While an eerie, surreal calm has fallen over US-Iranian relations, I wouldn’t assume we’re out of the woods yet. Trump had no reason to be confident that Iran’s response to his most recent escalation of violence would be little more than symbolic. Although he’s accepted that response more or less passively for now, with Trump, things can turn on a dime. Who can tell what determines his mood at any given time?
Contemplating Trump’s January 3 escalation of the previously relatively low-level conflict with Iran, one might be struck by how casually the US government (and others of course) treat innocent bystanders. That was among my first thoughts on hearing of the Trump-ordered drone assassinations of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and others in Iraq.
By innocent bystanders, I don’t mean the commander of Iran’s Quds Force or the leaders of Iraq’s Shi’ite militias, which are part of the Iraqi security establishment, all of whom were allies of US forces in the fight against the Islamic State. (Remember the Islamic State, don’t you, which the US had fertilized the ground for by declaring open season on Syria’s ruler and Iranian ally Assad?) I take as a given that no one among the rulers and military leaders of countries in the Middle East has clean hands. The same can be said for the rulers and military leaders from powers outside the Middle East that have intervened in the region. The case for nonintervention has never depended on the presence of good guys in any particular conflict. That case stands even when the targeted figures have been less than discriminating about whom they order shot. Interventionism is based simply on 1) the wisdom of keeping “one’s own” government on as tight a leash as possible and 2) the knowledge that the law of unintended horrific consequence is always in effect. After all we’ve lived through since 2001—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, among others—must we really be reminded of this?
By innocent life I’m also not even referring to American military and diplomatic personnel. Americans in Iraq may indeed be killed, injured, and captured as a result of Trump’s assassinations, but they are hardly innocent. On the contrary, they are there because Bush II ordered an invasion force into Iraq and his successors have carried on the operation and have extended it beyond Iraq. Absent that program (or something equally insane), we would not now be at this juncture.
No, the innocent lives I’m talking about are Iraqi and Iranian (among others)—lives that Americans have been treating like garbage for years: the lives, that is, of foreigners. I realize that for many, and maybe most, Americans, foreign lives don’t rank high on their list of concerns. It’s the prerogative of history’s presumed chosen nation to put itself first and only, and indeed it has. You’ll often hear how many Americans have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq (or Vietnam), but rarely how many Afghans and Iraqis (or Vietnamese) were murdered by Americans. Nor will you hear how America’s economic warfare against Iranians and others have cost countless lives because of its effect on food and medical supplies.
So my thoughts are with the overlooked innocent foreign lives that are on the line. Consider their predicament of powerlessness: they won’t even be able to vote in the upcoming presidential election. (Not that the one “cherished” vote that each American 18 and older possesses is worth terribly much.) I’m beginning to see why foreigners might want to “intervene” in American elections: it’s so easy for them to be on the receiving end of America’s lethal militarist imperial foreign policy; they certainly have an interest in the outcome of US presidential elections. The only country to blame for providing an incentive for foreign election intervention is the United States itself.
The threat to innocent Iranians from a war with the US—whatever form it may take—doesn’t take much imagination. One need only look up the US record of civilian deaths in the region and beyond to see what I mean.
But let’s not overlook the potential Iraqi victims. After all, Trump had the arrogance to assassinate the Iranian Soleimani on “friendly” Iraqi soil, and Iran’s missile response (though it apparently was bloodless) also occurred there. The battleground, if it eventuates, could mainly be in Iraq. (But let’s not forget Syria.)
By the way, Soleimani flew to Iraq after Trump had urged the Iraqis to facilitate a de-escalation of tensions between Iran and US best buddy Saudi Arabia. Soleimani had flown openly to Iraq’s international airport to deliver his response to a Saudi proposal at a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. That’s when he was killed by the American drone strike ordered by Trump. Who says? Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi does.
Thus, did Trump add dishonor to murder.
With the killing of the top Iranian military/political operative and Iraqi militia leaders—again, all of them US allies against the Islamic State—fragile Iraq could spin out of control, with grave consequences for regular innocent Iraqis, Shi’ite and Sunni. Iraq is mostly Shi’ite, of course, but it has pro-Iranian and not-so-pro-Iranian factions, not to mention Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations. How much influence Iran should have in Iraq’s internal affairs is a contentious matter there. (Since 2003 the US strangely has favored the pro-Iranian factions over their more nationalist rivals.) If Trump’s lethal strike ignites a civil war, no doubt he’ll be safe and sound at Mar-a-Lago or in the White House. So it’s no big deal to him. Small comfort for the bystanders thousands of miles away.
But even if the strike ends up uniting Iraqis against the US presence, the results could still be deadly to bystanders as the cycle of violence intensifies. Moreover, as veteran war correspondent Patrick Cockburn points out, with the shift in US attention from the remnants of ISIS to the Iraqi Shi’ites and Iran, “The biggest cheer in Iraq after the US drone strike [that killed Soleimani et al.] will have come from ISIS commanders in their isolated bolt-holes in the desert and mountains of Iraq and Syria.”
Sure, some American military and diplomatic personnel may bite the dust too, but that would just give Trump another pretext to order his military into heroic action. So no big deal. He’ll be adored at rallies, and maybe he’ll throw in a photo op with a Gold Star family or two.
I’m not worried about Trump. I worry for the innocent bystanders.
Sheldon Richman, author of America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is also the Executive Editor of The Libertarian Institute.