The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Diversion dangers

August 9, 2007

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, blogged this yesterday:

Here is my nightmare. The Cheneyites succeed in creating a situation in which Bush does decide to bomb Iran. Iran retaliates, as they openly threaten to do, with terrorist attacks against us on U.S. soil. That tilts the election. I can imagine a Karl Rove political calculation that would buttress a Cheney-Addington national security calculation, probably with Eliot Abrams’ support.

In political science terms, what Slaughter is describing is a “diversionary war,” a provocative foreign policy endeavor designed at least in part to rally support for a political regime by diverting attention away from other problems (in this case, Iraq, the memory of Katrina, etc.).

Kevin Drum refers to Slaughter as “one of the most accomodating, serious, centrist, liberal foreign policy players on the planet.” This makes him especially worried:

…the Bush administration is now so widely viewed as unhinged and malignant that even traditionally serious™ people like Anne-Marie Slaughter think nothing of suggesting that they might well start a war with Iran for purely partisan gain. I really can’t think of any past administration that would have provoked this kind of reaction from someone of AMS’s stature.”

Drum’s post reminded me of my own “worried” blog entry here on the 4th of July. In that post, I mentioned a new book by the neoconservative thinker Fred Iklé, which describes the threat of “annihilation from within”

The greatest threat to the world order in this century will be the next Hitler or Lenin, a charismatic leader who combines utter ruthlessness with a brilliant strategic sense, cunning, and boundless ambition—and who gains control over just a few weapons of mass destruction.

This new threat, still offstage, now awaits us. Any such evil but charismatic leader will be able to attack a major nation from within even if that nation possesses enormous military strength and capable police forces. If this new tyrant turns out to be strategically intelligent, he could prepare to launch a couple of mass destruction weapons against carefully chosen targets—without training camps in another nation, without help from a foreign terrorist organization, without a military campaign across the nation’s borders. He would thus offer no targets for retaliation and render useless a nation’s most powerful deterrent forces. By contrast, an expanding caliphate—the utopia that jihadists dream about—would offer the leading democracies plenty of easy targets for retaliation.

The purpose of this new tyrant would not be to destroy landmark buildings, highjack airplanes, attack railroad stations and religious shrines. His aim would be to paralyze the national leadership and spread nationwide panic, to ensure that the center could not hold. He would be well prepared to exploit this chaos by seizing complete control of the nation’s government and imposing his dictatorship.

Granted, this is a slightly different (and more ruthless) scenario than the one Slaughter imagines, but the goals are similar and the tactics might be tempting to a contemporary Voldemort and Wormtail.

Iklé warns that “most democratic societies lack the will and foresight needed to defend against any such calamity.”

Do we have the ability to forestall Slaughter’s slightly less nightmarish scenario? Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, a Republican moderate who served under Bush’s father, lambasted the “on to Syria” crowd in the momentary war-euphoria of spring 2003:

“If George Bush [Jr.] decided he was going to turn the troops loose on Syria and Iran after that he would last in office for about 15 minutes. In fact if President Bush were to try that now even I would think that he ought to be impeached. You can’t get away with that sort of thing in this democracy.”

In an election year, the timing for impeachment would be all wrong. Bush would be gone, but his Republican successor would be entrenched with a new mandate to escalate the war on terror.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.