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Editor's Brief

Having Zero Credibility Has Costs

June 14, 2019 6:32 p.m.

The current (as yet) low level crisis in the Persian Gulf is a good example of the consequences of extreme, chronic lying on the part of the US government. All government’s lie, as I.F.Stone put it. But they don’t all lie to the same degree or in the same way. The Trump administration lies at almost unprecedented levels even compared to the Bush, Nixon and Johnson administrations. Those three lied about intelligence and international incidents with far greater consequences (so far); but for pure willingness to lie and frequency, it’s just not even close.

With that said, you don’t need to assume irrationality or perfidy on the part of the Iranians for them to be behind this. We had a deal with the Iranians backed by all the global powers. We broke the agreement and are now trying to strangle the Iranian economy with new sanctions. By historical standards those actions are reasonably understood to be acts of war. Low level attacks on commercial shipping just under the level that might trigger direct US retaliation has a clear logic to it.

On the other hand, pretty much every regional adversary has a strong incentive to mount some kind of false flag operation, or rush to blame the Iranians. At least a couple have recent histories of reckless, high-risk gambits to advance their perceived goals. The obvious player here is Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman. Others seem possible as well.

I know much less about the internal factions in Iran. But there is at least significant history of different factions not operating with total coordination within Iran.

US claims are further undermined by statements from the owner of the Japanese tanker. The President of the company didn’t dispute or validate the US accusations about who was at fault but contradicted how the US claims the attack happened. The US says it was a mine. The tanker owner said it was a flying object (presumably a missile or projectile of some sort) which had an impact entirely above the ship’s waterline. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the US version of events.

The truth is all the players involved have huge incentives to lie. And a few of them have very recent histories of the most flagrant falsehoods and dirty tricks on an international scale.

One final point goes beyond the question of who did it. The Pentagon seems not to be on the same page as the White House or the State Department, which is to say, with John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. It’s just hints. But official statements in the last two days sound as much like they’re directed at other parts of the US government as against Iran.

Yesterday CENTCOM put out a statement about the tanker incident. The last paragraph:

“We have no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. We will defend our interests, but a war with Iran is not in our strategic interest, nor in the best interest of the international community community.”

Who’s that comment aimed at? It doesn’t sound like it’s a message for Iran.

Then today there was this from Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan: “Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Bolton have been very, very helpful but I think as you can tell, we have an international situation there in the Middle East, it’s not a US situation.”

This sounds oddly explicitly for disagreements within the US government in such a high stakes situation.

It makes sense not to draw too many conclusions. But it certainly seems like the Pentagon is going out of its way to signal that it is not looking for a confrontation with Iran. And that message seems as plausibly directed at other factions within the US government as it does toward Iran or other regional players.

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