Monday, February 20, 2012

Obama Premediates War With Iran By Discouraging It

About ten days ago I got a tweet from Cosmopolitan Scum asking me if there was any thinking on how anti-war protests act, in a sense, to premediate the war to come? It was only when this tweeter actually saw a poster for a "Don't attack Iran" protest that s/he felt that such a war was actually possible. While a similar phenomenon had been recounted in regard to the worldwide protests against war with Iraq in February 2003, the question got me thinking about how negative premediations might function, a question I had taken up in 2008 in a paranoid video premediation about the possibility of Bush-Cheney refusing to relinquish control of the executive branch on January 20, 2009.

It is hardly news to note that the premediation of war with Iran has been intensifying over the past month or so both in official government statements and in the print, televisual, and networked news media. Glenn Greenwald has been particularly good on this topic in Salon, taking on The New York Times, NBC Nightly News, and CNN's Erin Burnett as leading the chorus of voices premediating war with Iran, even engaging in a heated Twitter exchange with Burnett over the past few days. Last Friday, the headline of a piece by Huffington Post's Michael Calderone explicitly drew the connection with the run-up to the Iraq War: "Iran Nuclear Coverage Echoes Iraq War Media Frenzy." That same day Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi cited Greenwald in arguing that we are seeing in the media a rehearsal of the drumbeats that led up to the Iraq War in 2003: "You can just feel it: many of the same newspapers and TV stations we saw leading the charge in the Bush years have gone back to the attic and are dusting off their war pom-poms."

While the comparison of the current premediation of Iran with the media's role in premediating war with Iraq in 2002-3 is well-taken, what can get lost in the comparison is the arguably more interesting differences between the two situations, particularly between the way in which war with Iran is being premediated by the Obama administration and the way in which the Bush-Cheney administration premediated the war in Iraq. In both cases premediation operates through government spokesmen, military and intelligence proxies, and media outlets. But what distinguishes the current premediation of war in Iran is the way in which, unlike Bush-Cheney, the Obama administration spokesmen operate to premediate war with Iran not by making the case for such war, but the opposite--premediating war with Iran by explaining why such a war would be a bad idea.

Over the past weekend both the US and British governments (who together led the way in making the case for war against Iraq in 2002-3) have made it clear that they disapprove of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Statements from the Israeli government, on the other hand, insist that all options are on the table. Meanwhile, Iran has cut off shipments of oil to Britain and France, ahead of sanctions by the French and the British that would have ended that trade in the near future, and are now threatening to cut off other European nations as well.

Despite the Obama administration's caution, global news media continue to premediate a variety of different military confrontations involving Iran. The most visible involves the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran has threatened to cut off oil traffic through the Gulf. Cable news media like CNN have begun accompanying their stories about this potential development with maps of the Gulf oil routes and video of Iranian warships, premediating (as they had in the run-up to the Iraq War) the audiovisual mood of war in advance of any potential blockade--and irrespective of whether such a conflict even occurs.

On February 20, the front page of the New York Times provides an even more complex premediation of a possible Israeli attack on Iran, one which bears more than a passing resemblance to the shape of articles and cable news stories that proliferated in the run-up to the Iraq War. Although the thrust of the article is to outline the difficulties of an Israeli attack, the detailed premediation of various options--including how many (and what kind of) planes Israel would need, where their flight paths could take them, how they would have to refuel, what their targets and timing would be, and whether they could pull it off without the help of the US--make such an attack all the more tangible. And while such an attack remains for the moment only virtual, its effects on the collective mood of the global media public is quite real.

On NBC Nightly News that same evening, a similar case was made, including maps in motion with the three different flight plan options and a retired general to make the case against Israel attacking Iran.

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The question to be asked about these negative premediations is whether they work to make such attacks less likely or whether, even while arguing against an Israeli attack, such premediations make such an attack, or some form of war with Iran, more likely. What seems clear is that these premediations (both for and against a potential war with Iran) are serving to shape the mood of the nation, in part to prepare the media public to accept a war if it were to come about, and in part to minimize the sense that such a war would be unnecessary, unjust, or just plain wrong.

Interestingly, if Israel were to attack Iran despite the Obama administration's negative premediations, this would not be the first time that Obama has discouraged a course of action in the Middle East that his administration later followed in some form or another. Clearly some version of this course of action was followed with Libya, and the current hands off policy in Syria might also turn out to be a similar prelude to US intervention of some sort or another.

But I am less concerned, and less qualified, to analyze the Obama administration's foreign policy strategy than I am interested in making sense of their policies and practices of premediation. What makes the Obama administration's negative premediation strategy so interesting is the way in which it clarifies that premediation works independent of its specific content. That is, although the Bush-Cheney premediation of potential paths to war with Iraq turned out to be followed by the shock and awe of March 2003, the premediation of this war had already worked to produce a national affect of at-warness prior to and independent of the war itself.

Similarly, in the current situation we can see that premediation does not only have to work by advocating a particular course of action but can work as well to produce a warlike national mood even while discouraging a course of action. What distinguishes premediation from prediction or preparation or planning is that it works not only whether any of the premediated possibilities actually come about but even when what is being premediated is the opposite of what might come about. Or put differently one can premediate war not only by rehearsing it or making the arguments for it but by discourarging it, making the arguments against it. Both open up, or proliferate, potential paths towards (or away from) war. And most powerfully both produce the same collective mood or orientation towards war, thereby providing an environment in which such war seems not unthinkable but rather thinkable as something that we may see, and indeed have already seen, on TV.

So, can anti-war protests be seen to premediate the very course of action they are protesting against? To answer a question with a question, how could they not?