We’ve always had a problem with the French. The women are too thin and elegant and the men too self-contained and self-controlled – another form of elegance. This tends to make proudly loud and casual Americans feel inadequate, which makes those same proudly loud and casual Americans quite angry. The French have also mastered the art of deadly irony you might not get until it’s too late, and subtle ridicule that sounds like praise, until you think about what was just said. Then it’s too late. It’s an art form.
That hurts. That hurt in the Bush years. The suave Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin – who ran marathons and wrote literary criticism in his spare time – smiled and told us that our plan for immediate war with Iraq was ill-advised. It was as if he were explaining this to a petulant child he was nevertheless fond of. At the UN in early February, 2003, he almost laughed at Colin Powell when Powell asked for the UN to go to war with us, or at least to tell us our little (that is, specific and limited) war was fine with them. But he didn’t laugh. Dominique de Villepin, with that bemused smile of the loving adult for the confused child who needs a little help with his tantrum, said wait, let the inspectors finish – there may be no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and even if by some odd chance there are, there are better ways to handle this. And of course the guy was right. It just took ten years for us to realize it.
Consider the details:
The most important French speech during the crisis was made by De Villepin at the Security Council on the 14 February 2003, after Hans Blix presented his detailed report. De Villepin detailed the three major risks of a “premature recourse to the military option”, especially the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region”. He said that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace”. He emphasized that “real progress is beginning to be apparent” through the inspections, and that, “given the present state of our research and intelligence, in liaison with our allies”, the alleged links between al-Qaeda and the regime in Baghdad explained by Colin Powell were not established.
He concluded by referring to the dramatic experience of “old Europe” during World War II. This “impassioned” speech “against war on Iraq, or immediate war on Iraq”, won “an unprecedented applause”, reported the BBC’s Sir David Frost.
That hurt. They made us look like fools, and then we made ourselves look like fools, munching on our Freedom Fries. The French had been right all along – bad enough – but they had also been elegantly right. That was even worse.
But maybe they know us all too well. Robin Wright points out that the United States has a long history of provoking, instigating, or launching wars based on dubious, flimsy, or manufactured threats:
In 1986, the Reagan Administration plotted to use U.S. military maneuvers off Libya’s coast to provoke Muammar Qaddafi into a showdown. The planning for Operation Prairie Fire, which deployed three aircraft carriers and thirty other warships, was months in the making. Before the Navy’s arrival, U.S. warplanes conducted missions skirting Libyan shore and air defenses – “poking them in the ribs” to “keep them on edge,” a U.S. military source told the Los Angeles Times that year. One official involved in the mission explained, “It was provocation, if you want to use that word. While everything we did was perfectly legitimate, we were not going to pass up the opportunity to strike.”
Qaddafi took the bait. Libya fired at least six surface-to-air missiles at U.S. planes. Citing the “aggressive and unlawful nature of Colonel Qaddafi’s regime,” the U.S. responded by opening fire at a Libyan patrol boat. “The ship is dead in the water, burning, and appears to be sinking. There are no official survivors,” the White House reported. In the course of two days, the U.S. destroyed two more naval vessels and a missile site in Sirte, Qaddafi’s home town. It also put Libya on general notice. “We now consider all approaching Libyan forces to have hostile intent,” the White House said.
George W. Bush thought about recycling that idea:
George Bush considered provoking a war with Saddam Hussein’s regime by flying a United States spy plane over Iraq bearing UN colors, enticing the Iraqis to take a shot at it, according to a leaked memo of a meeting between the US President and Tony Blair.
The two leaders were worried by the lack of hard evidence that Saddam Hussein had broken UN resolutions, though privately they were convinced that he had. According to the memorandum, Mr Bush said: “The US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colors. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach.”
But nothing came of that. The UN had and still has no U2 aircraft. There was no getting around that, but Robin Wright points out there have been successes at this sort of thing:
The beginning of the Vietnam War was authorized by two now disputed incidents involving U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. In response, Congress authorized President Johnson, in 1964, to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” The war dragged on for a decade, claiming the lives of fifty-seven thousand Americans and as many as a million Vietnamese fighters and civilians.
There had been no attacks on American ships in the Tonkin Gulf, but those who had wanted that war got that war, which happens quite often:
In 1898, the Spanish-American War was triggered by an explosion on the U.S.S. Maine, an American battleship docked in Havana Harbor. The Administration of President William McKinley blamed a Spanish mine or torpedo. Almost eight decades later, in 1976, the American admiral Hyman Rickover concluded that the battleship was destroyed by the spontaneous combustion of coal in a bunker next to ammunition.
