Doomed to Repeat It
The case against Iran in 2019 looks a lot like the case against Iraq in 2002.
THE DRUMS FOR WAR against Iraq began beating in 2002 to the cadence of “credible” intelligence reports. These reports had been solicited by George W. Bush’s administration in support of two essential objectives: tying Al Qaeda to the Iraqi government, and proving that Saddam Hussein was resuscitating the nuclear program he had promised to kill off. Rumors and questionable intelligence that supported these conclusions trickled into Bush administration statements and speeches, and then into the media. As it turned out, neither conclusion was true, but the public wouldn’t understand that until it was far too late.
Vice President Dick Cheney himself trotted out the later-discredited story of 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta meeting with an Iraqi diplomat in Prague during a December 2001 “Meet the Press” appearance. The claim became a staple of war hawks in the Weekly Standard, New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere over the following year (Cheney would continue asserting the disproven allegation as fact well after it was formally debunked by then-CIA chief George Tenet in a letter to Congress). These digestible little fibs, in time, gave way to bigger ones. By September 2002, reporters Michael Gordon and Judith Miller wrote a front-page Times news report, without citing a single named Bush administration official, asserting that the Iraqi government had “stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.” Six months later, American troops would occupy Baghdad.
These days, it’s hard to shake the feeling that senior officials in the Trump administration are trying to pull off a similar stunt. This week, National Security Adviser and Bush administration veteran John Bolton ordered the Defense Department to draw up a new military plan for sending 120,000 troops to the Middle East “should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons.” Without the pretext for such a move yet in place, Bolton and his fellow warmongers are busy manufacturing facts as necessary.
Regarding the recent sabotage of Emirati oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, “a U.S. official in Washington, without offering any evidence, told the AP that an American military team’s initial assessment indicated Iran or Iranian allies used explosives to blow holes in the ships.” Meanwhile, American military leaders have maintained that US troops in Syria and Iraq remain on “high alert” for an imminent attack from Iranian forces, publicly rebuking a British general who denied the existence of any credible intelligence suggesting such an attack is forthcoming. Washington’s commitment to its own set of facts remains strong: on Wednesday, the State Department said it was ordering a “partial evacuation” of the embassy in Baghdad due to the purported Iranian threat.
Donald Trump himself has expressed some hesitation over engaging in the kind of adventurous regime change policy that defined the Bush years, as indicated by the faltering, half-hearted US-backed coup in Venezuela. Instead, he has opted to entrench and expand Bush and Obama’s “Forever War”—the global campaign of proxy wars and remote strikes against terrorism suspects. Even as Democrats and some Republicans have begun singing a different tune about the Saudi-made humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which is ostensibly aimed at curtailing Iranian influence, Trump is still backing America’s trusted allies in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Jerusalem. Trump, congressional Republicans, a good chunk of Democrats, and the Beltway network of think tanks and lobbyists funded by and aligned with those three governments continue to insist that their enemies in Tehran must also be ours.
ONE WOULD THINK that the Iraq calamity would be cause for some shame, or at least second thoughts. Aside from the humanitarian catastrophe it induced—hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, thousands more Americans killed or injured, and the groundwork for the rise of ISIS laid—we are still living through the domestic political hangover. For the last 14 years, a majority of Americans polled have consistently said that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama’s opposition to the war gave him significant advantages over both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
Even Donald Trump, notwithstanding that he supported the war at the time and that his administration is stuffed with cartoon villains who either oversaw or supported it, has expressed a general wariness about military invasions on the scale of Iraq in 2003, which helped distinguish him from Clinton in 2016. It’s a politically shrewd position, almost certainly born less of any meaningful ideological commitment than Trump’s generally correct sense that such a war would dampen his popularity. This helps explain new reports indicating that Trump is “irritated” with Bolton’s aggressiveness on Iran. Then again, this easily might change, given that our fickle and volatile president wins plaudits from the press for being his most “presidential” whenever he is at his most hawkish.
While the Trump administration is not explicitly declaring its intention to wage war—as the Bush administration, emboldened by public support after 9/11, quite transparently did—it is positioning for more direct confrontation with the Iranian government. Last May, two months after appointing Bolton, Trump walked out on the Iran nuclear deal, a diplomatic achievement that by any objective measure was working just fine. This could be pegged as the real start date of Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” sanctions and diplomatic campaign against Iran, which has reached new highs in the last month.
In April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new round of sanctions targeting companies that purchase oil from Iran, which Bloomberg News charitably described as “Trump Steps Seen Deepening Iran’s Economic Pain.” An International Monetary Fund official predicted to Bloomberg that inflation in Iran may rise to 50% this year, a figure not seen since the period of the 1979 revolution.
This amounts to an only slightly more subtle means of squeezing Iran than simply bombing the country. An anonymous US official told the Times on Tuesday that 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.” Helpfully, Bolton turned the subtext into text in a late 2017 speech delivered to the MEK, an extremist fringe group of Iranian exiles with an extensive Washington lobbying presence (including, at the time, Bolton): “Before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” Two months ago, the Trump administration added MEK, which less than a decade ago was recognized as a terrorist group by the State Department, to US talking points as an option for a new Iranian ruling government should the current regime collapse.
America has some practice at this. In the years between the end of the Gulf War in 1991 and the 2003 invasion, US-led sanctions against Iraq were used to weaken Saddam domestically and to isolate him on the international stage. This “maximum pressure” economic campaign, which spanned three different presidential administrations, backfired: many thousands of civilians died because of the sanctions-induced humanitarian crisis, Saddam’s successful domestic aid program bolstered his popularity, and the computerized lists his trade ministry used to keep track of Iraqi households receiving food rations made their way into the hands of Iraqi secret police, giving Saddam’s government another tool with which exert control. These failures of the sanctions program, a quiet kind of war in its own right, metastasized into the failure of the US occupation of Iraq.
Similarly, what was once a sanctions-centered policy push to crack the Iranian government is now evolving into an outright case for military intervention. This case is based on a flimsy pretext provided by vague, anonymously sourced intelligence findings that other anonymous US officials are calling “small stuff” being blown out of proportion. The parallels with the buildup against Iraq are now too clear and too frightening to ignore.
On May 6th, Bolton declared that a naval strike group was being redeployed to the Persian Gulf, a provocation against Iran more symbolic than tactical. There is another meaning that perhaps he did not intend: the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier in that strike group, was the very ship from which George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished!” 16 years ago this month. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, surely Bolton’s staunchest ally in Congress, told Fox News this week that America would win a war against Iran in “two strikes—the first strike and the last strike.” In the first eight years after the US invasion, 461,000 Iraqis were killed.
Noah Kulwin is a writer and contributing editor at Jewish Currents. He is also co-host of the podcast Blowback, and an associate editor at The Drift. He lives in New York.