Point Austin: Another War for Sale
NPR covers 'Iran and the Bomb' – from A to B
I was reminded of this historical truism this week, as National Public Radio embarked on a weeklong reportorial review of "Iran and the Bomb" – that is, the U.S. efforts to prevent the state of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, such efforts proceeding despite the absence of any actual evidence that Iran is currently trying to acquire such weapons. The news hooks have to do with an upcoming report on Iran and nuclear power by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as a related September deadline imposed by the U.S. for Iran to enter into new "discussions" on the issue. The tone of the U.S. approach to such matters is aptly suggested by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remark, to The Wall Street Journal, that the call for talks is "not an open window for just delay and kind of rope-a-dope, you have to get somewhere."
Similarly, the NPR series led off Monday with this frankly unsurprising opening from Morning Edition anchor Steve Inskeep: "You may think the president who was willing to go to war with Iran has left office. If you think that, you may want to think again. ... [Obama's] top military adviser, Admiral Mike Mullen [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], recently used the same words as a past administration: 'With all options remaining on the table, including, certainly, military options.'"
Some Things Considered
What has followed thus far from Inskeep's reporters (as of Wednesday morning) is largely predictable – especially if you were listening to similar reports in early 2003, before the U.S. began its "shock and awe" assault on Iraq. The reports address how extensive a U.S. attack might be (most likely "broader targets," "weeks or months" of attacks, suggest the "experts"), how "effective" such attacks might be on the nuclear and military facilities ("There's a 30,000-pound penetrator that the Air Force is getting ready to field that penetrates quite a bit," helpfully reports retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Wald), whether Iran will counterattack in some way (very likely, with much more regional capability than Iraq), and, of course, reflexive regrets that the U.S. might be forced to take such actions. "Now, does anybody in their right mind want to attack Iran?" asks Wald. "No, not a bit. But sometimes you've got to do things you don't like to do."
Reporter Mary Louise Kelly introduced Wald with her own pragmatic hesitation: "Putting aside for a moment the question of whether that's [war on Iran] remotely politically palatable for Americans at home or U.S. allies abroad, there are serious practical challenges to consider." All Things Considered host Robert Siegel promised to address "physics and chemistry, politics, diplomacy, the military, and plenty of psychology."
Pros and Cons
Lots of very important questions.
But nothing at all concerning whether the U.S. has the legal right – under international law or even under its own constitution and laws – to attack or threaten to attack Iran or any other nation that refuses to bend to U.S. will. The NPR report does include speculation that should (heavily nuclear-armed) Israel attack Iran (as it has done before against Iraq and more recently Syria), would the U.S. be "blamed" as well? "But this scenario has downsides too," tsks Kelly. Again, the "downsides" include not one word concerning whether the use of force or the threat of force in international affairs – what in other contexts is reflexively described as "terrorism" – is by any stretch of the imagination legal (let alone moral).
I briefly raised these questions about the Iran series with the NPR news staff, via Senior Media Relations Manager Anna Christopher. In brief, here is her e-mailed response: The report "looked at the political and practical challenges and consequences of hypothetical military action. We did not set out to examine the legality (or morality) of any US (or other) pre-emptive military action against Iran in this series. ...
"The series aimed to examine how close Iran is to acquiring a nuclear bomb if it decided to pursue that capability, and what military and diplomatic options, and their effectiveness, the US has at its disposal to dissuade Tehran from attaining that goal.
"These nine reports and interviews on the main newsmagazines and online are a part of NPR's overall coverage of Iran."
The Drumbeat Begins
NPR represents the extremely "moderate" wing of mainstream U.S. news coverage. Over the next month, from the rest, we can expect a steady drumbeat of more widespread and aggressive "what to do about Iran" reports, with the increasingly explicit subtext that the U.S. (or Israel) might be "forced" to take military action. Yet even from its supposedly "practical" perspective, the NPR series fails to consider seriously the likelihood that war on Iran would mean years and years of terrible and widespread regional conflict, or worse – very likely a long-term multinational conflict that would make the Iraq and Afghanistan engagements look like bloody introductions to another century of major, devastating wars.
Shouldn't a remotely rational version of NPR's online intro to "Iran and the Bomb" look something more like this?: "U.S. leaders say the country's military planning exists only for the purpose of defense. Middle Eastern countries say the Western power aims instead to use its military might to intimidate Iran and its neighbors. How close is the U.S. to a preemptive attack on Iran? How might it be stopped? And what are the implications for the Middle East and the rest of the world if the U.S. carries out its 'contingency' plans? This week, NPR looks at the U.S. and its plans for preemptive war."