I just spent 30 excruciating minutes watching coverage of the “Iran crisis” on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. Amazing to see a country mesmerized by irrelevant distractions:
- Did the Iranians shoot down the Ukrainian airliner? Did they? Did they? How else did it go down? What do they have to hide? Let’s ask a former FAA official. Then let’s ask some bereaved people with friends and relatives on the flight how it feels to be deprived so abruptly of their loved ones. With any luck, they’ll cry on screen.
- Is the War Powers Act really a law? Really? Let’s ask a general.
- Are Democrats mourning Suleimani’s death? Let’s ask a Democrat who clearly isn’t.
Without venturing an answer, let me just pose this question: what psychological mechanism explains why a country facing a single fundamental issue would work so hard to avoid it, but spend so much effort to address so many others? The fundamental issue is straightforward. The Iranian missile attack on American bases was a signal that Iran can hit us, that we have no effective defenses against even the most benign attack they can muster, and that they are about to begin a proxy war against us, via Hezbollah and its allies, to force us out of “the region.”
The question we collectively face is: withdraw or double down? This question leads to some important subsidiary ones. Suppose we withdraw. In that case, how and from where? Suppose we double down. What will that take? Those are legitimate questions to ask once the fundamental question is answered. But none of the numbered questions above has nearly the same significance as the fundamental or subsidiary ones.
Question (1) is a spectacular, ephemeral side issue–tragic yes, but of no particular political importance.
Question (2), concerning the War Powers Act, is an irrelevant procedural matter: it has no application if we withdraw, and will have to be walked back if we stay and are attacked by Hezbollah.
Question (3) is an obvious red herring with an obvious answer: Democrats are not “mourning” Suleimani’s death; they’re trying too hard to denounce him. What partisans of the war evidently seem to want is that we all get so emotionally invested in our hatred for Suleimani that we confuse that confabulated animosity with a reasoned argument for war. But it isn’t one. It’s just a stupid, pointless waste of time and energy that could be better devoted to averting the next stage of this war.
If you want a sense of what that next stage looks like, I’d suggest turning off your TV, and spending your time watching the videos on this page. I certainly wouldn’t want to be governed by Hassan Nasrallah, but if I had to choose whom to believe right now–Hassan Nasrallah or almost any talking head, Republican or Democrat, blathering away on American TV–I would choose Nasrallah. He may be a bloody, dogmatic fanatic, but better a sincere fanatic than a pseudo-civilized bullshit artist. If you want clear thinking on what’s to come, spend 12 minutes watching this English-subtitled speech by Nasrallah from a few days back (ht: Norman Finkelstein).
I have enough confidence in what Nasrallah says in this speech to make this challenge to anyone willing to take me up on it: Nasrallah insists that Hezbollah respect the non-combatant immunity of Americans in the upcoming war. I believe him. I’m an American. I’m not a combatant. I’m not even remotely a supporter of Hezbollah, and I’m no one’s idea of a good Muslim. The challenge: buy me a round-trip ticket to Beirut and a short hotel stay there; I will meet with a representative from Hezbollah, have a brief apolitical chat with him (or her), and come home unharmed.* I’ll even videotape the whole conversation so that I can prove that it happened, and you can hear what we discussed. Nothing subversive or terroristy, I assure you. Just chit-chat over coffee.
At least to that extent, I trust Nasrallah. I don’t trust the leadership of my own country. If you think I’m kidding, try me. I won’t disappoint. I’ve always wanted to go to Beirut, but couldn’t find an affordable way to get there. If this is the only way to do it, I’m game. It certainly beats sitting in front of a TV here.
*You’d also have to pay any legal fees I incurred for hiring an attorney to ensure the legality of the venture. I have no intention of breaking any laws.
I think it is pretty clear we are bringing most of the fight-ISIS, prop-up-Iraq troops home (especially if Trump is reelected, which I think is slightly more probable than not). The only question is how we do it. If we are hit at all hard, Trump will again strike back tenfold (this is the “war” scenario, a few of our troops get killed and the U.S. military hammering Iran military and related industrial infrastructure, with some loss of innocent, noncombatant life). So maybe we get out with considerable damage to our enemies along the way? Smart play for Iran and proxies is to harass a bit, maybe negotiate a bit (maybe accept a new, less favorable nuclear deal that gets the sanctions lifted, but with some face-saving of some kind) and just wait us out. And we’ll leave without causing much more damage (at least directly — who knows how the power vacuums left behind get filled). At least if what we are talking about is having or not having significant numbers of troops on the ground. And we should get out, even by coldly “realist” standards. This central issue is playing out in real time (and I’m sure being discussed among the actors more directly involved). Though apparently it is not the front-and-center issue for CNN.
I don’t see any evidence that we’re withdrawing. Here’s the latest news on the subject:
The Iraqis are handing us a golden opportunity to get out, and we’re not taking it. Not only are we not taking it, we’re flouting the legal framework that we created: their parliament has voted us out, and their Prime Minister wants us out. But we’re telling them that withdrawal is not even a matter for discussion. The only thing up for discussion is staying indefinitely. Bad enough to be an occupying army at the invitation of a puppet government, but now we’re an occupying army in defiance of a puppet government.
