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Book Excerpt

Giving Diplomacy a Chance in Syria and Iran Should Override Power of America's War Machine

Negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program in Switzerland in 2015. (U.S. Department of State)

The following excerpt is from David Swanson’s book, “War Is A Lie: Second Edition.” The excerpt is published with the permission of Just World Books and cannot be republished without express permission from them.

Once you allow that there is an option other than war, your effort to start a war is doomed, or at least must be delayed. Bush had said he would not attack Iraq if Iraq turned over its weapons. But he had quite possibly known that Iraq did not have the weapons and therefore would not be turning them over. Syria actually had the weapons that Kerry said it could turn over and avoid being bombed. Syria had proposed years earlier to turn over those weapons as part of establishing a WMD-free Middle-East, an initiative blocked by Israel.

In 2015, former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari said that in 2012 Russia had proposed a process of peace settlement between the Syrian government and its opponents that would have included Assad stepping down. But, according to Ahtisaari, the United States was so confident that Assad would soon be violently overthrown that it rejected the proposal. U.S. and European diplomats deny that this is what happened by claiming that the Russian diplomat making the proposal couldn’t really speak for Moscow and shouldn’t really have been taken seriously, but their denials make clear that they were not open to believing any possibility of peace was worth pursuing. Incidents like this one—and the fact that Spain wanted the matter of the Maine to go to international arbitration, that Japan wanted peace before Hiroshima, that the Soviet Union proposed peace negotiations before the Korean War, and that the United States sabotaged peace proposals for Vietnam from the Vietnamese, the Soviets, and the French—wreak havoc with the public pretense that war is a “last resort.” When a Spanish newspaper reported that Saddam Hussein had offered to leave Iraq before the 2003 invasion, U.S. media took little interest. When British media reported that the Taliban was willing to have Osama bin Laden put on trial before the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. journalists yawned. Iran’s 2003 offer to negotiate ending its nuclear energy program wasn’t mentioned much during the 2015 debate over an agreement with Iran—which was itself nearly rejected as an impediment to war. The catastrophic Syrian civil war since 2012 has followed U.S. adherence to actual U.S. policy in which peaceful compromise is usually the last resort.

In January 2015, a scholarly study found that the U.S. public believes that whenever the U.S. government proposes a war, it has already exhausted all other possibilities. When a sample group was asked if they supported a particular war, and a second group was asked if they supported that particular war after being told that all alternatives were no good, and a third group was asked if they supported that war even though there were good alternatives, the first two groups registered the same level of support, while support for war dropped off significantly in the third group. This led the researchers to the conclusion that if alternatives are not mentioned, people don’t assume they exist—rather, people assume they’ve already been tried. So, if you mention that there is a serious alternative, the game is up. You’ll have to get your war on later.

And that’s exactly what the White House did in the case of Syria. It kept the arms and trainers flowing, even though in polls the U.S. public opposed sending arms and trainers even more strongly than it opposed the missiles, and even though a CIA report produced for President Obama found that arming and training rebels, in numerous cases in the past, had pretty much never worked, even on its own terms (an exception claimed as a success by the CIA was the arming of the Afghan rebels who later became al Qaeda; with that kind of success, who needs failure?). The question of whether to send arms and trainers was never made into a public question in the media or Congress. The U.S. government refrained from any serious effort to resolve the crisis through disarmament, diplomacy, and aid. It bided its time, waiting for a better package of lies. The lies of generosity had not been enough. Something more was needed, even if it would require coming into the war in 2014 on the opposite side from that presented as a moral obligation in 2013.

But why were generosity and global policemanship not enough? Well, some people may be somewhat aware of numerous places where the U.S. government supports brutality rather than using it as an excuse for war: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Guantanamo, etc. During the Arab Spring of 2011 and after, the United States had done what it could to protect its loyal dictators while claiming to support democracy. So the pretense of generosity may not fool everyone. But polls also suggested that a large section of the U.S. public believed falsely that past wars, like that in Iraq, had benefitted the locals while harming Americans—and that the Iraqis were not even grateful. This delusion resulted in bizarre debates in 2013 between those opposing bombing because the Syrians would not even appreciate having their country bombed, and those favoring bombing because the Syrians are just as good as you and me.While the lies aimed at justifying the bombing of Syria failed, and Syria has not yet been bombed in the manner planned, another lie succeeded marvelously: the lie of powerlessness. Despite the obvious role that public pressure had played in blocking the war plans, and the willingness of peace groups to take credit (including in the film We Are Many), many activists ran from any notion that they might have been involved. If the all-powerful war machine didn’t launch a war, they told each other, then it secretly never wanted to. With smug satisfaction, such activists then returned to antiwar activities that they clearly considered pointless gestures. It’s important that we reject the lie of powerlessness. It is in fact common for activists to discover the extent of their impact many years after the fact. And the full impact is never entirely measurable, but is usually much greater than imagined.

