The Hard Work of Creating a Last Resort War on Iran, by David Swanson

No War On Iran NYC March

Image by Debra Sweet via Flickr

by David Swanson
Writer, Dandelion Salad
Let’s Try Democracy, July 14, 2022
July 15, 2022

Where do all the Lockheed Martin executives vacation?

At the Last Resort!

Joe Biden and Israel are planning to attack Iran as a Last Resort.

Weapons dealers love nothing better than last resorts. Invading Ukraine was a last resort according to Russia. Shipping endless weapons into Ukraine is a last resort according to the U.S.

Win-win! Just pay no attention to the relentless and deliberate escalation of the past decades. Erase how the Baltics kicked out the Soviets 30 years go. Dude, they’re giving out free drinks and beach chairs at the Last Resort!

War supporters said the U.S. urgently needed to attack Iran in 2007. It was the last possible resort. The U.S. did not attack. The claims turned out to be lies. Even a National Intelligence Estimate in 2007 pushed back and admitted that Iran had no nuclear weapons program. Nothing bad resulted from not using the Last Resort. Again in 2015, the last resort was attacking Iran. The U.S. did not attack Iran. Nothing bad happened.

You’d think the endless false claims of “last resort” would matter. You might even think that the endless possibilities that anyone can think of trying instead of war would render the very idea of organized mass murder ever being a last resort incoherent. However, polling shows that as long as you don’t explicitly advertise a war as NOT being a last resort, everyone simply assumes that each war is going to be the first ever honest-to-goodness war of Last Resort.

There has of course, for decades, been a strong case that there is simply no need to attack Iran, as a first resort, a last resort, or a discount vacation black site prison camp.

Having a nuclear weapons program is not a justification for war, legally, morally, or practically. The United States has nuclear weapons and no one would be justified in attacking the United States.

Dick and Liz Cheney’s book, Exceptional, tell us we must see a “moral difference between an Iranian nuclear weapon and an American one.” Must we, really? Either risks further proliferation, accidental use, use by a crazed leader, mass death and destruction, environmental disaster, retaliatory escalation, and apocalypse. One of those two nations has nuclear weapons, has used nuclear weapons, has provided the other with plans for nuclear weapons, has a policy of first-use of nuclear weapons, has leadership that sanctions the possession of nuclear weapons, keeps nuclear weapons in six other countries and the seas and skies of the Earth, and has frequently threatened to use nuclear weapons. I don’t think those facts would make a nuclear weapon in the hands of the other country the least bit moral, but also not the least bit more immoral. Let’s focus on seeing an empirical difference between an Iranian nuclear weapon and an American one. One exists. The other doesn’t.

If you’re wondering, U.S. presidents who have made specific public or secret nuclear threats to other nations, that we know of, as documented in Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine, have included Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump, while others, including Barack Obama, have frequently said things like “All options are on the table” in relation to Iran or another country.

In 2015, as mentioned, war supporters said the U.S. urgently needed to attack Iran. It did not attack. The claims turned out to be lies. Even the claims of supporters of the nuclear agreement reinforced the lie that Iran had a nuclear weapons program in need of containment. There is no evidence that Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons program.

The long history of the United States lying about Iranian nuclear weapons is chronicled by Gareth Porter’s book Manufactured Crisis.

Proponents of war or steps toward war (sanctions was a step toward war on Iraq) may say we urgently need a war now, but they will have no argument for urgency, and their claims are, thus far, transparent lies.

If Iran is guilty of any crime, and there is evidence to support that claim, the United States and the world should seek its prosecution. Instead, the United States is isolating itself by tearing down the rule of law. It is destroying its credibility by tearing up treaties and threatening last resortism. In a Gallup poll in 2013 and a Pew poll in 2017 the majority of nations polled had the United States receive the most votes as the greatest threat to peace on earth. In the Gallup poll, people within the U.S. chose Iran as the top threat to peace on earth — Iran which had not attacked another nation in centuries and spent less than 1% of what the U.S. spent on militarism. These views are clearly a function of what people are told through news media.

The history of U.S./Iranian relations matters here. The U.S. overthrew Iran’s democracy in 1953 and installed a brutal dictator / weapons customer.

The U.S. gave Iran nuclear energy technology in the 1970s.

In 2000, the CIA gave Iran nuclear bomb plans in an effort to frame it. This was reported by James Risen, and Jeffrey Sterling went to prison for allegedly being Risen’s source.

The push to attack Iran has been on for so long that entire categories of arguments for it (such as that the Iranians are fueling the Iraqi resistance) have come and gone.

While Iran has not attacked any other country in centuries, the United States has not done so well by Iran.

