A pre-emptive anti-war movement?

Why President Bush’s critics seem more convinced that America will attack Iran than does the President himself.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

Years before Iran has even got a bomb, the debate on whether the US will strike the Islamic state already seems to be going critical. Every section of the media – newspapers, TV, the internet – seems awash with reports and opinion pieces on whether the US is preparing to attack, analysing in detail potential targets, potential Iranian responses and the potential regional implications of such military action.

US government officials are pressed into consistently denying that there are military plans to launch air strikes against targets in Iran. Yet the more US officials deny, the more suspicions are fuelled and the more the media ramps up the speculation and probing. What is driving this debate over a war that hasn’t even happened?

On the side of the Bush administration, the interest in focusing on Iran seems clear: it wants to divert attention from Iraq. With quite striking temerity, the Bush administration has accused Iran of interfering in Iraq’s affairs; this after having ruined the country through an invasion and occupation supported by Britain and other Coalition allies. It is easier for the Bush administration to blame Iran for sabotaging US efforts than to claim any responsibility for its military and political failures in Iraq.

Of course, one might be able to see the attraction for the US of a glorious, Kosovo-style air war against Iran, with no messy occupation and bodybags – part of an attempt to restore America’s battered pride and global authority. But in some ways the threat of a potential US strike on Iran seems to be more real for opponents of the Bush administration than it is for the American government itself. Why are critics of the Iraq war and opponents of Bush fixating on a possible strike against Iran?

Critics of the Iraq war seem to relish in poring over the latest US military deployments around Iran, in dissecting the latest leaks and statements of unnamed security sources and talking heads, while also speculating on possible targets. Here, the contingency plans and emergency scenarios that are routinely drafted by government and military bureaucracies are being feverishly talked up into a grand scheme of American imperial conquest.

Many seem keen to launch a pre-emptive strike against the Bush administration before the Bush administration launches its own against Iran. The logic of the pre-emptive strike cuts both ways: Bush’s critics seem to be pre-emptively setting themselves up to seize the moral high ground, in order to gloat over any potential devastation caused by a war with Iran. The attractions of focusing on Iran are the same for Bush’s critics as they are for the Bush administration itself: pre-emptively criticising the Bush administration for going to war with Iran exonerates Bush’s opponents from putting forward any positive vision for Iraq themselves.

There also seems to be something deeper to all this speculation over a possible strike against Iran. The debate appears to echo the old argument that it was the train timetables that caused the First World War: the simple existence of military planning is taken as evidence of the fact that war is inevitable, as if plans concocted by governments are beyond the reach of any puny human intervention to challenge. The debate over a war against Iran reveals a feeling of political powerlessness within the anti-war movement, which seems to think that war is a foregone conclusion beyond our control.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (UCL Press, 2007). Read more about the book here.

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Topics Politics


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