This is the transcript by V. S. of Richard Spencer’s Vanguard Podcast January 2012 interview of Jonathan Bowden about Iran. You can listen to the podcast here.
Richard Spencer: Hello, everyone! Today it’s a great pleasure to welcome back to the program Jonathan Bowden. Jonathan probably needs no introduction for our readers, but if you’d like one I suggest you go listen to our previous podcasts on a variety of subjects including libertarianism and Nietzsche and other things. You can also visit his website at jonathanbowden.co.uk.
Jonathan, welcome back to the program!
Jonathan Bowden: Yes, nice to be here!
RS: Well, today we’re going to change things up a bit. We’ve talked about deeper matters for the past month and today we’re going to talk about something that is both topical and pressing and that is the Iran question and, moreover, whether we’re going to see a war with Iran between either the United States or Israel in the foreseeable future.
Let’s just start out with this. And I’ll mention before we start the conversation that this issue is not a new one. Certainly, if you go back to 2003, Iran was part of the Axis of Evil, so-called, laid out by the George W. Bush administration and many people, including myself, assumed that there was going to be some kind of action taken at the tail end of the Bush administration. This issue seems to rear its head every, say, year or two. There seems to be a lot of chatter on blogs, in mainstream publications, in the op-ed pages of major publications that, “They’re about to get the bomb. We need to do something now! Israel’s going to do it. America’s going to do it.” So on and so forth. This is an issue that won’t go away.
But I do have a feeling that we are going to see a climax in the foreseeable future, maybe even in the next 6 months to a year.
So, let me throw out this question, Jonathan, just to get the whole conversation started and that is that maybe we shouldn’t ask, “Will the United States go to war with Iran?” Maybe we should ask, “Are we already at war with Iran?” These past few months there have obviously been cyberattacks. There have been assassinations of scientists. There are talks of major sanctions. So, is this really a long-term war that’s now just really heating up?
JB: Yes, I think that’s a correct way of looking at it. States have a medley of relationships with each other, and there are all sorts of disparate situations that states could get into with each other that stop short of armed conflict. Most states spy on each other. Even Western states, like France and America, have set each other’s spies on each other on occasions. So, all societies are spying on other national state societies depending on how proficient they are at that particular game.
I think Israel has certainly had a tacit war with Iran going for the last 3 to 5 years through intelligence, through selected assassination, through the use of advanced computer viruses, these Trojan-like devices that attempt to disrupt computer networks that seem to be related to the Iranian nuclear program.
Again, when you’re on the outside of these things you don’t know what is hearsay and what is not. Certainly, it was reported in relatively reputable media on this side of the Atlantic that the Bush administration looked at the option of a targeted attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities and that it was vetoed by President George W. Bush. The reason this was done, apparently, is because the sites were too many. There were 56 of them according to The London Times, and they were hidden in mountains and near Shia holy cities like Ghom, and certain facilities were hidden near hospitals or under schools and so on, and there’s been a proliferation of these alleged facilities since then apparently.
I think there’s a tacit war already whereby although the threshold of actual nation-state to nation-state conflict hasn’t been crossed you’re getting perilously close to all other forms of inter-state action that fall short of it. I think if you look at it the other way around, these targeted assassinations of scientists, one doesn’t know how high up these scientists are; you don’t know if it’s the second-string ones that they can get access to in order to assassinate; but there’s quite clearly a Mossad death squad of a sort in Tehran that is carrying out these assassinations. They’re not that often, but they’re often enough to make news. There’s little attempt to deny that Israel is doing it.
Now, this would be regarded as terrorism by most societies or state-assisted terrorism, but of course it’s not seen in that way by the West and it’s all against a background of whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons. I think Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Every society that has ever gone for nuclear power has a nuclear weapons threshold in auction in the background. Britain, for example, developed its own independent nuclear deterrent in the teeth of opposition from the United States, because they wanted to be the only one who possessed the bomb, initially. So, we had to go a convoluted route to get it ourselves, which we did followed by the French with the Soviet Union, of course, in major competition for nuclear threshold with the United States.
So, nobody wants other societies to have a nuclear payload. Even Western societies are leery about other Western societies having them. It’s noticeable that the two vanquished nations in the Second World War, the two principal vanquished nations anyway, Germany and Japan, neither of them have gone the nuclear route even though they could quite easily develop nuclear weapons tomorrow if either of them wanted to.
So, I think basically there is a tacit, low-level war, a sort of insurgent war, going on. It’s also a black propaganda war as well whereby pressure is mounted on the Iranian currency, the rial, and on Iranian oil exports, and there’s an attempt to make it as uncomfortable as possible for Iran to do business with China, with Russia, with Japan, all of which are big oil importers from the Gulf. What they’re trying to do is give Iran an option whereby if they turn away from the development of nuclear weapons as a corollary to their civic nuclear power program there are goodies in it for them. In other words, all of these pains that are being inflicted on them at the moment would be taken off. So, it’s a ratcheting process. It’s quite clearly designed to put the maximal amount of discouragement upon the government in Iran in the hope that they will decide not to cross the nuclear threshold and one imagines that if they made a conscious decision not to do so that this would be flagged up and that these pressures would cease or fall into abeyance.