In 1846, President James Polk justified the Mexican-American War by claiming that Mexico had invaded U.S. territory, at a time when the border was not yet settled. Mexico claimed that the border was the Nueces River; the United States claimed it was the Rio Grande, about a hundred miles away. One of the few voices that challenged Polk’s casus belli was Abraham Lincoln, then serving in Congress. Around fifteen hundred Americans died of battle injuries, and another ten thousand from illness.
And here we go again:
Today, the question in Washington – and surely in Tehran, too – is whether President Trump is making moves that will provoke, instigate, or inadvertently drag the United States into a war with Iran. Trump’s threats began twelve days after he took office, in 2017, when his national-security adviser at the time, Michael Flynn, declared, in the White House press room, “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” Flynn, a former three-star general, was fired several weeks later and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. The Administration’s campaign against Iran, though, has steadily escalated…
Wright, however, notes that nothing else has escalated:
There have been no major incidents in the Persian Gulf for almost two years, after a spate of provocative acts by Iran – thirty-six in 2016 and fourteen in 2017 – against U.S. warships, a Pentagon official told me. The last one was on August 14, 2017, when an Iranian drone approached the U.S.S. Nimitz as an F/A-18 was trying to land on the aircraft carrier. The drone, which was flying at night, did not have its lights on; repeated radio calls to its controlling station went unanswered. The Nimitz was in international waters, beyond the twelve-mile limit any nation can claim.
“We haven’t seen an unsafe interaction since then,” Captain Bill Urban, the spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told me. “It has been a long time, considering how many incidents we had in 2016 and 2017.”
The U.S. still has regular interactions with Iranian ships. “It’s not unusual to have several attack craft come out and approach our ships and take pictures. But now they routinely stop at a safe distance or approach in manner that is not escalatory,” he said. “We continue to remain vigilant.”
That’s appropriate, but the New York Times reports that’s not relevant now:
As the Trump administration draws up war plans against Iran over what it says are threats to American troops and interests, a senior British military official told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that he saw no increased risk from Iran or allied militias in Iraq or Syria.
A few hours later, the United States Central Command issued an unusual rebuke: The remarks from the British official – Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, who is also the deputy commander of the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State – run “counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region.”
The rare public dispute highlights a central problem for the Trump administration as it seeks to rally allies and global opinion against Iran.
It seems that the central problem for the Trump administration as it seeks to rally allies and global opinion against Iran are the facts on the ground:
Over the last year, Washington has said Iran is threatening United States interests in the Middle East, encouraging aggression by Shiite militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, shipping missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen and allowing its naval forces to behave belligerently in the Persian Gulf.
All are concerns that have been leveled against Iranian forces for years.
“We are aware of their presence clearly and we monitor them along with a whole range of others because of the environment we are in,” General Ghika said.
But he said, “No, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”
In short, there’s nothing new here, but there is a threat:
Intelligence and military officials in Europe as well as in the United States said that over the past year, most aggressive moves have originated not in Tehran, but in Washington – where John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, has prodded President Trump into backing Iran into a corner.
One American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential internal planning, said the new intelligence of an increased Iranian threat was “small stuff” and did not merit the military planning being driven by Mr. Bolton. The official also said the ultimate goal of the yearlong economic sanctions campaign by the Trump administration was to draw Iran into an armed conflict with the United States.
That seems to be the only reason we dropped out of that nuclear deal:
Since May 2018, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the major powers agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, reimposed punishing sanctions on Tehran, demanded that allies choose between Iranian oil and doing business in the American market, and declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization.
And on Tuesday, the State Department appeared on the verge of ordering a partial evacuation of the American Embassy in Baghdad as a heightened security measure, according to people familiar with the plans.
No one knows what this is about, but Bolton had worked for Bush as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, sworn into this position on May 11, 2001. So he’s been at this sort of thing for decades. He’s a known quantity and thus is too familiar to too many people:
The anti-Iran push has proved difficult even among the allies, which remember a similar campaign against Iraq that was led in part by Mr. Bolton and was fueled by false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts this week to recruit European countries to back the administration’s steely posture on Iran are being received coolly.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, called for “maximum restraint” after meeting on Monday in Brussels with Mr. Pompeo, a proponent of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
Mogherini did not speak of the “premature recourse to the military option” and the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region” and didn’t say that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace” – but that should be implicit by now.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad:
Iraqi officials said they were skeptical of the American intelligence that Mr. Pompeo presented last week on a surprise trip to Baghdad. Mr. Pompeo said the threat was to American “facilities” and military personnel in Iraq.
In September, Trump administration officials blamed Shiite militias with ties to Iran for firing a few rockets into the area near the United States Embassy in Baghdad and the American Consulate in Basra. There were no injuries, but Mr. Pompeo ordered the Basra Consulate closed.
