Is War With Iran Coming?

You probably saw this yesterday.

If you spent any time online yesterday, you probably saw that it became a meme. Everyone was doing mocking tweets of it, for petty grievances or incredibly specific references to their particular profession. Here’s Uproxx calling it an “incredible meme“, which, immediately, seems to be a fairly blithe and stupid and of-the-moment self-reflective response, a product of our warped media age, to the President of the United States sounding like a maddened incel about nuclear war.

Of course, it also could be self-protection, a layer of irony to shield ourselves from the horror of the day, from the fact that this half-bright toddler, made dumb and cruel by wealth, could kills hundreds of thousands, if not more, without anyone legally able to stop him. Maybe making jokes about everything perpetuates our false and woozy times as much as it protects us from it, but if we’re already in that terrible loop, it’s hard to get out.

Or maybe the reaction of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif summed it up.

He doesn’t take Trump very seriously. He sees this as bluster, the same kind that led to the North Korean “talks”, in which NK didn’t change their position at all and the US gave up its biggest bargaining chip. More likely, he understands that Trump is seen as weak after clearly kowtowing to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, and needs to rally Republicans that are more than ready to circle the wagons for him.

I think that’s dangerous though. It is dangerous to draw parallels between North Korean bloviating and threatening Iran. For one thing, inasmuch as there is a Middle East strategy in Trump’s empty toothpaste tube of a mind, it is to side with a coalition os the rich Gulf states (minus Qatar) and Israel against Iran. There are obviously a million problems with that plan, and I think even in a moral vacuum it is ultimately unworkable, but I can at least make the case that there is a strategy (again, with the caveat that this team isn’t able to pull it off).

For another thing, as hawkish as some of his team was on North Korea, that was small beer compared to their warboy attitude toward Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Christianist bigot, doesn’t really believe Iran has a right to exist as an independent, non-colonized state. He thinks it should be a vassal to the West and have no say in its own destiny.

General Mattis is more rational and not driven by bigotry, but he (to a large degree correctly) sees Iran as the main driver of conflict with the US in the region, particularly in Iraq. He knows that Iran is responsible for chaos and the death of US soldiers in the region. One could argue that there shouldn’t have been US soldiers in Iraq, but that doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) matter to Mattis. His job was to fight for the US, and so his overall Middle East perception is that Iran is the enemy. He is, after all, a general, with the good and bad that brings.

And John Bolton? Do you even have to ask?

It’s not just Bolton. The entire GOP and most of the Democratic Party has seen Iran as the primary villain in the world since the moment the last primary villain, Saddam Hussein, had his statues toppled. There is actual weight behind this push to war.

It’s important to ask why. If you want, you could trace the last 40 years since the revolution and the hostage crisis, or go back to 1953 when the CIA helped overthrow the elected government and reinstitute the decadent and almost louche cruelty of the Shah’s regime.

But this is about more than just specific events. It is Great Power competition, as the US, the last vanguard of the West in the Middle East, tries to maintain its dominance of the last 150 years. US actions in Iran must be analyzed by the individual players and the truth of recent history, but they also have to be seen through the prism of colonialist appetites and the reemergence of a historic power, partly due to a reaction to said colonialism.

That’s what Zarif meant in his tweet. Iran, in one form or another, has been around since Europeans were living in huts along muddy rivers. It has continuity, and even though Europeans have dominated recently, that’s a historical blip. Trump is just fighting a rearguard war.

He’s also assuming that this is just bluster, and is playing the role of statesman, almost laughing at Trump, rolling his eyes. “Yes yes- oh, is he yelling again? Goodness, how frightening!”  I think that’s his primary goal here, taking advantage of the broken Western coalition, and showing that he is more reliable than Trump. And, thanks to Trump’s actions, that’s not a bad plan.

This is very bad. For one thing, Trump’s peak idiocy, exemplified by violating the JCPOA, strengthens the hand of Russia and China in the region, mostly the latter, and weakens any US attempt to bring a modicum of stability.

For another, it somehow makes Iran look like a reasonable power. It’s not! The regime is as cruel as the Shah as even more oppressive, corrupt to the bone, and stifling to generations of Iranians. It exports war and terror around the region. Even if you agree that Iran should, or at least absolutely will, reassert itself as a regional power, there is no way to argue that the current regime is doing so responsibly or is a force for good.