The United States aided Iraq in the 1980s in attacking Iran, providing Iraq with some of the weapons (including chemical weapons) that were used on Iranians and that would be used in 2002-2003 (when they no longer existed) as an excuse for attacking Iraq.

For many years, the United States has labeled Iran an evil nation, attacked and destroyed the other non-nuclear nation on the list of evil nations, designated part of Iran’s military a terrorist organization, falsely accused Iran of crimes including the attacks of 9-11, murdered Iranian scientists, funded opposition groups in Iran (including some the U.S. also designates as terrorist), flown drones over Iran, openly and illegally threatened to attack Iran, and built up military forces all around Iran’s borders, while imposing cruel sanctions on the country.

The roots of a Washington push for a new war on Iran can be found in the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, the 1996 paper called A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, the 2000 Rebuilding America’s Defenses, and in a 2001 Pentagon memo described by Wesley Clark as listing these nations for attack: Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.

It’s worth noting that Bush Jr. overthrew Iraq, and Obama Libya, while the others remain works in progress.

In 2010, Tony Blair included Iran on a similar list of countries that he said Dick Cheney had aimed to overthrow. The line among the powerful in Washington in 2003 was that Iraq would be a cakewalk but that real men go to Tehran. The arguments in these old forgotten memos were not what the war makers tell the public, but much closer to what they tell each other. The concerns here are those of dominating regions rich in resources, intimidating others, and establishing bases from which to maintain control of puppet governments.

Of course the reason why “real men go to Tehran” is that Iran is not the impoverished disarmed nation that one might find in, say, Afghanistan or Iraq, or even the disarmed nation found in Libya in 2011. Iran is much bigger and much better armed. Whether the United States launches a major assault on Iran or Israel does, Iran will retaliate against U.S. troops and probably Israel and possibly the United States itself as well. And the United States will without any doube re-retaliate for that. Iran cannot be unaware that the U.S. government’s pressure on the Israeli government not to attack Iran consists of reassuring the Israelis that the United States will attack when needed, and does not include even threatening to stop funding Israel’s military or to stop vetoing measures of accountability for Israeli crimes at the United Nations.

In other words, any U.S. pretense of having seriously wanted to prevent an Israeli attack is not credible. Of course, many in the U.S. government and military oppose attacking Iran, although key figures like Admiral William Fallon have been moved out of the way. Much of the Israeli military is opposed as well, not to mention the Israeli and U.S. people. But war is not clean or precise. If the people we allow to run our nations attack another, we are all put at risk.

Most at risk, of course, are the people of Iran, people as peaceful as any other, or perhaps more so. As in any country, no matter what its government, the people of Iran are fundamentally good, decent, peaceful, just, and fundamentally like you and me. I’ve met people from Iran. You may have met people from Iran. They look like this. They’re not a different species. They’re not evil. A “surgical strike” against a “facility” in their country would cause a great many of them to die very painful and horrible deaths. Even if you imagine that Iran would not retaliate for such attacks, this is what the attacks would in themselves consist of: mass murder.

And what would that accomplish? It would unite the people of Iran and much of the world against the United States. It would justify in the eyes of much of the world an underground Iranian program to develop nuclear weapons, a program that probably does not exist at present, except to the extent that legal nuclear energy programs move a country closer to weapons development. The environmental damage would be tremendous, the precedent set incredibly dangerous, all talk of cutting the U.S. military budget would be buried in a wave of war frenzy, civil liberties and representative government would be flushed down the Potomac, a nuclear arms race would spread to additional countries, and any momentary sadistic glee would be outweighed by accelerating home foreclosures, mounting student debt, and accumulating layers of cultural stupidity.

Strategically, legally, and morally weapons possession is not grounds for war, and neither is pursuit of weapons possession. And neither, I might add, with Iraq in mind, is theoretically possible pursuit of weapons never acted upon. Israel has nuclear weapons. The United States has more nuclear weapons than any other country. There can be no justification for attacking the United States, Israel, or any other country. The pretense that Iran has or will soon have nuclear weapons is, in any case, just a pretense, one that has been revived, debunked, and revived again like a zombie for years and years. But that’s not the really absurd part of this false claim for something that amounts to no justification for war whatsoever. The really absurd part is that it was the United States in 1976 that pushed nuclear energy on Iran. In 2000 the CIA gave the Iranian government (slightly flawed) plans to build a nuclear bomb. In 2003, Iran proposed negotiations with the United States with everything on the table, including its nuclear technology, and the United States refused. Shortly thereafter, the United States started angling for a war. Meanwhile, U.S.-led sanctions prevent Iran from developing wind energy, while the Koch brothers are allowed to trade with Iran without penalty.

