Edited by Sam Thielman
PROVING THAT THE U.S. POLITICAL CLASS HAS LEARNED NOTHING from the generation-long disaster in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, the lethal drone strike that slew three U.S. Army reservists in northeastern Jordan has become a call to hunt the great white whale of the War on Terror: Iran.
Those who have long sought a confrontation with Iran are seizing their opportunity, and others are jumping on the bandwagon. "Hit Iran now. Hit them hard," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. His colleague, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, demanded "devastating military retaliation …both in Iran and across the Middle East" and called on Biden to prove he isn't a coward. Nikki Haley, the doomed Never-Trump Republican candidate, wants to assassinate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps leadership, something the U.S. did four years ago to no lasting strategic benefit. Major media are helpfully offering options for what to bomb.
All of them speak—stop me if this sounds familiar—as if victory is foretold, provided the U.S. simply summons the will and the firepower to seize it. Biden is characteristically less rabid than his critics. But he has locked his policy into a position where every provocation prompts another step up the escalator. He said on Tuesday that he's decided on some sort of retaliation for the drone strike, and the region is bracing to learn what its scope will be.
The only certainty is that whatever that response is, it won't end the war, because it can't, because it won’t address the roots of the crisis: Israel's collective punishment of Gaza; and beyond it, Israel's occupation and apartheid. As we learned at enormous cost throughout the War on Terror, political problems do not have military solutions. The White House is moving in this direction anyway.
If you thought the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were agonizing catastrophes, they will be nothing compared to war with Iran. Iran's Axis of Resistance might not possess the combined-arms expertise of the U.S. military. Yet it is a far more potent network than the U.S. gives it credit for, as proven by its abilities to capitalize on most of the mistakes the U.S. has made in the Middle East since 9/11.
Nothing could be more familiar from the past 20 years than the U.S. underestimating a Mideast enemy to its detriment. Yet here we are, having declined to reckon with the wreckage of the post-9/11 era and instead pretended it all just went away, once again leaving the Fuck Around Phase and about to return to the Find Out Era. Since I'm out of eloquence, I'm going to borrow Karl Marx's phrase. Welcome to the Eighteenth Brumaire of the War on Terror: a farcical, rote recapitulation of the historical disasters that led to this point, its ultimate failure as preordained as the horrors it will generate. Biden still has time to restrain Israel—and find a way to negotiate with Iran before we cross the threshold. But not much.
HERE'S A BRIEF AND OVERLY SIMPLISTIC RECAP of the Axis of Resistance over the past 20-ish years. Iran effectively won the 2003-11 U.S. war in Iraq through a low-cost dual strategy of sponsoring militias—low cost to them; the shaped-charged bombs they gave their Iraqi clients helped kill hundreds of U.S. troops—and politicians. After the rise of the so-called Islamic State in 2014, Iran provided a ground force that played a large role in defeating ISIS on the ground in Iraq, whether or not the U.S. acknowledges that. As for the rest of the Iranian coalition: The last time Israel fought Hezbollah, in 2006, Hezbollah overperformed to the point of prompting a crisis within the IDF. In the intervening 15 years, Hezbollah has only gotten stronger, both as a battle-tested force in the Syrian Civil War and through possession of a massive arsenal of missiles and rockets. The Houthi movement withstood seven punishing years of U.S.-backed Saudi airstrikes and Emirati ground invasion. Hamas, whose multi-domain breakout of Gaza to initiate the Oct. 7 massacre took Israel by surprise, is probably the weakest member of Iran's military coalition.
A war will not look like the one Western analysts predict, nor will it be one where the U.S. will often possess the initiative, beyond tactical superiority at the point of engagement. Those are the battlefield lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan and should be uncontroversial. The array of the Iranian coalition across the region ensures that there will be no containing the war to a single front, an operational reality we are getting a taste of already. Western support for such a conflict will be put to the test economically once the Houthis—or the Iranians themselves—reprise the 2019 drone-and-missile assault on Saudi oil infrastructure. Add to that the domestic difficulties that the U.S.-aligned Arab autocracies will have in aiding a war effort that most people in their countries will see as a conflagration to help Israel commit genocide.
The War on Terror shows that as the U.S. meets military frustration, the same bellicose voices in both our political parties, our Security State and our press will expand their war aims rather than acknowledge checkmate. Today it's a call to strike targets inside Iran. Tomorrow it will be a call for regime change. Already, the former State Department official Eliot Cohen demands "vigorous covert as well as overt support for the strong currents in Iran that oppose the regime and periodically erupt in protest against it." The overthrow of the Islamic Republic, a task that could only rightfully belong to the Iranian people and never the United States, operates in the American foreign-policy imagination as a deus ex machina, securing U.S. objectives in the region by magic, much as the overthrow of Saddam Hussein 20 years ago was supposed to have done. Meanwhile, those whose historical memory is not bound by such delusions recall that a U.S.-engineered coup in Iran, in 1953, began decades of Iranian enmity. For decades the U.S. considered that coup a triumph and was blind to what it sowed.
It is as routine as it is unconscionable that the perennial calls for attacks on Iran never address the necessary and-then-what questions. If Iran is truly facing the prospect of American attack, it will have an urgent incentive to accelerate its nuclear weapons program. Every U.S. adversary took sharp note of the difference between the intact, nuclear state of North Korea and the obliterated governments of non-nuclear Saddam Hussein and denuclearized Moammar Qaddafi. Now imagine how the U.S. and Israel, amid conditions of regional war, will react to a crash Iranian nuclear program. It does not take a paranoid imagination to see how easily this war can become apocalyptic.
