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A couple of things worth reading today. First is a collection of 50 short essays by writers over at the Atlantic, detailing their editorial selection of the 50 most unthinkable and unprecedented events of Trump’s first two years in office:

It’s kind of like a “best of “ list. Hours of fun. Loads to debate. Being good journalists, they’ve restricted themselves to things done quite famously in public, and therefore in need of no further proof; thus the child separation policy ranks #1. I’m quite sure that in time, “Being Putin’s Traitorous Asset” will usurp the top slot, “Laundering Russian Oligarch Money From Inside the Oval” likely not far behind.

The other is a fascinating article posted on Alternet – fascinating in the way that, say, watching a time-lapse video of a beached whale carcass bloat, go all soft and runny, and then decay down to nothing but bones and a pile of fattened maggots would be “fascinating” – concerning the almost inexplicable cowardice and complicity of Mitch McConnell, a problem I’ve been known to dwell upon myself. The thesis is that Mitch has all along been mired in an incestuous circle of political corruption involving the same sort of foreign interests and dirty money as Trump, and has just as much to fear from Mueller as The Donald does:

It’s sickening, really, and it makes you wonder how much of the entire Republican establishment is swimming in the same cess pool. A lot of money flowed through the NRA to Republican politicians over the past couple of years, beginning at about the same time that Russian plant Maria Butina arrived on the scene, and started pressing the flesh. A lot. Where did it all come from?

Oh, how I hope the NRA burns for this.

I’m thinking that when Mueller’s findings finally become public, they’re going to detail a hive of scum and villainy more foul and expansive than anything conjured in even the blackest of my black imaginings, and truly, I can conjure things cloaked in some formidably deep and diabolical varieties of black, when I let my mind wander where it will.

Yet today I’m even more disturbed by a third line of inquiry, which, sadly, lies well within my repertoire of bleak expectations. This was the reporting over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal that over the past year, John Bolton, who is known to prescribe a good, old-fashioned application of sledge hammer force as the solution to any diplomatic problem, has been prodding the Pentagon for plans to attack Iran:

It’s not that this comes as any particular surprise. My legions of avid followers will doubtless recall my alarm when the sentient war-mongering moustache was first appointed National Security Advisor, back in March of 2018:

Remember how I waxed eloquent on the walrus’s bellicose fellow’s character? Oh, was I ever on a roll – here, just feast upon this banquet of vitriolic bon mots:

His name is John Bolton, but it might as well be Lucifer; he has the Mark of the Beast upon him. He makes Dick Cheney look like a moderate. He makes Don Rumsfeld seem like a pacifist isolationist. Stalin was more temperate and reflective, McCarthy more honest, Nixon less bitter and conniving, Bin Laden less self-righteously dogmatic. He’s the kind of guy they’d have washed out of Gestapo school for being too creepily into it.

Bolton was at that time fresh off of writing an impassioned op-ed on the desperate need to start a new Middle Eastern war with Iran, and I was convinced that Trump, in the pocket of the Iran-hating Saudis already, would be happy to go ahead and do just that. I’ve been puzzled ever since why it hasn’t happened, hasn’t even been threatened, really, and all I could think was that the now departed Jim Mattis must have been putting the brakes on it. That, and maybe also that Trump never listens to anybody except Putin, and Bolton just can’t get through to him.

In any case Bolton, it seems, has indeed been pushing hard for military action all along. Thus far, from what I can gather in the press, formal requests for military options envisioned only pinpoint strikes in response to minor provocations. However, I very much doubt that this is the limit of Bolton’s ambition. I believe, based on his own public statements, that he wants a much bigger war, down the road, and maybe not so far down the road, if he can swing it – the clock is ticking on the administration that employs him. I suspect he’s looking for opportunities to provoke the sort of larger conflict he craves. Maybe this is just me hyperventilating and overreacting, in which case all that follows will soon enough be consigned to the “never mind!” bin. Let’s assume, though, that I’m right, just for fun.

My dread scenario highlights a couple of problems, beyond the obvious one that Trump’s entire inner circle now comprises a mix of witless knaves and less witless but more dangerous schemers who worship at the temple of Mars: first, that the Presidential use of military force has gotten so far out of control that it’s as if the Constitution didn’t expressly reserve the power to make war to the Congress; second, that despite everything that’s gone on over the past 18 years, American hubris, at least in some quarters, still seems to know no bounds. When somebody like Bolton bucks for yet another war in the Middle East, it’s like watching a guy who just lost his hand while trying to fish something out of the garburator take note of the bloody stump, shrug, and decide to try again with his other hand.

