Much discussed (elsewhere) is the high likelihood that Iran's recent missile attack on U.S. bases in Iraq was an "arbitrated response/deal..." one negotiated in advance, allowing Iran and Iraq a face-saving way to "retaliate" in some flashy way, without causing any U.S. casualties that would invite further vengeance. This kind of thing is classic in the art of de-escalation and is consistent with Trump's bipolar pattern - lashing out then hurriedly backing off and letting professionals help him minimize any blowback.
Below is a guest-commentary that was offered to a small group by my friend and respected investment guru Russ Daggatt. But first -- I agree that the Iranian missile attack will be seen as a rather lame pre-negotiated, pre-warned face-saver. And hence, there will likely also be deemed insufficient by many of the parties in the Ayatollahs' constituency. You can be sure it will be supplemented with a "deniable" attack of some nastiness, at a later point.
What would be smartest? On the Daily Show, Roy Wood comically suggested those with grievances against Donald Trump make threats against Trump hotel properties. The threats needn't be serious in order to have intended effects. Moreover, it seems apropos, since this whole affair was a choice made entirely by ol' Two Scoops, against the wishes of all responsible U.S. government adults.
Any of you who have read either EARTH or Polemical Judo know that I long ago suggested that kind of non-lethal methodology for developing nations to use, applying the prim legal definitions of "war" to get their stolen trillions back from banking havens. I proposed they issue Letters of Marque for anyone to use stink bombs or streaking on the small nation's behalf. I am not recommending this to Tehran! Since in fact, that regime doesn't deserve any moral high ground -- it has none, and will soon be a Russian satrapy, in any event.
Still, one can fantasize such a measure simultaneously deterring Trump income while adding a touch of whimsey to lighten up a crisis.
Now over to Russ Daggatt.
== The Iran Tiff: Factual background, by Russell Daggatt ==
Tonight, Iran has reportedly launched a dozen or so missiles at two US military bases in Iraq (apparently without American casualties). Iran has sent word that they won’t further retaliate if the US doesn’t. Obviously, a lot is still uncertain. Now’s a good time to pull back and look at what we hope to achieve from all this.
By any definition, assassinating the top military leader of another country is an act of war. (The last time we did it was during WWII, when we killed Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. But that was total war (we actually nuked Japan), declared by Congress.) General Soleimani was a national hero in Iran, which is a proud country of 80 million people. Their internal politics demanded some act of retaliation. (Had another country assassinated, say, Dick Cheney during the Bush years, every Democrat would have joined every Republican in demanding some kind of retaliation. And Soleimani was more beloved in Iran than Cheney was here.)
Instead of seeking to cool emotions, Trump has been escalating the conflict, engaging in the taunts, threats and insults that he is temperamentally inclined to spew in even the most trivial and benign of situations. Before we rush headlong into war (again), it’s worth asking what we are hoping to achieve and whether war is the best means of achieving those objectives.
Humans are tribal. We tend to see our tribe as virtuous and other tribes as evil or devious or, at a minimum, mistaken. It’s useful occasionally to see things from the other side (not always easy when the nationalistic drums of war are beating).
I’m no fan of theocracy. I would be happy to see the Iranian people throw off their’s (and hope we don’t embrace one here). But we have a pretty bad history with that country - from our overthrow of their democratically-elected Prime Minister Mosaddegh, to our shooting down Iran Air 655 (killing all 290 innocent men, women and children aboard), to supporting Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war (which cost upwards of a million lives), to abrogating the nuclear deal (with which they were complying) ... and now assassinating General Soleimani. They have far more reason to fear and hate us than we do them. The Iranian leadership has generally been relatively restrained into their regional behavior - aggressively advancing their interests, but in a low-cost manner that doesn’t overextend themselves or risk major escalation.
To review: We invaded and occupied countries on either side of Iran, and have remained there for nearly two decades. During that time, we’ve had as many as 180,000 troops in Iraq (to their west) and 100,000 in Afghanistan (to their east). There was really no way they could stay out of the chaos we created on their borders and throughout the region - they had and have too much at stake. (By comparison, what are our interests, 6000 miles away?)