Another success in war lie preparedness is the holding off, thus far, of a U.S. war on Iran, including at a number of moments of crisis, including in 2007 and again with the negotiation of an agreement between Iran and Western nations in 2015. The longer this debate goes on, the more it should become clear that there is no urgent emergency that might help justify mass killing. But the longer it goes on, the more some people may accept the idea that whether or not to gratuitously bomb a foreign nation is a perfectly legitimate policy question. The Washington Post has already published an op-ed headlined “War With Iran Is Probably Our Best Option.” And the argument may also advance in the direction of favoring war for another reason: Both sides of the debate promote most of the war lies. Yes, some peace groups are talking perfect sense on this issue as on most, but the debate between Democratic and Republican party leaderships is as follows—with many peace groups parroting the Democratic leadership. One side argues, quite illegally and barbarically, that because Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, Iran should be bombed. The other side argues, counterproductively if in a seemingly civilized manner, that because Iran is trying (or has tried and intends to try) to build a nuclear weapon, a diplomatic agreement should be reached to put a stop to it. The trouble with both arguments is that they reinforce the dubious idea that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. As Gareth Porter makes clear in his book Manufactured Crisis, there is no evidence for that. U.S. “intelligence” agencies say Iran had no plans for a nuclear weapons program, even as both sides of the debate spoke as if such plans were established and menacing. Both arguments also reinforce the idea that there is something about Iranians that makes them unqualified to have the sort of weapon that it’s alright to voluntarily spread to other nations. I don’t actually think it’s alright for anyone to have nuclear weapons or nuclear energy, but my point is the bias implicit in these arguments. It feeds the idea that Iranians are not civilized enough to speak with, even as one-half of the debate pushes for just that: speaking with the Iranians.

On the plus side, much of the push for a war on Iran was devoted for years to demonizing Iran’s president until the Iranian people, for their own reasons, elected a different president, which threw a real monkey wrench into the gears of that old standby. Perhaps nations will learn the lesson that changing rulers can help fend off an attack as well as building weapons can. Also on the plus side, the ludicrous idea that Iran is a threat to the United States is very similar to the idea that Iraq was such a threat in 2002–2003. But on the negative side, memory of the Iraq war lies is already fading. Keeping past war lies well remembered can be our best protection against new wars. Also on the negative side, even if people oppose a war on Iran, several billionaire funders of election campaigns favor one.

In the summer of 2015, the United States and other nations reached an agreement with Iran. U.S. activist efforts then focused on lobbying Congress not to kill the deal. A big coalition that I worked with put the focus on preventing a war. But many continued to hype the baseless claim that Iran was a threat to the United States and was pursuing a nuclear weapon. One organization filmed a bunch of celebrities for an online video urging support for the Iran deal after hyping the bogus Iranian nuclear threat, pretending that the United States gets “forced into” wars, making a bunch of sick jokes about how nuclear death can be better than other war deaths, suggesting that spies are cool, cursing, and mocking the very idea that war is a serious matter. Another organization produced a video claiming that the deal would prevent the “Iranian regime” (never a government, always a regime) from “gaining a nuclear weapon.”

When I questioned supporters of diplomacy and peace with Iran on why they focused their rhetoric on preventing Iran from getting nukes, even though at least some of them privately admitted that there was no evidence Iran was trying to, they didn’t come out and say that they were cynically playing into popular beliefs, even false ones, because they have no choice. (A plausible argument along those lines might certainly have been attempted.) Rather, they told me that their language didn’t actually state that Iran was trying to get nukes, only that if Iran ever did decide to try to get nukes, this deal would prevent it. That same position, I replied, could be maintained regarding the deal’s effectiveness in preventing Iran from obtaining a ray gun that would strip you naked and convert you to Islam. In the long run, I maintained, we’re going to more effectively prevent a war if we reject, rather than repeating, the pro-war propaganda. Beyond that general problem, there were specific lies generated as this book was being prepared for publication. In August 2015, the Associated Press relied on a possibly forged document to claim falsely that under the nuclear agreement Iran would be doing its own inspections of a key nuclear facility. This was a huge story that fell apart in less than a day, providing great encouragement, I hope, to those who long to see war lies debunked swiftly and decisively. But how many people saw the original story and avoided seeing the debunking, I don’t know.

