The Age of Trumpian Disasters

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February 7, 2020

The impeachment has come and gone. Trump, as anticipated, was not convicted. He crows that he was acquitted. He wasn’t acquitted in any moral or factual sense. He did what he did and everyone knows it; he is guilty as charged but the Republicans put on a show trial, called no witnesses, and whitewashed it. Trump has emerged emboldened. The Republican message to him is that anything he does is acceptable to them. The Republican party, once an honorable body, become little more than Trump’s palace guard, eunuchs that provide his luxuries, cover up his abuses past and future, who spin his lies into a cloth to cover the repellant thing we would see if he were to walk about naked in the sunlight. 

Yesterday was the State of the Union address. A race-baiting, hate monger, Rush Limbaugh, received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Previous awardees include Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks. And the president urged American children to worship heroes like gun-totting Marshall Wyatt Earp and for the girls, a circus performer, also gun-totting, named Annie Oakley. 

And this is where America is, winter of 2020, the winter of profound discontent, of profound anxiety about the future of the republic. The Democrats have argued that Trump presents an existential danger. Trump is who he is –  corrupt, ignorant, impulsive, vicious, narcissistic – and we know what he is. The “what” is the aura that now, with Republican approval, surrounds him. The New York builder of towers, the owner of bankrupt casinos and airlines, a man whom we once took as a buffoon, is now unashamedly a dictator-in-the-making. He whom even the Republicans once disrespected and dismissed, has swallowed them whole. He is a monster of dishonesty, ruthlessness, and cruelty. kept from becoming absolute in power by the few institutional structures of law and custom that he has not been able to destroy. The Republicans have made it clear that they will not stop him. 

History is repeating itself. The leaderless Democrat’s are in disarray. Their internal squabbling, progressives vs gradualists, is so very like the situation in 1933 Germany:  the conservative Centre party, the Social Democrats, the unions, and the Communists were so at each other that the only disciplined party, the Nazis, took control. Their leader, Hitler, was seen as a buffoon – a mere corporal, a house painter, a cheap demagogue who stirred up the passions of the uneducated, the gullible, and the fearful – someone the Prussian military elites and the industrialists could control. He swallowed them all.  

History, so full of ironies and warnings, haunts these days. If Trump is reelected the few remaining pieces of the constitutional framework will be tossed into what Nikita Khrushchev called “the dust bin of history.” Such irony. It was the Communist ideology, the authoritarian way of governing, that ended up in the dust bin. But the irony now turns on us. The propaganda-fantasy world of the Soviets is becoming the American way; and it is the democratic way of governing, a Constitutional structure and the rule of law, that is at risk of being tossed into the dust bin. When the Republicans, if they manage to create a one-party state, which is McConnell’s clear objective, write the history of these dark days, they will use words that once connoted things that Americans valued, but the story they spin will be a grotesque reversal. Under Trump, the words we once lived by no longer mean what they did: patriotism means loyalty to him, virtue means getting richer, truth means that whatever he says is true, and democracy is whatever they manage force upon us and claim it was what we wanted all along. Liberty means poverty, inadequate health care, and voter suppression. 

Trump is inexhaustibly destructive. Watching this history unfold with such terrible speed, fascinated and horrified, it is easy to forget the events of just a few weeks past, to think that they might belong to another history or to another planet, but three weeks ago Australia burned and the clash of wills between Iran and the US brought the US to the brink of war. The possibility of war is the more immediately alarming, in my opinion, because nuclear weapons lie within the reach of Donald Trump. 

Human history has been a shamble of cause and effect, a sort of Rube Goldberg machine without the humor, in which illogical and purposeless acts make accidental connections that produce unexpected consequences. Accidents are the rule.  History is a name we’ve given to the times we lived through, to the “time running-ness” of events as they tumble along as if by giving it a name, history, we are declaring that it had a meaning, a purpose, a desirable destination. This is the master delusion of all people, the hope that has flickered like a single candle in dark corridors of the rickety human edifice since the beginning of recorded history. It is the fantasy of progress. 

Notions of “progress” and “purpose” no longer provide a lubricant. It is just reality that is on-going and I am fearful. And so, almost to distract myself from the broad sense of catastrophe that I have, I’ve gone back to look at the history of just one of these potentialities, the relationship between Iran and the US. I want to remind myself just how this perilous moment came to be, to examine it in the frame of cause and effect, to reflect on how the past creates the future. 

The risk of accidental war has long been with us. In the Cold War, the leadership of both the United States and the Soviet Union understood that periods of heightened tension could result in a catastrophic miscalculation; a flight of geese might be taken for a missile attack. There were over a thousand such false alarms. But the people who were in charge on both sides during the geopolitical struggle that followed the Second World War were rational; disaster was averted. The men – it was all men in those days – who might have unleashed catastrophe were neither impulsive nor mad. 