Iran’s leadership has been portrayed in this country as fanatics bent on suicidal aggression. In fact, they are relatively conservative, cautious and pragmatic (unlike our current leadership). They have shown themselves repeatedly willing to deal with us when it is in our mutual interest. They initially worked with us in Afghanistan (General Soleimani supported our allies, the Northern Alliance, in the battle against the Taliban even before we got involved there) - until Bush declared them part of the “Axis of Evil”. In 2003, they proposed a “Grand Bargain” to resolve all our regional differences (including those re Israel), to which we didn’t even respond. And they led the fight against ISIS in Iraq - with US forces and Iranian-backed militia sometimes operating out of the same Iraqi bases (it’s fair to say ISIS might have overrun all of Iraq had it not been for General Soleimani).
The media have been constantly repeating the administration's claim that General Soleimani was “responsible” for the deaths of hundreds (or sometimes, specifically, 600) American troops. It’s true that Iran backed Iraqi Shiite militia in the civil war that was unleashed in the chaos following our invasion and occupation. The US was fighting both sides of that civil war at various times and various places, and sometimes we were fighting Iraqi Shiite militia backed by Iran. We killed a lot of Iraqi Shiites and they killed a lot of our troops. Over 4500 Americans died in Iraq, which means most of those deaths were from fighting the Sunnis who those Shiite militia were also fighting. In other words, much of the time, they were fighting the same people we were. But those Iraqi Shiite militia, with the support of Iran, did seek to drive us out of their country.
We need to accept the fact that there is no way we are going to eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq. We opened that Pandora’s Box in 2003. Iran is the center of the Shia faith and many of its most holy sites are on the other side of the arbitrary post-colonial border in Iraq. Iraq is majority Shiite and many if not most Shiites look to Iran as the center of their faith. It’s worth noting that there were no Iranian-backed attacks on US forces for eight years, from 2011 until Trump pulled out of the JCPOA. After 2014, we were on the same side in the fight against ISIS.
And then there was the *nuclear deal* - the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The more moderate elements of the Iranian government took a big risk negotiating with us. They peacefully dismantled their nuclear program under the most intrusive inspections regime ever agreed to by any country in the world. While some of the restrictions on their enrichment activity phase out over time, their commitment never to pursue nuclear weapons and to that inspections regime never expire. By all accounts, they fully complied with the agreement. But the moderates lost that bet. We reneged. The hardliners were proven right - the US can’t be trusted.
It's also worth noting that Soleimani, while a ruthless warrior and committed adversary of the US and Israel, was also a skilled diplomat and negotiator - one of the best in the region. He knew how far to push it, and when and how to cut a deal. In fact, he was in the process of doing so -- arguably lured to his fate by a false U.S. overture -- when a US missile killed him outside the Baghdad airport. Iraq’s Prime Minister said that Soleimani was bringing him Iran’s response to a Saudi proposal for de-escalating regional tensions. Since the US did not inform the Iraqi government that we were planning on killing Soleimani on Iraqi soil, we might not have known that was his mission that day.
(To further complicate things, among the others we killed along with Soleimani was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. That is a really big deal in Iraq by itself. He was the leader of an Iraqi Shiite militia that fought the US during our occupation of Iraq, and which the US says was behind the attack on a US base that killed an Iraqi-American contractor last month. But he was also deputy commander of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored coalition of mainly Shiite militia, nominally under the control of the Iraqi PM, formed in 2014 to fight ISIS. As the leader of that fight, Muhandis was considered a hero by many Iraqis (while considered a “terrorist” by the US). He had also been a security advisor to the first Iraqi PM after our invasion and a member of the Iraqi parliament. So, Muhandis was part of the Iraqi government, who fought against us during our occupation, but with us against ISIS. The Iraq PM said the killing of the Muhandis was an act of aggression against Iraq and a breach of the conditions under which American forces operate in their country. Complicated, right? How much of much of that do you think Trump understands?)
The current escalating conflict started with an attack by an Iranian-backed Shiite militia, Kata'ib Hezbollah (part of the Iraqi PMF), on an Iraqi airbase, that killed an Iraqi-American contractor. The US retaliated by attacking several militia bases, reportedly killing 25 Kata'ib Hezbollah members. That might have been disproportionate on our part, but not extremely so. Things might have ended there, but following a funeral in Baghdad for the Kata'ib Hezbollah militiamen killed by the US, an angry mob of dozens of militiamen and their supporters marched to the US Embassy and stormed the outer reception area.