RS: Right. It might, of course, have the exact opposite effect, which is that if you create economic turmoil and so on and so forth and give the people of Iran a sense that they’re entrenched against all these outside forces that it might have the exact opposite effect that they would go forward even more swiftly.
But I do agree with you that Iran most likely is developing a nuclear weapon. Whether that will lead to imminent holocaust or “blowing Israel off the map,” as a lot of our crazed Christian Zionists like to talk about, I think that prospect is rather dubious, but at the same time I guess it will certainly be a more dangerous world with another state with one of these weapons, particularly one in such a volatile area.
And so I have a couple of questions to ask you from what you just talked about, but let’s go with this first one: what do you think a war would be like in this case? I’ll mention just a few things. I think whenever the publics of the Western world hear about “we’re going to war” probably images World War II went to their head and maybe even trenches from the earlier conflict or the bombing of cities. This big kind of stuff. But one would think that Washington wouldn’t really want to get into a conflict like that. In some ways, my view is that they probably want this kind of undeclared, unending war to go on, that they want to have their war and eat it too. They want to bomb a nuclear site but then not have that escalate into a global conflict.
So, let’s take up that a little bit. What do you think this kind of war between Washington and Israel, perhaps, and Iran would look like?
JB: Yes, I think there are inhibitions on the Western side, which is why you haven’t seen strikes up to this time. Syria was developing a low-level nuclear weapon, but it was contained in one site and was relatively easy for the Israeli air force to bomb in one mission.
JB: The Syrians always denied that they had that site when it was in their interest to say that.
RS: Similar with Saddam Hussein.
JB: This incident being largely forgotten now.
JB: The Iranian situation is much more complicated and is spread over all sorts of sites within the country. It’s widely believed in Britain and Western Europe that Bush turned down a military option against Iran for all sorts of reasons, but partly because the nuclear payload and the nuclear tonnage that Iran possesses is so diffuse and is at a higher level of technical construction than regimes like Iraq and Syria were capable of or even Libya that bought a low-level nuclear prospect from Pakistan in the way that North Korea has done, of course.
North Korea has the bomb, but it’s an incredibly crude device. Cruder even than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons, and they don’t really have a means of delivering it, but it has changed the diplomatic ballgame in relation to North Korea by virtue of the fact they possess this weapon.
The deficit with the contemporary West is that Iran is an unknown factor. Iran is a far more powerful country than a country like Iraq, not crippled by sanctions the way Saddam’s regime was over 12 to 13 years prior to the invasion. This is the second Iraq War of the two that occurred in the middle of the second Bush presidency.
Iran can hit back in various ways, some of which are relatively subtle. One of the ways it can hit back, of course, is through oil exports. Another is that it can hit back allegedly through blocking the Strait of Hormuz, which is an important gateway and sort of nexus of the world economy. American navy and air force and army threatened that they would intervene to keep the strait open should the Iranian Revolutionary Guard attempt to close them in any respect.
Then there’s the possibility of missile strikes on Israel proper. Iran has 150,000 missiles, apparently, of one sort or another. Many of them quite low-level devices, but they have some big rockets like the Shahab-2 and Shahab-3 that can hit Tel Aviv and Haifa and Jerusalem without any doubt. It also has an army on Israel’s border, of course, and this is the Hezbollah militia inside Lebanon, which is their proxy force which can force Israelis to live in bunkers for many months of the year with lots of missiles coming over from the Beqaa Valley inside south Lebanon. So, Iran has a way to reach Israel, but it doesn’t really have a way to reach America or the Western world.
There’s the danger that Iran may lash out at Saudi Arabia, which is one of the paradoxes of course. Iran is not an Arab country. It’s an Indo-Aryan country. Speaks Farsi. Has quite a lot of ancient civilization. Persian civilization sees itself as the natural master of the Gulf, which intensely irritates the Arab societies around it.
America supported Iraq in the war against Iran, and one thing to remember Iran is that Iran’s defensive posture always seems to be retrospective. It always seems retroactive. Their military posture is pensive. When Saddam attacked them they fell back and fell back and drew his army in and in the end broke it and pushed it back out of Iran and invaded Iraq. But modern Iran has rarely attacked anyone else. But all of their military thinking is how to respond to an attack upon themselves.
There’s a danger that they could attack Western shipping in the Gulf with their missiles and how good their anti-ballistic strategy is no one really knows. They bought a lot of hardware from the Russians to take down incoming advanced jets that are attempting to attack their sites, but how proficient they would be, how schooled the Revolutionary Guard and the elite of the Guard, Quds, the elite that guards these installations, would be, how close they would be to a Western army in their fighting abilities no one quite knows.
