One surreal thing that you start to notice as you get older is when certain trends that you remember from the relatively recent past begin to re-emerge in modern culture, this time as “retro-cool” blasts from the past. People are binge-watching shows like Friends and Gilmore Girls. We’re revisiting the garage rock revival of the early 2000s (which already sounded like it belonged to a bygone era at the time but is now actually part of a bygone era). The United States is on the verge of another catastrophic war in the Middle east. What’s next, chunky highlights and frosted tips??
But while many are pointing out the eerie similarities between the 2003 run-up to the Iraq War and our current moment—since Donald Trump’s assassination of IRGC General and Kuds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani has made conflict with Iran seem like an inevitability—there are some major differences. For one, the timeline has been rapidly accelerated. There hasn’t been a 9/11-style terrorist attack that had a huge majority of Americans desperate for revenge. Also, this time the President of the United States is the former host of The Apprentice. Talk about another retro throwback!
Though Donald Trump may have stepped back from the ledge this morning in a bizarre, low-energy press conference following Iran’s retaliatory strikes on U.S. military bases in Iraq, the threat of a disastrous military conflict is still very present and will be some time, and it’s very true that many of the arguments being made about Iran and the Soleimani assassination coming from the pro-war crowd are virtually identical to their 2003 counterparts: Americans were in imminent danger. It’s a pre-emptive strike to prevent further conflict. We’ll be greeted as liberators. Iran did 9/11. Our opponents are unpatriotic, dictator-loving seditionists. They’ve essentially crammed 18 months of tactics out of the Manufacturing Consent playbook into one 3-day onslaught. These arguments are even being made by the exact same people in many cases! We’re seeing Ari Fleischer and Karl Rove break things down for us. Dedicated Never Trump liberal hero and the coiner of the phrase “Axis of Evil” David Frum is wondering how diplomacy could have failed. Impossible to say, Dave.
As surreal as all this feels, the benefit of having lived through this once already is that now, we all remember the previous 18 years of bloody imperial quagmire that resulted the last time we had this argument. And even though the full-throated Iraq cheerleaders who got it so wrong in 2003 all still have successful careers in government, corporate media or the think tank world, and the ones who correctly warned that it was a disaster in the making have been mostly marginalized out of these elite institutions, we are all still perfectly aware of who is in the right and who isn’t. And that means that we do not have to even pretend to take any of these people’s arguments seriously, in any way. Which is somewhat liberating!
There’s zero reason to hesitate, equivocate or hedge in opposition to conflict with Iran, we don’t need to wait and see how it plays out, we don’t need to pre-emptively shut down attacks that we aren’t patriotic enough, or don’t support the military, or love dictators. We don’t need to pretend many of these parties aren’t just brazenly lying. It’s simply not necessary to go through any motions to placate the people that are pushing this thing. We know from experience that they can’t and won’t be placated. And we also know already that they are completely, 100% in the wrong. This is something that both activists and current presidential candidates need to keep in mind.
Most of the democratic primary field has responded to this with some form of algorithmically generated, meaningless pablum designed to appeal to everyone but accomplishing the opposite. Elizabeth Warren has taken a fairly strong stance against further conflict, but her messaging has been erratic.
This clip from The View became an interesting online litmus test, as supporters saw her putting Meghan McCain in her place, but her unquestioning agreement with the Trump Administration’s “terrorist” designation of Soleimani and the IRGC is significant—this technically gives the government moral and legal justification for the initial attack and, potentially, further conflict. Along with her vote to sanction Iran in violation of the Iran Deal that she now claims to want to return to, this has hurt her credibility with those already skeptical of her foreign policy positions, and bought her precisely zero goodwill from the pro-war set.
Bernie Sanders, predictably, has been the most unapologetic in his anti-war stance, in keeping with the focus his campaign has had on a different vision for American foreign policy. If the conflict does escalate, this could become a decisive factor in the 2020 election.
After Trump’s press conference today, it does appear possible that the threat of conflict is receding. Iran’s attacks last night seemed to be a strategic effort to respond to the extreme escalation represented by Soleimani’s assassination without provoking a full-scale war, and Trump seemed to suggest that he’s willing to go back to the bargaining table. It’s maddening that all this has happened because Trump and his team have abandoned any of the careful diplomacy that had already taken place, but this is the situation. Still, the threat of war is still going to be hanging over all of us for the foreseeable future. Until it is gone for good, we must remember what happened last time we took war propagandists seriously. They might have faced very little actual career consequences for their role in selling the last disastrous war, but that doesn’t mean we owe them civility, respect or the benefit of the doubt.