Donald Trump has famously and idiotically tried to assuage fears of a war with Iran with the assertion that he had Qasem Suleimani killed not to start a war but to prevent one. Putting aside the ad hoc quality of his reliance on the distinction between the intended and the foreseen, this happens to be a classic case of its total irrelevance: it doesn’t much matter in this context whether Trump intended to start a war, or merely foresaw that he might start one, or just recklessly took his action without thinking too hard about what he was doing. Yes, there’s a distinction to be drawn between a war brought about by intention and a war brought about through extreme recklessness. But it’s a distinction without a difference in a case where the action leading to war initiates force and violates any plausible conception of prudential rationality to boot. It doesn’t help that the rationalization for it comes from a pathological liar.
But suppose war comes. If so, Trump’s intended targets will be Iranians–combatants and non-combatants alike. While you’re shedding tears-in-advance for them, spare a few for the unintended but easily foreseeable targets. You don’t need to rack your brains to figure out who they are. Intended or not, the target package is you.
First target: travelers to Muslim-majority countries connected in some way (any way) to Iran. These people are now effectively being ordered to leave Iran and Iraq, and being encouraged to leave Pakistan at first opportunity, and to remain afraid of their own shadows (and avoid being conspicuously American, or coming anywhere near American diplomatic facilities) in Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Morocco. You might object that merely being ordered to leave a country may be inconvenient and expensive, but doesn’t sound much like bearing the brunt of warfare. True enough, until you reflect on why they’ve been ordered out: because their government now fears that, having attacked Iran, Iran will kill Americans wherever feasible.
The truth is, despite our super-duper intelligence apparatus, we don’t actually know where it’s feasible, and won’t until it becomes feasible. Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan (etc.) have simply been selected because prima facie it seems plausible to think that the Iranians have assets there. And I don’t dispute that it does. But if the Iranians end up having assets in Prague, or Budapest, or Vienna, or Bratislava, or Rome, or Paris…I guess the Americans visiting those places will be the first to know. It’s not as though the United States Government would ever order its citizens out of Europe, after all. Or Israel. Ordering them out of Iran or Iraq or Pakistan etc. is costless, largely because the average American has no idea why a fellow American would want to go to such crazy places in the first place. That’s being charitable: the average American has no idea where these places are, and would scarcely miss them if they were wiped off the map.
Second target: suspicious-looking or -seeming people coming back home (or otherwise trying to enter the country) after having been abroad. And don’t believe the claim that Customs and Border Protection “doesn’t discriminate” against this or that demographic. They do what they regard as necessary to secure the border. I was interviewed by the FBI shortly after 9/11. I asked the Special Agent interviewing me pointblank whether the FBI engaged in ethnic profiling in terrorism investigations. “Of course we do,” he said–before asking me to become an informant. This was the sort of candor the FBI was willing to show a complete stranger of Muslimish background, fifteen minutes into a very low-pressure interview. What they actually regard themselves as permitted to do is anyone’s guess.
Third target: suspicious-seeming people who are already here. Need I say more?
As for the fourth target, don’t doubt for a minute that the underlying rationale for targeting the second and third targets above is real. Be as cynical as you want about the U.S. government, but don’t let cynicism become naivete about the Iranian government. Put it this way: if you, dear reader, can afford some cynicism about the intentions of the U.S. government, so can the Iranian intelligence services. In fact, they’re probably way ahead of you.
Unlike you, however, the Iranian intelligence service has the duty of doing something about their cynicism. You can afford to sit around and bitch about it on social media. They can’t. And though I’m not an Iranian intelligence agent (really), if I were, I would long, long ago have pre-positioned sleeper cells to blow the shit out of the hundreds upon hundreds of soft targets that exist to be blown up or shot up in this country. We Americans ourselves have practically given such sleeper cells the blueprints for doing so: if we know everything about our own vulnerabilities to active shooters and the rest, so do they. What Donald Trump has now supplied them with is the motive and pretext for waking up and doing what they were trained to do. So no matter how frantic and hectic and incoherent our trademarked “see something, say something” tactics to forestall such attacks–better at inducing paranoia and panic than anything else–we lack the capacity to do so. If the Iranians want to pull them off, they will. How dumb do we think they are?
Whatever you do, take no solace in expertise of this variety:
In the aftermath of that startling action, a senior U.S. intelligence official said that if the Iranians remain rational they will refrain from mounting an attack on the American homeland for fear of sparking a war they cannot possibly win. He noted in the next breath that emotions are no doubt running high in Tehran.
“If you remove the rational thinking…” he said.
Please. “If you remove the rational thinking,” what you get is the President of the United States. That comment aside, I have to wonder where our “senior U.S. intelligence” officials have been since about 1950. “Fear of sparking a war they cannot possibly win”? Really? What would it take to lose to the country that hasn’t won a war since it dropped the A-bomb on Nagasaki? You’d think we’d have learned something about hubris from the likes of Douglas MacArthur, Robert McNamara, and Donald Rumsfeld. No such luck.
Just a small reminder: We didn’t win the Korean War. We flubbed the Bay of Pigs invasion, as well as the Iranian hostage rescue attempt of 1980. We lost the war in Vietnam. We were driven out of Lebanon and Somalia, and we’ve essentially lost the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after almost two decades of effort.* Our proxy war against the Sandinistas was a failure, and our proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan was an own goal. Is this really the record of an invincibly omnipotent global power? Never mind that Hezbollah defeated Israel in Lebanon in 2006, essentially reversing whatever gains the Israelis thought they had made there through their ill-fated 1982 invasion of that country (the pretext of which was…a Palestinian assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the UK: oh, the irony).
What makes these experts think that Iranian terrorism in the United States would spark a war that the Iranians can’t “possibly win”? Is it our own long winning streak? Or is it instead, our military establishment’s myopic inability to look a decades-long losing streak in the face and describe it for what it is?
You’d think that American intelligence officers would by now have figured out that it’s more irrational for us to extend our military losing streak into the indefinite future than it is for the Iranians to help us do so. But when intelligence becomes a commodity in short supply, expect half-assed “thinking” of the delusions-of-grandeur variety, played out in the currency of non-commissioned cannon fodder and innocent civilians. And expect that for all the brash confidence that our military and intelligence establishment exudes about the certainty of victory over “the enemy,” their predictable inability to achieve victory will turn every one of us into someone’s target. The sad fact is that once you become such a target, it won’t much matter whose target you were. Our so-called leaders might not care, but maybe the rest of us should.**
*If Gulf War 2003 is viewed as a continuation of Gulf War 1991, as I think it should be, we didn’t win the latter, either.
**Also worth reading (ht: Gary Chartier). Obviously, a cyber attack targets everybody even more obviously than a conventional terrorist attack.