The Florida Keys War
by Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous chapters of this series we explored the causes of the Florida Keys War; the course of the war itself; and the war’s impact on the subsequent course of human history. In this segment we’ll review the early months of Jeb Bush’s second term as President of the United States and the beginning of the Iranian war crimes trials.
Second Round: November 2004-August 2005
His second term secured, Jeb Bush immediately got to work on setting that term’s foreign policy agenda. High on his priorities list was containing Syria, which under the dictatorship of Bashir Assad was moving as fast as it could to fill the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran at the end of the Iran War. For years Syria had been interfering with the internal affairs of Lebanon and sponsoring terrorist acts against Israel, and now the CIA was uncovering evidence that the Syrian government had supplied financial aid to some of the insurgent cells operating inside Iran.
He was also concerned about Venezuela, which under the rule of Hugo Chavez was using revenues from its oil industry to support anti-American movements in Latin America and the Middle East. In particular, Bush suspected Chavez of acting as the chief foreign backer for a movement by far left radicals in Cuba to topple the existing Cuban government and reinstate the Marxist system that had dominated the country prior to the Florida Keys War. Chavez was widely known to be an admirer of the deposed Fidel Castro; in his first public statement following Bush’s re-election, he had hailed the incarcerated ex-Communist dictator as "a hero of the masses unjustly imprisoned by militaristic bullies".1
And last but not least, there were disturbing indications from the President’s intelligence sources in the Far East that North Korea was beginning to resume its long-dormant nuclear weapons development program. Efforts to convince Pyongyang to rejoin the stalled six-nation disarmament talks had met with little success, and Bush was concerned that if things didn’t change on that front soon the United States might eventually be confronted by the danger of war with North Korea, just as it had been during the Gore administration.
Iran, however, continued to receive top priority on the Bush foreign policy "to-do" list; wrecked not only by the fighting of the second Gulf war but also by the oppressive regime which had helped bring that war about, Iran constituted the toughest job of national reconstruction the Americans had faced since rebuilding Japan and Germany after World War II. And at the same time that US troops were tangling with insurgent forces on the battlefield, the State Department was engaged in a pitched ideological fight for the hearts and minds of the Iranian people...
US Army general David Petraeus, then the third-most senior commander with the coalition occupation forces in Iran, had the unenviable task of trying to convince an entire generation of Iranian citizens who’d been raised to view America as "the Great Satan" to soften their attitudes on that score. His main tool of choice for filling that admittedly tall order was a multilingual satellite channel called Bridge TV2; broadcasting daily in Farsi, English, and Arabic, it first went on the air in early December of 2004 with an eclectic mix of news, entertainment, education, and public affairs programming.
Those expecting the network to be a Western propaganda puppet were in for a bit of a shock; much of its programming included material openly critical of US occupation policy in Iran. Indeed, one of Petraeus’ specific intensions in creating Bridge TV was to give ordinary Iranians a forum for airing their grievances and voicing their ideas on how the country’s future government should be organized.
Another of his intentions was to correct the poisoned view of the non-Muslim world the old regime had been foisting off on the Iranian masses since the Shah’s overthrow in 1979. Under the rule of the mullahs Iran’s educational system had been skewed to fit the ideological agenda of radical Islam; Bridge TV was meant to help the Iranian masses cultivate a more balanced perspective on the outside world. One sector of Iranian society that especially appreciated Bridge TV’s services was Iran’s ancient but severely diminished Jewish community, which had been gravely persecuted under Islamic rule and saw in the US-sponsored satellite network a means of healing the wounds that persecution had caused and undoing the anti-Semitic brainwashing which had made it possible.
Two months after Bridge TV first went on the air, a miniseries titled "Our Story" aired its debut episode; intended to outline Jewish history in a concise yet detailed fashion, "Our Story" was one of the most controversial-- and most-watched -- programs in the channel’s brief history. There were many in Iran who still held to the anti-Jewish beliefs the old regime had promulgated during its rule, and they did not take kindly to anything which showed the so-called "Zionist enemy" in a favorable light. At the same time, however, there were many others who welcomed a change of pace from the constant drumbeat of hate-mongering harangues their former rulers had subjected them to not only on Judaism but on other foreign beliefs and ideas as well. Still others watched the miniseries out of simple curiosity, trying to understand what their deposed leaders had been making such a fuss about when it came to Jews.
