused to include the supposed nigerian uranium transaction in his presentation to the u.n. prior to the iraq invasion, calling it "bullshit."

could it be that powell is seeking to pre-emptively derail the new revamped, far more hawkish administration's efforts to march on tehran? if the american people, at least 48% of whom have presumably had enough of pre-emptive war, catch wind of another haphazard excursion, they may call bullshit of their own volition.

other critics of powell's disclosure have been much more pragmatic in their observations. namely, since the global public humiliation of false wmd claims in iraq, this information should not be cast about willy-nilly. citing the obvious embarrassment of the iraq situation, rep. gary ackerman of new york asks, "how do we expect anyone to believe us, even if we know it's true? this is the disaster we've created for ourselves in lying about iraq."

indeed, the problem is one of both perception and experience. the much-hyped "axis of evil" including iraq, iran and north korea has a mottled history on nukes. iraq didn't have any and got invaded. north korea did have them, and got offers of economic assistance to curtail further development. i don't know about you, but that seems like pretty good incentive to build the bomb. it sure seems to have worked out that way for iran so far. pavlov wouldn't have any problem sorting this out. but, as the n.y. times suggests, european negotiations are undermined by american threats, and that destabilizes the situation even further.

the perception problem is especially troublesome in the mideast, where anti-u.s. sentiment is already redlining, and the apparent ratification of bush's policies by the u.s. electorate, as evidenced in the election, has only upped the ante. what are our nominal allies in the region, like syria, jordan, and egypt, supposed to make of a claim that sounds surprisingly similar to the unfounded accusations that rationalized "shock and awe?" let's not forget that the bush administration has already rattled its sabres in the direction of syria for allegedly allowing guerrilla fighters to enter iraq across its borders. even if powell is spot-on correct, it will take quite something to convince them.

many in the international community, and domestically, are calling on the u.s. to hand over whatever information it has about iran's weapons program to the international atomic energy agency, the group that shot down the bush administration's claims of iraq's nuclear pretensions. such transparency would certainly remove the stink of american adventurism from any dispute over the investigation. and it would help legitimize any action taken as a result.

so this is what the bush administration has come to. the restraint quarter has taken to issuing reckless accusations while the guns-a-blazin' contingent pulls back on the reins. how this all plays out in the global arena is a mystery, but congressman ackerman is absolutely right: we are now dealing with the foreseeable aftermath of our lies, misrepresentations and obfuscations in the war with iraq.

and american credibility is nowhere to be found.



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