But the curious thing is that none of this seems to be Trump’s idea:
Privately, several European officials described Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo as pushing an unsuspecting Mr. Trump through a series of steps that could put the United States on a course to war before the president realizes it.
While Mr. Trump has made no secret of his reluctance to engage in another military conflict in the Middle East, and has ordered American troops home from Syria, his secretary of state and his national security adviser have pushed a maximalist hardline approach on Iran.
Officials said Mr. Trump was aware that Mr. Bolton’s instinctual approach to Iran could lead to war; aides suggested that the president’s own aversion to drawn-out overseas conflicts would be the best hope of putting the brakes on military escalation.
That’s a foolish notion:
The Trump administration is looking at plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, the New York Times reported. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump dismissed that as “fake news.”
“We have not planned for that,” he told reporters.
But he immediately added, “If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
Trump may have an aversion to drawn-out overseas conflicts, but he will NEVER appear weak, and that leaves the realists with their facts on the ground:
Some of the president’s critics accept that Iran continues to engage in what United States officials call “malign behavior,” be it in Yemen, Syria or the Palestinian territories. But they blamed the administration for aggravating the standoff with Tehran.
“This is a crisis that has entirely been manufactured by the Trump administration,” said Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
He pointed to Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, coupled with the administration’s failure to get any other nations to do so.
“None of the other signatories to the deal were persuaded by the case the U.S. was making,” Mr. Nasr said. “And that is because this administration’s policy on Iran, at a fundamental level, does not have credibility.”
And this really is dangerous stuff:
“Bolton did the same with President George W. Bush and Iraq,” Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts and an Iraq war veteran, said in a statement last week. “As someone sent four times to that misguided war, I have seen the costs of Bolton’s disastrous foreign policy in a way he never will – firsthand, and at the loss of thousands of American lives.”
And this is not even sensible stuff:
One big worry is that the Trump administration has issued the most expansive type of warning to Iran, without drawing specific red lines. That has increased the chance of a military conflict over misinterpretations and miscalculations.
In a statement this month, Mr. Bolton outlined vague terms of what appeared to be conditions for military engagement, responding to what he said were “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”
He said “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” And he warned that the administration was “fully prepared to respond to any attack” by the Iranian military or a “proxy” – one of the Middle East’s many Shiite militias that are supported by Iran.
There’s only one problem with that:
Those militias often do not operate under direct command and control from Iran, and they have varying levels of allegiance to the Iran military. In Yemen’s civil war, the Houthis are Shiite rebels who oppose a government backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni nations. The Houthis’ ties to Iran are murky. But the Trump administration labels the rebels as Iranian proxies, and Mr. Bolton’s statement left open the possibility that a Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia or the UAE – both United States allies – could set off an American military assault against Iran.
So, someone sneezes in Yemen and we invade Iran? No one believes anyone now:
That lack of trust has proved to be a major obstacle in convincing allies that Iranian behavior in the region warrants military action.
And it’s February 2003 at the UN again. Colin Powell is explaining just what warrants military action against Saddam Hussein. He points to a photograph. Look – a mobile chemical weapons lab – a Winnebago of Death! He holds up a little vial. Two drops of this could kill us all! And what about those aluminum tubes! Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin raises one eyebrow. He doesn’t have to speak.
Meanwhile, in the Tonkin Gulf:
Charges that four oil vessels were attacked at the mouth of the Persian Gulf over the weekend have amplified fears across the region about the escalating tensions between Iran and the West.
The unconfirmed reports come as the United States has tightened sanctions against Iran and mobilized an aircraft carrier, bombers and an antimissile battery to the gulf to deter what the Trump administration has said is a heightened risk of Iranian aggression.
Saudi Arabia said Monday that two of its oil tankers had been sabotaged, and a Norwegian company reported that one of its tankers was damaged in the same area, near the Strait of Hormuz. The fourth ship belonged to the United Arab Emirates, which, like Saudi Arabia, is an avowed enemy of Iran.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates assigned blame, made public any evidence of damage to their ships, or described the nature of the sabotage.
Okay, that’s the wrong gulf, but it’s the same thing, but this time with some people who know better:
“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side,” the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told reporters in Brussels on Monday. “I think what we need is a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking.”
While American officials suspect that Iran was involved, several officials cautioned there is not yet any definitive evidence linking Iran or its proxies to the reported attacks.
There is, after all, the danger of premature recourse to the military option and the incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region – but when did that ever stop us? And the Saudis do want us to wipe out Iran for them. They’ll even help us do that. They just won’t explain what really happened – this time in the Persian Gulf.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. There will be war.