Another area of ongoing lie debunking, one that almost exactly parallels the buildup to the 2003 attack on Iraq, is the relentless false claim, including by candidates in 2012 for U.S. President, that Iran has not allowed inspectors into its country or given them access to its sites. Iran had, in fact, prior to the agreement voluntarily accepted stricter standards than the IAEA requires. And of course a separate line of propaganda, albeit a contradictory one, holds that the IAEA has discovered a nuclear weapons program in Iran. Under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), Iran was not required to declare all of its installations, and early last decade it chose not to, as the United States violated that same treaty by blocking Germany, China, and others from providing nuclear energy equipment to Iran. While Iran remains in compliance with the NPT, India and Pakistan and Israel have not signed it and North Korea has withdrawn from it, while the United States and other nuclear powers continuously violate it by failing to reduce arms, by providing arms to other countries such as India, and by developing new nuclear weapons.

This is what the empire of U.S. military bases looks like to Iran. Try to imagine if you lived there, what you would think of this. Who is threatening whom? Who is the greater danger to whom? The point is not that Iran should be free to attack the United States or anyone else because its military is smaller. The point is that doing so would be national suicide. It would also be something Iran has not done for centuries. But it would be typical U.S. behavior.

Are you ready for an even more absurd twist? This is on the same scale as Bush’s comment about not really giving much thought to Osama bin Laden. Are you ready? The proponents of attacking Iran themselves admit that if Iran had nukes it would not use them. This is from the American Enterprise Institute:

“The biggest problem for the United States is not Iran getting a nuclear weapon and testing it, it’s Iran getting a nuclear weapon and not using it. Because the second that they have one and they don’t do anything bad, all of the naysayers are going to come back and say, ‘See, we told you Iran is a responsible power. We told you Iran wasn’t getting nuclear weapons in order to use them immediately.’ … And they will eventually define Iran with nuclear weapons as not a problem.”

Is that clear? Iran using a nuclear weapon would be bad: environmental damage, loss of human life, hideous pain and suffering, yada, yada, yada. But what would be really bad would be Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and doing what every other nation with them has done since Nagasaki: nothing. That would be really bad because it would damage an argument for war and make war more difficult, thus allowing Iran to run its country as it, rather than the United States, sees fit. Of course it might run it very badly (although we’re hardly establishing a model for the world over here either), but it would run it without U.S. approval, and that would be worse than nuclear destruction.

Inspections were allowed in Iraq and they worked. They found no weapons and there were no weapons. Inspections are being allowed in Iran and they are working. However, the IAEA has come under the corrupting influence of the U.S. government. And yet, the bluster from war proponents about IAEA claims over the years is not backed up by any actual claims from the IAEA. And what little material the IAEA has provided for the cause of war has been widely rejected when not being laughed at.

Another year, another lie. No longer do we hear that North Korea is helping Iran build nukes. Lies about Iranian backing of Iraqi resisters have faded. (Didn’t the United States back French resistance to Germans at one point?) The latest concoction is the “Iran did 911” lie. Revenge, like the rest of these attempted grounds for war, is actually not a legal or moral justification for war. But this latest fiction has already been put to rest by the indespensable Gareth Porter, among others. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which did play a role in 911 as well as in the Iraqi resistance, is being sold record quantities of that good old leading U.S. export of which we’re all so proud: weapons of mass destruction.

Oh, I almost forgot another lie that hasn’t quite entirely faded yet. Iran did not try to blow up a Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., an action which President Obama would have considered perfectly praiseworthy if the roles were reversed, but a lie that even Fox News had a hard time stomaching. And that’s saying something.

And then there’s that old standby: Ahmadinejad said “Israel should be wiped off the map.” While this does not, perhaps, rise to the level of John McCain singing about bombing Iran or Bush and Obama swearing that all options including nuclear attack are on the table, it sounds extremely disturbing: “wiped off the map”! However, the translation is a bad one. A more accurate translation was “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” The government of Israel, not the nation of Israel. Not even the government of Israel, but the current regime. Hell, Americans say that about their own regimes all the time, alternating every four to eight years depending on political party (some of us even say it all the time, without immunity for either party). Iran has made clear it would approve of a two-state solution if Palestinians approved of it. If the U.S. launched missile strikes every time somebody said something stupid, even if accurately translated, how safe would it be to live near Newt Gingrich’s or Joe Biden’s house?

The real danger may not actually be the lies. The Iraq experience has built up quite a mental resistance to these sorts of lies in many U.S. residents. The real danger may be the slow start of a war that gains momentum on its own without any formal announcement of its initiation. Israel and the United States have not just been talking tough or crazy. They’ve been murdering Iranians. And they seem to have no shame about it. The day after a Republican presidential primary debate at which candidates declared their desire to kill Iranians, the CIA apparently made certain the news was public that it was in fact already murdering Iranians, not to mention blowing up buildings. Some would say and have said that the war has already begun. Those who cannot see this because they do not want to see it will also miss the deadly humor in the United States asking Iran to return its brave drone.