I would take Hezbollah at face value. They’re not going to merely “harass” the Americans there. Unless we give a clear indication of leaving (and do it), they’re going to kill Americans one after another until they drive the US forces into a purely defensive posture. But the more defensive the posture, the greater the vulnerability to Iranian missiles. And the more intense the fighting, the more difficult to withdraw. That argues for making departure a single basic priority, not combining it with other operations.
Hitting Iran doesn’t necessarily help. We backed Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war decades ago and Iran rode out our efforts for a decade. Israel has fought Hezbollah since 1982, and was defeated by them in 2006. We have 5,000 troops–essentially, a single brigade. They lack Iraqi support. The more damage we impose on the Iranians, the more damage Hezbollah will impose on us. What’s the point?
At a basic level, I don’t see how the Iranians or Hezbollah became our “enemies” in the first place. Why are we so eager to engage with either of them militarily? I find that baffling. Setting aside the now-ancient events of 1979, Iran has never attacked us. Hezbollah has never attacked us. So where did the enmity come from?
And why did we sign an agreement with the Iranians, then go back on our word and tear it up? For years now, we have been engaged in a pointless tit-for-tat with them that was practically designed to start a war. Why? What we’re doing just strikes me as bafflingly crazy. There seems no rhyme or reason to it but reckless bloodlust.
At a basic level, I don’t see how the Iranians or Hezbollah became our “enemies” in the first place. Why are we so eager to engage with either of them militarily?
I don’t think there’s a single answer to this question that would cover all of the relevant players within the U.S. foreign policy scene. But if you break it down into factions and masses, a number of those will be more comprehensible. Bush-era brinksmanship towards Iran could be more or less entirely explained by the explicit aims and the political pull of neo-conservatives and their foreign policy allies in the post-9/11 Administration. And neo-conservative views toward Iran, the various Hezbollahs, etc. have long-standing, explicit ideological and geo-political rationales that haven’t changed since the mid 1980s. (It’s either the logical conclusion, or the logical center, depending on the figure in question, of a worldview; the problem being that the worldview is kind of nuts, has in any case been thoroughly discredited by events, etc.)
Neo-conservatives do not play any meaningful role in the direction of Trump-era war policy, but the Religious Right, which Trump does very assiduously cultivate, was largely ideologically in step with them throughout the “Axis of Evil” days, and have developed their own complex of reasons for seeing them as at the very least being the great ideological enemy of the long twilight struggle that America and/or Christendom is thought to be engaged in — if not indeed an easily identifiable figure in the final days of the Beast’s rise to power. Part of this has to do with the geopolitical interests of Israel and how they figure into Christian Zionism. Part of it has to do with believing that the deep fact about the world situation ultimately has to come down to a religious struggle between the Elect and the servants of an anti-Christian Adversary.
Trump’s own brinksmanship is I think a combination of more or less deliberate stagecraft for one part of his electoral base (militaristic and nationalistic Religious Right voters), and partly a dynamic that naturally results from a demagogic strongman’s need to have adversaries to denounce. In Trump’s case this has pretty consistently been rhetorically or ideologically anti-American regimes, especially those whose political leadership are willing to form a mutually beneficial mutual detestation society by cycling through round after round of mutual denunciations — hence the periodic duck-duck-goose geopolitical game played by stirring shit up with North Korea, with Iran, with Venezuela, etc.
Thanks for answering my question by depressing the shit out of me. I took a day to mull it over: what you’re saying sounds plausible, but I guess there’s no way to arrive at a conclusive verdict. Anyway, I have two free associative responses and one substantive one.
Free association 1: If your hypothesis is right, then Motorhead was right:
I am, a little. I guess I don’t mind Motorhead’s being right, but…
Free association 2: If your hypothesis is right, then Leonard Peikoff was right: his so-called “DIM hypothesis” predicts religious totalitarianism in America. Better yet, it does so on p. 333 of The Dim Hypothesis. And guess what number you get if you double down on 333?
This I mind.
Substantive comment: We need a way of discussing how our foreign policy is influenced by Israeli geostrategy and Christian Zionism without lapsing into or being falsely associated with the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing of the alt-right. A hard needle to thread in an environment where the phrase “Israeli influence on American policy” is itself taboo. (I’m not suggesting, of course, that you did lapse; I’m just making an independent point.)
This article seems to be articulating a view much like the one you laid out in your comment:
Just to underscore my earlier comment (responding to Michael Young):
I have another blog post coming, maybe today, where I point to evidence that field commanders in Iraq seem to be signaling that they want a withdrawal, in defiance of what Washington is saying.
One thing occurred to me in retrospect, about this:
We can’t wait until November for a troop withdrawal. Nor do we need that long. It took the Trump Administration maybe a week to withdraw 1,000 troops from Iraqi Kurdistan. Not the best optics, but a welcome result. I don’t know how long it takes to withdraw 5,000 troops, but whatever it takes, we should do it as soon as we can pull it off.
I was exhausted at number 3.
Our politicians remind me of characters in soap operas: they’re histrionic, and they’re never talking about anything that is happening in reality. Additionally, because of all the dialogue and the drama, none of them seem to find time to work. One is always wondering when they would find time to actually work..
The one big difference between soap opera characters and our politicians is that our politicians can get people killed–and in this case, almost certainly will.
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