As to the unilateral Presidential use of military force generally, Congress did pass a resolution authorizing the Iraq war, back in 2002 – gee, good goin’ , you greatest deliberative body, you! – but otherwise, all around the world, Presidents Bush, Obama, and now Trump have been going it alone. For the better part of two decades they’ve been using a rather general Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed in September 2001 right after the 9/11 attacks, as the authority to conduct military actions not just in Afghanistan but also, so Wikipedia tells me, in the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, and Somalia. Likewise the war against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Thus the “forever war” against terror rages on all over the globe, pretty much by Presidential fiat, as the original legal authorization is stretched to, and many would say well beyond, the breaking point. Trump’s punitive strikes on Syrian forces, for example, were almost certainly well outside the scope of any authority, and patently illegal, though too many these days have an expansive view of executive authority that holds to the contrary.

Bipartisan Congressional attempts to repeal or amend the 2001 AUMF have thus far failed, so it’s still on the books to be interpreted liberally by whoever sits in the White House, and if Bolton and his equally hawkish pal Pompeo think they can start waging a serious war on Iran, it must be on the basis of that overused Authorization. There’s little prospect of getting the Democratic House to write another foolish blank cheque like the one handed to Bush the Younger in 2002, a lapse that has cost America deeply.

Now, liberal interpretation is one thing, but purporting to draw that much authority from the AUMF would be extraordinarily bold. The 2001 Authorization was passed to permit attacks on terrorist groups and their support systems. Outside of Afghanistan, it’s been used mainly to justify the deployment of small groups of Special Forces, and, of course, the relentless drone strikes, in the perpetual struggle to beat down the metastasizing spread of Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates all over the world. It was also easy to characterize the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria as a terrorist base camp within the ambit of the Authorization. But Iran? The argument would probably be that Iran is a known sponsor of terror groups and proxy armies deemed terrorist in Western policy circles, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and various proxies in Syria, as well as Iran’s own Quds force, a unit of the Iran Revolutionary Guard dedicated to “extraterritorial operations”, which is also hip deep in the Syrian civil war. This is quite a stretch, but perhaps Bolton is thinking yeah, pushing the AUMF that far is bold – so what? So long as Mitch runs the Senate, it isn’t as if Congress is going to rein them in.

Which brings us to problem two: these motherf*#@ers Bolton and Pompeo are, well, what this guy says:

Honestly, what is with these guys? Perhaps they think America has unlimited resources? Perhaps they think their military is a lot more powerful than it really is? Or perhaps they can’t game out the potentially horrific chain reaction that could well be set off by a strike on Iran, involving gee, I don’t know, interdiction of Persian Gulf oil shipments, obstruction of the strait of Hormuz, attacks on Saudi and Kuwaiti oil facilities, attacks on Israel (the Iranians have been working like mad to develop ballistic missiles with the reach to hit all of these targets), general Middle Eastern conflagration engulfing both Syria and Jordon, Superpower confrontation – that sort of thing? I keep telling these morons, watch Game of Thrones.

They may be profoundly underestimating Iran, too. It’s not a small, weak little country. Its land mass is about the same size as Alaska, and if that doesn’t seem all that impressive, understand that Alaska is bigger than Texas, Montana, and California combined. Iran’s population is 81 million. Its culture is proud and ancient, and its citizens, otherwise nowhere near as anti-American as their government, are certain to be stalwart in the face of aggression. Iran’s military may not be mighty, but the Revolutionary Guard has been perfecting all sorts of “asymmetric warfare” techniques that could make things very difficult in a region that’s all about great big ships moving huge quantities of crude oil through very narrow choke points. For a taste of it, have a look at the video below. This is crude Iranian propaganda, of course, but I follow these matters closely, and know that US Naval planners have been struggling for years with the threat posed by Iranian tactics, like small boat swarming, that could be deadly to major warships and large oil tankers operating in restricted waters:

They’ve been practising this sort of thing for a long time, and have harassed American destroyers repeatedly:

Not that this sort of military opposition can’t be dealt with, but it isn’t necessarily easy, and why even start the fight? Why, Mike and John? Well, they’d say, because Iran is a very, very bad actor in numerous ways. This is true. We deplore Iran’s sponsorship of terror. We wish they wouldn’t give so much aid and comfort to Hezbollah. Their meddling in Syria, and the associated attempt to create what analysts refer to as a “land bridge” from Iran all the way to the Mediterranean that would flow through territory in Iraq and Syria, are viewed with grave concern in Western (and of course Israeli) military circles. This is one good reason why both Bolton and Pompeo were dead-set against withdrawal from Syria. No doubt about it. Iran pursues an agenda that we don’t like.