There are straws in the wind though, which is probably why there hasn’t been an attack. When Israel invaded Lebanon last time, Hezbollah fought with considerable savagery and considerable acuity and surprised a lot of Western analysts because they knocked out over 100 Israeli tanks on the border using Russian weaponry which they’d been trained to fight with by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They lived in these tunnels underground built by North Korea. All these enemy regimes collaborate with each other, of course, on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
JB: Hezbollah guerillas, or terrorists as they’d be called by Israeli and North American media (Europe’s a bit different), hid underground and then came up with these quite sophisticated anti-tank devices. One of the reasons the Israeli Army didn’t penetrate further into Lebanon and they relied on the air force to do most of the attacking was because their tanks were destroyed on the border, and to do that you have to have special weapons to cut through the armor of Western tanks, which are very sophisticated today.
RS: And they had it.
JB: And they had it. Of course, Iran can’t buy anything from the United States beyond staplers and pencil sharpeners, so it gets all of its gear from China and Russia.
JB: The problem for the West, of course, is that Russian armaments are very sophisticated, but they’ve got a track of their own. Russia’s always had a technological track separate from the West. Indeed, it’s its own civilization economically. That’s why their able to put satellites into space and so on, and their satellites look nothing like Western satellites, but they work and everything and the technology in its way is very advanced, but it’s different and distinct, and Iran’s got quite a lot of it. Yeltsin sold them a lot. Putin’s been less keen on selling them stuff it appears, because he’s worried that they are after a nuclear device.
It’s interesting to notice that Iran and Russia are quite close allies, but Russia does not want a nuclear-armed Iran because it’s just another headache.
JB: And a proliferation into the Muslim world of nuclear weaponry. Even though Pakistan, a Muslim country, already possesses the bomb. So, there are all sorts of reasons why the West, under the leadership of the United States, is being coy about an attack on Iran.
I also think the Obama administration has quite a lot to do with it. I think they decided early on that they would not go for an attack. They would go for every other weapon before they opted for an attack. Hence the economic embargo, hence the blind eye turned to Israeli assassinations, hence the computer viruses which the Americans may well have assisted the Israelis in developing, hence the targeted sanctions, and the attacks on the Iranian currency, and the possibility of oil embargos. I think all of this is a stepping-up of what might occur, but it’s all short of an outright attack, so it’s quite clear that the West believes that Iran has some cards. Otherwise, an attack would have been launched before now.
RS: I agree and one important point that I was hearing is that Iran is a civilization in itself. It is a powerful state in its way. It’s not some banana republic or tin-pot dictatorship. What that means for the US is that if they were going to do anything they would really have to go the full monty, so to speak. I think the intelligence community and foreign policy-making community recognize that you’re not going to be able to swoop in and maybe bomb a facility here and there. That they’re quite diffuse and all over the place, but also that would create a major conflict in the region. It might even be a world conflict. And that if you’re going to do a major violent attack you’re going to really end up going to war. As you point out, that’s something I think they’re not quite ready to do.
You know, it’s interesting, just before we got on air here I was scanning the internet for some of the most recent headlines, and I noticed that Leslie Gelb, who if you want to look for someone representative of the establishment it might be this person who is part of the Council on Foreign Relations and so on and so forth, actually wrote a recent article in which he was warning against any kind of major attack on Iran. So, it is interesting to see that establishmentarians really aren’t on this.
I’ll just throw out a couple more things that I was thinking about while you were talking. The other one about the Obama question . . . That is that there is no doubt that one of the major reasons why he was elected was simply just disgust and exhaustion with the Bush administration. I think people were just tired of the wars. They were tired of all the “freedom is on the march” talk and so on and so forth, and he was elected as the peace president, and obviously the world was kind of duped by this, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize before he’d actually done anything.
JB: Yes, for not doing anything. Yes.
RS: I think most of our opinions really changed about Obama this past year though he has engaged in a kind of slow pullback out of Iraq where the US is effectively no longer at war in Iraq exactly. There’s still a presence there. But he also engaged in kind of mini-versions of George Bush-type wars and they kind of went in the back door against Gaddafi. They claimed that they were enforcing a no-fly zone. They never really declared war. Certainly, Congress did not constitutionally declare war. Yet, at the end of the day, it was regime change.
I’m just going to throw this out about Obama himself. I think Obama is obviously a mystery and I think of who he is and what he wants. It’s easy for a lot of conservatives to get hot under the collar about him and they think he’s a crypto-Marxist or crypto-Muslim or something. I don’t think he’s any of those things, but he is a mystery, and I don’t understand him myself. But my guess is that in his heart of hearts he is a true Leftist and that is he supports the brown people against the white people in any situation. I bet he ultimately supports the Palestinians and does not like Israel. Those are his instincts.
At the same time, he’s been one who plays ball, so to speak. He played ball when he was in Chicago in one of the most corrupt cities. It’s almost like a little country on its own. It’s utterly corrupt. He was obviously willing to play ball with the powers-that-be, and my guess is that he was willing to play ball with some of these powers within Washington and these include the Israel lobby.