Perhaps what’s needed to snap war supporters out of their stupor is a bit of slapstick. Try this on for size. From Seymour Hersh describing a meeting held in Vice President Cheney’s office:

“There was a dozen ideas proffered about how to trigger a war. The one that interested me the most was why don’t we build — we in our shipyard — build four or five boats that look like Iranian PT boats. Put Navy seals on them with a lot of arms. And next time one of our boats goes to the Straits of Hormuz, start a shoot-up. Might cost some lives. And it was rejected because you can’t have Americans killing Americans. That’s the kind of — that’s the level of stuff we’re talking about. Provocation. But that was rejected.”

Now, Dick Cheney is not your typical American. Nobody in the U.S. government is your typical American. Your typical American is struggling, disapproves of the U.S. government, wishes billionaires were taxed, favors green energy and education and jobs over military boondoggles, thinks corporations should be barred from buying elections, and would not be inclined to apologize for getting shot in the face by the Vice President. Back in the 1930s, the Ludlow Amendment nearly made it a Constitutional requirement that the public vote in a referendum before the United States could go to war. President Franklin Roosevelt blocked that proposal. Yet the Constitution already required and still requires that Congress declare war before a war is fought. That has not been done in over 70 years, while wars have raged on almost incessantly. In the past decade and right up through President Obama’s signing of the outrageous National Defense Authorization Act on New Years Eve 2011-2012, the power to make war has been handed over to presidents. Here is one more reason to oppose a presidential war on Iran: once you allow presidents to make wars, you will never stop them. Another reason, in so far as anybody any longer gives a damn, is that war is a crime. Iran and the United States are parties to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which bans war. One of those two nations is not complying.

But we won’t have a referendum. The U.S. House of Misrepresentatives won’t step in. Only through widespread public pressure and nonviolent action will we intervene in this slow-motion catastrophe. Already the United States and the United Kingdom are preparing for war with Iran. This war, if it happens, will be fought by an institution called the United States Department of Defense, but it will endanger rather than defending us. As the war progresses, we will be told that the Iranian people want to be bombed for their own good, for freedom, for democracy. But nobody wants to be bombed for that. Iran does not want U.S.-style democracy. Even the United States does not want U.S.-style democracy. We will be told that those noble goals are guiding the actions of our brave troops and our brave drones on the battlefield. Yet there will be no battlefield. There will be no front lines. There will be no trenches. There will simply be cities and towns where people live, and where people die. There will be no victory. There will be no progress accomplished through a “surge.” On January 5, 2012, then-Secretary of “Defense” Leon Panetta was asked at a press conference about the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he replied simply that those were successes. That is the kind of success that could be expected in Iran were Iran a destitute and disarmed state.

Now we begin to understand the importance of all the media suppression, blackouts, and lies about the damage done to Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we understand why Obama and Panetta embraced the lies that launched the War on Iraq. The same lies must now be revived, as for every war ever fought, for a War on Iran. Here’s a video explaining how this will work, even with some new twists and lots of variations. The U.S. corporate media is part of the war machine.

Planning war and funding war creates its own momentum. Sanctions become, as with Iraq, a stepping stone to war. Cutting off diplomacy leaves few options open. Electoral pissing contests take us all where most of us did not want to be.

These are the bombs most likely to launch this ugly and quite possibly terminal chapter of human history. This animation shows clearly what they would do. For an even better presentation, pair that with this audio of a misinformed caller trying hopelessly to persuade George Galloway that we should attack Iran.

On January 2, 2012, the New York Times reported concern that cuts to the U.S. military budget raised doubts as to whether the United States would “be prepared for a grinding, lengthy ground war in Asia.” At a Pentagon press conference on January 5, 2012, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reassured the press corpse (sic) that major ground wars were very much an option and that wars of one sort or another were a certainty. President Obama’s statement of military policy released at that press conference listed the missions of the U.S. military. First was fighting terrorism, next detering “aggression,” then “projecting power despite anti-access/area denial challenges,” then the good old WMDs, then conquering space and cyberspace, then nuclear weapons, and finally — after all that — there was mention of defending the Homeland Formerly Known As The United States.

The cases of Iraq and Iran are not identical in every detail, of course. But in both cases we are dealing with concerted efforts to get us into wars, wars based, as all wars are based, on lies. We may need to revive this appeal to U.S. and Israeli forces!

Additional reasons not to Iraq Iran include the numerous reasons not to maintain the institution of war at all, as laid out at WorldBeyondWar.org.