Last month, events in the Persian Gulf pushed the issue of accidental war back into focus. The shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian air defense was an accident. But it was an indirect result of Trump’s “policy” vis a vis Iran and the Middle East. There is, in fact, no Trump policy in any normal or rational sense, just a series of uninformed and impulsive acts, like the betrayal of our Kurdish allies early last year, or like the assassination of the Iranian General Soleimani. The latter of these two was the more serious, having the potential of triggering consequences that still lie below the horizon of the foreseeable. To see the shootdown in relationship to Trump, in terms of cause and effect, we need only to look at how these events unfolded. 

On January 3, by Trump’s order, without any proximate provocation or consultation with Congress or America’s allies, the American military assassinated the second most powerful man in Iran. (Whether this was a legal act, or justifiable in terms of immediate threat, or  wise, or moral is not my concern here.) That Iran would respond and would exact revenge was certain. 

On January 5th Trump’s tweet set the tone going forward:

Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” 

On January 8, despite this threat, which was not just to the Iranian military but symbols of the Iran cultural past (more on this below), the Iranians carried out an attack on Americans and American assets, two US airbases in Iraq. Honor and Iranian domestic politics required it. Understanding Trump’s impetuousness and his near-constant state of rage, the Iranians had every reason to expect a massive American response. They were dealing with the possibility that American sanctions and bluster had morphed into an actual attack on their homeland. fifty-two sites had been targeted. They were on high alert, triggers set for the slightest touch. 

On January 9th, Ukraine 752 was mistaken, either by radar or by a local commander, for a part of this attack. 176 dead. (To put this into perspective, it helps to remember that on the 3rd of July, 1988, during an encounter between Iranian naval vessels and American warships that were escorting oil tankers in and out of the Persian Gulf, the American navy shot down Iran Airlines 655. It was a passenger plane carrying pilgrims, 290 dead.) 

On January 9, things could be felt to be spinning out of control. We may never know how Trump’s anger, because his threat had been ignored, was contained. My guess is that senior military leaders had a role in pulling the US back from “very hard and very fast” retaliation.

Cause and effect is the study. The animosity between the United States and Iran has a long history, one that can be charted as a series of actions that have produced a cascade of unintended consequences that have become progressively worse. That this long history haunts the present is evidenced by Trump’s targeting “52 sites,” a number he cites as the number, 52, of American embassy employees who were held hostage in Iran for over 400 days in 1979-80, a debacle in which America, the most militarily powerful, was powerless. (It was diplomacy that finally freed the hostages, not bombs.) The humiliation that this meant for America is something that, somehow, Donald Trump appears to feel personally, though it happened 40 years ago. His threat implied revenge. But fortunately, for us all – the Iranian people, the world civilizations, and Americans too – the Pentagon pointed out the deliberate targeting of cultural sites is considered a war crime under treaties to which the United States is a signatory. 

There is no denying that the 1979 hostage crisis was a very serious matter. Iran became a pariah state; but they did so because of their history with “the great Satan,” the United States of America. To understand today’s crisis with Iran, this moment of extreme risk, we must go back even further into Iranian history and look at the role the United States has played in it. 

Iran, once Persia, was an empire that from the 5th century BC to the 7th century AD, when the rise of Arab civilization forces a major change in all the cultures of the region, ruled large parts of the Mediterranean and South Asian world. Persia was a major power, the permanent block on Roman ambitions to the east. Persia remained an independent nation, a monarchy, for an additional 1200 years. It was the regional power in the area between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

Then, in 1908, the discovery of vast oil reserves forced Persia onto the wider stage; oil made it important to the European powers. Like it or not, in the geopolitical sense, Iran was in play.  Great Britain needed petroleum to fuel the navy that held the empire together. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AICO) – which would become British Petroleum, BP – built the world’s largest oil refinery on the Persian Gulf. Oil, as it has been everywhere in the Middle East, was Iran’s golden goose and its curse.

The British shored up an old royal dynasty, the Pahlavi, which promised to be dependably pro-British, pro-AIOC, and open to the financial “inducements” that western business has always provided to regimes that were cooperative.

Initially, the regime was moderately progressive, spending some of its oil wealth on social infrastructure; Iran modernized and became as it is today a country with a well-educated population.  But, as is the usual case, the regime spent most of its oil wealth on itself and on the elites. When it became known that AIOC only paid a 10% royalty, political discontent grew.

Iran, meantime, had become a constitutional monarchy, with an elected government, like the government of its “protector,” Great Britain. In 1951, the Iranian people elected a Prime Minister named Mohammed Mossadegh because he promised a better deal for the Iranian people. AIOC refused to cooperate, refused even to let its books be audited.

The Iranian parliament responded by passing a law nationalizing AIOC’s holdings. The petroleum monopoly fought back, enlisting British Intelligence and the CIA to engineer a coup. It was America’s first venture into regime change. The coup was successful. The generals who executed the coup tried Mosaddegh for treason, ended the democracy, and returned absolute power to the monarchy. The reign of the Reza Pahlavi Shah was to last 26 years.  

