A War of Bad, Abstract Ideas
Last week, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the US was sending the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike force and USAF bomber task force – armed with four nuclear deployables – to the Persian Gulf. This is in reaction to “troubling and escalating“ threats from Iran. Last Friday, in response to some more ominous but unidentified threats the USS Arlington – an amphibious vessel packed with marines and a battery of patriot missiles, steamed out to meet the force. At the time, the intelligence community didn’t so much as question the report, but the Trump administration’s overreaction to it.
This week, however, the New York Times reported:
a new intelligence analysis by American and allied spy services has concluded that the Iranian government, declining in popularity amid economic woes, is trying to provoke the United States into a military overreaction to cement its hold on power.
This new conclusion reads like a case of geo-political self-projection so obvious even a 2nd tier marriage counsellor could sniff out in under a 50 minute hour.
According to the intelligence, General Qasem Soleimani, the shadowy and terrifying head Iran’s covert action arm - the Quds Force – told proxy militias operating in Iraq that conflict with the remaining US troops there is coming. All this very well might be a way to tell the mullahs that they are going to be held responsible for the actions of their proxies in the region. It’s hard to read the tea-leaves, as Trump’s Iran policy has floated so far above the terra firma as to defy explanation. The Iranians appear to want to meet us halfway, but how can they if we don’t even know where that is?
The Trump policy is to use “maximum leverage.” Two weeks after John Bolton was hired in May of 2018, we pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last year with the middle school logic that it was the “worst deal ever”, as well as the unmistakable tightening of screws on a country still in compliance with the treaty – sanctions, lapsing of trade waivers and declaring the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp a foreign terrorist organization. You may remember Mr. Bolton and his mustache as the Undersecretary of State in 2002 when he was gunning for war with Iraq. He is held by the intelligence community to be largely responsible of the mischaracterization and manipulation of intelligence that lead to our getting into that tar-baby of a war. Since then he’s advocated for US led regime change in Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Cuba, Yemen, North Korea and Iran. And it is in Iraq where our Iran policy really defies anything we’d call outcome-based common sense.
After the fall of Bagdad in 2003, we’d seeded the December 2005 election with our hand-picked secular, pro-Western guy. Evidently the locals didn’t remember our invasion with the same feelz as we did, and our guy got creamed. The big winners were the Shi’a Islamists of United Iraq Alliance (UIA). With the country drifting back into civil war, for the sake of stability we effectively handed the reigns over to the Shi’a majority. A win for self-determination, sure, but also a win for very Shi’a Iran. We supported the Shi’a government as a matter of stability while Iranian Quds Force supplied the militants responsible for the deaths of more than 600 US troops from 2003-2011.
It was a weird strategy, if we can call it that, but it inexplicably worked. Iraq was a feeble success story for a moment. The violence has stabilized and the homicide rate in the Bagdad has returned to that of say Washington, DC. I first arrived in country after the first US pullout, when Western NGOs and humanitarian aid organizations were operating as well as can be expected in cooperation with the government. Tensions, though, have been on the rise since we pulled out of the JCPOA last year. In September, Shi’a militants fired mortar rounds into a diplomatic compound in Bagdad. So, it is likely that the terrifying General Solemani did warn of a coming fight…but goad us into a military conflict? Iran hasn’t had global ambitions since the fall of the Achaemenid Dynasty. They are purely a regional player and a 4th tier threat to the U.S. There is a big difference in wanting to hurt someone and having the ability to really do it.
More practically, their regional meddling is in our global interests: We fought as reluctant allies in Syria and Iraq against ISIS. Yes, we’re on opposite side in the proxy war in Yemen – but Tehran has indicated that it might pull out. Yes, there is the odd politico carrying on about vaporizing Israel, but some of our progressives are jumping on that band wagon. In Iran, elected officials are as addicted to soundbites as here, but their elected officials don’t really matter.
DIVINING THE MOTIVES OF CLERICS is tricky business, but the mullahs running Iran want to stay in power. If Iran and the United States go toe-to-toe in any conventional way it will end, quickly, with the mullahs being erased – and they know it. That includes Israel. On the off-chance religious zeal got the better of their survival instinct, the JCPOA meant they couldn’t do much about it anyway. Until last week, Iran seemed to be on a course of patiently waiting out the Trump administration.
All of which raises the question of why are we so hell bent on throwing a punch that will completely destabilize the continent? If we were angling for a non-nuclear Iran, the sunset provisions of the JCPOA tied the hands of the aging mullahs running the country far beyond their shelf-life. It was something of a de facto, if imperfect, regime change. It’s true enough that Iran is meddlesome, but it isn’t linked to the terms of the deal. A little like a bank manager calling a loan because you cheated on your wife.
Perhaps, the reasons are a little more abstract. Another Iraq hawk, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, reportedly said an Iraqi democracy would make the House of Saud squirm on its thrown as well as destabilize the “tyrannies in the Arab world.” If that’s our bad, abstract reason for heading into a war, a word of caution.
THE OLDEST SETTLED part of America – or at least settled by white people - is a little older than 400 years, the length of the average Persian grudge. Even then, America didn’t get full enough of itself to carrying on about making the world “safe for democracy” and hatching other bad, abstract ideas until a century ago – the space of one long, if tedious, lifespan. The Iranians, on the other hand, have an altogether lengthier tale to tell. Darius – that King of Kings – had forged the Persian Empire into an abstract bad idea machine by the 7th century B.C., mobilizing the most powerful force in the known world in the name of Ahura Mazda, and against “the lie”: a concept so fuzzy it makes “War on Terror” look as concrete as a bank statement. In short, their abstracts are more concrete than ours, and their forever wars are a lot more forever.
It’s likely that the reasoning behind this unhinged hatred of Iran harkens back to that foolishness in 1979. To be sure, that really was off-sides, but it was also 40 years ago. It’s also possible, even, that the Islamic Republic’s lingering beef with Israel is less religious zealotry and more about the fact that the old Shah tried to hire the Mossad to whack Ayatollah Khomeini a few months before he took power and founded the Islamic Republic. The Mossad didn’t take the job, of course, and no one is sure why. Those cats, even fully retired, have pretty selective memories.
All of which is beside the point. A mere 15 years after the end of World War II we’d not only kissed and made up with both Japan and Germany and a generation later we were all getting rich together, sending our sons off to get MBAs rather than getting blown-up all-over hell’s half acre.
It’s a little vulgar, but we could do worse.
Originally appeared in Whiskey/Barrel May 2019