Despite everything that’s gone to Hell in a hand-basket over the two and a half years since Trump stood there in the rain and promised an end to American carnage, in one way at least we’ve been lucky: nothing thus far has forced Donald into making the sort of life and death military decisions that could lead to calamitous warfare he has neither the intelligence nor the inclination to manage. Syria hasn’t blown up in his face. Neither has North Korea, nor Iraq, nor Afghanistan, nor the South China Sea, where US warships continue to challenge bogus Chinese claims to sovereignty with repeated “freedom of navigation” forays through the supposed territorial waters around President Xi’s numerous artificial islands. Trump himself, whether playing footsie with Putin or exchanging love notes with Kim Jong Un, has proved infuriatingly weak and accommodating to America’s enemies, but the happier flip side is that he’s been far less bellicose than many of us feared, and at times has seemed almost like an old school pre-war isolationist, a lamentable posture when it comes to the health of America’s vital international alliance systems, but preferable to Bush-style hubristic interventionism.
Lately, though, especially since the malign influence of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton began to buffet US policy, there have been signs that our luck is about to run out.
To be fair – it goes against the grain when dealing with this crew, but let’s try anyway – you can’t lay every aggressive foreign policy boner on The Pompeo/Bolton doorstep. This ill-considered trade war with China is pure Donald, whose advocacy of tariff barriers has been a constant refrain since back in the days when it was Japan that looked to be eating America’s lunch. Only someone who knows nothing about economics, history (if you’ve never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Google Smoot- Hawley!) or how the fundamentals of trade balances and tariffs really work – no, Donny, China doesn’t pay the import duties – could be waging such a counterproductive campaign. Similarly, while Bolton’s fingerprints are all over the machinations in US policy towards Venezuela, Trump himself has often mused about the possible upside of just conquering the place and taking the oil. Why not? They’re close, closer than Iraq, say, so the logistics would be easy, right?
Iran, though – Iran is the John and Mike show, 100%, and it’s starting to get unnerving.
Bolton has had a hard on for regime change in Iran for many years now. Before Trump hired him on, he was writing op-eds in the New York Times about the desperate need to stop talking with Iran about a treaty and instead bomb the living crap out of the Mullahs.
Now that he’s National Security Advisor, he’s as well placed as possible to push for military action, and Pompeo over at State has been only too pleased to lend a hand. I wrote a column about this a few months ago:
Step one in the Bolton master plan was abrogating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral international treaty through which Iran agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program, a pact the terms of which Iran adhered to scrupulously. Conservatives of every stripe despised this deal, purportedly because it didn’t do anything to link sanctions relief to constraints on Iran’s other bad behaviour in places like Lebanon and Syria, but really because it was a key achievement of the African usurper Obama. Tearing up the treaty was by no means a hard sell; given that it was a signal achievement of Obama’s tenure, Donny came pre-packaged with an innate psychological need to destroy it – but Bolton arrived in March of 2018, and by May the deal was dead, surely no coincidence.
Since then, those of us who worry about such things have been wondering when the other shoe would drop. Over the last year there was a curious lack of developments, though the reimposition of sanctions tightened the screws on Iran’s economy. The problem for Bolton, probably, is that Trump is one of those horses that can’t even be led to the water, much less be made to drink. Just when you’re getting through to him his attention flits away to some other shiny thing, and putting long term geopolitical heat on the foe just requires too much thought, too much consistency, too much planning to be any fun. Venezuela is a good illustration. The talk is that Bolton was trying to get Trump into a war there, too, and Bolton appeared to be on the cusp of getting there with the failed, manufactured uprising staged a couple of weeks ago – the full story there has yet to come out, but you just know that it involved CIA spooks pulling the strings and leading the reporters around by their noses – but when the coup fizzled, Trump seems to have lost interest. There’s talk that he even swatted Bolton away, complaining that his advisor was trying to get him into a war he didn’t want.
Maybe the same sort of thing has been going on over the past year with Iran.
Now, though, the war drums are beating. It started with the leak of purported intelligence that Iran was posing some sort of nebulous threat to “America’s interests” in the Gulf, and I do mean nebulous. What sort of threat? Intelligence from where? What interests? Well, you know, a nasty threat to vital interests discovered through sources and methods, OK? As the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and its battle group transited the Suez Canal on its way to the hot spot – a deployment that seems actually to have been planned long ago – and a small detachment of B-52s, four in all, landed at al Udeid air base in Qatar, word began to spread that the intelligence originated in Israel. This makes sense. The only guy with a more passionate desire than Bolton to stick it to the Mullahs is Bibi Netanyahu, and it would be strange if Israel wasn’t involved somehow. But what Israeli intelligence? Saying what?
