The U.S. stands at the precipice of war. President Trump’s rhetorical efforts to sell himself as the “anti-war” president have been exposed as a fraud via his assault on Iran. Most Orwellian of all is Trump’s claim that the assassination of Iranian General Qassam Soleimani was necessary to avert war, following the New Year’s Eve attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. In reality the U.S. hit on Soleimani represents a criminal escalation of the conflict between these two countries. The general’s assassination was rightly seen as an act of war, so the claim that the strike is a step toward peace is absurd on its face. We should be perfectly clear about the fundamental threat to peace posed by the Trump administration. Iran has already promised “harsh retaliation” following the assassination, and announced it is pulling out of the 2015 multi-national agreement prohibiting the nation from developing nuclear weapons. Trump’s escalation has dramatically increased the threat of all-out war. Recognizing this threat, I sketch out an argument here based on my initial thoughts of this conflict, providing three reasons for why Americans need to oppose war.
#1: No Agreement about an Iranian Threat
Soleimani was the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – the Quds Force – a clandestine military intelligence organization that specializes in paramilitary-style operations throughout the Middle East, and which is described as seeking to further Iranian political influence throughout the region. Trump celebrated the assassination as necessary to bringing Soleimani’s “reign of terror” to an end. The strike, he claimed, was vital after the U.S. caught Iran “in the act” of planning “imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.”
But Trump’s justification for war comes from a country with a long history of distorting and fabricating evidence of an Iranian threat. American leaders have disingenuously and propagandistically portrayed Iran as on the brink of developing nuclear weapons for decades. Presidents Bush and Obama were both rebuked, however, by domestic intelligence and international weapons inspectors, which failed to uncover evidence that Iran was developing these weapons, or that it was a threat to the U.S.
Outside of previous exaggerations, evidence is emerging that the Trump administration and the intelligence community are not of one mind regarding Iran’s alleged threat. Shortly after Soleimani’s assassination, the Department of Homeland Security declared there was “no specific, credible threat” from Iran within U.S. borders. And U.S. military officials disagree regarding Trump’s military escalation. As the New York Times reports:
“In the chaotic days leading to the death of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, top American military officials put the option of killing him — which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq — on the menu they presented to President Trump. They didn’t think he would take it. In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable.”
“Top pentagon officials,” the Times reports, “were stunned” by the President’s order. Furthermore, the paper reported that “the intelligence” supposedly confirming Iranian plans to attack U.S. diplomats was “thin,” in the words of at least one U.S. military official who was privy to the administration’s deliberations. According to that source, there is no evidence of an “imminent” attack in the foreseeable future against American targets outside U.S. borders.
U.S. leaders have always obscured facts, distorted intelligence, and fabricated information to stoke public fears and build support for war. So it should come as no surprise that this president is politicizing intelligence. He certainly has reason to – in order to draw attention away from his Senate impeachment trial, and considering Trump’s increasingly desperate efforts to demonstrate that he is a serious President, not a tin-pot authoritarian who ignores the rule of law, while shamelessly coercing and extorting foreign leaders in pursuit of domestic electoral advantage.
Independent of the corruption charges against Trump, it is unwise for Americans to take the President at his word, considering the blatant lies employed in the post-9/11 era to justify war in the Middle East. Not so long ago the American public was sold a bill of goods regarding Iraq’s alleged WMDs and ties to terrorism. Neither of those claims was remotely true, and Americans were left footing the bill for a war that cost trillions, based on the lies of an opportunistic president who was dead-set on exploiting public fears of terrorism in a time of crisis. The Bush administration sold war based on intelligence they knew was fraudulent, manipulating the nation into on a decade-long war that led to the murder of more than 1 million Iraqis and more than 5,000 American servicemen, resulting in a failed Iraqi state, and paving the way for the rise of ISIS. All of this is to say that the risks of beginning another war in the Middle East are incredibly high, and Americans would do well to seriously consider the consequences of entering a war based (yet again) on questionable intelligence.
#2: The “War on Terrorism” as a Red Herring
U.S. leaders have long used the rhetoric of terrorism to justify war. But this strategy represents a serious distortion of reality, via the conflation of terrorism – understood as premeditated acts of violence to intimidate civilians – with acts of war. Trump fed into this misrepresentation when he described Soleimani’s “reign of terror” as encompassing not only the alleged targeting of U.S. diplomats, but attacks on “U.S. military personnel.” The effort to link the deaths of U.S. soldiers in wartime to terrorism echoes the State Department’s 2019 statement, which designated Iran’s Quds Force a “terrorist” organization, citing its responsibility “for the deaths of at least 603 American service members in Iraq” from “2003 to 2011” via its support for Iraqi militias that were engaging in attacks on U.S. forces.