My book War Is Never Just includes a bit about “last resorts” that I append here:

It is of course a step in the right direction when a culture moves from Theodore Roosevelt’s open desire for a new war for war’s sake, to the universal pretense that every war is and must be a last resort. This pretense is so universal now, that the U.S. public simply assumes it without even being told. A scholarly study recently found that the U.S. public believes that whenever the U.S. government proposes a war, it has already exhausted all other possibilities. When a sample group was asked if they supported a particular war, and a second group was asked if they supported that particular war after being told that all alternatives were no good, and a third group was asked if they supported that war even though there were good alternatives, the first two groups registered the same level of support, while support for war dropped off significantly in the third group. This led the researchers to the conclusion that if alternatives are not mentioned, people don’t assume they exist—rather, people assume they’ve already been tried.[i]

There have for years been major efforts in Washington, D.C., to start a war on Iran. Some of the greatest pressure has come in 2007 and 2015. If that war had been started at any point, it would no doubt have been described as a last resort, even though the choice of simply not starting that war has been chosen on numerous occasions. In 2013, the U.S. President told us of the urgent “last resort” need to launch a major bombing campaign on Syria. Then he reversed his decision, largely because of public resistance to it. It turned out the option of not bombing Syria was also available.

Imagine an alcoholic who managed every night to consume huge quantities of whiskey and who every morning swore that drinking whiskey had been his very last resort, he’d had no choice at all. Easy to imagine, no doubt. An addict will always justify himself, however nonsensically it has to be done. But imagine a world in which everyone believed him and solemnly said to each other “He really had no other choice. He truly had tried everything else.” Not so plausible, is it? Almost unimaginable, in fact. And yet:

It is widely believed that the United States is at war in Syria as a last resort, even though:

  • The United States spent years sabotaging UN attempts at peace in Syria.[ii]
  • The United States dismissed out of hand a Russian peace proposal for Syria in 2012.[iii]
  • And when the United States claimed a bombing campaign was needed immediately as a “last resort” in 2013 but the U.S. public was wildly opposed, other options were pursued.

In 2015, numerous U.S. Congress Members argued that the nuclear deal with Iran needed to be rejected and Iran attacked as a last resort. No mention was made of Iran’s 2003 offer to negotiate away its nuclear program, an offer that had been quickly scorned by the United States.

It is widely believed that the United States is killing people with drones as a last resort, even though in that minority of cases in which the United States knows the names of the people it is aiming for, many (and quite possibly all) of them could have been fairly easily arrested.[iv]

It was widely believed that the United States killed Osama bin Laden as a last resort, until those involved admitted that the “kill or capture” policy didn’t actually include any capture (arrest) option and that bin Laden had been unarmed when he was killed.[v]

It was widely believed the United States attacked Libya in 2011, overthrew its government, and fueled regional violence as a last resort, even though in March 2011 the African Union had a plan for peace in Libya but was prevented by NATO, through the creation of a “no fly zone” and the initiation of bombing, to travel to Libya to discuss it. In April, the African Union was able to discuss its plan with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and he expressed his agreement.[vi] NATO had obtained UN authorization to protect Libyans alleged to be in danger, but it had no authorization to continue bombing the country or to overthrow the government.

Virtually anyone who works for, and wishes to continue working for, a major U.S. media outlet says the United States attacked Iraq in 2003 as a last resort or sort of meant to, or something, even though:

  • The U.S. president had been concocting cockamamie schemes to get a war started.[vii]
  • The Iraqi government had approached the CIA’s Vincent Cannistraro with an offer to let U.S. troops search the entire country.[viii]
  • The Iraqi government offered to hold internationally monitored elections within two years.[ix]
  • The Iraqi government made an offer to Bush official Richard Perle to open the whole country to inspections, to turn over a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to help fight terrorism, and to favor U.S. oil companies.[x]
  • The Iraqi president offered, in the account that the president of Spain was given by the U.S. president, to simply leave Iraq if he could keep $1 billion.[xi]
  • The United States always had the option of simply not starting another war.

Most everyone supposes that the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and has stayed there ever since as a series of “last resorts,” even though the Taliban repeatedly offered to turn bin Laden over to a third country to stand trial, al Qaeda has had no significant presence in Afghanistan for most of the duration of the war, and withdrawal has been an option at any time.[xii]

Many maintain that the United States went to war with Iraq in 1990-1991 as a “last resort,” even though the Iraqi government was willing to negotiate withdrawal from Kuwait without war and ultimately offered to simply withdraw from Kuwait within three weeks without conditions. The King of Jordan, the Pope, the President of France, the President of the Soviet Union, and many others urged such a peaceful settlement, but the White House insisted upon its “last resort.”[xiii]

Even setting aside general practices that increase hostility, provide weaponry, and empower militaristic governments, as well as fake negotiations intended to facilitate rather than avoid war, the history of U.S. war making can be traced back through the centuries as a story of an endless series of opportunities for peace carefully avoided at all costs.

