The Trump regime is attempting to gin up a war with Iran. First Trump reneged on Obama's nuclear deal with the country for no reason, then he slapped them with more economic sanctions for no reason, and then, pushed by National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he moved massive military forces onto Iran's doorstep to heighten tensions further. Now, after a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman — none of which were American — that the administration blames on Iran, Pompeo says the U.S. is "considering a full range of options," including war. (Iran has categorically denied any involvement.)
The American people appear largely uninterested in this idea. But unless some real mass pressure is mounted against it, there is a good chance Trump will launch the U.S. into another pointless, disastrous war.
The New York Times' Bret Stephens, for all his #NeverTrump pretensions, provides a good window into the absolute witlessness of the pro-war argument. He takes largely at face value the Trump administration's accusations against Iran — "Trump might be a liar, but the U.S. military isn't," he writes — and blithely suggests Trump should announce an ultimatum demanding further attacks cease, then sink Iran's navy if they don't comply.
Let me take these in turn. For one thing, any statement of any kind coming out of a Republican's mouth should be viewed with extreme suspicion. Two years ago, the party passed a gigantic tax cut for the rich which they swore up and down would "pay for itself" with increased growth. To precisely no one's surprise, this did not happen. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) was just one flagrant example of many who got elected in 2016 while lying through their teeth about their party's efforts to destroy ObamaCare and its protections for preexisting conditions. At time of writing, the Washington Post has counted 10,796 false or misleading claims from Trump himself since taking office. Abject up-is-down lying is basically the sine qua non of modern conservative politics.
Republican accusations of foreign aggression should be subjected to an even higher burden of proof. The Trump regime has provided no evidence of Iranian culpability aside from a video of a ship the Pentagon says is Iranians removing something they say is a mine from an oil tanker — but a Japanese ship owner reported at least one attack came from a "flying object," not a mine. Pompeo insists "there is no doubt" that Iran carried out the attacks — the exact same words that Vice President Dick Cheney said in 2002 about Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction and his intention to use them on the United States, neither of which were true. (This is no doubt why several U.S. allies reacted skeptically to Trump's claims.)
What's more, the downside risk here is vastly larger than tax policy. A great big handout to the rich might be socially costly in many ways, but it won't cause tens of thousands of violent deaths in a matter of days. War with Iran could easily do that — or worse.
And though this may be a shock to Troop Respecters like Bret Stephens, the military's record of scrupulous honesty is not exactly spotless. It has lied continually about the state of the Afghanistan occupation, just as it did in Vietnam. It lied about the effects of Agent Orange on U.S. troops and Vietnamese civilians. It lied about Pat Tillman being killed by friendly fire. Military recruiters even sometimes lie about enlistment benefits to meet their quotas.
Who else might have done the attacks? Saudi Arabia springs to mind. False flag attacks on its own oil tankers sound outlandish, but we're talking about a ruthless dictatorship run by a guy who had a Washington Post columnist murdered and chopped into pieces because he didn't like his takes. And the Saudis have already been conducting a years-long war in Yemen with catastrophic humanitarian outcomes in order to stop an Iran-allied group from coming to power. It's by no means certain, but hardly outside the realm of possibility.
At a minimum, anybody with half a brain would want to be extremely certain about what actually happened before taking any rash actions. It's clear that Bolton and company, by contrast, just want a pretext to ratchet up pressure on Iran even further.
But let's grant for the sake of argument that some Iranian forces actually did carry out some or all of these attacks. That raises the immediate question of why. One very plausible reason is that all of Trump's provocations have strengthened the hand of Iran's conservative hard-liners, who are basically the mirror image of Pompeo and Bolton. "It is sort of a toxic interaction between hard-liners on both sides because for domestic political reasons they each want greater tension," as Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations told the New York Times. This faction might have concluded that the U.S. is run by deranged fanatics, and the best way to protect Iran is to demonstrate they could choke off oil shipping from the Persian Gulf if the U.S. attacks.
This in turn raises the question of the appropriate response if Iran is actually at fault here. It would be one thing if these attacks came out of a clear blue sky. But America is very obviously the aggressor here. Iran was following its side of the nuclear deal to the letter before Trump reneged, and continued to do so as of February. So far the European Union (which is still party to the deal) has been unwilling to sidestep U.S. sanctions, prompting Iran to threaten to restart uranium enrichment. So Iran is a medium-sized country with a faltering economy, hemmed in on all sides by U.S. aggression. Backing off the threats and chest-thumping might easily strengthen the hand of Iranian moderates, and cause them to respond in kind.
On the other hand, sinking Iran's navy, as Stephens suggests in his column, would likely be a lot more dangerous than he thinks. Americans have long been fed a lot of hysterical nationalist propaganda from neocons like him about the invincibility of the U.S. military, and the ease with which any possible threat could be defeated. But while U.S. forces are indeed powerful, there is a very real risk that Iran's navy — which is full of fast-attack boats, mini-subs, and disguised civilian vessels specifically designed to take out large ships with swarm attacks — could inflict significant damage. Just a few lucky hits could kill thousands of sailors and cause tens of billions of dollars in damage. This is before you even get to the primary lesson of the Iraq War which is that an initial military victory is completely useless and probably counterproductive without a plan for what comes next.
Taken together, these factors strongly militate towards de-escalation and diplomacy even if Iran did carry out these attacks, which again, is not at all proven. The current standoff is almost entirely our fault, and Iranian forces are far from defenseless. America has a lot better things to do than indulge the deluded jingoist fantasies of a handful of armchair generals who want lots of other people to die in battle.
Finally, attacking Iran would be illegal. It would violate U.S. treaties, and thus the Constitution. The only justification is the claim that the 2001 authorization to attack Al Qaeda covers an attack on Iran. This is utterly preposterous — akin to arguing it covers attacking New Zealand to roll back their gun control efforts — but may explain Pompeo's equally preposterous attempt to blame Iran for a Taliban attack in Afghanistan.
Pompeo and Bolton are clearly hell-bent on war. But Trump himself seems somewhat hesitant, sensing (probably accurately) that starting another war of aggression would tank his popularity even further. It's high time for everyone from ordinary citizens up to Nancy Pelosi to demand this rush to war be stopped.