National Security Advisor John Bolton has thus far failed to maneuver the world into yet another Made-in-America Middle East conflict. Yet he might soon have the justification he wants. In the American lexicon there is never any such thing as wars of aggression. We prefer calling them wars of liberation.
This has not been a particularly auspicious time for the warmongers amongst us. For the last eighteen months, despite truly valiant efforts to justify an attack on Iran, our neocon cadre, led by National Security Advisor John Bolton and inspired by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has thus far failed to maneuver the world into yet another Made-in-America Middle East conflict. Everything looked so promising less than two years ago, but then a series of unexpected setbacks placed serious barriers in our path to another war of liberation. Even though after sixteen years we still haven’t finished our wonderful, euphemistically named “Enduring Freedom” campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, we sense a growing urgency to force the Iranian people to embrace our way of life and our definition of liberty.
Mr. Bolton must be particularly distressed. Before he became President Trump’s National Security Advisor, he gave a speech in July 2017, before an audience of MEK (Mujahedeen Khalq) supporters—an organization that we once had honorably placed on our list of terrorist organizations, but that has somehow been exonerated since 2012 even though it had been responsible for the murder of Americans. In that speech, Mr. Bolton vowed that before 2019 he and they would celebrate the end of the Mullahs in the streets of Tehran.[*] How frustrating it must be to see 2019 come and already be nearly half gone without any loss of Iranian lives.
In fairness to Mr. Bolton, he was not the only one who misestimated the timeline to war with Iran. I confess to having given several lectures over the last several years predicting 2019 would be the year for an aerial bombardment of Iranian nuclear facilities, but neither Mr. Bolton nor I could imagine the host of setbacks this administration would encounter on its quest to start another conflagration in the Middle East. First, there were those pesky European allies of ours who have steadfastly adhered to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and have even sought ways to continue trading with that country. Irritatingly, our European allies seem not as spineless and gullible as they were in 2003 when we led most of them into our other grand war, the one against Iraq, which both Mr. Bolton and Mr. Netanyahu staunchly supported.
Then there was that unfortunate hacking into pieces of a world-respected Saudi journalist at the behest of the Saudi Crown Prince. While it is not at all surprising that the Halal Butcher would order such a crime, it is amazing that he actually got caught. The House of Saud is usually much better at covering its tracks—September 11 is a good example of their skill. A third problem came from our other close Middle East ally, Israel. For a while it seemed that Mr. Netanyahu might actually be convicted and go to prison on corruption charges, and never win reelection.
But of all the unanticipated barriers to bloodshed, the most frustrating and inconceivable has been the Iranian regime itself. Pigheaded, obstinate, and seemingly possessed of otherworldly patience, the Iranians have until now refused to take the bait. Even though the Iranian economy shrank by 1.5% last year and is expected to contract by 3.6% this year, (compared to 3.8% growth in 2017 before sanctions were re-imposed), the Iranians continue to adhere to the nuclear deal and have refrained—thus far, at least—from providing the United States any legitimate justification for attacking them.
But recently things have started to look up for those yearning for more chaos and greater bloodletting in the Middle East. In April Mr. Netanyahu was well on his way to becoming Israel’s prime minister for a record fifth time. While still haunted by those corruption charges, as Prime Minister he will be able to further guide U.S. actions against Iran. In the Saudi Kingdom, of course, there was never any possibility of the Crown Prince being indicted on murder charges, but many had hoped that outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi would last a little longer and restrain his activities and power. But other than a few editors at the Washington Post almost everyone else has moved on. And just this week, Iran finally threatened to reassess its nuclear commitments.
The change in tempo has been most evident in the United States. On April 15 the State Department officially designated Iran’s military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). This designation of a foreign government’s military is unprecedented and is indicative of how determined the Trump Administration is to resolve the Iran issue. Then a week later, Secretary of State Pompeo announced sanctions against any country, including our allies, that imports Iranian oil. Although over one hundred companies have already stopped doing business with Iran, the Iranian reluctance to be provoked requires tightening the economic screws further. And finally, just this week, the United States announced that it would deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the Middle East region. Intriguingly, although our largest Middle Eastern air force base is in Qatar, there is no clarity yet as to where those bombers will be stationed. Qatar, which maintains sensible relations with Iran, might well object to the use of its territory to conduct airstrikes; there would be no such objection from the Saudis. In making the announcement of these new deployments, Mr. Bolton explained their purpose: “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”
Cato and Crassus
There are always myriad lessons to learn from history; it’s just difficult to discern which lesson is most applicable to current circumstances. When Cato the Elder ended each of his speeches with a longer version of the phrase Carthago delenda est, probably many of his Senate colleagues rolled their eyes in exasperation or laughter. But eventually he got his way and the walls of Carthage were savagely torn down and the population destroyed. Carthage, too, like modern day Iran, tried to be reasonable and tried to accommodate the Romans, but accommodation was not what the Romans were really after. Perhaps Mr. Bolton, almost as cranky and nearly as vindictive as Cato, will also get his wish and we will be rid of the Iranian Mullahs once and for all. But I doubt it. Wars have a way of producing unexpected results, even if those results are not realized for a long time afterward. President Trump, at least, has much more in common with another Roman, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was equally wealthy, ambitious, vain, and with a craving for military glory. His unexpected defeat at Carrhae against the Parthians—the Iranians of that time—stunned the Roman world. Of course, there really is no chance for the Iranians to win any military conflict against the United States. But that was and is also true of Iraq and Afghanistan. Our enemies need not win for us to lose.
In the meantime, we must wait and see. An orchestrated accident—the Persian Gulf may prove similar to the Gulf of Tonkin—is a real possibility. We may soon learn how well or poorly those new Russian SAM systems Iran purchased work against our aircraft. Prospects for another illegal war of aggression are improving daily. But in the American lexicon there is never any such thing as wars of aggression. We prefer calling them wars of liberation.
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