If you watch close up in Washington, you can sometimes see the secret sector of the U.S. government in action. This doesn’t require a security clearance or inside sources. Sometimes you can see it happening in public in the presentations of the capital’s think tanks.
After Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, I wrote that the case of the murdered journalist would not impede Trump’s policy of confronting the Islamic Republic, diplomatically and militarily. Last week, I went to a panel discussion at the New American Foundation for a panel discussion on “Iran and Proxy War,” which did more than confirm my prediction. It also illuminated some of the motive forces behind Trump’s warmongering against Iran.
Rest assured Trump is not going to declare war on Iran. He’s not going to invade on false pretenses a la George Bush. With the help of a supine Congress, U.S. presidents no longer bother with the constitution’s requirements for going to war.
Rather, the administration is pursuing war against the Iranians by proxies, that is to say, surrogates. America’s surrogates are Saudi Arabia and Israeli. Iran’s proxies are Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and to a lesser extent, the Houthi clans of Yemen.
The New America event attracted me in because think tanks are a leading indicator of U.S. policy. They are halfway houses for policymakers rotating in and out of government with the change of presidential administrations. At their best, they combine the scholarship of a high-powered university with the ruthless calculations of political consulting firm.
At their worst, these organizations articulate the agenda of their funders without disclosing their purpose. This sort of garden variety corruption surprises only the Washington news editors and those who believe that an escort service provides companionship at dinner time.
The assassination of Jamal Kashoggi shattered Saudi Arabia’s respectable image in Washington, which had been burnished by multi-million dollars contributions to Washington’s leading think tanks.
The Gulf countries, of course, are only following the example set by others. The Brookings Institution received a seven-figure check from I”Power Rangers” magnate Haim Saban, a fervent Zionist. No surprise, that Brookings’ Mideast experts overwhelmingly side with the government of Israel and rarely fund or present Palestinian thinkers.
And, let’s not forget progressives play the game too, although not as often. A 2013 New York Times report found that the government of Norway gave the Center for Global Development a donation for in return for persuading US government officials to increase funding for global forest protection efforts by $250 million.
And New American Foundation plays for pay too. When my friend Barry Lynn welcomed European Union antitrust action against Google, the Internet giant and a New America funder demanded he be fired. He was.
I do not disdain think tanks for their corrupt biases. Rather, their scantily clad biases are what I love about them, especially when it comes to national security issues. Money and the policy positions it buys in Washington are leading indicators of both U.S. policy and the agendas of secret intelligence services.
In 35 years in Washington journalism, I have learned that think tanks have a built in affinity for secret government at least two ways.
First, think tanks seek to influence U.S. policy in public and behind the scenes. So their funding sometimes betrays the agenda they seek to conceal. The moderator of the New America event, for example, took care to thank the sponsor, Raytheon, the weapons manufacturer. The Saudis have used Raytheon’s’ rockets to massacre Houthi civilians for the past three years. As I reported in Salon earlier this year, Raytheon’s profits are booming, thanks to America’s proxy war with Iran.
I was not surprised that the New America panel discussion, moderated by retired Lt. Gen. Ben Freakley tilted in the direction of assuming as U.S.-Iran proxy was not only inevitable but necessary. I was enlightened. Raytheon supports Trump’s proxy war with Iran because it is good for their business model, dead wedding celebrants notwithstanding.
Second, think tanks are the conveyor belt for secret policies to be presented publicly. Think tank panel discussions are a venue where smart people talk about classified matters in an unclassified setting. Even if the speakers don’t betray secret information, they illuminate how policymakers inside the secret agencies seek to justify their actions publicly.
One of the speakers at the New America event, Norman Roule is a former National Intelligence Manager for Iran in the office of the Director of National Intelligence. He made the case for an aggressive policy against Iran with the sort of bellicose talking points the Trump White House might use. “When has Iran been punished since 2011 for crossing an American red-line?” Roule asked.
Another takeway: we’re going to be hearing more about Trump’s “red lines” for Iran.
So, in the Q&A session that followed the speaker’s remark I played the party pooper. I asked the panel if Trump’s proxy war would be affected by the Khashoggi affair
Roule downplayed the important of Saudi as allies. “What does Saudi Arabia do anyway?” he said. Mainly supply oil so that sanctions on Iran don’t raise gas prices in America. In a practical sense, he’s right. Saudi Arabia isn’t a significant military power. But politically, he’s blowing smoke.
Trump, of course, has said Saudi participation is vital, which is why he exonerated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against the judgement of his own CIA. Without an Arab partner, Trump’s proxy war against Iran, aided by Israel, looks like another Bush-style intervention, a “crusader war” pitting Christian and Jewish power against a Muslim nation. Trump needs Saudi Arabia to clothe an effort that might otherwise look like naked aggression.
The lone voice questioning the proxy war premise was Candace Rondeaux of Arizona State University. The whitewashing of Khashoggi’s killers “highlights the fundamental problem of our credibility on human rights.”
A third panelist, Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment, explained Trump’s problem, post-Khashoggi. Sadjadpour is not an advocate of war against Iran but he does favor a “containment” along the line of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union in the Cold War: avoid a direct military confrontation but apply pressure through proxies.
“The European Union says Iran is a stabiliizing force in the region and Saudi Arabia is the destabilizing force. The U.S. says Saudi Arabia’s challenge to Iran is a positive action,” he said. “The Khashoggi affair totally disrupts Trump’s policy. It makes it much, much more difficult to convince our allies that they should be pressuring Iran. No one will associate with the Saudis now.”
Nobody except the Trump administration and its proxies.