That’s not a call for violent regime change. That would be another generational disaster, would lead to ridiculous chaos and suffering, and could break the US military or force it to reinstitute the draft. But given the weight of the two countries, and Trump’s need to show strength, we could drift toward war.

Even if you think Trump is blustering in order to sound tough and repeat what he sees as his huge success with North Korea, these things can have a momentum. Given the teams in place, it is far from impossible.

In the long run, this is a common story. A fallen empire, made weak and soft and stupid, is dominated by outsiders, who eventually get weak and soft and stupid themselves. At the trough of their decline, they are led by the very worst, and have one last desperate attempt to reclaim what is “theirs”. A generation of violence and upheaval follows, and the newer empire fades into infighting and irrelevance.

In the long run, that’s a common story. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the long run. We live in the present, which has become mirrored and refracting, an endless series of impulses and truthless narratives and escapes. But no matter how many memes are made, the forces of history have a way of imposing reality. America in the 21st century is not immune to that. That we ever thought ourselves inoculated have made us impossibly sick.

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Trump’s National Security “Policies” As Muddled as he is Ignorant

This might just be the permanent clip for Trump-era foreign policy

So, let’s sum up the last few days. Steve Bannon is out at the NSC, a victory for McMasters, but maybe a meaningless one, since he still hasn’t been able to put in his own people, for the most part.  Still, it’s a start, because as the NYTimes put it, it’s the removal of a “political advisor”.

in Syria, the administration first said that it was “silly” to talk about removing Asad, only to sort of reverse course. “Only days after the White House declared it would be ‘silly’ to persist in trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mr. Trump said, ‘My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.'” Nikki Haley is threatening unilateral action, and seems genuinely emotional following the chemical attack on civilians in Idlib (understandably and genuinely, I think).

And, of course, this is against the backdrop of SecDef Mattis being given far more leeway to fight ISIS and AQAP, loosening restrictions on field commanders and broadening what is considered an “area of active hostilities“. While this will increase civilian casualties, it will also almost certainly hurt ISIS more on the battlefield.

So, overall…are these good things? I think, in a vacuum, you could make a case for each one. Certainly, the demotion of the vile Steve Bannon is a good thing, because it might signal that he has displeased the Fake King. Certainly, Trump’s string of failures is eating at him, and when he lashes out, who knows who will take the fall? But it’s also true that Bannon isn’t merely a “political adviser.” He’s Trump’s worldview shaper, and probably the best person at helping trump find enemies to take the blame for his own personal failures. So we’ll see if Bannon is actually on the outs (which is possible) or if this is just a temporary ego-assuaging for Trump.

Syria is interesting, except that it is clear that Trump has no real plans. He goes entirely on however he feels at the moment. Deciding to get more involved against the Asad government means taking certain responsibility for Syria, not to mention tangling with Russia. Does Trump actually mean this? Or was it just a tough-sounding gesture. It’s possible to see a world where the US bombs Syrian airstrips and planes, and maybe munitions dumps, but that would entail a broader national/regional strategy, as well as a coherent Russian one.

And that’s the main problem here: there is no strategy. Even the devolution of power to Mattis and field commanders, something that sounds sensible, is a product of not having any real foreign policy other than “beating our enemies” (and, in the case of Bannon, creating them in order to forge some civilizational conflict). It is all well and good to be, as Mattis is, a warrior. It might be true that the Obama administration micromanaged too much. But that (arguably) overabundance of caution came from the constant asking of “what’s next? What happens after we ‘win’? How does the world look then?”

It’s clear these aren’t questions Trump is asking, and certainly ones he doesn’t have the patience to see. While McMasters and Mattis are strategists, they are so in a narrow sense, as we discussed earlier.  And all of the Trump team’s plans (including creating “safe zones” for refugees to return) all seem geared toward short-term solutions that have zero interest in the long term, and zero interest in how they balance against other strategies. (Like, for instance, if you have “safe zones”, how do you protect them? What happens if they are attacked by Russia? What happens when they want to return to ruined villages?)

This starts from the top. Trump has no real vision, no real foreign policy. He’s the guy who reads the paper and says “we can do better, I know how!” This is literally true: it’s all he says.

So maybe you can have competent people. Maybe you can get some grownups on board. And maybe certain tactics, like letting loose the military on ISIS, can produce results. It almost certainly will. But when you are a flailing, know-nothing impatient ignoramus, the whole of your administration and policy will reflect that. It’s wrong to ask what Trump’s strategy is. It’s clear there is no method at all.