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Déjà Vu All Over Again

IF WE CAN’T WIN IN IRAQ, then let’s take the war into Iran. If Americans are turning in droves against failed White House policy in Iraq, then let’s spend the next two years blaming the mullahs. That seems to be the new message coming from an increasingly detached and desperate White House.

A second carrier battle group has been dispatched to the Iranian coast. U.S. forces arrested five Iranian officials working in northern Iraq. Forces alleged to be controlled by U.S. overseers kidnapped another Iranian diplomat. And now comes that ominous dog-and-pony show held last weekend in Baghdad in which the Bush administration, for the first time, directly accused Iran of killing U.S. soldiers by supplying bombs to Shia insurgents.

Herding up the press stationed in the Green Zone fortress, American military and intelligence officials rolled out a nifty PowerPoint talk and some mortar shells, grenades and other explosive devices they claimed were made in Iran and shipped across the border to blow up American troops. The claims were dutifully reported in blaring headlines this week in most major American newspapers. No one seemed to flinch at the fact that the American briefers conducted their show under the cloak of anonymity, rendering impossible any challenge to the validity of their allegations or of their methodology.

Does it all sound just a tad too familiar? Unbelievable as it may seem, the administration is using the same sort of unverifiable and fishy evidence to expand the same war it snookered us into four years ago. Move over, Judith Miller. Come back, Ahmed Chalabi.

I’m not even surprised by the deployment of the over-the-top, high-dudgeon drama of putting forward the-sources-who-cannot-be-named. What a transparent and cynical ploy. I can’t begin to count the number of similar “background only” briefings I attended in numerous U.S. embassies in Central America during the 1980s. Prior to some self-serving and often delusional propaganda spiel from, say, the head of the U.S. military group in El Salvador, a hack embassy information officer would lay down the most twisted of ground rules for attribution: “Okay, we’re gonna hear now from Colonel Wagelstein,” he would say. “You may quote anything the colonel says but you cannot attribute anything to the colonel nor to U.S. officials, nor to embassy officials, nor to U.S. military officials. The only attribution you can use is ‘a Western military observer.’ Those are the rules.”

Then the crock would runneth over: Briefings in Tegucigalpa to prove that Salvadoran insurgents were supplying Honduran insurgents. Briefings in San Salvador to prove the Sandinistas were supplying the Salvadorans. Briefings in Managua to prove the Cubans were arming the Sandinistas. Briefings in Havana to warn of Cuban resupply of the pintsize island of Grenada. At times it seemed like the officials were all reading from the same Mad Libs script, just substituting one country’s name for another.

So on and so on. And to what end? The U.S., at the time, was rather publicly supplying billions in arms to its allies — including such nefarious forces as the Contras, the murderous Salvadoran army and the special brigades of the Honduran army that specialized in kidnapping and torture (under the watchful gaze of then-U.S. proconsul and current Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte).

We’re watching a similar shell game this week. The administration’s new claims against Tehran suggest we’ve been battling the pro-Iranian Shia militia for the last four years. In fact, we’ve been supporting those forces in Iraq that are most closely tied to the Iranian mullahs. The overwhelming majority of American battle deaths have been caused by Sunni insurgents who hate Iran and the pro-Iranian regime we’ve propped up in the Green Zone.

Not to say that Iran isn’t meddling in our splendid little war. Experts far more independent than the secret U.S. intelligence briefers agree that the Iranians might indeed be supplying some level of weaponry to the extremist religious militias in Iraq. But Iraq, before the U.S. invasion, was a highly sophisticated and militarized society, and its anti-American insurgents hardly need to rely on Iran for firepower.

But let’s assume that a substantial part of what the anonymous intelligence experts trotted out for Sunday’s media show in Iraq is, in fact, the truth. If Iran is, indeed, starting to intervene in the war in Iraq, then there can be no better time to put on the brakes, escalate the diplomacy and seek a regional settlement before we touch off an uncontainable regional war.

All this, by the way, takes place while the soft-skulled Congress continues to lag months behind the curve. While House Democrats creep toward what they call a “narrowly worded” nonbinding resolution that will condemn only an escalation of the war in Iraq — but not the war itself — the administration is busily laying the groundwork for the next war. Give the White House, at least, an “A” for effort — if not for the Apocalypse.


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