So, I sometimes even wonder whether he wants to throw them a bone, so to speak, do some military actions that will please them so long as he can do what he really wants which is have his domestic agenda.
But anyway, those are kind of my responses to what you said and you can pick up on some of those if you’d like, but I’d also like to ask you a question that really hits at all these issues. And that is, “Why?” From a Realpolitik, maybe even isolationist, perspective there’s no possible reason why we, as an American, would want to go to war with Iran. Certainly, it would result in some sort of economic turmoil, i.e., higher gas prices, which means everything is going to become more expensive by inflation. The likelihood of Iran attacking North America is exceedingly unlikely. I don’t know why they would want to do that. And it’s exceedingly unlikely they’d want to conquer Europe or something. That’s just really not in the realm of possibilities.
So, it really is the Israel question. But why do people like Bibi Netanyahu and other in the Israel lobby in the United States, why are they so worried about Iran? They’ve been willing to make deals with them in the past. Obviously, there are Jews who live in Iran, and if Ahmadinejad were some fanatic anti-Semite who wanted to just wipe them all off the face of the Earth he would probably start with the Jews who are living in Iran. It would be easy to round them up and kill them all. But he hasn’t done that. Again, I don’t have much sympathy with people who are Muslims or much of anything Ahmadinejad says, but I also don’t think he is an irrational, suicidal maniac who wants Armageddon next weekend or something.
So, why do you think there are major forces in Israel and in the Israel lobby that are so obsessed with Iran that they think that Iran, if it has a nuclear weapon, that it’s over? And I’ll add in there, we should remember that India and Pakistan are basically in the region and both have nuclear weapons. That’s a very volatile situation, but we’re not talking about going to war with Pakistan. Why is this Iran? Is this just the big kid on the block, so to speak, that could really challenge Israeli hegemony in the Middle East or is it something else?
JB: Yes, I think it’s more the last thing you just said. I think for a long time now Israel has been a low-level super power in its region. None of the Arab states can stand against it, which is why these militias have been formed as para-statal entities to take Israel on. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip are Arab armies by proxy because there’s not been a nation-state war between Arabs in Israel since 1973, the Yom Kippur War, and it’s no accident that the rest of the world and the Arab world discovered that Israel had nuclear weapons during that phase of history, which is a long time ago now about 40 years ago. That’s why there’s not been several general Middle East wars over the Palestinian situation which rankles like anything in relation to the Arab and Muslim world, although they’re often selective about that. They pick that cause up when they want to and put it on the back burner when they want to as well. But the Palestinian issue is a very live one in the whole of the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, in Europe where there’s a lot less sympathy for Israel than there is in the United States.
I think the strategic game will change once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold line. I think the Israelis are used, in a sense, to having the whip hand over the societies around them even though there are major difficulties for the Israelis in having this enormous, restive Palestinian population which is disarmed and yet is difficult to control politically in various respects. I think that the game will change as soon as Iran becomes a nuclear power. Saudi Arabia will probably insist on having a nuclear device of its own to counterbalance Persian power on its side of the Gulf and then you may well see a new arms race to get nuclear weapons, which is quite an old-fashioned technology now. 70 years old. A lot of these countries are on the threshold of developing it. 34 states are interested in obtaining nuclear weapons according to the United Nations. Most countries like Saudi Arabia and Argentina and Brazil, they all have low-level nuclear programs. They don’t attract the notoriety of Iran’s, because of course they’re in a much less hot part of the world and the sensitivity that Iran might attack Israel with such a device is such that it’s got Israeli and some American policymakers in a lather.
The track record of Iran is extremely conservative and extremely cautious. I personally would make the prediction that there’s absolutely no chance at all that Iran would attack Israel with a low-level nuclear device. It’s the political and geopolitical changes that would result from the emboldening of Iran in other areas. The fact that a second nuclear superpower would be added to Israel in the region. Turkey might well consider its nuclear options as well if that was to come about. I think it’s much more likely if Iran does go nuclear that America would respond not with an armed attack but by offering NATO membership to Israel, which has been widely discussed in certain parts of the European media because of course it would impact upon European societies very directly and quite a few members of the NATO alliance don’t want Israel to be a part of the alliance because they don’t want to be dragged into the politics of the Middle East at all.
RS: Well, you’d have a tripwire in the Middle East if that’s the case. If they were really part of NATO in the sense of “an attack on one is an attack on all.” We could be involved in wars every couple of years.
JB: Yes and there are many electorates in Europe, the German electorate in particular and the French electorate are quite different electorates but for different reasons they have very little inclination to get involved in that sort of thing. The German electorate is extremely isolationist and doesn’t even like peacekeeping and UN missions abroad. Hence the almost invisible element of German arms in Afghanistan, for example, and the French electorate, which is quite anti-Zionist and quite anti-Israeli whatever the government of the day may say, is paradoxically also quite anti-Turkish as well. There’s a lot of speculation that Turkey would leave the NATO alliance if Israel would join, which would be, for many Western policymakers, a major headache because Turkey’s a more powerful country than it used to be. It used to be an ally of Israel’s, of course, but relations have soured immeasurably in the last 5 to 10 years and it’s quite possible that you could see an alliance of convenience emerge between Turkey and Iran, who also have a few interests in common in relation to Kurdish minorities and other issues that get them to talk to each other.
