How to Sleepwalk Into a War

America’s experiment with its first Twitter presidency hasn’t inspired faith in our political institutions. What have long been long policy processes are now condensed to visual aids, 280-character thoughts, and as many commercial interruptions and twists as a soap opera.

President Trump is surely asleep at the wheel. His unsubstantial work ethic per his schedule alone suggests that. But the more perverse story, chronicled well by Stephen Wertheim, has been the resurgent influence of lobbyists, Bush-era officials, and all manner of war profiteers in Washington.

Sunlight may have once been the best disinfectant, but the constant media exposure bombarding Americans – and the complicity of most major news networks and publications – have left the public sleepwalking as well. Despite the token resistance to this or that foreign policy announcement, the reality is that a large part of the Washington establishment likes what they see within Trump’s remarkably incoherent approach to foreign affairs.

There will undoubtedly be lingering criticism in coming weeks that Trump’s decision to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory is disastrous for US policy. Some will spin it as a victory for Assad, others will fret that it effectively destroys any hope of a two-state solution or peace process between Israel and Palestine and has other unforeseen consequences.

But the criticism will largely ignore uncomfortable truths around Trump’s decision. The US just recognized annexed territory to help swing an election – one wonders where Washington’s outrage about the sanctity of democracy has gone. The press will be too busy turning it into another story about how reckless and unreliable Trump is, rather than staring at his strategy in plain sight.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, when politicians show you who they are, believe them the first time. Benjamin Netanyahu has shown he wants a war. So has Trump. But where some see the chaotic mess of an unprepared, disengaged president, others see opportunity.

Recognizing the Golan Heights has united a broad range of states against US policy, but set the stage for an escalation of military activity in Syria. National Security Advisor John Bolton has already used the misdirection of implying that Iran or Syria seek to control the heights, a lie and not a risk regardless of whether or not the territory is recognized as Israeli by the US.

Iran has long been a foil to play out the anxious masculinity of foreign policy hands disdainful of international institutions and limits on American power abroad. It was a Brit who offered that “everyone wants to go Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran,” but that quip in 2003 captured a heartfelt desire held by many in Washington restrained by the catastrophic mishandling of Iraq after the initial invasion. For them, the Iran deal was not so much an affront to the national interest as an insult to their fantasy of American power.

Many of these same Iran hawks share more in common attitudinally with Trump than they’d care to admit. It’s not just Trump who dodged service in Vietnam. The many other figures with long-running affiliations to think tanks like the Foundation for Defense of Democracy or publications like The Weekly Standard are perpetually adamant that force be deployed to topple governments abroad under the guise of democracy promotion. Most conveniently neglect to mention their own refusal to serve in Vietnam, or refusal to volunteer for military service. America’s servicepeople are ultimately an afterthought to the exercise of power as they see it.

A blatant disregard for international, rules-based order – Bolton has spearheaded a bloc of policymakers equally disdainful as Trump of institutions restricting US policy – remains close to the hearts of those who advocated for the invasion of Iraq. The war was itself a perversion of the norms the Bush administration invoked to generate legitimacy for its actions. They may disagree with Trump’s harsh rhetoric on Europe and decry the sanctity of NATO, but ultimately they think more alike than they let on.

The formal recognition of the Golan Heights was swiftly followed by US accusations that Iran plans to restart its nuclear weapons program. Not only is that terribly convenient politically both for Bibi and Trump, it’s evidence of the similar playbook used to justify the invasion of Iraq. The appearance of an immediate threat is needed to secure support in Washington and sell any action, should it be taken, to the American public.

When Secretary Pompeo and Bibi explicitly talk about ways to “roll back Iranian aggression,” they’re implicitly talking about a rationale for military action in Syria that does not, as yet, legally exist for the United States. Add to that that Bibi himself believes that “there is no limitation to [Israel’s] freedom of action,” against Iran in Syria, and you have a deadly combination.

There’s other groundwork in motion not being debated because of our laser focus on Trump’s infantile eruptions. The expansion of the Muwaffaq Salti airbase in Jordan may make sense as a backstop to basing capabilities in Turkey, but it more directly supports expanded operations in Syria, particularly near Al-Tanf. ISIS has largely been defeated on the battlefield. Lest we also forget that John C. Stennis carrier group was sent to the Gulf “to fight ISIS,” despite that fight drawing to a close.

These are significant signs that Trump, his aides and policy team, bureaucrats, and generals with an agenda are onboard with at least preparing options for Bibi’s hardscrabble vision for conflict with Iran. And we’re even treated to fawning coverage of Bolton as somehow protecting the nation from Trump’s worst impulses.

Don’t think these problems only concern Iran. Look no further than Pompeo’s entreaty to the American oil industry at CERAWeek in Houston to serve the national interest, or the fact that the Venezuelan opposition sent aides to attend the event and hint at letting US oil majors into the country after Maduro’s regime is replaced. Military planning now in motion for humanitarian missions in Venezuela create the conditions for the use of force in case Maduro refuses to meet US and opposition demands.

Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark. But it’s not just Trump. It’s the staffs around him and the ecosystem that abets these things from developing without real criticism. Twitter addiction has its compensations. Blissful ignorance is too often one of them.




Cover photo: Entering Abadan, where the Karun river becomes the border between Iran and Iraq. Credit: flickr/youngrobv

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Nicholas Trickett

Nicholas Trickett is an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and Editor-in-Chief for FPRI’s BMB Russia. He formerly served as Managing Editor and Acting Editor-in-Chief for Global Risk Insights, and has written for The Diplomat, Aspenia, the Washington Post, and Oilprice among other outlets. Nick received a B.A. in Comparative Literature and Philosophy from Haverford College, an M.A. in Russia and Eurasian Studies from the European University in St. Petersburg, and is currently pursuing an MSc in International Political Economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research has focused on energy security, foreign policy, and the intersection of domestic political economy with international economic interests in Russia and Eurasia, namely energy relations, infrastructure, and the Belt and Road Initiative. He interned with the Senate Committee on Small Business, as well as several D.C. think tanks including the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and currently works as a political risk researcher for AKE International Ltd.