- Interview by
- Daniel Falcone
Late last week, Donald Trump reminded the world that he’s a loose cannon at heart. Calling off a strike against Iran at the eleventh hour, Trump — goaded on by a coterie of hawkish advisers — briefly put the world on edge. And despite retreating at the last moment, Trump announced harsh new sanctions against Iran this week and warned that any assault against the United States would be met with “obliteration.”
So what’s behind Trump’s drive to war? Who are the regional allies backing escalation? And why does Iran continue to be such a bogeyman in the minds of US elites?
In this interview, Jacobin contributor Daniel Falcone talks with Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and former United Nations special rapporteur, about Trump’s hard-line foreign policy, the mainstream media’s complicity in US war-making, and the causes for optimism amid lethal saber-rattling.
What are the chances that the Trump administration will launch a war against Iran? Are there any reasons to be optimistic?
There are many reasons to be deeply concerned about this warmongering drift in US-Iran relations. American foreign policy in the Middle East has for decades been distorted by “special relationships” with Israel and Saudi Arabia. These distortions have been carried to dangerous extremes during the Trump presidency, especially the embrace of this punitive, confrontational approach toward Iran.
The goal of this coercive diplomacy is to induce Iran to accept more stringent restrictions on its nuclear program than were written into the 2015 nuclear agreement that Trump repudiated on his first day in the White House. A less acknowledged goal is to exert economic pressure through sanctions so as to cause instability and unrest in Iran, with the hope of producing a desired regime change in Tehran. Also in the mix for Washington is the Israeli and Saudi interest in pushing back against Iran’s alleged expansionism in the region, with Israel stressing security threats and the Saudis emphasizing regional and sectarian rivalry.
There are other scenarios that are more hopeful, although maybe reflecting wishful thinking more than realistic prospects. The rhetoric from the US government and from Iranian leaders continues to insist that war is to be avoided while upholding respective rights in the spirit of tit for tat. Such interactions are inherently vulnerable to misperception and manipulation, especially when both sides have hawkish factions ready for war.
It is probably helpful that most policy planners in the Pentagon and State Department view the confrontation with Iran as a distraction from what they deem to be the principal geopolitical challenges facing the United States: China and Russia.
Assuming the parties don’t stumble into an unwanted military escalation, it is almost impossible to predict how this conflict will evolve. Its intensity and momentum at present suggest that such a crisis atmosphere cannot persist much longer. There will either be a dramatic de-escalation of tensions or their further intensification, which is almost certain at some point to involve uses of force and losses of life, creating circumstances where unintended consequences are bound to occur.
What are roles of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton in all of this? How strong are they pushing for war?
Both Bolton and Pompeo seem determined to push Iran so hard that it forcibly retaliates or surrenders. The recent incidents suggest a testing time. Bolton, in particular, seems to want Trump to move away from proposing a diplomatic option at this stage. At the same time, it is difficult to tell whether Trump’s supposed top foreign policy advisers exert much influence. Trump famously follows whatever his gut inclines him to do, and whatever happens is allowed to happen.
Pompeo professes religiously grounded opposition to Islam, and like Bolton seems to be in search of pretexts for causing the downfall of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the only Islamic theocracy that rests part of its legitimacy on elections and a written constitution. This Iranian governing framework, while far from ideal, compares favorably with our dynastic ally operating out of Riyadh, as well as with the repressive secular government in Egypt that came to power through a military coup staged against an elected leadership.
How is the mainstream media approaching the potential for war? Does it look like the corporate media is cooperating like it normally does?
As is so often the case in war-threatening situations, the mainstream media in the United States seems to dutifully follow the signals sent by the Pentagon and Wall Street. What this means in practice is a tendency to accept as credible the claims issued by official sources in Washington, with almost no consideration given to anti-war counter-narratives or of the quite different explanations of contested behavior given by the adversary government, in this case Iran.
The citizenry of the United States should have learned the lesson of being dragged into an unlawful and disastrous aggression against Iraq in 2003. In the lead-up to that unlawful war, the media endorsed the transparently misleading and untruthful justifications for war. The print and TV media in these prewar situations seems mainly to function as an extension of the government, basically transmitting what is being fed to it by retired high-ranking military and intelligence officials, as reinforced by spokespersons for State and Defense.
The fourth estate, which is now badly needed, can no longer be counted upon to act as a check on the abuse of power in the war/peace context, but functions as a conduit for state propaganda.
Trump spent much during the 2016 campaign trying to divorce himself from the Bush-Clinton-Obama doctrines of intervention and occupation in order to get elected. Of course this was a myth, but could Trump finally be exposed as a neocon?
I doubt that Trump, even if he so desired, can exhibit the coherence and consistency to be considered a neocon, or for that matter, as holding any generic worldview by which to identify “a Trump approach.” If one really insists on labeling Trump, then I regard “alt-right” as much closer to his chaotic reactionary outlook than “neocon,” especially as the neocons were ideologically motivated to push American globalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union and what they called “the unipolar moment.” It is of course correct that the neocons, as with Trump, affirmed a special tie to Israel, but for them this expressed itself more through “democracy promotion” and “force projection” than by the mindless endorsement of Israeli expansionism in the manner of Trump.
The perception of Trump as pro-Russian and pro-Putin is a shot across the bow of the neocon image of the American ship of state. Actually, Trump directly challenges the global imperial grand strategy of the neocons by affirming and adopting ultra-nationalist values, policies, and identities, as well as rejecting the postulates of free trade and the centering of American security policy on the NATO alliance and Western diplomatic solidarity.
