• Ryan O'Connell

War Drums Are Beating Along the Potomac

June 16, 2019

Wise generals try to avoid fighting wars on two fronts at the same time. But President Donald Trump seems to be sliding into a showdown with Iran that could enmesh the United States in another major conflict in the Middle East…even though we’re on the verge of losing the war in Afghanistan and we still have troops in Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Trump is pursuing a trade war with China, which may trigger an epic struggle that would make the Cold War with Russia look like a tea party. The President is also still threatening to impose tariffs on Mexico and European countries, our allies, if they don’t follow his orders.

Trump’s approach seems to be, “You can fight some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. But why not fight all of the people all of the time? That way, we can keep everyone off balance”.

We know that Trump thrives on chaos and conflict. But this time, he is playing with fire, and we all may get burned. Why has he focused on Iran as a priority? The mullahs in Tehran are not a bunch of nice guys, to be sure, and they have intervened in several Middle Eastern countries. However, they have not attacked any U.S. troops or facilities since we signed the nuclear agreement. Up until now, the Iranians have not presented a threat to the U.S.

The professionals in the Pentagon understand the risks of confronting Iran, of course. The generals have been urging the Administration to show restraint with the regime in Tehran. However, that has not stopped the President and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from publicly blaming the Iranian government for the recent attacks on tankers, which has increased the tensions.

John Bolton, the head of the National Security Council and a super-hawk on Iran, has been conspicuously silent about Iran after Trump quashed his proposal to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East. But Pompeo, supposedly our chief diplomat, has recently sharpened his rhetoric on Iran.

“Maximum Pressure”, Minimal Results

We are witnessing the failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach on Iran. This policy has been based on arrogance and ignorance, and Trump has given great weight to the views of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Those two countries consider Iran an existential threat, and they might welcome the U.S.'s inflicting some damage on its military forces.

Trump made a colossal blunder in May 2018 when he reneged on the nuclear agreement with Iran, which was complying with its obligations, and he reimposed drastic sanctions on the country. The President compounded that mistake in May 2019 by imposing new sanctions on Iran and, for the first time, specifically on the Revolutionary Guard. The sanctions are choking the economy and inflicting damage on the Guards’ commercial activities, which are far-flung.

These steps have not brought the Iranians to heel. Instead, Trump has undercut moderate leaders in Iran, who had promised the voters that by entering the nuclear agreement, they could get sanctions lifted and improve the economy. Trump’s arbitrary exit from the agreement and his punitive measures have bolstered Tehran hard-liners’ case that the U.S. cannot be trusted and Iran should pursue a nuclear capability to protect itself. (See: North Korea.)

By offering only sticks and no carrots, the Administration has backed the Iranians into a corner. It is not surprising that President Hassan Rouhani, the main proponent of the nuclear accord, has said that Iran will start to disregard its obligations under the agreement. Rouhani has to protect his flank; unlike the absolute leaders in Saudi Arabia, he has to face elections.

Tanker Attacked in Gulf of Oman

Unfortunately, it is possible that some elements in the Iranian regime, such as Revolutionary Guard units, may have gone “rogue” and attacked tankers in the Persian Gulf, whether or not the civilian leaders in the government approve. Or some Iranian leaders might have authorized the strikes, thinking a few “pinprick” attacks on shipping could give them leverage over the U.S. Either way, the risks of a “miscalculation” and a conflict between U.S. and Iranian vessels are rising fast.

Trump’s policy toward Iran has also failed on the diplomatic front. The Administration has angered and alienated key European allies such as France and Germany. They have tried hard to keep the nuclear agreement alive, but the U.S. has used sanctions to prevent them from trading with Iran.

The U.S. is Ill-Prepared for War

Let’s hope that we can avoid a war with Iran. If a conflict does break out, the U.S. will be on weak ground. We may have the strongest military in the world, but this time, America will stand alone. We won’t be able to form a grand coalition.

Our major European allies won’t help us, for at least two reasons. They believe, justifiably, that the U.S. has provoked the crisis with Iran. Furthermore, Trump has done everything possible to offend those allies, from disparaging NATO to threatening them with tariffs or praising extreme-right politicians in their countries.

Americans are very tired of the endless wars in the Middle East. Our troops have been fighting in Afghanistan for over 17 years, the longest war in our history, and we are not winning. Unlike John Bolton, most Americans realize that the invasion of Iraq was a failure. They are not clamoring for another attempt at regime change.

And, thanks in large part to Trump’s massive tax cuts, the government’s financial situation has sharply deteriorated. Our budget deficit is projected to hit $1.1 trillion this fiscal year (ending October 2019), which would be a 40% or $320 billion increase year-over-year. Major wars increase the flow of red ink, as military expenditures rise, and we are ill-prepared for that.

Could American Democracy Be a Casualty of War?

If the U.S. goes to war with Iran, Americans may face another danger. Trump may use this latest “emergency” as an excuse to move even further toward one-man rule and weaken our democratic institutions. The President has declared several bogus “national security emergencies” so he can circumvent and defy Congress. Trump used the pretext of a “national security threat” to divert funds that were allocated for military bases to building a section of The Wall, after Congress refused to include such funding in the budget.

Similarly, Trump declared an emergency to justify selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, despite a bipartisan resolution in the Senate that specifically prohibited such aid. Trump’s move infuriated leaders of both parties, but he seems to have gotten away with it.

Most recently, Trump cited the International Economic Emergency Act when he threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico, ignoring Congressional leaders (and business people) who had pleaded with him not to use that tactic. No other President had ever used that Act to justify tariffs. The “emergency” Trump cited was again the supposed national security threat at the border.

How would Trump behave if we had a real emergency, a shooting war with Iran? Would he try to muzzle the press, the “enemy of the people”, or jail his political opponents? Would he simply ignore court rulings that he doesn’t like?

Sound far-fetched, you say?

In their brilliant book, How Democracies Die, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt express their fear that Trump could take advantage of a war to subvert or destroy our democracy, based on his behavior so far. Levitsky and Ziblatt describe four key attributes that they use to identify authoritarian leaders. They note that Trump has exhibited all four. President Richard Nixon displayed only one such trait; no other U.S. president showed any.

Here is the authors’ nightmare scenario:

“We fear that if Trump were to confront a war or terrorist attack, he would exploit this crisis fully—using it to attack political opponents and restrict freedoms Americans take for granted. In our view, this scenario represents the greatest danger facing American democracy today.”

Let’s hope, for the sake of our freedoms and traditions, that we avoid a war with Iran. Who wants a regime change from democracy to dictatorship?

The Wall Street Democrat

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