While "Our Story" could not, by itself, cleanse the stains of anti-Jewish bigotry from Iran’s national soul, it did constitute an important early step towards reversing the hateful mindset the old regime had been imposing on its people for nearly 25 years. General Petraeus justly took a certain pride in having been a key player in its production, and several Jewish advocacy groups in North America and Europe praised Bridge TV for airing the four- part miniseries.
But the broadcast that would cement Bridge TV’s status as a bona fide force for change in post-Islamic Republic Iran was yet to come: the trial of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his comrades from the old regime. At the recommendation of Middle East experts from the State Department and with the consent of the tribunal which would hear Ahmadinejad’s case, the network would broadcast every phase of the trial live and unedited to show the Iranian people how a justice system could function when free of interference by dictatorial rulers-- and drive home the point that a new day had taken hold in Iran.
Even without the presence of Bridge TV, the trial still would have drawn a great deal of international attention for a number of reasons. Not the least of them was that Ramsey Clark, Lyndon Johnson’s former Attorney General, would be heading Ahmadinejad’s legal defense team; in the years since his tenure as head of the US Justice Department ended, Clark had developed a widespread and rather unsavory reputation for defending war criminals; during Saddam Hussein’s war crimes trial over a decade earlier, he’d been one of the key members of Saddam’s legal squad, a fact which had earned him bitter condemnation from Iraqis who’d suffered under the late Baathist tyrant’s rule.
The insurgent forces in Iran, still determined to restore Islamist rule in the country, did everything they could think of to disrupt the trial preparations. At least three times during the late spring of 2005, coalition troops had to be called in to defuse bombs which had been setup near the courtrooms where the trial would be held. The insurgents tried to assassinate the head of the UN tribunal hearing the case and succeeded in murdering two of his deputies. A translator working for the UN was seized at gunpoint and held for fifteen hours before being freed by NATO special forces in a raid which resulted in the deaths of most of the gunmen involved. There was even an attempt to poison the UN’s chief representative in Iran using cyanide that had been salvaged from the ruins of the Iranian counterintelligence service’s main office at the end of the Iran War.3
Despite the guerrillas’ best efforts, however, the tribunal went forward as scheduled, and in late July of 2005 the UN court heard opening statements from the prosecution and the defense. Bridge TV, al-Jazeera, and CNN were just a few of the networks that carried the hearings live; they also captured Ramsey Clark’s heatedly defensive observation that ‘even the worst among us have the right to legal counsel’ in a response to a heckler’s taunts that he was no better than the tyrants he was defending before the tribunal.
For those Iranians who’d chafed under Islamic rule for nearly a quarter-century, the war crimes trial was a perfect chance to vent their hatred and contempt for the senior leaders of the now- defunct theocratic regime. The first week of the hearings alone, the tribunal’s presiding judge had to admonish spectators no less than a hundred times to refrain from yelling obscene comments in the direction of the defendants’ table or the witness stand; in the streets outside the courtroom, relatives of a university student who’d been executed by the old regime’s security forces for advocating peace with Israel kept a daily vigil holding up placards that denounced Ahmadinejad and urged the tribunal to hang him without delay.
Apart from the United States-- and of course Iran --the nation where the trial commanded the most interest was Israel, a place that Ahmadinejad had infamously declared should be "wiped off the map". The more conservative sections of the Israeli political spectrum could not entirely refrain from gloating over the irony that it was Ahmadinejad’s own government that had been wiped off the map instead.
Ill Wind That Blows No Good: August 2005-May 2006
As the trial progressed and media coverage became steadily greater, more than one media analyst made the observation that it would take something of apocalyptic proportions to bump the UN tribunal off center stage in the world media. These analysts didn’t know it yet, but such an event was just around the corner, and when it came it would call much of the Bush Administration’s domestic policy into question.
On August 29th, 2005 the most devastating storm ever recorded in the continental United States, Hurricane Katrina, came ashore at the Louisana Gulf coast near the town of Leeville. The first Category 5 hurricane to reach the continental United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Katrina promptly barreled its way due north up to New Orleans and hit the unsuspecting Crescent City full blast, flooding its streets and turning its Lower 9th Ward into what one survivor called "Iran part two".4 City and state leaders would come under sharp criticism, some of it justified, for being slow to respond to the first warnings of the storm’s approach to the New Orleans area.
