BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS (after Iran appeared to be “standing down”) the latest conflict in the Middle East might look like it’s cooling down. Don’t count on it.
Global media tell us what did or didn’t happen in Iraq, Iran and a wider geography of mayhem. As readers, viewers and listeners we rely on them to piece together some sort of narrative about how this latest confrontation is unfolding. For more than that, a little history might help.
History tells us that the assassination of a high-ranking official in a remote and unstable part of the world can trigger wars of previously unimaginable scale and ferocity. Think of World War I. Other conflicts involving this nation are different. For example, the U.S. government had scant evidence to hold Spain responsible for sinking one of our battleships, but that pretext ushered in our empire in the Caribbean and the Philippines.
An imaginary naval encounter off the coast of North Vietnam led to a huge escalation in the combat role the U.S. played in the Vietnam War. Non-existent weapons of mass destruction justified our invasion of Iraq. It won’t be long before digital tools will make it possible to create a believable international military crisis on a mobile phone. That will add new meaning to the ancient trope “pass the torch to a new generation.”
Presidents benefit politically from waging wars overseas… at first. When the cause sounds just and the sacrifice doesn’t demand too much from our wealthiest citizens, the public rallies behind the commander-in-chief. President Trump says his decision to order the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was necessary to prevent an attack on U.S. citizens. But the president frequently lies. Should we ignore his past statements and imagine that we should accept this story uncritically? Or should we disbelieve him? How would we know when he does tell the truth? And even if what he says is true, was there a way to avert the attack in a manner less likely to provoke a war?
The Tuesday night missiles from Iran aimed at sites in Iraq where U.S. troops are based hasn’t triggered another round of counterattacks from the U.S. Yet.
Iran has a repressive government, but scholars and diplomats refer to the country as a “rational actor.” Do you think, at the moment, they’d say that about our government?
Strangely enough the language used by Mr. Trump in this crisis resonates here. The president said after the assassination of Gen. Suleimani that the U.S. had picked out targets important to “… Iranian culture” if Iran responded militarily to the killing of the general. Trump administration figures have tried to convince the public that the president didn’t mean what he said. Intentional destruction of another country’s cultural sites is a war crime. But Mr. Trump initially shrugged off that objection.
Iran’s violent militants might be rational but it’s irresistible to wonder what U.S. cultural sites Iranian military planners might now be adding to their list. Washington, DC, and New York City could be on that list—two cities already scarred by unexpected attacks on iconic buildings. But what if the obvious targets are too heavily protected—what about the cultural significance of smaller destinations, like, say, the Hudson Valley? These days our foreign wars are “endless,” which leaves our enemies plenty of time to work down to the cultural sites we cherish all around us.
The Taliban destroyed Buddhist cultural heritage sites when they ruled Afghanistan. ISIS perpetrated similar war crimes in Syria. Reportedly, Al Qaeda too. Does President Donald Trump want his name added to this list?
We can’t ignore terrorism in the Middle East or anywhere else. But we can debate where our troops should be stationed, and we have a duty to support and protect them once they’re there. The same goes for diplomats. This may even involve killing people who are preparing to kill us, though for that, the public must be told the reasons why the order was given.
This has not yet happened with the assassination of Gen. Suleimani. The immediate crisis may wind down but it will erupt once more in ways we never expected or because Mr. Trump stokes the fire again to help his bid for reelection. Until we know the truth we must remain skeptical about the reasons the president gives us for ordering the death of a man in our name.