Another Gulf of Tonkin coming up?

If there is to be an attack on Iran, the Bush administration will have a harder time selling it to the US public, mainly because of the growing realization that the public was willfully misled about the reasons for going to war against Iraq. Some observers argue that convincing the skeptical public to go along will require the equivalent of a ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incident. This was the infamous event, manufactured by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, when he falsely alleged an attack by North Vietnamese forces on US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin to push through a resolution in Congress that gave him almost unlimited powers to wage war in South East Asia. It was later revealed that the ‘retaliation’ launched by the US was actually a plan that had been created some time earlier and needed a trigger which this ‘incident’ conveniently provided. The media then, like the media now, did not critically evaluate these claims but joined the rush to escalate the war, resulting in a quagmire that caused immense suffering for the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people and led to the eventual US defeat in 1975.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo asks his readers what characteristics such a ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ event for Iran must have in order to meet the requirements. This is what he and his readers came up with:

1. Despite being fake, the incident must seem reasonably credible.

2. It must appear serious enough that discounting its importance or questioning its veracity appears the height of unseriousness.

3. It must place the majority of us in the odd and unexpected position of granting to President Bush the unfettered discretion to launch a war against Iran at the time and place of his choosing, despite our desire that he start it right now.

4. The incident can’t be quickly falsifiable. It will have to take a long time and a lot of effort to be revealed as bogus. Weapons of mass destruction were perfect: we had to get into Iraq to show them to be false, and by that time, of course, it was too late to stop the war. The sort of same thing will be needed to commit some sort of act of war on Iran.

This seems like a reasonable set of criteria.

One of the key developments to watch for is the shift to a legalistic approach to questions. For example, the Bush administration has started to allege that the Iranians are ‘interfering’ in Iraq. The reasonable response to that is “So what?” After all, the US is occupying that country illegally and is hardly in a position to throw stones at others. The US has a long and well-known history of interfering in other countries (Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Dominican Republic, Panama, Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, Congo, Iran, El Salvador, to name a few). Some of these ‘interventions’ were actual invasions. But the media accepts the bait put out by the government and the discussion then shifts to whether the allegations that Iran is interfering are true. So when at some point there is evidence that people from Iran are somehow involved in something, which is very likely given that Iraq and Iran share a long border and history and traditions, this will be trumpeted as being enough of a cause to justify an attack.

Some candidate events for Iranian provocation have already been suggested. It is clear that the Bush administration is looking to pick a fight with Iran: “The administration announced two weeks ago, as part of its new strategy on Iraq, that it would move more forcefully against Iranian and Syrian agents in Iraq. The White House also then moved Navy warships and fighter jets into the Persian Gulf in a display of determination to maintain its influence in the region.” The more forces you put into a region, the more likely it is that there will be some sort of minor clash that can be magnified into a major incident.

There are other developments. We had the most recent story that Iran was supplying Iraqi insurgents with specially shaped IEDs (called EFPs for “explosively formed projectiles”), although the evidence in support of this is thin, the briefers were anonymous, and other observers have said that this technology is simple and easily available to anyone who wants it. But some news reports give the impression that the allegations are true by downplaying by downplaying all the caveats. Nicole Belle summarizes other allegations that have been made against Iran recently.

In an ironic twist, there have also been recent explosions inside Iran and anonymous Iranian officials are claiming that their evidence suggests that these were made by the US. These allegations gain support from a report in the British newspaper The Telegraph that the US is funding terrorist ethnic separatist groups in Iran.

Bush has also recently authorized the killing of Iranians inside Iraq, a move suggesting that he may be trying to provoke the Iranians into doing something that might give the US an excuse to attack. The recent arrests of Iranian officials in Iraq and the kidnapping of a senior Iranian diplomat (which the Iranians allege the US was behind) are other examples of potentially triggering events. Another provocative allegation was that Iranians were behind the the capture and killing of five US soldiers in a daring attack in Karbala on January 20, 2007.

So are all these things signs that the US is determined to attack Iran fairly soon and is just waiting for the right time and a triggering event? Veteran journalist John Pilger believes that the groundwork is definitely being laid for an attack on Iran but analyst Steven Zunes suggests that there might be other reasons for the US sabre-rattling than preparation for an attack on Iran: “Most speculation has centered around the possibility that the Bush administration is trying to divert attention from the failures of its policies in Iraq by blaming a foreign government. More disturbing still would be U.S. efforts to lay the groundwork for a U.S. attack on Iran. It may also be an attempt to provide cover for President Bush’s rejection of the growing bipartisan consensus – as exemplified by the Baker-Hamilton Commission Report – of the importance of engaging Iran on issues related to Iraq and regional security.”

Another possible reason for the Bush administration’s allegations of Iranian involvement within Iraq is that they have decided to attack Iran but think it unlikely that they will get another blank check from Congress for Iran like they did with the Iraq war authorization. They may try to argue that this attack on Iran is just a continuation of the war in Iraq and thus does not require fresh authorization.

Whatever is behind the rising war of words against Iran, it is good to pause and remember that if and when the US bombs Iran, it will be destroying another country in which reside people just like you and me. I came across this little photo montage of everyday scenes inside Tehran, titled What Iran looks like before the bombing, set to the music of the Cat Stevens/Yusuf Ismail song Peace Train.

It is good to be reminded what a place and its people looks like before it is destroyed. Baghdad too was once like this.

POST SCRIPT: Talk on intelligent design

Michael Behe, an intelligent design creationist advocate and author of Darwin’s Black Box, is speaking tonight in Strosacker Auditorium at 7:00pm.

For those who might want to know something about the things he is likely to talk about and why I think it is not convincing, I selected these three posts from the past: post 1, post 2, and post 3.

But instead of reading all my words, here is a link to an excellent figure by Wellington Grey that succinctly shows the main difference between science and faith. (Thanks to Daniel for the information.)


  1. says

    Like all simple graphics, there are subtleties which are not captured by it, which is why words are still necessary!

    The problem with string theory (which I should make clear I am NOT an expert in) is that the experimental tests of its predictions (based on its theoretical mechanisms) cannot yet be done with with the current technology.

    This is not unprecedented. Einstein’s theory of general relativity and de Broglie’s wave-particle duality both were proposed before the technlogy existed to do the experiments based on the theories. But eventually they were. There is always a time lag between when a theory is proposed and when the data starts to come in for or against. The trouble with string theory is that we cannot foresee anything in the near future. This is also the case with dark matter and dark energy. It is possible that they, and strings, may be found to not exist some time in the future.

    String theory is not faith because there is no contradicting evidence, at least not yet, counter to which adherents still cling to the theory. So it is in a kind of limbo. But it (Iike dark matter and dark energy) does have a theoretical structure that makes predictions, so it satisfies at least the necessary conditions of being a science.

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