The Cloud Is Moving Nearer Still

Consider two countries, X and Y.

X and Y sign an agreement. X unilaterally pulls out of the agreement at will, then attacks Y through the imposition of sanctions. Y insists on complying with the original agreement.

X then imposes secondary sanctions on any countries that do business with Y. Y insists on complying with the original agreement.

Time passes. X attacks Y again with more sanctions. The sanctions begin to take their toll. Y still complies with the original agreement.

Eventually, Y, the weaker party, decides to attack a third party, Z, which X had (unilaterally) pledged to defend. Y’s rationale: in attacking this third party, Y pulls X into a conflict where it, Y, enjoys a certain advantage that it doesn’t enjoy in a direct, frontal attack on X, which Y cannot win. The attack creates physical damage but no human casualties.

Paradoxically, Z itself expresses skepticism that Y is responsible for the attack on it, but let’s assume that Z is wrong, and that Y really is responsible for the attack.

X then threatens full-scale war against Y. Y promises to respond in kind, then announces its intention to breach the agreement.

Incidentally, the dispute as a whole concerns X’s fears about Y’s coming to possess weapons that X has possessed for almost 75 years, that its allies have had for decades, and which neither X nor its allies ever intend to relinquish. It is simply an axiom of X’s foreign policy that some countries are better than others, and that different moral standards apply differentially to different kinds of countries; good countries are allowed to have the relevant weapons, bad countries are not. X remains a good country despite its unilateral violation of the agreement with Y, and Y remains a bad country despite its compliance with that agreement. X’s intrinsic goodness nullifies any obligation to adhere to the agreements it signs with Y; Y’s intrinsic badness remains unaffected by its adherence to the same agreement, no matter how scrupulous.

Question: who is the aggressor in this scenario?

7 thoughts on “The Cloud Is Moving Nearer Still

  1. From an article in today’s New York Times, about the latest plot twist in the Gulf of Oman crisis, the shooting down of a US drone by Iran:

    Why did Iran shoot down the drone? There are many theories here, and some depend on whether the drone actually ventured into Iranian airspace. If it did, then it was the Americans, and not the Iranians, who were being provocative. If the drone was in international airspace, then Iran just raised the stakes significantly.

    The last claim is only obvious to people who insist on a very truncated conception of the dispute itself. Suppose that the basic aggression that initiated hostilities was the United States’s unilateral repudiation of the nuclear agreement it made with Iran, followed by its imposition of sanctions on Iran. In that case, what difference would it have made if Iran had shot an American drone down over Iranian territory, in international airspace, or frankly, in American airspace? If someone makes an agreement with you, then pulls out of it, then imposes sanctions on you, why is it wrong for you to you shoot their unmanned drones out of the sky–any sky? It seems to have escaped the reporter that American sanctions on Iran, which don’t exactly stop at Iran’s borders, have a certain provocative edge of their own. How does the shooting down of an unmanned drone raise the stakes higher than withdrawing from an international agreement and imposing sanctions?

    The “value free” assumption in reporting of this kind seems to be that Iran has no right whatsoever to retaliate against American aggression. The aggression itself has become invisible. But that’s not value-free reporting. It’s value-laden reporting of a very dubious and complacent sort. As in reporting on Israel, we’re supposed to proceed here by a combination of selective amnesia, double standards, and a refusal to integrate facts that those in “the mainstream” would rather compartmentalize. The first step toward resisting the drift to war is to consider the possibility that even apart from the inadvisability or immorality of our starting a war with Iran, at this point, maybe we’re the ones who deserve to be bombed.

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  2. Of all the trash that’s been written on the Gulf of Oman crisis, this piece by Roger Cohen comes closest to getting at the essentials:

    But even Cohen bypasses what strikes me as one of the fundamental unaddressed issues raised by the crisis: is a liberal regime bound by the agreements it makes with illiberal regimes, or can it use the illiberal character of the latter to violate or abrogate its agreements at will?

    Relatedly, assuming that the agreement does bind, is the unilateral breaking of an agreement an act of aggression?

