No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
— James Madison, Political Observations letter, 1795
If you’re a citizen like me — a baby boomer who started kindergarten one month after the Vietnam War-triggering lies of 1964′s Gulf of Tonkin incident — then continual warfare is pretty much all you’ve experienced in this American life.
And the shocking events of the last 100 hours or so — beginning with the provocative and impulsive President Trump-ordered assassination of an Iranian general — have been like a PTSD flashback on acid of blatantly lying government officials and chest-thumping warmongering TV pundits, on top of the dull ache of realization that for six decades now you’ve watched the United States and its leaders learn absolutely nothing.
The flames from the missile that blew up the car carrying Iranian General Qassem Soleimani were barely extinguished when Ari Fleischer — somehow still a thing, despite his years of peddling the early 2000s’ many Iraq War lies as George W. Bush’s press secretary — showed up on quasi-state-television Fox News to predict “this is going to be a catalyst inside Iran where the people celebrate this killing of Soleimani.” He was the first of a string of neocon pundits like John Bolton and Karl Rove who still get invited into your living room via TV even after their 2003 predictions that Iraqis would greet us with rose petals “as liberators” were vaporized in gunpowder and blood.
It was impossible not to hear echoes of Bush’s former vice president, Dick Cheney — who orchestrated a web of deceit about aluminum tubes, yellowcake uranium, and bogus ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda — when our current vice president, Mike Pence, tweeted out a stunningly not-even-close falsehood seeking to tie Soleimani and Iran to the 9/11 attackers.
Rupert Murdoch’s global network of right-wing misinformation — stretching from the climate denial of his native Australia to the New York studios where Bush-era neocons are spouting lies as I write this — also leaped into action, much as his New York Post branded Saddam “the Butcher of Baghdad” in 1990. Murdoch’s British tabloid The Sun tweeted Saturday that Soleimani “was James Bond, Nazi Erwin Rommel and Lady Gaga in one evil man” — although Twitter critics noted the paper had never previously thought Soleimani important enough to ever tweet about … not before Trump decided to make his killing the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.
Indeed, the news that broke around 9 Thursday night that explosions on the road to Baghdad International Airport were in fact a U.S. targeted killing of arguably the second most powerful man in Iran unleashed a flood of recurring nightmare images from the last couple of decades — from the spikes in defense stocks and oil futures (and legitimate questions over who had inside information) to the massive cargo planes loaded with troops and bound for the Persian Gulf, turning Trump’s 2016 promises to end the “forever war” into a cruel joke.
Indeed, there is so much that is so bad about Trump’s ill-conceived scheme to dramatically escalate tensions in the Middle East — tellingly, both Bush and Barack Obama had weighed killing Soleimani and concluded it was a terrible idea — that it’s hard to know which to focus on. In terms of Middle East strategy — to the extent that’s even a thing with Team Trump, beyond what Saudi Arabia’s murderous monarchs and Israel’s corrupt prime minister tell the president to do — the potential outcomes range from not good to catastrophic.
Instead of feeling more safe with Soleimani dead, Americans are wracked with anxiety amid the uncertainty that Iran’s response could be a cyberattack, an assault on our far-too-many troops stationed overseas, or even terrorism at home or in Europe. Iraq’s leaders and its people want America out, making the question of what the hell have we been doing these last 17 years even louder than before. Arguably the worse part is that rather than boost the protesters who recently took to the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities to protest the amorality of their current regime, the U.S. attack strengthened hard-liners in Iran’s government and encouraged that nation’s masses to instead focus their energy on “death to America.”
But frankly, I’m even more concerned about what an assassination some 6,000 miles away says about the battered and broken soul of America here at home. In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about America’s Founders, because so much of what they feared could go wrong with their American Experiment, in their writings of the 1770s, 1780s and 1790s, has come chillingly true here in the 21st century.
While stipulating that America’s founding was in some ways a hugely hypocritical affair (read or listen to the remarkable 1619 Project to understand why), the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Federalist Papers did lay out laudable ambitions for a democratic republic of self-government like the world had not seen before then.
The likes of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton also warned what could derail their experiment — the rise of a self-interested demagogue, or the abuse of war powers that would help such an unfit president consolidate power as a tyrant. But the mechanisms they designed to protect Americans — such as impeachment and removal of an abusive commander-in-chief, and ceding war powers to the people’s representatives in Congress — have fallen short, or fallen by the wayside.