But most of the public wrath over the mishandling of the storm and post-storm recovery efforts would be directed squarely at the White House. Some critics of the Bush Administration’s handling of Katrina believed he was giving Iran and Syria top priority at the expense of Louisiana and Missisippi; others felt that his crucial mistake was indulging in cronyism and hiring less-than-competent individuals to fulfill critical federal emergency management skills simply because his family or Vice- President Cheney had recommended them.
And a few balefully hinted that racism had motivated Bush to intentionally sacrifice the largely African-American citizens of New Orleans for the benefit of predominantly white cities in nearby Missisippi. "Jeb Bush hates black people, case closed." a certainly hip-hop star notoriously proclaimed at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards a month after the hurricane, and there were those who found this accusation all too credible.
The true cause of the slowness in the response of federal authorities to Hurricane Katrina wouldn’t be known for a long time, but one thing was immediately clear: Jeb Bush had been put on the defensive. He’d have to do something to defuse the racism charges and do it quick, or the GOP’s prospects for retaining the White House in 2008 might take a hit. At the very least the party stood to lose a number of seats in the House and Senate-- which would be bad news indeed as far as his Iran policy was concerned. In early October, Bush flew down to New Orleans to assure the city’s residents that their plight had not been forgotten and to assess first-hand the progress (or lack thereof) in FEMA efforts to rebuild the neighborhoods ravaged by the storm.
When the president returned to Washington two days later, FEMA director Mike Brown-- who had next to no experience with handling natural disasters but who Vice-President Cheney had recommended for the job because of Brown’s success at managing a horse-breeding business --was out of a job. Brown had been one of the most frequently criticized federal officials in regard to the Bush Administration’s handling of Katrina, and after his inspection of the post-hurricane recovery effort Bush was obliged to concede, at least where Brown was concerned, that the critics had been right.
But the administration wasn’t entirely successful in its efforts to redeem itself from the fiasco of the initial federal response to Katrina. A Gallup poll taken in February of 2006 indicated that Jeb Bush’s approval rating had dropped to 44%-- the lowest such rating of his entire tenure in the White House from the day he was inaugurated to the day the poll results were made public. This did not bode well for his party’s bid to keep its majority in Congress in the November midterm races or for its prospects of retaining the White House in 2008.
The Iranian war crimes trials reassumed center stage in the world media’s attention in mid-April of 2006, when ex-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the stand in his own defense. Those expecting to see a sinister figure of towering evil when he entered the courtroom were baffled by the ordinary-looking man who took the witness stand; in his somber charcoal gray three- piece suit and dark blue tie, Ahmadinejad looked more like a banker or one of the reporters in the media gallery than the former leader of a defunct theocratic tyranny. But the moment he began his testimony, the deposed Iranian dictator reminded people about who he truly was.
In a long, self-justifying rant that sickened those at the prosecution’s table, Ahmadinejad expressed absolutely no remorse at all for the brutalities his regime had perpetrated or for the repression his predecessors had sanctioned in the years between the 1979 Islamic Revolution and his accession to power as head of state for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, when questioned about his role in the 9/11 attacks, he said point-blank that the United States had only itself to blame for that tragic event. Not even during his cross-examination did the ex-Iranian president give any indication that he regretted his harsh treatment of internal dissenters or his confrontational attitude towards his perceived foreign adversaries.
As he was departing the witness stand after his testimony was over, an ex-Revolutionary Guards officer pulled out a revolver and tried to shoot him; MPs managed to subdue the man before he could pull the trigger, but the incident was emblematic of the searing hatred many of Iran’s people now felt for the theocracy that had once governed their country. Ahmadinejad was taken back to his cell under heavy guard to await the tribunal’s verdict.
On May 5th, 2006, the UN tribunal rendered its decision...
To Be Continued
1From a speech in Caracas before the Venezuelan National Assembly dated November 9th, 2004. Those Cubans old enough to remember the repressive nature of Castro’s regime during its brief but brutal rule over Cuba might be inclined to question Chavez’s perspective on the matter, but that’s a story for another day.
2So called because Gen. Petraeus hoped to use it to help "bridge" cultural gaps between the United States and Iran.
3The attempt was foiled when the would-be poisoner was caught with an illegal firearm in his possession during a random search by UN security guards and arrested by US Army MPs.
4Quoted from the article "Katrina Survivor Compares Storm’s Ninth Ward Devastation To Iran War" in the August 31st, 2005 Atlanta Journal-Constitution.