For those of us who lived in the US through the horrendous build-up to the 2003 illegal war on Iraq, the growing sabre rattling in the United States against Iran brings a nasty feeling of déjà vu.
Consider the facts. US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from a historic multilateral international nuclear agreement with Iran. Few dispute that Iran was complying with the accord.
So here we are, presented with an incredible situation where the US wakes up one fine morning and decides to walk out of an international agreement which it had committed to abide by. Why? Not because any of the parties have violated it. It’s because the US did not like the terms of the agreement after the fact. This is essentially mafia-style arm-twisting replacing international diplomacy.
“Since May 2018, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the major powers agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme, re-imposed punishing sanctions on Tehran, demanded that allies choose between Iranian oil and doing business in the American market, and declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organisation,” The New York Times wrote recently.
Tensions have ratcheted up even more.
The Associated Press reports that “the US ordered all nonessential personnel to leave Iraq, and last week an aircraft carrier group and other resources were shifted to the Persian Gulf region. In public and in private, officials are sticking by the administration’s warnings of serious threats from Iranian-backed forces in the region.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Europe trying to whip up support. To nobody’s surprise, the response has not been enthusiastic. It’s not easy to convince anybody outside the fevered swamps of US warmongering paranoia that up is down.
Pompeo “heard very clearly…from us, not only from myself but also from the other ministers of EU members states, that…the most responsible attitude to take…should be that of maximum restraint,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters after a meeting of EU ministers in Brussels. That’s diplomatic parlance for: “Go jump in the lake.”
Mercifully, the sabre rattling today is a far cry from the growing chorus in support of the war for Iraq. It is easy to forget that at that time, the war had substantial support of Democrats including subsequent Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John Kerry (both of whom later recanted.) Like any time the US prepares for a foreign misadventure, the war hysteria was amplified by a media frenzy. Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was painted as the devil incarnate. Now nobody thinks Saddam Hussein is Santa Claus, but moral outrage against the Iraqi ruler does strain credulity, coming as it does from a global hegemon whose satraps over the years include a veritable rogue’s gallery of tyrants.
Yet here is the great irony today. Unlike President George W Bush, the architect of the 2003 Iraq war, Trump has been wary about US military misadventures. He has (rightly) lambasted Bush for the Iraq disaster. He has an instinctive gut recognition of intense public dislike for foreign wars where the benefits, if any, are ephemeral but the cost is terrible for the US in terms of human misery and resources. He has pushed back against US military involvement in Syria and Afghanistan.
But is Trump really calling the shots?
What’s really scary about US Iran policy is the man who is at the catbird seat: John Bolton. “War drums are beating louder in Washington’s long-festering standoff with Iran and National Security Advisor John Bolton, a veteran champion of regime change, is the bandmaster,” Agence France Presse reports, tongue-in-cheek.
Bolton has never met a war he didn’t like. His views are so whacky that in 2006 he was considered manifestly unsuited for the position of US envoy to the United Nations even by a Republican-controlled US Senate, which refused to confirm him.
“Looking at the escalating (US-created) crisis with Iran, one thing I realise is that a lot of people do not quite know who John Bolton is,” writes Josh Marshall, editor of the popular political analysis website Talking Points Memo. “Bolton is…a comically caricatured militarist, an extremely effective and smart bureaucratic player and entirely capable of lying the country into war or playing on the enthusiasms and insecurities of an ignorant president.”
That would be a disaster, according to David Frum, who coined the famous (or infamous, according to my view) phrase “axis of evil” for Bush to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Frum backed the Iraq war, but regrets it today.
He wrote in The Atlantic: “In 2019, the US is the international scofflaw. It ripped up a multilateral nuclear arms-control agreement with Iran. Whatever that treaty’s deficiencies, few inside the US—and nobody outside it—deny that Iran complied with its terms…(US plans military action,) but where’s the casus belli here? What declared-in-advance US red lines has Iran tripped? Any US military action will look to the world like a bolt-from-the-blue act of aggression. It will look that way for the excellent reason that it’s precisely what it would be.”
Lawfare, the legal commentary website, once remarked that the Trump administration was characterised by “malevolence tempered by incompetence”.
For the sake of Iran, international amity and not least of all, the US, that incompetence would be a Godsend now, since good sense or even simple human decency seems in such short supply.
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.