Jefferson Morley | July 8, 2019
Why Insiders Suspected a False Flag Operation in the Middle East
Dan Benjamin and Steve Simon, senior policymakers for President Obama, can’t be mistaken for conspiracy theorists. Yet they wondered who was behind the attacks, which generated indelible images of a flaming ship and enduring talk of a coming war.
For days after the attacks, we weren’t sure. Both of us believed in all sincerity there was a good chance these actions were part of a false flag operation, an effort by outsiders to trigger a war between the United States and Iran. Even the film of Iranians hauling in an unexploded limpet mine from near the side of tanker, we reasoned, might be a fabrication—deep fake footage just like the clip of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi staggering around drunkenly.
No doubt the experience was disorienting for these sincere insiders. Benjamin and Simon are smart enough to acknowledge the long history of U.S. false flag operations, from the Battle of Lexington to the Gulf of Tonkin. They might have have mentioned Operation Northwoods, an intricately planned, top-secret U.S. false flag operation to provoke and justify an invasion of Cuba in 1963. The Northwoods documents map the treachery of the American intelligence in unflattering but necessary detail.
Benjamin and Simon reported suspicion was rife in the policymaking class which surprised them.
In conversations with former colleagues—ambassadors, undersecretaries and the like—we found that plenty of others also bought the notion that the tanker attacks were a false flag op. To these eminences, it seemed plausible the Saudis or others had staged the bombings. Perhaps you felt that way too. But for the two of us, with 30 years of government service and almost 20 more as think tankers between us, this was shocking.
Yes, we are card-carrying members of the “Blob,” the all-too-conventionally minded Washington foreign policy establishment, but we weren’t sure whether to believe our government.
This ingenuous confession has the ring of truth.
In the piece, Benjamin and Simon quickly come around to the view that the Iranians were responsible, which may or may prove to be true. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is a crafty outfit. Tehran, like Washington, has mastered the art of plausible deniability.
Benjamin and Simon’s larger point is that they fear that Trump’s conspiracy theories and contempt for truth could lead the nation to war. In other words, they are beginning to doubt the benevolence and integrity of American power.
Today the question of when and whether to trust the government is becoming exponentially more difficult. Sure, the U.S. has always exploited or contrived pretexts for war, and we are hardly alone in that regard. But right now, we are dealing with emerging technology and a leader for whom truth is not a meaningful discursive category that taken together will profoundly complicate judgments relating to the commitment of military force.
Benjamin and Simon want to detach the Trump Era from the rest of American history, which is understandable, in class terms, but not convincing historically. They are worried Washington might be capable of terrible things for stupid reasons. They sound scared of American power perhaps for the first time in their lives,
It’s not exactly a new feeling for people outside of Washington.
In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson made sure the Vietnamese communists tasted more bombs than the Nazis. In the 1980s, Central Americans gagged when they saw Ronald Reagan embracing Gen. Rios Montt, the genocidaire of Guatemala, and Roberto D’Auibuisson, the death squad leader of El Salvador. In the 2000s, the people of the Middle East couldn’t wait to throw a shoe at George W Bush after he strutted under the “Mission Accomplished” banner and give a medal to the CIA director who supplied him with the falsehoods needed to go to war.
In comparison with these statesmen, Trump is clownishly incoherent but tactically restrained.
The president loves many a dictator but he uninterested in expending any effort to achieve the bipartisan goal of regime change in Venezuela. He sustains the brutal Saudi war on Yemen for the sake of the familly business but he pulled out of Syria, much to the dismay of the policymaking elite. On North Korea, Trump is making nice with Kim Jong-un in a way that disturbs Democrats and Washington’s conventional wisdom but is welcomed by South Korea’s liberal peacemaker President Moon Jae-in. Trump is scary, except when he refuses the path to war.
Benjamin and Simon don’t care to dwell on the details. As practical men who hope to influence U.S. policy after Trump, they are not uncomfortable with the tradition of U.S. militarism from Reagan to Obama. That’s probably because they (like me) came of age in the meritocratic elite, imbued with the idea of the United States as an exceptional country. They sought to protect the country. In all likelihood, no one they knew suffered from–or was even very threatened by–the violence inflicted by the national security elite in which they moved.
Now things are different, Benjamin and Simon argue. They worry that “fake news” could start a war with Iran–as well they should. They feel threatened by Trump’s ignorance–which is warranted. They see the policymaking process, to which they devoted their lives, no longer functions–and may never return. They and their fellow eminences worried about a false flag attack, if only momentarily, because they are no longer running the world, and they don’t trust the people who are. This is a welcome development, if overdue.