Normally, I don’t get worried about pending military action until I see more assets deployed than a single carrier strike group and a handful of strategic bombers, the latter often wielded as much for their symbolic impact as actual military utility in contested air space. I watch in particular for the arrival in theatre of tip-of-the-spear aviation assets like F-22s, F-35s and B-2s, the stealthy combat planes best suited to “first day of war” “kick down the door” operations – Iran isn’t Afghanistan, and its defences are considerable enough to merit such opposition. I was a little perturbed when a number of F-15s began to arrive, sporting the “LN” tail codes that identify them as units of the vaunted Grim Reapers out of Lakenheath England, an outfit routinely awarded the Raytheon trophy as the USAF’s best fighter squadron. Yet this didn’t necessarily have dire implications. F-15s, like B-52s, have symbolic significance, and their deployment is often a means of sending the sort of message that professional military officers on the opposing side will hear loud and clear. You can be sure that the higher-ups in the Iranian air force know what those “LN” tail codes signify.
Fine, I told myself. They’re just sending messages, it’s just diplomacy by hardware.
Then, however, this sort of headline started appearing:
The United States and Saudi Arabia are claiming that several oil tankers have been the targets of “sabotage” by attackers while transiting the Gulf. So far, four damaged ships have been identified, two of them flagged to the Saudis, one to a member of the United Arab Emirates, and one under Norwegian registry. The details are very murky, the evidence scant, and thus far a single picture has been released:
What damning, conclusive evidence, though, eh? Just look at that poor harmless Norwegian ship! It’s got a hole in it! Somebody shot it right where it hurts, right in the transom, with something, that’s for sure, and the culprit is obvious, isn’t it? It’s those stinking Iranians! Has to be! This is just like them, the sneaky bastards, who but the awful Iranians would sabotage tankers at sea while nobody’s looking, and if thus interdicting the flow of Persian Gulf oil doesn’t trench upon vital US strategic interests, well, then I don’t know what does. If this keeps up, something will have to be done. That’s clear.
Here’s me: uh-oh.
To those of us of a certain age and mind set, this can’t help but stir memories of an alleged maritime attack that occurred over five decades ago, involving two US Navy destroyers the names of which I can never forget, so consequential were the chess moves predicated on these pawns being first pushed forward: the Maddox and the Turner Joy.
Back in 1964, the hawks in America’s policy community were bucking for a more direct and robust involvement in the war between friendly South Vietnam and the Communist North, but US forces had to that point been deployed in a rather loose advisory capacity under what were said to be strict rules of engagement, honoured to some extent, no doubt, in the breach. To those who wanted a straight-up fight to whup the Commies, it was deeply frustrating. Then, rather conveniently, two separate attacks by the North Vietnamese on the above-named American warships were claimed to have occurred, and this got the ball rolling. It was all very questionable; at least one, and perhaps both of the engagements were entirely fictitious, but it gave then-President Johnson the justification to seek Congressional endorsement of retaliatory action, duly supplied with the now infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution. It was under the umbrella of this authorization for the use of force that the next eight years of the ruinous war in South East Asia were prosecuted.
Are these tanker attacks similarly bogus, meant to provide the casus belli Bolton needs to fulfil his fever dreams of regime change? Same play, different Gulf? I wouldn’t put it past them. Would you?
The whole idea seems ridiculous, yet over the weekend we saw news stories like this:
…including talk of moving up to 120,000 military personnel into the Gulf. Bolton is said to be meeting regularly with the brass over at the Pentagon, just as Cheney was prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, when he was browbeating them into endorsing his war plans. Meanwhile, Mike Pompeo made an impromptu trip to Brussels to make some sort of case to NATO and EU officials, perhaps seeking support for military action:
All the while, the White house continues to hype the unspecified threat posed by Iran to America’s interests, supplying no details.
It all starts to look queasily familiar, doesn’t it?
Despite everything, I find it hard to believe that Bolton is going to have his way here. Another war in the Persian Gulf would be a disaster. Nothing good could come of it – if the horrific misadventure in Iraq should have taught them anything, it’s that this business of war is painful, arduous, and punishingly expensive, while forcing regime change is tricky shit fraught with unintended consequences and almost inevitable blowback (just ask Hillary, who was so keen to oust Libya’s Qadaffi). Even the most obtuse and determinedly aggressive idiot can learn painful lessons, right? How many times can you grab the shaft of a red-hot poker before you realize that hey, that smarts?
Anyway, even if they want a war, there’s no plausible legal basis for fighting one. As I’ve detailed in this space before, all sorts of military action has been conducted over the past eighteen years under a much-overused Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress passed after 9/11, but the terms of that AUMF, broad though they are, can’t possibly be interpreted to cover a whole new war between nation states. Trump would have to seek Congressional approval, and he’d never get it, nor would he dare proceed without it. He wouldn’t dare. No sir. Not even Trump. Not even Trump goaded by a half-crazed Bolton. Never happen.
I bet I’m one of a great many thinking about now that it’s too bad Mattis is gone.
UPDATE: F-35s in the Gulf. Uh-oh.