There can be little doubt that president Donald Trump has won his standoff with Iran, but it was a close call.
True, the most panicked predictions that America’s killing of Iran’s top general would lead to World War III have not come to pass. But those who were certain war with Iran would not erupt should not be so quick to pat themselves on the back. Hindsight is 20/20: the “success” of Trump’s “deterrence” was only established after it became clear that Iran retaliated with no American casualties.
Perhaps Trump is a genius of instinct, or maybe it’s just luck. To call the last week of crisis-level tensions a “masterstroke,” though, is more than a little charitable.
That war was narrowly avoided is small comfort. Neoconservatives will retcon events to discredit the “isolationists,” but skepticism when war drums start beating, especially in light of recent history and even more recent revelations about America’s forever wars, is always justified. The big picture is that America still has a Middle East foreign policy that has little to do with the national interest. Why were we involved in a conflict with Iran in the first place?
Given America’s bitter experiences in the Middle East, it was disquieting to see many leaders in the Trump movement, which elected a president to end wars, encourage escalation toward a new catastrophic war.
Over the past week, Republican lawmakers and the bulk of conservative media, including many MAGA-lite and neoconservative pundits, have laundered government talking points to justify what quickly took on the cast of a war push dating from the George W. Bush era. There was a concerted effort to make a man whom 90 percent of Americans had never heard of until he died into the world’s “number-one bad guy” and to classify those with questions about what was going on as terrorist sympathizers.
The State Department did not even attempt to make its warnings of “imminent threats” look like more than a hazy hunch, one which made little difference once Qassem Soleimani was dead, of course. So-called isolationists like Tucker Carlson and Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) were lonely but powerful voices of dissent, warning that Trump risked destroying his re-election odds and squandering the country’s future with a repeat of the Iraq War. Those who felt like they were transported back in time were right to feel alarmed.
While many Americans wanted Soleimani dead for sincere, good reasons, the official talking points were at best dubious and clearly derived from an agenda of regime change, which has been the goal of hawks in Washington for decades, as those isolated voices of reason like Carlson observed.
What does conflict with Iran have to do with America’s problems in 2020? If you were to ask a random person on the street what threat Iran poses to the United States, assuming that they’re honest, sane, and don’t work in Washington, you’d probably get blank stares. Most Americans don’t go about their days worrying about a theocratic state on the other side of the world. Our country has more immediate, tangible, and pressing concerns—like our wide open southern border. And when people think of terrorism, they understandably think of the Sunni, salafist type exemplified by al-Qaeda and ISIS.
It’s obvious that Iran is not an existential threat to America, just as it is obvious to anyone conscious during the George W. Bush Administration that there are people in power who will lie to launch wars on false pretenses. Conflict with Iran is not over, and regime change themes, with a heavy focus on “deterrence” and setting right what has been wrong since 1979, continue to prevail in the rhetoric of the administration.
“Peace and stability cannot prevail in the Middle East as long as Iran continues to foment violence, unrest, hatred, and war,” Trump said in his speech Wednesday. “The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer. It will not be allowed to go forward.”
The war drums are still beating, albeit damply.
Troublingly, the party of the president who was elected to end war is marching straight into (did they ever leave?) the hawks’ camp. A few America First lawmakers such as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) have shown real backbone by opposing further intervention against Iran, despite the political risk of criticizing the president—but most Republican and conservative leaders instead have fallen into rank tribalism, labeling all who would oppose further military action as socialists and friends of the enemy. Gaetz was just one of three Republicans who voted for the war powers resolution. So much for “ending endless wars.”
It’s no good to be inflexibly ideological, especially given the volatile, unmanageable, often incomprehensible circumstances in the Middle East. Many people who support Trump’s non-interventionist agenda, including Trump himself obviously, also supported the strike. But it’s hard to see how assassinating a foreign general constitutes “ending endless wars.” It’s one thing to be too tied to an ideology, but at some point you have to pick a horse.
Had Trump started a war with Iran, he would send his base a message that he can’t find money to build a wall, but has plenty of blood and treasure to waste on a conflict with scarcely any connection to the national interest.
For now, it looks like Trump wants to de-escalate, averting war, as he promised in 2016. That war was avoided, though, is a credit to Trump and his gut instincts, not to the hawks in his administration and in the media who applauded the strike and pushed for escalation in the first place.
The troubling reality is that American policy continues to be directed far too much by things that are not America’s business and by people who don’t care about America and its people.
More disturbing is that the Trump movement, which was generated out of opposition to the foreign policy blob and its endless wars, was revealed this week to have been co-opted to a great extent by neoconservatives seeking regime change.
But let’s just be thankful that war was avoided and no Americans were killed. We can hope President Trump will avoid escalation with Iran and take the chance to get America out of Iraq. If not, it’s just a matter of time before we get dragged back into the abyss.