There are many problematical things here. It is a game changer. That’s why it’s important. That’s why the ex-prime minister, Tony Blair, goes around the world talking about Iran with the obsessionality of some of these American neo-conservatives. It is an issue. It’s also probably an issue that quite a few Western policymakers don’t want to face. They just regard it as a sort of Gradgrind Zionist issue that if it wasn’t for Israel’s squeamishness in this regard they could have an easy time over it because Iran’s development of these nuclear weapons doesn’t threaten anyone with the sole exception of Israel.
JB: Who are already armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons of their own which they can equip their F-16s with up in the air and then respond to any attack on Israel. But Israel’s had those weapons for a long time. What its nuclear weapons tend to do is stabilize the situation in a retrospective manner. No one really wishes to use them because of the destructivity of these weapons. Therefore, they’re forced into edgy compromises that they wouldn’t really have been so keen on in the past.
RS: Let’s talk about that, Jonathan. This is something I was thinking about as you were going through these things and that is that throughout the Cold War “The Bomb,” nuclear weapons, were an imminently important aspect of foreign policymaking. They were also an important aspect of the public imagination.
I guess I’m a child of the Cold War. I was born in 1978, so I remember the tail-end of it, but the idea of a nuclear winter, the annihilation and bombing of cities, these unbelievably horrific notions were there in the back of people’s minds and I guess there was a kind of mutually assured destruction idea between these two powers that kept a lot of these aggressive tendencies at bay and they tend to fight proxy wars in Vietnam and so on and so forth, but Washington and Moscow were not going to directly confront one another. In many ways that was a good thing.
After that we entered a period of time where people were talking about asymmetrical power, fighting vague notions like terrorism, fighting extremely diffuse networks like Al-Qaeda and so on and so forth. We really had a different era. And also you had the whole humanitarian peacekeeping aspect thrown into the mix. Do you think we might be entering a new geopolitical realm where “The Bomb” rears its head again? As you mentioned, it’s ironic or a kind of return of the repressed or something. You have what is ultimately an old technology, but one that is extremely powerful and devastating, that we’re going to have a new geopolitics that will emerge in which obviously Russia will have a renewed importance as someone who might be skeptical of Iran getting a nuclear weapon but they certainly don’t want to see a war, that we might have a kind of new geopolitical arena if this happens.
So, talk a little bit about that, about what a game change would look like.
JB: Yes. Israel’s real nightmare is that Iran would arm Hezbollah with low-level nuclear devices right on Israel’s border, and you’d have low-level missiles that could target directly into Israeli cities, and Hezbollah, although they’re totally under Iranian control really, is believed to be fanatical enough to want to carry out such attacks. That’s questionable given that they have a role in the Lebanese state, that they’re aligned with Christian militias now which never used to be the case, and they had MPs in the parliament in Beirut, so Hezbollah’s become very much part of the society in Lebanon now.
But they do form this Shia bloc across the Middle East, which of course in Western terms we have to see it as a Protestant-Catholic split in Islam whereby if you go from the Iranian border through Iraq you have the large Shia majority in Iraq, which of course Saddam Hussein kept out of power — that was the purpose of his regime, irrespective of the relationship with the Kurds in the north — and then you go through Jordan into the Lebanese territory where there’s a large Shia bloc there. The Shia are only 10% of Muslims worldwide, but their proportion in the Middle East is much higher, and the Shia have always felt themselves kept out of power unfairly in the Islamic world where the Sunni predominate, as in Saudi Arabia where the holy places are.
It appears to me that one of the unperceived consequences of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq is the coming to power of Iranian influence in Iraq, which I also think plays into many of these areas.
America is well aware of the Iranian special relationship with the al-Maliki government in Baghdad, because the Shia in the south of Iraq look to Iran as their spiritual leaders. During the Iran-Iraq War, many Shia in the south wouldn’t fight for Saddam Hussein against their brother Shias in Iran even though there is an ethnic difference between Arabs and Persians.
So, the interesting thing is that Iranian influence has come to power in Iraq under American guns. As soon as you switch from the Sunnis to the Shia inside Iraq, which for reasons of democratic legitimacy you had to do because the Shia are 60% of the Iraqi population and can’t be kept out of power in a government which intends to be democratic, America was facilitating Iranian influence throughout Iraq. That’s one of the many, many ironies of this war. This enemy that is construed as fanatical and maniacal in a certain respect has actually cut a license to come to power or has considerable influence in the new Iraq which was created by American weapons. All these multi-party elections that the Americans insisted on. All of them enshrined various forms of Islamic power that tended to be Shia.
