“As we are caught up in the moment, here on the knife’s edge, it would be easy to forget how we got here, how we set the board for Donald Strangelove to push the world closer to the nuclear brink. It started with the abdication of Congressional oversight on matters of war, all the way back during Vietnam.”
Antiwar activist and author Stan Goff writes about the danger of unbridled executive power and considers the long road that brought us to this point. First published online at The Bias: The Voice of the Christian Left.
By Stan Goff
It is remarkable that the US Presidential Campaign debates have so consistently de-emphasized foreign policy. This is the arena in which the President has the most, and most immediate, power. In particular, the POTUS has, thanks to bipartisan strengthening of executive power, near dictatorial control over the use of the American military. Now we are getting a terrifying object lesson on why that executive power is so dangerous.
Yesterday’s US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior official in the powerful and popular Iraqi PMF militia, just topped the list of Trump foreign policy blunders and will ramify in dangerously unpredictable ways. Trump has a child’s view of consequences, an obsequious staff without any rational deliberative process, and a wildly inflated sense of his own intellect and of American power. He is a ruthless narcissist, as well, who thinks nothing of his own damage path, and may well be calculating that a nice big war will rescue him from impeachment scrutiny and an electoral defeat in November.
Possible Scenarios, Certain Folly
Will this act lead to war with Iran? No one can say. But if we were dealing with rational actors, it would be unlikely on strategic grounds alone. Iran is three Iraqs-worth of land, two Iraqs-worth of population, trending young, with more and bigger mountains, and has an informal alliance with Russia. However, Donald Trump’s imagination is as stunted and childlike as his cabinet is slavish. Trump tweeted a picture of an American flag after the assassination strike.
Suleimani was among the most powerful officials in Iran, a strategist of the first order, and one of the country’s most esteemed figures. This assassination by air strike is comparable to a foreign country killing the US Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—absolutely an act of war, to which the Iranian state has no option but to respond.
If cooler heads prevailed, I would conjecture that the US will not risk open war with Iran. But Trump is the furthest thing from cool-headed. Iraq was a minor rehearsal for what an attempted war with Iran might look like, which means—given the mentality of Donald Trump—that if and when the Iran situation spins out of control, his tortured and fragile masculinity may provoke him into nuclear strikes. Then the whole world will have to respond. We just don’t know how. Perhaps Vladimir Putin will come to the fore as the Great Broker (with some nukes in his own pocket).
As Ghaith Abdul-Ahad of The Guardian explained recently, prior to Trump’s last air strike against, Iraqi ire was directed at the Iraqi government. Trump effectively shifted Iraqi public sentiments from anger against a grotesquely corrupt government—who relies on US air power to protect it—into a unifying hatred directed at the United States.
Two weeks ago, Iraqis hated their government and by extension, Iran. There were massive demonstrations met with brutal repression. From the strategic perspective of the US, this was a terrible hand; and the only thing that might have been worse would have been . . . well, what happened in the last few days. The Iraqis, who were divided, have been reunited internally and with Iran in common cause against the US. When the US retaliated for an (unwise and probably renegade) attack on US contractors by hitting the popular Kataeb Hezbollah militia, a massive demonstration against the US managed to breach the US Embassy. A battalion of Marines were sent to secure the Embassy, and Donald Trump doubled-down, risking lives that mean nothing to him. Like an adolescent boy responding to a dare, he tossed matches into a region that is a veritable political gas tank.
Iraq was on the brink of civil war in 2019, and it may devolve into that yet. American air power is still sufficient to protect the skeleton crew of US troops and contractors there, as well as the Iraqi government. As of January 2nd, the Iraqi uprising against the US became a theatrical side show. Now we face a possible war with Iran (and its allies!).