Mexico was willing to negotiate the sale of its northern half, but the United States wanted to take it through an act of mass killing. Spain wanted the matter of the Maine to go to international arbitration, but the U.S. wanted war and empire. The Soviet Union proposed peace negotiations before the Korean War. The United States sabotaged peace proposals for Vietnam from the Vietnamese, the Soviets, and the French, relentlessly insisting on its “last resort” over any other option, from the day the Gulf of Tonkin incident mandated war despite never having actually occurred.[xiv]

If you look through enough wars, you’ll find nearly identical incidents used on one occasion as the excuse for a war and on another occasion as nothing of the sort. President George W. Bush proposed to U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair that getting a U2 airplane shot at could get them into a war they wanted.[xv] Yet when the Soviet Union shot down a U2 airplane, President Dwight Eisenhower started no war.

Yes, yes, yes, one might reply, hundreds of actual and unjust wars are not last resorts, even though their supporters claim that status for them. But a theoretical Just War would be a last resort. Would it? Would there really be no other option morally equivalent or superior? Allman and Winright quote Pope John Paul II on the “duty to disarm this aggressor if all other means have proven ineffective.” But is “disarm” really the equivalent of “bomb or invade”? We’ve seen wars launched supposedly to disarm, and the result has been more weapons than ever before. What about ceasing to arm as one possible method of disarming? What about an international arms embargo? What about economic and other incentives to disarm?

There was no moment when bombing Rwanda would have been a moral “last resort.” There was a moment when armed police might have helped, or cutting off a radio signal being used to provoke killings might have helped. There were many moments when unarmed peaceworkers would have helped. There was a moment when demanding accountability for the assassination of the president would have helped. There were three years before that when refraining from arming and funding Ugandan killers would have helped.

“Last resort” claims are usually pretty weak when one imagines traveling back in time to the moment of crisis, but dramatically weaker still if one just imagines traveling back a bit further. Many more people try to justify World War II than World War I, even though one of them could never have happened without the other or without the dumb manner of ending it, which led numerous observers at the time to predict World War II with significant accuracy. If attacking ISIS in Iraq now is somehow a “last resort” it is only because of the war that was escalated in 2003, which couldn’t have happened without the earlier Gulf War, which couldn’t have happened without arming and supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, and so on back through the centuries. Of course unjust causes of crises don’t render all new decisions unjust, but they suggest that someone with an idea other than more war should intervene in a destructive cycle of self-justifying crisis generation.

Even in the moment of crisis, is it really as urgent a crisis as war supporters claim? Is a clock really ticking here any more than in torture thought experiments? Allman and Winright suggest this list of alternatives to war that must have been exhausted for war to be a last resort: “smart sanctions, diplomatic efforts, third-party negotiations, or an ultimatum.”[xvi] That’s it? This list is to the full list of available alternatives what the National Public Radio show “All Things Considered” is to all things. They ought to rename it “Two Percent of Things Considered.” Later, Allman and Winright quote a claim that overthrowing governments is kinder than “containing” them. This argument, the authors maintain, challenges “pacifist and contemporary just war theorists alike.” It does? Which option were those two types supposedly favoring? “Containment”? That’s not a very peaceful approach and certainly not the only alternative to war.

If a nation were actually attacked and chose to fight back in defense, it would not have the time for sanctions and each of the other options listed. It wouldn’t even have time for academic support from Just War theorists. It would just find itself fighting back. The area for Just War theory to work in is, therefore, at least in great part, those wars that are something short of defensive, those wars that are “preemptive,” “preventive,” “protective,” etc.

The first step up from actually defensive is a war launched to prevent an imminent attack. The Obama Administration has, in recent years, redefined “imminent” to mean theoretically possible someday. They then claimed to be murdering with drones only people who constituted “an imminent and continuing threat to the United States.” Of course, if it were imminent under the usual definition, it wouldn’t be continuing, because it would happen.

Here is a critical passage from the Department of Justice “White Paper” defining “imminent”:

“[T]he condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”[xvii]

The George W. Bush Administration saw things in a similar way. The 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy states: “We recognize that our best defense is a good offense.”[xviii] Of course, this is false, as offensive wars stir up hostility. But it is also admirably honest.