There have been two versions of Shia power since the Americans went into Iraq but one was more secular and the one that is in power at the moment is slightly more religious and there’s the Sadrists, the power bloc of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia who is believed to have quasi-divine powers by some of the poverty-stricken Shia in the slums of Baghdad, such as in Sadr City. His political movement was always anti-American unlike the rest of the Shia who collaborated with the United States when Bush went in because they wanted to see an end to al-Bakr’s rule. The point of al-Bakr’s rule was to keep the Shia out of power and to keep the oil wealth for the Sunni minority, and Saddam did that quite successfully.
One of the great mysteries, of course, is why the United States and Saddam fell out, because Saddam was a keen client of the United States and for a long while was America’s man in the Gulf against Iran in the extraordinarily destructive war that the two countries fought, the Iran-Iraq War, when the United States and Saudi Arabia armed Iraq to the teeth under Saddam Hussein. That’s where he got his chemical weapons from to use against the Iranians.
RS: Right. There’s an infamous episode in which a diplomat, I believe her name is April Glaspie or something like that . . .
JB: Yes, that’s right.
RS: And she actually sent or she might even have told Saddam in person . . . I think she at least sent him a message that said the US will look the other way if you decide to take actions against Kuwait. I guess it was in many ways emblematic.
JB: Yes, Saddam was always very aggrieved. He believed the United States had given him the right to retain Kuwait as an Iraqi province. Historically, Kuwait has been an Iraqi province in the past. All of these countries have interchangeable borders because of the Arab notion of the caliphate and nationalism is a relatively new construct although national feeling has always existed. There’s always been something of an Iraq; there’s always been something of a Syria; there’s always been something of an Egypt; but nationalism in the Western sense is a relatively new import to the Middle East. That’s why most radical Islamists, of course, don’t believe in any of these state societies. They want a caliphate of Islamic power that crosses all boundaries and links all Arabs and Muslims together in one brotherhood. Of course, they actually have had that at certain times in their past.
RS: Well, it was actually Christians who founded the Ba’ath Party, I believe, so in some ways the kind of nationalism that Saddam represented was a bit of a Western import.
JB: Yes, that’s right. It was modeled on his own personal fascination with Joseph Stalin – Georgia is not that far away from Iraq, socialism in one country, of course — and a sort of Arab Fascism.
JB: Christian intellectuals and ideologues attended the Nuremberg rallies in the 1930s, and Ba’athism in Iraq, in Syria, in Jordan — where it never really took off although it’s influenced the Hashemite monarchy — in Egypt under Nasser in the 1950s, all of those were influenced by European types of Fascism that went into the Arab world and were largely the product of minority sensibilities.
The Syrian minority that rules in Syria, which is under immense strain at the moment — it’s interesting to note that the West is tacitly supporting the insurrection inside Syria where 5,000 are alleged to have been killed by the United Nations during the course of this fighting, and yet that Ba’ath Party in Syria represents a tiny sliver of the Syrian bourgeoisie and excludes the Sunnis from power, which is the major complaint of his opponents. It’s not that it isn’t a democracy or a functioning Western society. It’s that the Sunni, the natural majority, are excluded, which in the end is untenable. You can’t really run a society when a large ethnic and cultural majority is excluded perpetually from power.
This is why you have a shadow diplomacy in the Middle East as well. Although all of the tension with Iran is coming from Israel and the tension in Washington is because, as Patrick J. Buchanan once said, that Middle Eastern policy is a Zionist occupied area. That’s largely true. That’s what that tension is. That’s what the gritting of teeth is about with this issue, but there are also many other corollaries as well because the Sunni power in the Middle East doesn’t view the Shia centered in Iran with any great favor at all and Saudi Arabia is as keen as Israel for Iran not to develop nuclear weapons. But I think Iran will develop nuclear weapons in the next 2 years. I think they will test a device. I’m about to put my head on the block now: they will test a device this time next year, and the world will change.
RS: Well, I think you might very well be right about that. To bring our conversation to a close, let me ask you an issue about the world order. I guess this gets back to the game change that has been a theme throughout this discussion. Since 1944, one could say that we’ve had a US-run world order with the dollar as the king currency. It’s a universal reserve currency that’s used in international transactions. It’s used, most importantly perhaps, in purchasing oil and so on and so forth. There was obviously a cold war that was a significant issue, but it’s generally emerged that you’ve had either one or two policemen but it’s been a kind of American world order and certainly after the end of the Cold War when there was no more competition for this for the past 20 years the United States and Washington has been a kind of unipolar power. France might dislike a lot of things Washington does. I might agree with France on a lot of those things, but there’s no real challenger. There’s no one who could really take Washington to the mat.
However, all things come to an end at some point, all empires die, and do you think that we’re witnessing an end to this world order that really began with the Bretton Woods accord, at least in my opinion, in 1944? That we’re going to actually witness that in the foreseeable future? Maybe this will occur economically, maybe this will occur as a dumping of the dollar or just a kind of withering away of the dollar in terms of importance. That’s certainly happening in one way. Maybe Europe will become a superpower. I might be a little more doubtful about that. Maybe we’re just entering a new paradigm in which China is going to become a superpower and not just be an isolationist Middle Kingdom but really want to have a major say in the running of the world.