This was the impetus for the decision to scrap the nuclear treaty with Iran, a move I’ve railed against before, made perhaps in the naive hope that a reimposition of sanctions will weaken the Iranian regime and its capacity for both general mischief and all out war – a strategy that wasn’t working all that great before! – or just as a necessary first step in a general strategy of “climbing the escalation ladder” until war is provoked, and they can make it seem like Iran’s fault. Perhaps Bolton envisions a tit-for-tat exchange of military actions that grows into something very bad from something that started out rather small. Or, he might hope to goad Iran into beginning again to enrich uranium – a perfect pretext for an attack. Students of prior conflicts might remember this sort of thing preceding Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, or farther back, the war in Vietnam, and the eventual passage by a gulled Congress of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Look, they’ll say. Sanctions have failed! The bad behaviour persists! Now they’re building nukes! Time to blow the bastards up! Bomb them into the Stone Age!

Whaddya say, folks!? Who’s up for it?

Nobody with a firm grasp on reality, I should think. I understand the allure of the grand strategy, but it’s immoral, and anyway what makes them think it can work? Which aspect of America’s many military misadventures since 1960 convinces them that Iran will be a cake walk? Like Afghanistan was, you mean? Like Iraq was? I worry that they’re working under the premise articulated in that most dangerous of sentences, probably the most dangerous ever uttered – this time it’s different. Christ, we’ve been down this road so many times before. It makes me so terribly weary. You get the feeling that none of these bright boys knows anything about history. Look, I’m not asking them to read Kipling before they wade into Afghanistan, say, or even to look at what happened to the Russians in such places during my lifetime, but it sure would be nice if they learned their own frickin’ history, or even if they could look at the wreckage already smouldering everywhere across Asia Minor, most of it torched to no particular avail, and think about whether an air campaign against a new and much bigger foe than those tackled so far is really such a good idea.

At least, I assume it’s some sort of air campaign they have in mind, should they get their larger war. Surely to God they don’t think they have the forces available for what would have to be a massive land war.

I’m going to put that nightmarish thought out of my mind.

I don’t see how a discrete set of air strikes could accomplish much, not in the long run. Maybe they have something bigger and more sustained in mind, and think they can, within a reasonable amount of time, simply bomb Iran into submission. Sound familiar? I hate how Americans in the policy community have tended to put such stock in bombing, as if it’s the universal solvent for all sticky geopolitical messes. Yes, air power can be decisive, and has had some spectacular successes, most particularly during the 1991 Gulf War; but applying air power to rout armoured forces and degrade support, supply, and command and control is one thing, while using it to inflict so much societal pain as to pound a whole country into acceding to your will is quite another. The latter approach has a long history of failure, stretching back to WW II.

They were hoping they could impose a solution from the air in ‘Nam, too, back when it started. I encourage readers unfamiliar with the history to Google the phrases “Arc Light” and “Rolling Thunder”. They ended up raining down a greater tonnage of bombs on South East Asia than the combined total dropped by all combatants in all theatres during the entirety of WWII. I think Laos alone was the recipient of something like two megatons of high explosive. I’d look up the figures for Cambodia and North Vietnam, but you get the picture.

On the one hand, they were trying to wipe out the full divisions of Communist forces that were travelling back and forth along the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail, carved through hundreds of miles of dense vegetation beneath the thick jungle canopy. The Americans came close, actually, but in the end it proved that you could kill them from on high, you could kill them in droves, yet still never quite stop them.

On they other hand, they were trying to do such harm to the North’s infrastructure that the Communist leadership would howl with pain and quit the war, and very large and powerful strike aircraft did extreme violence to almost every target of value in the whole country. The overall strategy pursued, “graduated response” – the details of which I won’t inflict upon you here – was misguided, but that’s not why the bombing campaign failed. Massive damage was inflicted, at no small cost to American aircrew. Still, nobody cried uncle.

Back in 1966, or 67, Lyndon Johnson, frustrated at the lack of progress in ‘Nam, and informed that the next phase of the air campaign would blow the bastards back to the Stone Age, is reported to have yelled “Goddammit General, we already bombed them into the goddam Stone Age!” Apocryphal, maybe.

Worth thinking about, though, John. Mike.

Maybe it doesn’t matter what Bolton and Pompeo want. Trump didn’t seem to care what they thought about Syria. Maybe he’ll ignore them on Iran, too. Maybe a better way to predict what Trump will do is to look not to the American foreign policy establishment, but rather to its Russian counterpart, and what Putin wants. Maybe Bolton just never gets his crack at Iran. See? I can be optimistic!

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