The Shah succumbed to corruption, fear of being deposed, and extraordinary excesses of luxury. As dissent grew, the Shah created a secret police, the Savak, that became as brutal and terrifying as the Gestapo. The CIA trained the Savak. America’s role in ending the democratically elected Mosaddegh government and its role in the Shah’s savage repression is at the root of Iranian hatred of America. The Iranian revolution of 1979, the creation of a repressive theocratic Shia state under Ayatollah Khomeini, was the political result.

The underlying reason for the American support of the Shah had been oil. Oil is still the issue. But now there is a new element: religious purity, zealotry. Under the Shah, Iranian oil had flowed to the west. Western oil companies made billions. Since 1950, the US military had kept the “peace” in the Persian Gulf; peace meant keeping the shipping lanes open. After 1979, however, Iran ceased being a docile player in the geopolitical dance involving resource-rich countries and the consuming nations of the west. Again, Iranian oil was nationalized. 

The Americans, hated because of the history cited above, were already firmly established in region and were openly allied with the Sunni Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. Muslim religious extremists, the government of Shiite Iran, had its counterpart in the religious extremists of Sunni Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi sect that is, in effect, the shadow government of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royals, as excessive in luxury and as repressive and brutal as the Palavi Shah had been, can not survive without them.

Both regimes have terrible human rights records. But the Saudis are America’s theocratic thugs; besides they have more oil than the Iranians and they have learned how to play the Americans. Recall the images of Bush II holding hands with the Emir. The Shia/Sunni animosity is as extreme and irrational as the Catholic/Protestant terrors that roiled Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. But irrational as the Shia/Sunni feud may be, it is where we are, and America has taken a side.

The Iranian leadership, in part because of their ideological intransigence and their attempt to project power in the region, is isolated and threatened by neighbors near and far. As a strategic policy matter, therefore, to achieve a certain level of power balance in the region and to protect themselves from further regime change attempts, they set out to develop a nuclear power industry, developing technological skills that can be diverted into weapons development.

The rest of the world seeks to limit the number of nuclear-armed states, because, the logic, undeniably correct,  is that the more such states there are the greater risk of an accidental war or one started by a mad man. Thus, the United Nations had imposed economic sanctions on Iran hoping to head off an Iranian bomb. The European states plus the US, China, and Russia negotiated a freeze on Iran’s bomb making capabilities and in exchange agreed to ease the sanctions, meaning hardships that had resulted in restrictions on availability of food and medicine that mostly hurt ordinary Iranians. The Europeans had certified that Iran was in compliance with the agreement when, in 2018, into this enormously complex situation steps Donald Trump.

Trump is who he is, but for purposes of this discussion, it is only the performance of his duties, his behavior, and his intentions, in respect to foreign policy that should concern us. When it comes to foreign policy, the only agreements he apparently will accept are those in which the counterparty goes down on a knee and begs, total submission. He wants results for which he can claim credit and that boost his ratings.

In respect to Iran, he has no policy. He is ignorant of history and shows no interest in learning; he is congenitally angry, obsessed with conspiracies that are planted in him by his puppet masters at Fox News, and consumed by hatred for Iran that probably comes from John Bolton, who had his ear for a time, and from Benjamin Netanyahu whose fear-mongering about Iran helps keep him in power.

But a more salient explanation is that Trump seems determined to undo everything President Obama had accomplished. Trump is a man of compensations, a fragile ego that is covered up by pathological self-assurance, grandiosity and bullying. He is reckless, ignorant, and impulsive, qualities he and his followers mistake for strength and leadership. Obama worked hard to forge a deal with Iran; Trump in a tweet destroyed it. In so doing he has tipped the Middle East back into crisis. The catastrophe clock is running again. Donald Trump is exactly the kind of leader that rational people have always feared, one who should never be allowed to get near a nuclear weapon. He is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

The gears and wheels are coming loose. Nuclear war, even on a small scale, is an unacceptable risk to take. Climate change is a catastrophe of a different sort, easier to ignore, but greater, ultimately, in magnitude. It is the result of a risk that humankind took decades ago, before we even knew it existed. We are living now on borrowed time, hoping only to put the brakes on. It poses an existential threat to everyone, to every nation, to the human experiment itself. Yet Trump and the Republican party deny that it is a real issue. They stand almost alone in the world; only Australia’s right-wing leadership, servants to the coal industry, and Brazil’s authoritarian fanatic stand with Trump. 

Trump’s removal from office is essential. But since the Senate Republicans refused to remove him, the voters must do it. Removing Trump is the only thing that matters; the Democratic candidates’ many causes and identities – health care, progressive social justice, all that, worthy as they all are – are of secondary importance to the one cause. Saving America’s democracy and, I think it will turn out, the world, from the madness of Donald Trump.

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