As propaganda goes, the attempt to link these acts of war to “terrorism” is quite perverse. U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq were participating in a criminal, illegal occupation, which was widely condemned by the international community. The U.S. war in Iraq was a crime of aggression under the Nuremberg Charter, and it violated the United Nations Charter’s prohibition on the use of force, which is only allowed via Security Council authorization (which the U.S. did not have), or in the case of military acts undertaken in self-defense against an ongoing attack (Iraq was not at war with the U.S. prior to the 2003 invasion). Contrary to Trump’s and the State Department’s propaganda, there are no grounds to classify the deaths of military personnel in an illegal war as terrorism. Instead, one could argue that domestic Iraqi political actors (of which Iraqi militias are included, regardless of their ties to Iran) were within their legal rights under international law to engage in acts of self-defense against American troops acting on behalf of a belligerent foreign power, which was conducting an illegal occupation.
#3: More War = Further Destabilization of the Middle East
The largest takeaway from recent events should be to recognize the tremendous danger that escalation of war poses to the U.S. and the region. The legacy of U.S. militarism in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, is one of death, destruction, and instability. Every major war involving the U.S. has produced humanitarian devastation and mass destruction, while fueling instability and terrorism. With the 1979 Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. support for Mujahedeen radicals led to the breakdown of social order, and the rise of the radical Taliban regime, which housed al Qaeda fundamentalists in the years prior to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan contributed to the further deterioration of Afghan society, and was accompanied by the return of the Taliban, ensuing in a civil war that has persisted over the last two decades.
With Iraq, the U.S. invasion produced a massive security vacuum following the collapse of the Iraqi government, which made possible the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq. The U.S. fueled numerous civil wars, in Iraq during the 2000s and Syria in the 2010s, creating mass instability, and giving rise to ISIS, which became a mini-state of its own operating across both countries. And then there was the 2011 U.S.-NATO supported rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi, which not only resulted in the dictator’s overthrow, but in the rise of another ISIS affiliate within Libya’s border. Even Obama, the biggest cheerleader for the war, subsequently admitted the intervention was his “worst mistake,” due to the civil war that emerged after Gaddafi’s overthrow, which opened the door for the rise of ISIS.
All of these conflicts have one thing in common. They brought tremendous devastation to the countries under assault, via scorched-earth military campaigns, which left death, misery, and destruction in their wake. The U.S. is adept at destroying countries, but shows little interest in, or ability to reconstruct them. These wars provided fertile ground for Islamist radicals, who took advantage of the resulting chaos and instability.
The primary lesson of the “War on Terror” should be clear to rationally minded observers: U.S. wars breed not only instability, but desperation, as the people victimized by war become increasingly tolerant of domestic extremist movements. Repressive states are widely reviled by the people they subjugate. But the only thing worse than a dictatorship is no order at all, when societies collapse into civil war, anarchy, and genocide. The story of ISIS’s rise is one of citizens suffering under war and instability, and becoming increasingly tolerant of extremist political actors, so long as they are able to provide order in times of crisis. This point is consistently neglected in U.S. political and media discourse – a sign of how propagandistic “debates” over war have become, nearly 20 years into the U.S. “War on Terrorism.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Trump followed up the Soleimani assassination with a Twitter announcement that the U.S. has “targeted” 52 additional “Iranian sites,” which will be attacked “if Iran strikes any Americans or American assets.” There’s no reason in light of recent events to chalk this announcement up to typical Trump-Twitter bluster. This President is desperate to begin a war with Iran, as Trump has courted confrontation with the Islamic republic since the early days of his presidency. War will allow Trump to claim the mantle of “national” wartime leader, while diverting attention away from his impeachment trial. And in light of the intensification of belligerent rhetoric from this administration, war appears to be increasingly likely.
The American people have a moral responsibility to question not only Trump’s motives, but to consider the humanitarian disaster that inevitably accompanies war. War with Iran will only make the Middle East more unstable, further fueling anti-American radicalism, and increasing the terror threat to the U.S. This conclusion isn’t based on speculation, but on two decades of experience with a “War on Terror” that’s done little but destroy nations and increase terror threats. The American people can reduce the dangers of war by protesting Trump’s latest provocation, and by pressuring Congress to pass legislation condemning any future attack on Iran as a violation of national and international law.
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