Similarly, no one asked those and-then-what questions during the three months' worth of U.S. strikes that paved the road to the current precipice. The response to every Iranian provocation since Oct. 7 has been a rote U.S. bombing run or missile strike without any plausible path to ending the threat, because that path requires restraining an ally Biden embraced fulsomely after Oct. 7. By permitting itself to see no other option but a military response, the Biden administration has locked itself into the wider war that it insists it wants to avoid.
The collapse of Biden's Middle East strategy has left his team flailing. Maritime policing in the Red Sea has ratcheted upward into bombing the Houthis in Yemen as part of what the Washington Post describes as a "sustained military campaign." When repeated strikes against the Islamic Resistance in Iraq militia coalition didn't stop their attacks on U.S. bases, the U.S. on Jan. 4 launched a drone strike in Baghdad, killing a militia leader inconveniently part of the Iraqi security apparatus. Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani, who before the drone strike accepted the U.S. military presence, promptly pursued what his office on Jan. 27 called "a specific timetable…to end the military mission of the [U.S.] Coalition," despite a Pentagon assurance two days earlier that the U.S.-Iraqi negotiations Sudani had summoned were seeking no such thing. All these escalatory, unstrategic patterns are tragically familiar from the War on Terror.
Iran has committed more than its share of atrocities and aggressions during the post-9/11 era and before. Yet whatever happens next, it is worth remembering that this prolonged period of regional hostility toward Iran was an American choice. After 9/11, the Iranians proposed not only detente but cooperation in the U.S.' Afghanistan war. The Bush administration rebuked the proposal and declared Iran part of an "Axis of Evil" for which its strategy would have only hostility. U.S. troops occupying Iraq paid the ultimate price by the hundreds once Iran introduced what back then we called EFPs, or Explosively Formed Penetrators, to the Iraqi battlefield. When Barack Obama secured a deal to shutter Iran's nuclear program, it was the U.S., under Donald Trump, who violated it, not the Iranians.
"We don't really want the war to widen,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told al-Monitor last week, sounding like his U.S. counterpart Tony Blinken. All that reluctance to escalate has not stopped the escalation. Escalatory pressures operate on a different logic than what combatants might want. Miscalculations and the potential for compounding them are everywhere.
The only way out at this point is for the US to restrain Israel—which should not be controversial now that the International Court of Justice has found Israel to be plausibly committing acts of genocide in Gaza. It's an about-face, but CIA Director Bill Burns' pursuit this week of a hostage release in exchange for a prolonged Israeli ceasefire provides Biden with an elegant way to pivot toward it. So does Axis of Resistance member Kataib Hezbollah's apparent calculation that its lethal drone strike in Jordan was an error that needs to be dialed back.
Such a reversal would immediately remove all justification for continued Axis of Resistance attacks against U.S. forces and Red Sea shipping targets, in addition to finally aligning U.S. policy with something resembling basic humanity. Next, the U.S. must actively engage the Iranians in diplomacy, directly or through backchannels, to step back from the brink. If the Biden team means what it says about not seeking a wider war, this is the only path to get there.
But Biden has shown no signs that he is interested in reversing course, even as his campaign stops feature anguished, angry protests calling him Genocide Joe. As the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then vice president, Biden entered office as the president most prepared for the challenges of foreign affairs since George H.W. Bush. Instead he proved to be yesterday's man, reaching for the traditionally martial approach of U.S. dominance even after the War on Terror showed the abyss it leads toward. There is not much more time for yesterday's man to learn yesterday's lessons.
War abroad, as I demonstrated in REIGN OF TERROR, will strengthen anti-democratic forces at home, and can easily return them to power. I don't write that to diminish the horror of what this war will mean for the many thousands of people in the Middle East whose lives are put at risk. I write that to contextualize for Americans the boundlessness of the horrors to come if it is to be war with Iran in any form. Marx wrote in the Eighteenth Brumaire something I think about when I think about the War on Terror: "No Circe distorted with wicked charms the work of art of the bourgeois republic into a monstrosity. That republic lost nothing but the appearance of decency. The France of today was ready-made within the womb of the Parliamentary republic. All that was wanted was a bayonet thrust, in order that the bubble burst, and the monster leap forth to sight."
I HAD ABOUT 80 PERCENT OF THIS ESSAY WRITTEN when I got invited to talk about the unfolding war on All In With Chris Hayes. I was happy to appear alongside a knowledgeable colleague for whom I have abiding respect, Hooman Majd. I said on MSNBC that Israel is committing a genocide. We'll see if I ever get invited back on that network! The segment seems not to be online yet—I'm told it can take a day or so—but here's a snippet they tweeted. Maybe I'll put the segment in the next edition of FOREVER WARS.
MY BABY, WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, is all grown up and collected into a hardcover edition that you can purchase. Yesterday was her Bat Mitzvah. She started life as a comic book and today she is a graphic novel. If you want a four-issue set of her baby pictures, autographed by me and certified authentic, they're going fast at Bulletproof Comics! No one is prouder of her than her older sibling, REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP, available now in hardcover, softcover, audiobook and Kindle edition. And on the way is a new addition to the family: THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN.