There was Dick Cheney, as always, arguing that the only way to deal with Iran was to bomb it back to 1953. But President George W. Bush, on the unanimous advice of his generals, decided such a campaign would be a disaster—and Cheney began an end run that’s working wonders with today’s top Republicans.
Cheney, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, Senate upstarts like Tom Cotton, and virtually all of their party’s presidential wannabes have assailed the current administration for pursuing diplomacy with Iran. As the 2016 election looms, a hawkish neoconservative point of view that once seemed thoroughly discredited by facts on the ground has become the centerpiece of Republicans’ foreign policy arguments.
Cotton—the architect of last month’s patronizing letter to Iran signed by 47 GOP senators that threatened to sink a diplomatic deal between the countries—went so far last week as to paint a rosy picture of a U.S. campaign against Iran, saying it could “just take one night” and have no bad consequences. But if Cotton thinks critics of his war talk are weak leaders, he must really hate George W. Bush and his military staff, who nixed this very same idea in late 2006 because of its potential for “devastating” repercussions.
Writing in May 2007, Time reporter Joe Klein recounted how Bush rejected war with Iran as his hawkish defense secretary Don Rumsfeld was exiting the administration—and how Cheney started a “bomb Iran” whisper campaign that’s starting to pay off, nearly a decade later:
Last December, as Rumsfeld was leaving, President Bush met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in “The Tank,” the secure room in the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs discuss classified matters of national security. Bush asked the Chiefs about the wisdom of a troop “surge” in Iraq. They were unanimously opposed. Then Bush asked about the possibility of a successful attack on Iran’s nuclear capability. He was told that the U.S. could launch a devastating air attack on Iran’s government and military, wiping out the Iranian air force, the command and control structure and some of the more obvious nuclear facilities. But the Chiefs were–once again–unanimously opposed to taking that course of action.
Why? Because our intelligence inside Iran is very sketchy. There was no way to be sure that we could take out all of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Furthermore, the Chiefs warned, the Iranian response in Iraq and, quite possibly, in terrorist attacks on the U.S. could be devastating. Bush apparently took this advice to heart and went to Plan B–a covert destabilization campaign reported earlier this week by ABC News.
Interestingly, the troop surge in Iraq did eventually happen, but the Iran war did not: It was a bridge too far even for Bush. Absent Rumsfeld’s bumbling belligerence in the cabinet, Cheney no longer had the muscle to goad Bush and pro-engagement members of his circle like Condoleezza Rice into an open shooting conflict with Iran.
Bush’s decision to back off of a war stance led to some confusion among ambitious Republicans looking for slick talking points on Iran at the time. In the last days of his failed presidential campaign, Mike Huckabee, for example, took to the pages of Foreign Affairs to advocate direct diplomatic engagement with Iran:
Sun-tzu’s ancient wisdom is relevant today: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Yet we have not had diplomatic relations with Iran in almost 30 years; the U.S. government usually communicates with the Iranian government through the Swiss embassy in Tehran. When one stops talking to a parent or a friend, differences cannot be resolved and relationships cannot move forward. The same is true for countries...
Whereas there can be no rational dealings with al Qaeda, Iran is a nation-state seeking regional clout and playing the game of power politics we understand and can skillfully pursue. We cannot live with al Qaeda, but we might be able to live with a contained Iran.
Cheney, though, was one conservative who never wavered in his hawkish ambitions—so much so that after Bush nixed the war option, Cheney’s staffers mused about ways to get Iran to attack U.S. troops and effect a Pearl Harbor-style backlash among an American populace that overwhelmingly preferred diplomacy to war with Iran. New America Foundation fellow and Atlantic contributor Steve Clemons recounts how Team Cheney got its aggressive groove back:
One member of Cheney’s national security staff, David Wurmser, worried out loud that Cheney felt that his wing was “losing the policy argument on Iran” inside the administration — and that they might need to “end run” the president with scenarios that may narrow his choices. The option that Wurmser allegedly discussed was nudging Israel to launch a low-yield cruise missile strike against the Natanz nuclear reactor in Iran, thus “hopefully” prompting a military reaction by Tehran against U.S. forces in Iraq and the Gulf. When queried about Wurmser’s alleged comments, a senior Bush administration official told the New York Times, “The vice president is not necessarily responsible for every single thing that comes out of the mouth of every single member of his staff.”
But it’s not too far from what Cheney says these days, as he hawks an upcoming book titled Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America. His model of military confrontation with Iran has virtually become a litmus test for GOP presidential types. Jeb Bush has hired a bunch of Iran neocons to advise him on foreign policy. Ted Cruz—a signatory to Cotton’s letter—followed Cotton in comparing Obama’s recent proposed deal with Iran to England’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938. Marco Rubio is racing to keep up with the war crowd.
And Huckabee—who once called Iran a rational ”nation-state seeking regional clout” in the usual ways and advocated diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic—is now drooling, weeks before his anticipated entry in the presidential race, that Iran is a snake that needs killing before it bites:
“When you’re dealing with snakes, you’re dealing with an entity with which you cannot reason,” he said. “You can’t pet the snake, you can’t feed it, you don’t try to make friends with it, you don’t invite it into your home — you kill the snake, because the snake will bite you if it has the chance. And the only way to prevent the snake from biting you is to keep your distance, or kill the snake before it has a chance to get close enough to bite you.”
Negotiating with Iran “is like trusting the snake,” he continued. “You can try to calm, and reason with, the snake — but the snake is going to bite when it can. It’s absurd for us to consider that the Iranians are going to be anything other than what they are.”
Somewhere, somehow along the way, Cheney’s case for war with Iran—a case that even Dubya found wanting—has become the jumping-off point for conservative would-be leaders of the free world.
Does any of this mean diplomacy with Iran will solve all of America’s problems with the Islamic Republic, or that the current U.S.-Iran deal won’t come with a bevy of new difficulties? Of course not. But it reminds us that even the president who sent U.S. troops into the morass of Iraq could see through the rank avarice and stupidity of his Iran hawks—the same hawks whose flawed arguments seem to hold so much sway over the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential hopefuls today.
[ Photo credit: AP Images]