The Long Road to Iran
In 2003–4, when I was deeply embedded in the US antiwar movement (especially veteran resistance to the war), one of the points I made repeatedly—as a retired career soldier—is that American military power wasn’t getting the US state into trouble. The overestimation of that power was. Iraq was supposed to last three weeks, followed by the flowering of a rich and contented new oil colony. Dick Cheney’s neoconservative cabal were like dozens of little Trumps, playing board games with millions of lives about which they cared nothing. But the goal—modernizing fantasy that it was—remained strategic. The US needed to redispose US forces from the old, Eurocentric, Cold War posture to a new one, with bases in the Middle East, in order to put the imperial hand on the world’s energy taps. Those strategic considerations—flawed as they were—at least provided some organizing principle (not one, demented man) around which actual decisions were taken.
With Trump, it’s personal. With Trump everything is personal, as it is with every four-year-old brat. As with all brats, he’s easily manipulated by dangerous loons like Mohammed bin-Salman and the now-indicted Benjamin Netanyahu, who enlisted Trump in their scheme to attack Iran. Both of these murderous demagogues have long desired to attack Iran . . . with American forces. “Let’s you and him fight!”
Trump’s overestimation of American military prowess—dollar for dollar the worst in the world—led him to believe that he could use Iraq as a kind of launch platform in any future war with Iran. As is always the case with boys and their games, he never factored the millions of actual Iraqis into any of his tactical hallucinations.
In 2004, I suggested that we would one day see a 1975 Saigon scenario in Baghdad. Now, it seems, we are closer to that than ever. Even if one adopts an exclusively US perspective (which I don’t), strategically speaking, this is calamitous. Trump, who has made repeated promises that “We’re getting out” of the Middle East is now opening a path to nuclear confrontation. He’s established the conditions for a bigger foreign policy quagmire than we already had. And in a matter of days he’s created a sea of hostility surrounding his puny force in Iraq. The Iraqi people now will force the enfeebled and venal Iraqi government—the last US ally in Iraq—to side with the Iranians against the US. The civil war that was already entrained may yet come to pass. Trump’s launch-base will look like Lebanon in the 1980s.
As we are caught up in the moment, here on the knife’s edge, it would be easy to forget how we got here, how we set the board for Donald Strangelove to push the world closer to the nuclear brink. It started with the abdication of Congressional oversight on matters of war, all the way back during Vietnam. But this particular theater of war was formed in 2001 with the invention of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), in which the US erased the distinctions of Geneva between battlefield and non-battlefield. The international laws of war, enshrined in International Humanitarian Law, have different rules for military forces according to when they are on a battlefield and when they are off. GWOT effectively declared the entire world a battlefield. With this presumption, battlefield rules of engagement were then generalized to . . . everywhere and anywhere.
One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the post-9/11 wars was Senator Joe Biden, and one of the most ardent end-users of the “new rules” allowing civilians to be targeted was President Barack Obama. As I write this, many of the Bush- era architects of GWOT and the Southwest Asian occupations are the over-coiffed “experts” featured on MSNBC and CNN, more so even than Fox.
There will be an effort to decontextualize the new Iraq-Iran debacle and displace the blame onto our megalomaniacal President. But the road on which Trump has embarked was paved by his neoconservative predecessors and zealously co-signed by the perfidious Democratic Party. Frontrunner Joe Biden was mixed up in all of it. He voted for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. He supported the bloodthirsty Saudi war against Yemen. He backed US airstrikes in Syria without Congressional authorization. He supported every single troop increase in Afghanistan. If anyone is of the mind that ridding ourselves of Trump—a crucial goal—is sufficient to move the world back from the brink, think again. The road builders must be thrown out with the fool who stands at the end of it, and the road itself has to be ripped apart.
This should be our wake-up call to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. The alternative is unthinkable.
Stan Goff is an anti-war activist and author. Most recently, he has published Tough Gynes: Violent Women in Film as Honorary Men with Cascade Books, as well as Borderlines: Reflections on War, Sex and the Church (Cascade). He also writes at Medium.