Why was Qassem Soleimani killed? The leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force was one of the roguish bastards of a world that is increasingly filled with them, who gained glory for himself by overseeing the killing of U.S. troops during Iraq’s 2000s’ insurgency (something we didn’t play up at the time because we didn’t want to broadcast that our foolish invasion had strengthened Iran), and a trail of death and destruction from Syria to Yemen. Although Soleimani — despite the Pence tweet — had absolutely nothing to do with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, if there is a hell, he’s probably hanging out with the 9/11 attackers right now.
But I can’t stop thinking about another man behind the slaughter of civilians in Yemen, who has detained and tortured and even murdered dissidents in his own country (a country which, by the way, produced 15 of those 19 9/11 attackers). And yet Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, gets a royal welcome at the Trump White House while General Soleimani gets a Hellfire missile. What’s up with that?
The problem has two layers. The first is America’s imperial ambitions — and the constant lying to everyday citizens needed to maintain that — that have festered with a few short interruptions since before the Gulf of Tonkin, first epitomized by the years of deceit over Vietnam exposed with the leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Since 1990 and that “Butcher of Baghdad” headline, the focus has been the oil-producing regions of the Middle East, where America keeps doubling down — despite blunder after blunder. Just last month, the Washington Post published “The Afghanistan Papers,” which revealed that even the top U.S. generals were no longer sure why American troops were still fighting — and dying — over there.
In that context of warmongering and miscalculation, America’s ability to avoid war with Iran despite 40 years of hostility was a rare success story. Until Donald Trump showed up to pour gasoline on the wreckage of misguided U.S. foreign policy.
Trump is the dreaded second layer, the man that Hamilton warned America about when he wrote of a potential despot “unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper …" Although he claimed he wanted to reduce American warfare abroad, the 45th president immediately ripped up the fragile and occasionally messy truce that Obama had forged with Tehran, for reasons that were either ill-advised, or petty, or both. Now, as just the third American president impeached by the House of Representatives, accused of abusing the power of the presidency in our policy toward Ukraine, Trump has chosen to abuse the power of the presidency to kill a foreign general without any legal or constitutional justification.
We are not at war with Iran. Congress, which under the Constitution has the sole power to declare war, wasn’t even informed of the operation in Baghdad until after the fact. Assassination of foreign leaders remains technically illegal under an executive order, even if that technicality is increasingly honored in the breach. More broadly, war in a democratic republic like the United States requires the consent of the people. Neither Trump nor his increasingly sycophantic lieutenants have laid out a compelling case for killing Soleimani to gain our consent — because there is none.
On Saturday, the best American journalist working in the Middle East — Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times — tweeted that any evidence behind U.S. claims that Soleimani was planning imminent attacks on Americans was “razor thin.” Callimachi and others said Trump — an impeached president, eager to show supposed strength — chose the “far-out option” presented by the Pentagon, despite the sketchy or puffed-up evidence. Then he dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others to do what U.S. presidential aides have done best since the turn of the millennium, which is lie to the American people.
“We took action last night to stop a war,” Trump told reporters in terms that must have George Orwell spinning in his grave. “We did not take action to start a war” — a claim backed by Pompeo and others who absurdly claimed the United States is de-escalating tensions in the region and that the Soleimani assassination made us safer, while offering absolutely no credible evidence of an imminent threat to Americans.
Now, after more than 14,000 lies in office by Trump, and after the exact same folks who lied about Iraq and Afghanistan and even Vietnam are trotted out yet again to back him up and say that this time, we swear, everything is going to be different, their basic message is: Trust us.
I can’t believe them. And neither should you.
This time, things do need to be different, on the people’s side. The TV producers and newspaper editors so quick to give voice to the neocons who’ve never met a problem that couldn’t be solved at the barrel of a tank (even though few, if any, served in the military themselves) need to give bandwidth to the skeptics who value morality, diplomacy and visions of peace. The elected officials and presidential candidates who were so easily bullied and cowed over Iraq from 2002-04 need to take bold and unequivocal stands in favor of moderation and against any new fighting in Iran. The public, which showed signs of stirring in more than 70 protests across the nation on Saturday, needs to keep flooding the streets to ensure that no war is waged without our consent.
Everyone has a stake in understanding that decades of American-militarism-on-autopilot, and the ill-conceived "forever war” that was launched in the fall of 2001 and seems impossible to end, will have to stop eventually. It happens either one of two ways. Either we can summon the spirit of the Founders like Madison — who warned that “[o]f all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded” — and forge a new foreign policy around truth, diplomacy, and the moral power of ideas. Or we can figure this all out when it’s far too late, amid the rubble of the next world war. The choice is up to us.