Once we’re talking about non-defensive war proposals, about crises in which one has time for sanctions, diplomacy, and ultimatums, one also has time for all sorts of other things. Possibilities include: nonviolent (unarmed) civilian-based defense: announcing the organization of nonviolent resistance to any attempted occupation, global protests and demonstrations, disarmament proposals, unilateral disarmament declarations, gestures of friendship including aid, taking a dispute to arbitration or court, convening a truth and reconciliation commission, restorative dialogues, leadership by example through joining binding treaties or the International Criminal Court or through democratizing the United Nations, civilian diplomacy, cultural collaborations, and creative nonviolence of endless variety.

But what if we imagine an actually defensive war, either the much feared but ridiculously impossible invasion of the United States, or a U.S. war viewed from the other side? Was it just for the Vietnamese to fight back? Was it just for the Iraqis to fight back? Et cetera. (I mean this to include the scenario of an attack on the actual land of the United States, not an attack on, for example, U.S. troops in Syria. As I write, the United States government is threatening to “defend” its troops in Syria should the government of Syria “attack” them.)

The short answer to that question is that if the aggressor would have refrained, no defense would have been needed. Turning resistance to U.S. wars around into justification for further U.S. military spending is too twisted even for a K Street lobbyist.

The slightly longer answer is that it’s generally not the proper role for someone born and living in the United States to advise people living under U.S. bombs that they should experiment with nonviolent resistance.

But the right answer is a bit more difficult than either of those. It’s an answer that becomes clearer if we look at both foreign invasions and revolutions/civil wars. There are more of the latter to look at, and there are more strong examples to point to. But the purpose of theory, including Anti-Just-War theory, should be to help generate more real-world examples of superior outcomes, such as in the use of nonviolence against foreign invasions.

Studies like Erica Chenoweth’s have established that nonviolent resistance to tyranny is far more likely to succeed, and the success far more likely to be lasting, than with violent resistance.[xix] So if we look at something like the nonviolent revolution in Tunisia in 2011, we might find that it meets as many criteria as any other situation for a Just War, except that it wasn’t a war at all. One wouldn’t go back in time and argue for a strategy less likely to succeed but likely to cause a lot more pain and death. Perhaps doing so might constitute a Just War argument. Perhaps a Just War argument could even be made, anachronistically, for a 2011 U.S. “intervention” to bring democracy to Tunisia (apart from the United States’ obvious inability to do such a thing, and the guaranteed catastrophe that would have resulted). But once you’ve done a revolution without all the killing and dying, it can no longer makes sense to propose all the killing and dying—not if a thousand new Geneva Conventions were created, and no matter the imperfections of the nonviolent success.

Despite the relative scarcity of examples thus far of nonviolent resistance to foreign occupation, there are those already beginning to claim a pattern of success. Here’s Stephen Zunes:

“Nonviolent resistance has also successfully challenged foreign military occupation. During the first Palestinian intifada in the 1980s, much of the subjugated population effectively became self-governing entities through massive noncooperation and the creation of alternative institutions, forcing Israel to allow for the creation of the Palestine Authority and self-governance for most of the urban areas of the West Bank. Nonviolent resistance in the occupied Western Sahara has forced Morocco to offer an autonomy proposal which—while still falling well short of Morocco’s obligation to grant the Sahrawis their right of self-determination—at least acknowledges that the territory is not simply another part of Morocco.

“In the final years of German occupation of Denmark and Norway during WWII, the Nazis effectively no longer controlled the population. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia freed themselves from Soviet occupation through nonviolent resistance prior to the USSR’s collapse. In Lebanon, a nation ravaged by war for decades, thirty years of Syrian domination was ended through a large-scale, nonviolent uprising in 2005. And last year, Mariupol became the largest city to be liberated from control by Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine, not by bombings and artillery strikes by the Ukrainian military, but when thousands of unarmed steelworkers marched peacefully into occupied sections of its downtown area and drove out the armed separatists.”[xx]

One might look for potential in numerous examples of resistance to the Nazis, and in German resistance to the French invasion of the Ruhr in 1923, or perhaps in the one-time success of the Philippines and the ongoing success of Ecuador in evicting U.S. military bases, and of course the Gandhian example of booting the British out of India. But the far more numerous examples of nonviolent success over domestic tyranny also provide a guide toward future action.

To be morally right, nonviolent resistance to an actual attack need not appear more likely to succeed than a violent response. It only need appear somewhat close to as likely. Because if it succeeds it will do so with less harm, and its success will be more likely to last.

In the absence of an attack, while claims are being made that a war should be launched as a “last resort,” nonviolent solutions need only appear reasonably plausible. Even in that situation, they must be attempted before launching a war can be labeled a “last resort.” But because they are infinite in variety and can be tried over and over again, under the same logic, one will never actually reach the point at which attacking another country is a last resort.

If you could achieve that, a moral decision would still require that the imagined benefits of your war outweigh all the damage done by maintaining the institution of war (see the above section on “Preparing For A Just War Is A Greater Injustice Than Any War”).