So, what do you think about some of these issues I’ve brought up here? Do you think that, particularly if the United States and/or Israel goes to war with Iran and it creates some kind of horrible world conflict that I certainly don’t want to see, this might actually kind of be the last hurrah of the American empire, it might really express the fact that the paradigm is changing and the empire is crumbling?
JB: Yes, I think so in many ways. I think the election of Obama himself is a postscript to a period of high American neo-imperialism. I think the Obama presidency is a signaling, in complicated ways, that the American public wants to in a sense release itself from the chainmail of the imperial legacy.
There’s an important historian called Stephen E. Ambrose, who wrote a book called Rise to Globalism about America’s emergence from isolationism to play a major role in the world from the Second World War. Of course, there was a desire to do it after the First World War, but the political forces inside the United States forced an end to the Wilson dream and America turned isolationist again until the Roosevelt administration of the ’30s and ’40s.
So, I think you’re seeing a moderation of the American power base. I think you’re seeing the ability of the United States has to project power being quite severely curtailed. It may be that the Iraq adventure was the last time that America will fight a major Vietnam-style war whereby you actually try to occupy a country and even then, of course, America seemed surprised that they were faced with an insurgency during 2006 when America lost about 4,500 men when they had to fight guerrillas, national liberationists, Islamists, terrorists, whatever word you want to use on the ground. They surprised they had to fight that when it was obvious that when you fight these countries as soon as you get down to their level technologically — you might have big jeeps and big armored personnel carriers and Humvees and this sort of thing — that you’re going to be fighting men who are technologically on a level with you, at least approximately so, and you will take casualties. If they’re armed with Chinese and North Korean and Indian and Russian weaponry, you’re going to take casualties.
There’s no way they would get involved, in my opinion, in an intervention in Iran that led to an invasion and occupation. That could even lead to the defeat of the United States militarily, actually, if they were foolish enough to go down that path. Any war with Iran would be conducted with missiles and by aircraft and by taking down their command and control structures and by bombing their nuclear sites and protecting Israel from retaliatory revenge by Hezbollah and by Iranian missiles.
RS: They might not have a choice.
JB: They might not if they got more aggressive. If the Saudis intervene, if Iran blocks the Straits of Hormuz in a slightly desperate action to destabilize the world economic situation, which would immediately impact upon countries like Japan and China that import a lot of their oil through that strait.
You’ve got the risk of escalation. My mind is that the Iranians are cautious and will not go in for that. The problem that the Americans have is that they will be involved if Israel attacks Iran on its own. Israel can’t do it on its own. It has refuel its jets. It’s an enormous roundtrip for them to get back from Iran, and they’ve got to get refueled in the air by American tankers and only the USAF has the ability and the structures to make the Israeli operation work if they are to really hurt the Iranian nuclear efforts and to really put it back many years, which would be the object of the exercise. So, America’s involved if Israel goes alone.
I don’t think it will happen, personally. I think the Obama administration has said no and will go up to the line of war but will not cross war. If a Republican is elected later this year I think that can change. So, I think that the option of no war with Iran unless it’s an accidental one that they all stagger into because they don’t want it and it just happens the way the First World War happened through a concatenation of unavoidable steps but at each point in the step change people said that they didn’t want the ultimate outcome.
The relationships that Iran has with the West are very uneasy. Western policymakers don’t understand the Iranian mindset and they certainly don’t understand Western policymakers. The Soviet Union and the United States understood each other intimately and that’s why they could finesse their nuclear power relationship whereas America and Iran could stumble into a war quite easily just through misunderstanding what the other side wants. That could happen, but I think if you have a Republican president at the tail-end of next year, and Iran is still a year away from developing a nuclear device, I think you could see attacks on Iran in 2013. So, it’s very much dependent on whether you have a regime change inside the United States, and it could become a very big election issue in the United States if it becomes apparent to the US population that if Obama is defeated it will basically mean military action against Iran, whereas if he continues in office there is a probability that it will stop short of all-out military action unless there’s some precipitous shove from either side that gets people involved in a conflict that isn’t really in their interest, and that could happen quite easily when people are heavily armed and very propagandistically militated against each other, particularly as Israel is extraordinarily twitchy and paranoid about any threat to its security.
Well, there isn’t a threat to its security. The threat to Israel’s security is the demographic time bomb in Israel itself. The Arab birthrate is the threat to Israel. Armed groups, no matter what they prophesize on the internet and no matter what Ahmadinejad may say at student speeches at Tehran University, are really neither here nor there. Their threat is much closer to home. It’s the loss of political capital amongst the tender-hearted liberals of the West who no longer look upon Israel with favor. It’s the gradual creeping non-Zionism of European policy formation and the reorientation to moderate Arabist viewpoints across Europe and the Arab birthrate inside Israel and in the territories that could frustrate Israel’s course 60 to 70 years from now. Armed groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are useful poster boys, but they don’t threaten Israel’s existence at all.