Unfortunately, Trump is not the only one talking about the “Iranian threat.” Can you comment on the bipartisan support for hawkishness toward Iran?
The bipartisan hostility to Iran can, I think, be traced back to the hostage crisis of 1979, which humiliated the United States on the world stage, creating a resentment and retaliatory impulse that lingers on. Of course, this is not the whole story. The anti-Iran flames were also fanned by the anti-Zionism of Iran’s leaders, which most provocatively expressed itself in the inflammatory language of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran has consistently opposed the establishment of an exclusivist Jewish state. (Ahmadinejad never advocated the ethnic cleansing of Israeli Jews, although his words were often mistranslated to foster the most extremist impressions.)
These two bipartisan ideas hold firm: America as globally engaged dominant military power, and Zionism as the legitimate ideological cornerstone of support for Israel as a Jewish state. These two ideas have been challenged ever since the Islamic Republic took over the governance of Iran from the Shah. This has led both political parties to share the view that Iran is a threat and illegitimate as a political actor. There are some differences in tone and approach within the frame of this consensus, depending on attitudes toward the use of force, risks of war, leadership in the United States, and overall situation in the Middle East.
On the Iranian side, bad memories about the United States shape the outlook and behavior of its leaders. These memories go back at least to 1953, when the CIA took part in a coup that restored the Shah to his throne, and are reinforced by the ill-disguised American opposition to the revolutionary movement that brought Islamic leadership to Iran. Such memories and perceptions also infuse the debate surrounding Iran’s nuclear intentions and the double standards applied to Israel and Iran with respect to nuclear weapons.
What is Israel’s role in the conflict with Iran?
Israel pushed hard in 2014 to block the Iran deal negotiated during the Obama presidency, as highlighted by Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress in which he bashed Iran and exaggerated the proliferation threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. As was often pointed out in the pre-Trump years, the most constructive approach would have been the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, an initiative favored by all governments in the region except Israel.
Such a step, while far from a panacea, seemed the most effective means to bring stability to the region. Israel was successful in making sure that such an enlightened approach was never formally put forward or even seriously discussed in an open forum to avoid the awkwardness of exposing its attachment to a regional monopoly on nuclear weaponry, a monopoly achieved by stealth and with the covert assistance of the West.
It is worth observing that this lost opportunity seemed unrelated to Israeli security, its claimed justification, as Israel was reliably assured by the United States that it would sustain a strategic edge with respect to non-nuclear or conventional weaponry. It also validates Iranian claims of hypocrisy, being forbidden to acquire the dangerous weaponry that its adversary is free to possess and develop. I suspect that if Israel had renounced nuclear weapons, there would be no confrontation and no threat of regional war.
In the Trump years, the US government has gone further in concrete policy than earlier equally partisan American presidents. Trump has uncritically pursued every policy direction that might please Israel, even when considerable political costs are immediately incurred, as when the American Embassy was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in early 2018. There is every reason to think that the Israeli government supports confronting Iran to a maximum extent, but it recently seems somewhat wary of having confrontation culminate in a war. Israel seems understandably concerned that it could be badly damaged in such war, including the possibility of missile strikes fired by Hezbollah from its northern neighbor, Lebanon.
Could Trump be using the threat of the war to get reelected? And is there any chance that this would backfire? This conflict looks to have a unique potential to be excruciatingly awful.
If Trump’s election prospects begin to look really bleak, then his temptation to summon patriotic support by recourse to war against Iran might have irresistible political appeal, but even then it seems problematic as an effective tactic. At best, recourse to war with Iran would have huge backlash risks for the Trump campaign. Recollections of Bush’s “mission accomplished” assertion at the beginning of the Iraq occupation in 2003 would almost certainly be revived, including reminding the American people of the costly and political failures arising from Iraqi resistance to the Anglo-American occupation, which, among other unintended side effects, led to the formation of ISIS and the discrediting disclosures of Abu Ghraib.
As with the Vietnam War, American leaders have failed to respond adequately to an important shift in historical agency. They have consistently failed to grasp the significance of the fact that in the period since the end of World War II, military superiority only achieves political victory under special circumstances. In the First Gulf War (1992) and the Kosovo War (1999), overwhelming force could be applied and core identities were not at stake on the weaker side. In such conflicts, and few others, the stronger side prevailed. The more typical combat situation in this period — as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq — involves reliance on military power by the intervening side, which generates a nationalist mobilization of resistance on the weaker side militarily.
High-tech military superiority can kill and destroy without limit, but it can rarely win a war if the national mobilization is robust and persevering. This lesson was mostly learned after the Second World War by the European colonial powers, sometimes painfully. It was learned in some instances by withdrawal (Britain) or through lost wars (France), but remains unlearned by the United States because learning would undermine the military foundations of global security policy, along with eroding the bureaucratic hegemony of the military/intelligence/industrial establishment.
This limitation on military agency applies to other countries as well. The Soviet Union never recovered from its devastating political defeat in Afghanistan, and Iraq’s inability to prevail in Iran despite possessing decisive advantages on the battlefield was the beginning of the end for Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime in Iraq.
Trump has displayed a soft spot for militarism since becoming president, which may lead him to think his best option for “keeping America great” is to make war with Iran at some point and then ride an ensuing wave of patriotic enthusiasm to victory in the 2020 elections. We know that the Pentagon refuses to acknowledge the limits of American military power for fear of having its budget reduced. But what about the American people? I am somewhat hopeful that enough Americans, including some Trump supporters, would see through the war ploy as an electoral tactic that could lead to a spectacular backlash.