As this book neared publication, a sufficient number of U.S. senators publicly committed to the nuclear agreement to allow it to survive, at least for the moment. I drafted what I saw as the most important 10 lessons from this struggle:

1. There is never an urgent need for war. Wars are often begun with great urgency, not because there’s no other option, but because delay might allow another option to emerge. The next time someone tells you a particular country must be attacked as a “last resort,” politely ask the person to please explain why diplomacy was possible with Iran and not in this other case. If the U.S. government is held to that standard, war may quickly become a thing of the past.

2. A popular demand for peace over war can succeed, at least when those in power are divided. When much of one of the two big political parties takes the side of peace, the advocates of peace have a chance. And of course now we know which senators and Congress members will shift their positions with partisan winds. My Republican congressman opposed war on Syria in 2013 when President Obama supported it, but supported greater hostility toward Iran in 2015 when Obama opposed it. One of my two Democratic senators backed peace for a change, when Obama did. The other remained undecided, as if the choice were too complex.

3. The government of Israel can make a demand of the government of the United States and be told no. This is a remarkable breakthrough. None of the actual 50 states expects to always get its way in Washington, but Israel does—or did until now. This opens up the possibility of ceasing to give Israel billions of dollars’ worth of free weapons one of these years, or even of ceasing to protect Israel from legal consequences for what it does with those weapons.

4. Money can make a demand of the U.S. government and be told no. Multibillionaires funded huge advertising campaigns and dangled major campaign “contributions.” The big money was all on the side opposing the agreement, and yet the agreement prevailed—or at least now looks like it will. This doesn’t prove we have a corruption-free government. But it does suggest that the corruption is not yet 100 percent.

5. Counterproductive tactics employed in this victorious antiwar effort may end up making this a Pyrrhic victory. Both sides in the debate over the agreement advanced baseless claims about Iranian aggression and Iranian attempts to create nuclear weapons. Both sides depicted Iranians as completely untrustworthy and menacing. If the agreement is undone or some other incident arises, the mental state of the U.S. public regarding Iran is in a worse position than it was before, as regards restraining the dogs of war.

6. The deal is a concrete step to be built on. It is a powerful argument for the use of diplomacy—perhaps even less hostile diplomacy—in other areas of the globe. It is also a verifiable refutation to future assertions of an Iranian nuclear threat. This means that U.S. weaponry stationed in Europe on the basis of that alleged threat can and must be withdrawn rather than remain as an open act of aggression toward Russia.

7. When given the choice, the nations of the world will leap at an opening for peace. And they will not easily be brought back again. U.S. allies are now opening embassies in Iran. If the United States backs away from Iran again, it will isolate itself. This lesson should be borne in mind when considering violent and non-violent options for other countries.

8. The longer a war with Iran is avoided, the stronger an argument we have for continuing to avoid it. When a U.S. push for war on Iran has been stopped before, including in 2007, this has not only put off a possible catastrophe; it has also made it more difficult to create. If a future U.S. government wants war with Iran, it will have to go up against public awareness that peace with Iran is possible.

9. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) works. Inspections work. Just as inspections worked in Iraq, they work in Iran. Other nations, such as Israel, North Korea, India, and Pakistan, should be encouraged to join the NPT. Proposals for a nuclear-free Middle East should be pursued.

10. The United States should itself cease violating the NPT and lead by example, ceasing to share nuclear weapons with other nations, ceasing to create new nuclear weapons, and working to disarm itself of an arsenal that serves no sane purpose but threatens apocalypse.

Preventing the bombing of Syria is still our best model going forward, even though everyone thinks it was a very temporary victory if they acknowledge the victory at all. I say this because in that instance we were up against both big political parties, and our opposition came from across the political spectrum—even to the point of including people who found each other’s perspectives ridiculous. And while the Syrian crisis is ever worse and unpredictable, preventing that bombing prolonged many lives. Preventing a war on Iran is tremendous as well. Public pressure has even blocked a bill that would have committed the United States to join in any war between Israel and Iran. But this issue has been made partisan. President Obama and the Democrats, even while promoting the war lies, are on the antiwar side—hoping for Iranian help in a war in Iraq. Partisanship makes organizing and educating difficult in the extreme, and intentions hard to judge. Although presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has said she’d be willing to “totally obliterate” the people of Iran if Iran attacked Israel, countless Democrats who support all kinds of wars argue that in the case of Iran a war should wait until diplomacy has had a chance. Well, why shouldn’t every war wait for that?

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.

Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and Facebook.

David Swanson

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