Some background on that embassy attack: It is an understatement to call the US compound in Baghdad an “embassy.” It is more like a walled city within a city. At 104 acres (with much of it underground), it is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world, nearly as large as Vatican City. It cost $750 million to build* and has 5000 people (and has had as many as 16,000 people) working there. That is more than a mere diplomatic outpost. It is like an American small town, inside a fortress, in the middle of the largest city in the largest Arab country.
The “attack” was a mob of a few dozen Iraqis, armed only with stones and improvised Molotov cocktails, who stormed the outer reception area of this vast complex. Iraqi security forces reportedly made no effort to stop them. They threw rocks and trashed the reception area (setting fire to it). But it was not any kind of military attack or attempt to take over the compound - it was an angry protest. From how it has been characterized in the media, you’d think it was a coordinated military attack by Iranian forces. The mob only went about 5 meters into the reception area and never approached within hundreds of meters of the main embassy building. There were no deaths or serious injuries, and after a few hours, they left. I’m sure it was scary for the people in the US compound. But it did not warrant a major military escalation with Iran.
That was a perfect place to leave our escalating tit-for-tat with Iran (at least for this round). It was unarmed Iraqis protesting our killing other Iraqis in Iraq. They shook their fists in anger at us, but no one was hurt. Total casualties in the three incidents: One American contractor, on our side, and 25 Iraqi militiamen, on the other side.
But then Trump decided to radically escalate the conflict. (The embassy attack reportedly reminded him of the US embassy occupation in Tehran under Carter and the Benghazi attack, so he felt he had to look tough. Specifically, he had to look tougher than President Obama, with whom he is irrationally obsessed.) The Trump administration, led by Secretary of State Pompeo initially lied and said the killing of Soleimani was in response to the threat of an “imminent” attack on US interests, but that story quickly fell apart. It was the most “extreme” option given to Trump to retaliate against Iran and had been under consideration for a while. It increased the danger to Americans in the region, it didn’t decrease it.
So let’s look at where things stand now:
• Trump betrayed the Kurds in Syria, ceding Syria to Russia and Iran, and proving us to be an unreliable ally.
• The US-led coalition has suspended operations against ISIS in Iraq, as resources are reassigned to protect our own facilities and personnel.
• The Iraqi parliament voted to expel US (while chanting anti US slogans), solidifying Iranian influence in that country.
• By killing an Iranian national hero, internal pressure on the Iranian regime has eased as the country unites against the Great Satan.
• Iran has announced it will no longer abide by the enrichment restrictions of the JCPOA, further dividing us from our erstwhile allies. (It’s worth noting that Iran is not abandoning the inspections regime and cooperation with IAEA.)
• The populations of both Iran and Iraq have been turned against us.
• No one believes a word Trump and his administration says.
Were these the objectives we hoped to achieve by starting a war with Iran? If not, what are our objectives and have recent actions helped further them? (As Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there.”)
My point here isn’t to act as an apologist for Iran or Soleimani. They have been determined adversaries of the US and Israel and have done a lot of bad things. It is to step outside our own tribal bubble and focus on the bigger picture. Even looking narrowly at our own national interests, is this escalating conflict advancing them?
I think you can guess my answer.
== DB Notes ==
* The greatest untold travesty, among the countless travesties of the Bush era, was who actually benefited from the US invasions. The Kurds, sure, a bit, till we betrayed them at Trump's orders. Kuwait for sure. Iran, from delayed demolition of Saddam and us later basically handing them Iraq...
...but the one never discussed was Halliburton, plus Bechtel and other military logistics companies. These are the ones who, on cost-plus contracts, gorged on "emergency" no-bid contracts to build and supply and run the bases etc. Their profit margins were unprecedented across all of human history, vastly greater than say Lockheed or other tranditional military suppliers, who nowadays don't benefit all that much from shooting wars.
The greatest TOLD obscenity committed by the Buishes was committed by Bush Senior (the worst president of the 20th Century) who allowed Saddam to murder a million Iraqi Arabs who were dancing in the streets celebrating their promised liberation from that monster, one of the worst stains on American honor in all of history.