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June 23, 2006

Next Victim: Iran
or North Korea?

by Ray McGovern

This may seem a bit quaint, perhaps even obsolete, but it used to be standard procedure to require intelligence before deciding to make war. Unless you have been asleep these past several months, you know that this sequence was reversed in 2002 when the White House ordered intelligence "fixed" to justify a prior decision for war on Iraq.

The question today is whether that war-decision-then-intelligence sequence remains in effect as President Bush's advisers weigh whom to attack next. This is hardly a frivolous question. As the president's poll numbers sink and the embarrassment of Iraq rises, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and presidential adviser Karl Rove no doubt are trying to choose the best way to enable Bush to polish his favorite image as "war president" in order to stem Republican losses in the mid-term elections this November. There are only two countries left in the "axis of evil." Which will it be: Iran or North Korea?

Needed: Provocations

Earlier this year Iran seemed to have top billing. It has long been next in line as a target for the so-called "neoconservatives" running U.S. policy toward the Middle East. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was obliging with his provocative rhetoric against Israel, rhetoric that Bush was quick to use to assure the world that the U.S. would spring to the defense of our "ally" Israel. Why the quotes around "ally?" Simple: The U.S. has no defense treaty with Israel. This almost always comes as a big surprise to the audiences I address. Now I have come to expect it.

Few are aware that such a treaty was broached to Israel after the 1967 war. But a treaty would have required clearly defined international borders, and Israel would have no part of that. It turns out that the Israeli government was correct in concluding it could have the best of both possible worlds. Who needs a treaty when the president of the United States keeps referring to a U.S. commitment to spring to your defense? Iran, beware: President Bush believes, or would have Americans believe, that the American Gulliver is tightly bound to Israel and its policies, including its dictum that an Iranian nuclear weapon, or even Iranian knowledge regarding how to build one, is "unacceptable."

North Korea's "provocation" goes beyond rhetoric, as Pyongyang prepares to break its moratorium, observed since 1998, on testing its long-range ballistic missile. North Korea is now estimated to have enough plutonium for a handful of nuclear warheads, which could be mounted on Taepodong missiles. Some say a Taepodong might be able to reach Alaska, Hawaii, or even the West Coast.

Well, just let them try. It was precisely against this threat that the Pentagon has invested $43 billion over the past five years, and 11 ground-based interceptors are now based in Alaska and California. Bring 'em on.

Oops. They don't work? Who says? The Government Accounting Office, citing "quality control procedures" that have not been rigorous enough. The GAO has even considered sending the first nine interceptors back to Boeing for "disassembly and remanufacture." According to the GAO, the Pentagon has yet to prove that the full system works.

Former Defense Secretary Perry Has a Suggestion

Why not just launch a high-explosive cruise missile from a submarine to destroy the Taepodong on its launch pad, ask William Perry and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in an op-ed in today's Washington Post. The two deserve a hearing, having worked hard, with some success, under President Bill Clinton, to prevent things from reaching the current impasse. Understandably, there is a petulant "we-told-you-so" ring to their lament that continued "creative diplomacy" might have avoided the need to choose between "continuing inaction" and an act of war. Yet their remarkable recommendation shows that testosterone is not unique to aging Republicans. What about Day 2? Perry and Carter offer this: "We should sharply warn North Korea against further escalation."

Has everyone gone mad? Until now, serious people have not talked about a military option against North Korea's strategic program because there is none. Do the North Koreans no longer have chemical-laden artillery rounds with which they could saturate Seoul? What kind of threat does test firing a Taepodong missile pose to the U.S.? Really.

In the quaint past, the White House would order the intelligence community to do a serious estimate on this kind of issue. For the longest time, former CIA director George Tenet shied away out of fear from crossing swords with Rumsfeld. For years, Tenet avoided commissioning a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the status of nuclear production facilities in North Korea because it was a matter of such controversy with the Pentagon.

A Role for Intelligence?

After the debacle on Iraq, the disarray in which the intelligence community finds itself, and the steadily increasing preeminence of the Pentagon, it is – sad to say – illusory to expect much in the way of thoughtful, objective analysis from the CIA and its sister agencies. How much of a threat does Iran or North Korea pose to the U.S.? Are there any analysts left with the courage to say virtually zero? Not if the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal continues to hold sway.

Even more important, under previous presidents it used to be standard practice that the White House, before launching acts of war, would order the intelligence community to prepare a formal estimate regarding what was likely to happen on the morning after. During the Vietnam War, we produced several NIEs bearing titles like "Expected Communist Reaction to a U.S. Bombing Campaign Against North Vietnam." They were prepared with the utmost seriousness and served up without fear or favor.

Blue-suited generals fascinated by air power and senior officials under their spell were extremely unhappy with us when we insisted, for example, that bombing the North would not make Hanoi give up. There were bitter controversies, but we called it the way we saw it and were regularly given the back of the White House's hand. True, there were occasions when CIA directors, like the more recent George Tenet, "traded integrity for access" (as former CIA weapons inspector David Kay describes the syndrome), but those were the exception to the rule.

Is it likely that intelligence on Iran and North Korea will be "fixed" around White House policy à la Iraq? Impossible to tell.

A Role for War Games?

Where then to go for sensible analysis and judgments on the viability of armed attack options vis-à-vis Iran and North Korea? Would you believe the Atlantic Monthly? There you will find detailed accounts of war games with very senior, experienced professionals, orchestrated by National Defense University professor emeritus and war game-guru, Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner (retired).

The January 2004 issue addressed a possible U.S. attack on Iran, and the July/August 2005 edition recounted a similar exercise regarding North Korea, in which I was privileged to participate. Participants ran from right-wing ideologues like "Cakewalk" Ken Adelman, to centrist professionals like David Kay, to progressive Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Mathews (who worked in the Clinton administration). The bottom-line consensus? There is no viable military option vis-à-vis either Iran or North Korea.

At the end of the war game on North Korea, I expressed wonderment at the refusal of the Bush administration to use the diplomatic measures at its disposal – like the ones employed by Perry and Carter. Why not talk one-on-one with the North Koreans? This and similar suggestions by former Ambassador Robert Gallucci and Jessica Mathews were dismissed as "appeasement" by Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney (retired), who, before the attack on Iraq, had adorned the Wall Street Journal op-ed page with a panegyric for "Shock and Awe."

My best guess is that the McInerneys and Adelmans, together with Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rove, will continue to have the ear of the otherwise inattentive president. And Rove may turn out to be the preeminent player in this, whether Iran or North Korea is chosen as the U.S. target. For the synthetic urgency attached to these threats is a creature of the November election. The president will want to burnish his image as "war president" again, and the blue-uniformed McInerneys and Adelmans of this world are likely to second the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal and persuade the president of the need for a September or October surprise. Hold onto your hats.

Reprinted courtesy of Truthout.org.


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Ray McGovern's Bio

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years – from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.

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