The Question Isn't Whether We're At War: It's What Phase of This War Are We In?

A literally crushing new phase

Yesterday evening, as people were getting home from work and unfurling into an already restless eve, phone alerts started coming in- the ping ping ping soundtrack of our heightened anxious lives. Rockets (the first alerts said rockets) struck an American base in Iraq. Without many more details, that is what we were going on.

Then came the texts, and the tweets and all the sundry messages? Are we at war?

As the next few hours tensed up, we got more information and disinformation, and the queasy helpless feeling kept setting in. These weren’t rockets, they were missiles- a difference of type, not degree. 30 Americans were killed. The President was now being briefed by Mike Pompeo, the theocratic Islamophobe who interprets his role of Secretary of State as one to bring about war. At one point it was being reported that both Iran and the US were launching fighters- an exercise which, in a vacuum, doesn’t mean anything, but added to the dread uncertainty. It was rumored the President was going to speak, and he wouldn’t speak to say they were laying off.

And the questions kept coming: are we at war?

Then we learned more. It wasn’t 30 Americans killed; it was none. We learned, with point-proving dismissive relief, that the dead were “only” Iraqis. It became clear that Iran was sending a message, with an off-ramp, to return to the status quo.

So, then, I guess we aren’t at war. For now?

But of course, that’s the wrong way to look at it. We have been at war for at least 16 years, and possibly much more depending on how you want to parse it. But if we just take the 2003 invasion of Iraq (and you can go back much further) the United States has been in a state of imperial war for nearly a generation. This is the latest, and possibly most dangerous phase of it, doesn’t mean it is something new.

By “imperial war” I don’t mean a war of straight plunder or theft, regardless of what our idiot President says about “taking the oil”. I mean a war to control the politics of a region to benefit our interests. A means of using violence, extortion, and the basic methodology of a protection racket to bend the region to our will. That it has been wildly unsuccessful doesn’t change its very nature.

This war is related to theft and plunder, of course: we want to make sure the US has the resources it needs to continue its growth, as well as dictate trade across all oceans. That’s part of our soul-soaking all-in alliance with Saudi Arabia. This is becoming more important, from a grim geopolitical standpoint, as we see the establishment of China and the expansion of Russia in a world that is increasingly multipolar.

We didn’t know that in 2003, of course. Russia was floundering between Chechen disasters and China barely had a Navy. The Iraq war was an imperial swagger to show the world we could do anything. The wreckage of America in that war, the catastrophic suffering it inflicted, set off a chain of events that helped the world become the place it is today.

As the US fought in Iraq, China established bases and ports around Asia and Africa, reaching westward across its imperial territories to start to make rough alliances with the oil-producing nations. That was their strategy.

At the same time, Iran, which had been trying to shake off the West, saw an opening. There was a brief period after the fall of Saddam Hussein of potential alliance between the US and Iran, led by (amazingly), the now-dead Soleimani, but the US under George Bush shrugged that off, ready to enact regime change.

Iran, since then, has become more and more aggressive in its own imperial plans. Since the Revolution, it had always supported militias in other countries, most notably Lebanon, and has always tried to influence politics. US policy has been to contain that with the hope of regime change. The US has clearly become less and less effective. Iran has gotten stronger and stronger, able to bolster Asad and bloody Saudi Arabia in Yemen and assert more control over Iraqi politics than the US. They have done this on the corpses of tens of thousands, on the ruin of cities, and the starvation and misery of millions. And that’s the point: Iran is also an imperial power.

Iran has been checking the US in Iraq for over a decade now, through political influence and violence. They have killed US soldiers; the US has killed their militias. The two countries have fought by proxy and nearly face-to-face. They’ve also fought side-by-side when interests match.

And now we’ve come to a new phase of this war-within-a-war. The status quo doesn’t look good for the US in the long-term. It is either being dragged into out-and-out conflict, or be bled out. It is either stay for another generation, or leave with Iran in near-total control of the region.

So what we have is the US fighting a war with a potentially very-hot war with a regional power inside a larger imperial struggle. In the Middle East- which, really, is the heart of Eurasia- Iraq is the last place we have influence to contain and check Iran, who is working in rough concert with Turkey and Russia, who are varying degrees of influential powers. This fragile alliance is far closer to China’s orbit than the United States’s.

