Urban myths on Iran

A friend of a friend was driving late at night . . . no, this really happened . . .

Stories that begin that way are called urban myths. The origins are very difficult to trace and the truth, if any, is very difficult to establish. Many of them are self-evidently absurd. This is now the quality of journalism in the New Yorker.

Seymour Hersh - an American author of left-wing rants - has an article in the New Yorker claiming that the Bush administration is planning to attack Iran. The truth of his claims almost certainly depends how far you take them. Does the administration have plans which it could implement if it deemed necessary? Almost certainly. It would be irresponsible if it did not. After all, one of the criticisms of the liberation of Iraq is that there was insufficient planning. Is the Pentagon now to blame for planning too much?

Hersh suggests that it is wrong to plan for war while simultaneously pursuing the diplomatic option. This is just plain crazy. It amounts to the claim that as soon as you consider you MIGHT have to use military force you are obligated to stop diplomacy in its tracks. In other words, every crisis needs to be escalated from diplomacy to war immediately. This approach would have escalated 20 or 30 incidents from the Cold War - some of which were never even made public at the time - into all out nuclear war. I am sure glad Seymour Hersh was not directing policy back then.

The real point, however, is not so much that Hersh - a polemicist with his own agenda - is talking up the significance of routine military planning and making it sound like an immediate policy. The real point is that he is able to get away with 'friend of a friend' anonymous attributions for important elements of his story. For example, his claim that the British government is worried by this planning is not triangulated - attributed to two sources - but a single, anonymous, second hand source. That is not journalism. It is just urban myth.

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