Notes:

[i] David Swanson, “Study Finds People Assume War Is Only Last Resort.”

[ii] Nicolas Davies, Alternet,Armed Rebels and Middle-Eastern Power Plays: How the U.S. Is Helping to Kill Peace in Syria

[iii] Julian Borger and Bastien Inzaurralde, “West ‘ignored Russian offer in 2012 to have Syria’s Assad step aside,’” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/15/west-ignored-russian-offer-in-2012-to-have-syrias-assad-step-aside

[iv] Farea Al-muslimi testimony at Drone Wars Senate Committee Hearing, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtQ_mMKx3Ck

[v] The Mirror, “Navy Seal Rob O’Neill who killed Osama bin Laden claims US had no intention of capturing terrorist,” https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/navy-seal-rob-oneill-who-4612012 See also: ABC News, “Osama Bin Laden Unarmed When Killed, White House Says,” https://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/osama-bin-laden-unarmed-killed-white-house/story?id=13520152

[vi] The Washington Post, “Gaddafi accepts road map for peace proposed by African leaders,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/african-leaders-arrive-in-libya-in-attempt-to-broker-cease-fire-gaddafi-hopes-for-sympathy/2011/04/10/AF0VH6ED_story.html

[vii] See warisacrime.org/whitehousememo

[viii] Julian Borger in Washington, Brian Whitaker and Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, “Saddam’s desperate offers to stave off war,” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/nov/07/iraq.brianwhitaker

[ix] Julian Borger in Washington, Brian Whitaker and Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, “Saddam’s desperate offers to stave off war,” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/nov/07/iraq.brianwhitaker

[x] Julian Borger in Washington, Brian Whitaker and Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, “Saddam’s desperate offers to stave off war,” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/nov/07/iraq.brianwhitaker

[xi] Memo of meeting: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bush-Aznar_memo and news report: Jason Webb, Reuters, “Bush thought Saddam was prepared to flee: report,” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-bush-spain-idUSL2683831120070926

[xii] Rory McCarthy, The Guardian, “New offer on Bin Laden,” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/17/afghanistan.terrorism11

[xiii] Clyde Haberman, New York Times, “Pope Denounces the Gulf War as ‘Darkness’,” https://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/01/world/pope-denounces-the-gulf-war-as-darkness.html

[xiv] David Swanson, War Is A Lie, https://davidswanson.org/warisalie/

[xv] White House Memo: warisacrime.org/whitehousememo

[xvi] Mark J. Allman & Tobias L. Winright, After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2010) p. 43.

[xvii] Department of Justice White Paper, http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/sections/news/020413_DOJ_White_Paper.pdf [unavailable, try: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:020413_DOJ_White_Paper.pdf]

[xviii] 2002 National Security Strategy, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/national/nss-020920.pdf

[xix] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2012).

[xx] Stephen Zunes, “Alternatives to War from the Bottom Up,” https://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/alternatives-to-war-from-the-bottom-up/


David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include Leaving World War II Behind (2020), Curing Exceptionalism: What’s wrong with how we think about the United States? What can we do about it? (2018) and War Is A Lie (2010; 2nd Ed. 2016). He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and U.S. Peace Prize Recipient. Support David’s work.

From the archives:

Helen Caldicott: Why This Is More Dangerous Than the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Finian Cunningham

Daniel Ellsberg: Nuclear War and Ukraine

Larry Wilkerson and Paul Jay: Ukraine and the Doomsday Machine

David Swanson and Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Missiles

Daniel Ellsberg: The Doomsday Machine, Parts 1-13

4 thoughts on “The Hard Work of Creating a Last Resort War on Iran, by David Swanson

  1. Pingback: Roger Waters: War, Peace, and Music, with David Swanson and Todd Pierce – Dandelion Salad

  2. Pingback: Weaning the State Department from War-making to Peaceful Robust Diplomacy, by Ralph Nader – Dandelion Salad

  3. Shortly after Biden visited Israel the IDF open fired on Palestine. As a note, I was watching the Larry King interview with Ahmadinejad. He clearly stated to Larry King that he said “Zionism should be wiped off the map”. The media took that to mean Israel and Ahmadinejad replied “Israel and the Jewish people would have had a peace treaty with Palestine decades ago if Zionism did not exist”. Sadly the interview is no longer on YouTube due to RT being censored and removed from the platform. There might still exist in the the CNN archives the interview between the two.

    As you say often David a lie can change the outcome dramatically. The Minsk peace Agreements 1 and 2 of 2013-2014 signed by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany were ignored by the US. As a “last resort” the US began putting sanctions and tariffs on Russia and arming Ukraine. Isn’t the same scenario now being played out with China?

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