    I heard someone on right-wing talk radio today say, in tones of helpless astonishment, “In the Iranians’ minds, sanctions are a form of economic warfare.” He was trying to give a sympathetic explication of the Iranians’ point of view while also trying to suggest that their view was obviously primitive and absurd.

    For enlightenment on that primitive and absurd view, one might consult this:

    https://www.britannica.com/topic/economic-warfare

    Or consult the words of our Dear Leader himself.

    Now “they are Bust,” but presumably in a benign sense of that term.

    I used to be a lot more sympathetic to centrist conceptions of the so-called “national security interests” of this country. That was until I realized how gullible I’d been in believing the people who claim to defend them. I give Donald Trump this much credit: he’s made explicit the essential duplicity of the foreign policy of the United States, and the essential mendacity of its “architects.” Contrary to the rhetoric offered to rationalize them, those policies have nothing to do with defending our rights or security against foreign aggressors. I’m not sure I have the intellectual stamina or ingenuity to figure out what purposes they do serve. At this point, I’m also not sure I care.

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  3. So if this is to be believed, what stood between us and war with Iran was…Tucker Carlson.

    I happened to watch the Tucker Carlson segment where he and Colonel MacGregor took issue with the idea of attacking Iran (no, I’m not a regular viewer; it was blaring at me from TVs in the gym).

    I’m glad they came to the right conclusion, but most of the reasoning here is inessential, irrelevant trash. Yes, the idea of “limited strikes” is absurd, but “war with Iran would destroy the Trump presidency” is more of a blandishment to war than MacGregor or Carlson seem to realize. “It doesn’t serve American interests” would be a little more compelling if viewers had any reason to believe that either speaker had a determinate, defensible conception of that over-used phrase. I guess I’m grateful for their skepticism over sanctions, but the skepticism is purely instrumental: sanctions won’t “work,” we’re told; they’ll backfire. They probably will, but is it just to impose sanctions on a state with which you’ve signed an agreement when your state is the one that’s backed out of the damn thing? That question seems beyond either speaker’s ken.

    Why is war insane? Evidently, because it will ruin our economy and make us unpopular. Can we then infer that a war that made us rich and garnered world-wide applause would, for that reason, be just?

    But never fear: the President has gotten us into this situation, and has surrounded himself with warmongers, but his “instincts,” at least, are just right.

    I’m re-assured. Hope you are, too.

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  4. Susan Rice, in an Op-Ed generally critical of Trump’s handling of the Gulf of Oman crisis:

    President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and impose crippling sanctions, when Iran was in full compliance, was foolish and, predictably, has backfired. But we are where we are. Finding a way to leverage his massive mistakes while demonstrating the will and capacity to climb down is our least bad option.

    This claim has the rare virtue of getting the facts straight, but I find the consistent, systematic resistance to the obvious inference revealing. We didn’t just “withdraw” from the nuclear deal; we unilaterally reneged on it. We then imposed “crippling sanctions” on a country that was “in full compliance” with a deal we had abrogated. That doesn’t just seem foolish and counter-productive, though it may be those things. It seems unjust, immoral, and subversive of our credibility. In other words, we don’t just look like the fool; we look like a fool engaged in a fraudulent form of geo-strategic bullying. This raises the question: why is America’s elite foreign policy establishment so reluctant to put things that way?

    My original ambition, as an undergraduate, was to join the U.S. Foreign Service. I rethought that ambition after encountering, and being deeply turned off by, the strained moral agnosticism of my IR mentors, an agnosticism that masqueraded as value-free neutrality, but always endorsed some unspoken nationalist aim. I ran for my moral and intellectual life from that attitude (and that field) into philosophy, where, it seemed, one could make moral judgments without having to pretend that doing so violated the supposed canons of “objectivity.”

    At this distance of space and time, the foreign policy establishment seems so alien to me that I can only view their claims from a quasi-clinical perspective: what’s wrong with these people? Do decades of training in IR render a person morally illiterate? Can disciplinary rigor subvert moral knowledge? And can it ever be worth acquiring if it does? For better or worse, I can’t run this experiment on myself. It seems the world well lost.

    “What would it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?” I don’t know. I’m not sure I want to know.

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