JB: But people could get very irrational.
RS: Well, in some ways, to go to what you’re saying, military action is a kind of angry, irrational response towards something else and that is, as you were saying, the real threat to Israel is the demographic one. I noticed that in a book I was actually involved in publishing and editing, Richard Lynn’s most recent study of the Jewish people and Jewish intelligence, which is hardly any kind of anti-Semitic volume but at the same time at the end Richard is quite gloomy about any prospects for the Jewish people. He thinks that Israel is going to be demographically overwhelmed and that intermarriage in the West is also going to attenuate any kind of Jewish presence.
So, getting back to what I was saying before, if the new world order of the US that’s been with us since the end of the Second World War comes to a close it might really bring to a close Jewish power and Israeli-Zionist power as well.
Let me add just one more thought that I think is worth mentioning and that is that there was a burst of isolationist sympathy that came after the Wilson administration in the very late teens and 1920s. A lot of people might associate the “America First!” movement with the Tea Party or backwoods yahoos or something like that, but it actually wasn’t like that at all. It was actually founded at Yale University. It was, in a way, a last gasp of the old WASP establishment that didn’t actually want to be globalist and wanted to stay home and have a prosperous, kind of laissez-faire America. It was in some ways the last gasp of that and that whole ruling order has since gone by the wayside. We’ve had something quite different in the United States since the Second World War.
But if you think about the demographic aspect of that — a WASP elite was the core of “America First!” — in some ways you have to think about a new issue that America’s facing and that is a very chaotic demographic that’s emerging if it’s not already here and that is one which is Latino. The Black population is not growing to any major degree. However, it is certainly empowered and pandered to. It’s a question, and it’s one I certainly don’t have an answer for of how this demographic situation will alter foreign policy. It might totally reorient it. It might eventually make America isolationist. It might reorient America towards South America. I have no idea and I think demographics are key.
Certainly foreign policy is one of the most elite aspects of politics. It’s created by think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations and so on and so forth. Most average Joe types don’t really understand what’s going on or want to know. They might get excited about a war, but they’re not certainly involved in the nitty-gritty. But if America is going to remain a mass democracy, at some point that demographic element is going to hold sway and we might have in the coming 25 years a new elite. We might have a totally reoriented foreign policy. It’s something that’s hard to imagine now when we watch some of these horrible presidential so-called debates amongst Republicans in which they each try to outdo one another in promises of bombing Iran tomorrow morning. So, we might have something quite new in the foreseeable future.
Well, Jonathan, as we bring it to a close, do you have any parting shots on that issue?
JB: Yes, I think the Obama presidency is, in a strange way, a default position for lots of things that are coming and which are already there. He’s hedged in by all sorts of forces, and he took the White House with the support of all sorts of traditional Center-Left, Democratic power structures. There’s not much he can do about that. However, his instincts are to do deals with the Muslim world. His instincts are to do deals with Latin America. His instincts are to do a deal with the softest of the Palestinians to attain a sort of two-state solution along social-democratic lines like what social-democrats would like in Western Europe. His instincts are completely against the Christian-Zionist warriors amongst us. This is my reading anyway. His instincts are not particularly hegemonic in power terms as regards the US and the rest of the world. I think his instinct is to make America more like the rest of the world, and as the world has gone to live in America the one meshes with the other.
I think America may well merge in with the rest of the world and become more like Latin America, and it will have a foreign policy which is closer to that of the United Nations’ common denominator. Notice the globalist American elite of the last phase in American history has been at war with the perceptions of Latin America. Latinos always favor countries that the United States is against. There was immense sympathy even for the Axis powers in the Second World War throughout Latin America. Why? Because they were fighting against the United States. There was a certain partiality for Japan. There’s been a certain partiality for the Arab cause in Latino societies. That’s why all of these countries, the whole of Latin America, recognized this sort of de facto Palestinian state that isn’t in these recent maneuverings of the United Nations. Something that was totally opposed by America, most of Western Europe, and by the usual suspects, and of course by the Obama administration.
But we’re talking here about Obama’s instincts rather than what his actual policies are and what his administration does. I think you will see the Democratic Party become crypto-isolationist over time and you will see a reversal — you’ve already seen a reversal throughout the 20th century when the Democrats and Republicans changed places and the Republicans became the party of the white South when, of course, going back to the Confederacy they were utterly hated in the white South — so you’ve seen many reversals in the American polity, and you could well see another one.
There’s also a degree to which from a European perspective what Obama’s instincts may amount to appear saner. What worries Europeans are the trigger-happy views of the Christian-Zionists who want to go to war all the time in order to impose their values on the Middle East. There’s probably not a viewpoint in America that is more unpopular in Europe than that one. Yet in the American heartlands there’s probably not a viewpoint which has as much salience as the view that you’re protecting the United States of America by intervening in all these countries that most Americans have little knowledge of or little interest in.
RS: Jonathan, thank you for being on the program once again! We’ll talk to you again next week.
JB: Thanks very much! Bye for now!
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