To see it like this you have to step back from American exceptionalism, which doesn’t actually exist. The United States is a country, with interests. We’re fighting a war, for our interests. That we are now being led by an unstable authoritarian dipshit who has more in common with adversaries than allies doesn’t change that. He wants a multipolar world, because he believes he can make the best deals, and he doesn’t believe in any sort of order.

But that’s not really different. The US has been waging war for a generation. It is barely clinging on to its last foothold. It will probably be forced to leave soon, and power will recalculate. That will neither end, nor start, the war. As we flail and recalibrate, bluster and blunder, the fighting will change, but the meaning won’t.

To ask if we’re at war is wrong. We’ve been at war forever.

A Brief Note on Soleimani

By now, you’ve certainly seen the news that Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds force, and a true hardliner straight out of central casting, has been assassinated in Iraq by a United States airstrike.

In grasping for a modern historical equivalence, one comes up short. There is no way to say it other than the United States killed one of the most powerful men of a country with whom we are not at war. This was extrajudicial, almost certainly extra-legal, and extraordinarily dangerous.

That’s not to say that his end isn’t essentially fitting. This was a man who brought violence and chaos to the region, and many met far worse ends because of his manipulations and his paths of glory. In Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and around the globe, people have been killed by his forces and his proxies. He was a true fanatic, and it is impossible to mourn him.

What we have to recognize, though, is what he was a fanatic for: Iranian influence throughout the region. The reversion of Iran to its typical historical glory, and its power in western and central Asia. To being the center of Middle East like it was when this was not the Middle East, but the dead goddamn center of the world.

That’s one of the reasons this is so dangerous. Soleimani was inarguably the 2nd-most powerful man in Iran. He was because he represented the reality of the Revolution. It wasn’t about Islam, exactly. It was about overthrowing Western dominance and the corrupt, West-backed Shah. As I’ve argued before:

The Iranian revolution wasn’t about Islam, or not entirely. There was a mix of anti-imperialist leftists, communists, other various secularists, religious types who didn’t want clerical rule (which remember, is what Khomeini first promised) and non-ideological nationalists who were just tired of western interference.

Western Europe and Russia had eclipsed Persian power in the region in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until oil that the West really started controlling what was happening in Iran. Lopsided deals with venal flunkies gave England and then America a dominant role in the expropriation of Iranian resources. Shahs got rich, the west got rich, and most Iranians stayed poor. The same thing happened in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Western colonialism in the Middle East was a 20th-century phenomenon, which in our lifetime seems like all of eternity, but was really a blip. It was a terrible one, from the perspective of the inhabitants, of course. It was dirty and condescending and venal and greedy and grubbing. It was literally crude. Khomeini wasn’t just deposing a shah for the sake of Islam: he was kicking out the west for the sake of Iran.

And that is really Soleimani’s symbolic role, or more precisely the symbolic weight of his very real actions. He was the outstretched fist or Iranian power, bending the region to Iran’s designs. He was so powerful in the country because the whole point of the Revolution was to bring that back, and he’s doing it.

None of this is to say that he was legitimately popular in Iran, as of course the government itself is deeply unpopular. And I’m certainly not going to insult you by pretending to know how “the Iranian people” will react. But this is pure American dominance and arrogance. It’s an act of slapping back Iran for daring to practice politics in the region. It will be seen as nothing more than the cruelest imperialism. This ignores, of course, that Iran politics are bloody imperialism, but we aren’t pretending that humans are rational.

The Supreme Leader will have no choice but to retaliate. Whomever takes over Quds will have every incentive o activate militias and hit US targets directly. His fiercely loyal fighters will be almost impossible to restrain. And a bungling, incredibly incompetent US government, which has systematically forced out expertise, isn’t prepared for what’s next. How could they be? They don’t know, and don’t care, what came before.

As a sort-of aside, the extra-legal part of this is pretty important domestically. There is no real justification for this under the AUMF, and if that pernicious bit of hasty paranoia is stretched to encompass the killing, it will be sad lunacy. Really, it will be the apotheosis of the AUMF, which has perverted further an already deeply-expeditionary and evangelical approach to violence. It is the culmination the last 20 years, but not an end. This is the beginning of a new and even-more dangerous phase.