Throughout American history, presidents have made public pronouncements about their desire to avoid war even as they also embraced conflict as a viable tool of national policy. This was the case with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s posture toward the Japanese Empire. And it could also be the case with President Donald J. Trump and Iran.
As Burton W. Folsom, Jr. and Anita Folsom point out in FDR Goes to War: How Expanded Executive Power, Spiraling National Debt, and Restricted Civil Liberties Shaped Wartime America, Roosevelt shocked his “brains trust” advisors during the transition between Herbert Hoover’s and his own administration when he expressed “strong personal sympathy” for the Chinese who had been subjugated by the Japanese.
FDR soon became possessed of an anti-Japanese fervor that would define his foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific in the run-up to World War II. FDR even told his advisers that he favored war with Japan “sooner rather than later.”
Roosevelt’s decision to relocate the U.S. Pacific Fleet from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, argues Roberta Wohlstetter in Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, began Japan’s jog to war against the United States. FDR and his civilian planners assumed that moving the fleet would deter Japanese aggression. Many U.S. military leaders disagreed. They argued that the move was an insufficient deterrent and would likely provoke a confrontation with Japan before the U.S. military was prepared for the challenge. The military planners proved to be correct.
Iran and America Are Already at War
Today, a similar state of affairs exists with Iran.
A regional power possessed of extreme, religiously-inspired delusions of grandeur, the Iranians have been on an almost evangelical mission to spread their Shia Islamism and national influence by sword across the whole of the chaotic Middle East. They’ve gained undue influence in Iraq and have managed to place forces in dangerous proximity to traditional U.S. regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, thanks to their efforts to support the Houthi Rebels of Yemen (to target Saudi Arabia) and their support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria (thereby targeting neighboring Israel).
Despite the president’s insistence that he has no appetite for new foreign wars, the Trump Administration consistently has opposed Iranian aggression across the Middle East.
Since taking office in 2017, Trump systematically has imposed economic sanctions and ratcheted up the military pressure on the rogue state. Notably, the president fulfilled his campaign promise of abandoning the Obama Administration’s ill-advised nuclear agreement with Iran, which merely delayed rather than denied the mullahs the ability to develop a nuclear weapon.
All of these actions, much like FDR’s actions against Japan, make an actual war more, not less likely.
The Iranian regime and the Trump Administration already have escalated the conflict—whether it be Iran’s insane attack on Saudi oil production facilities, or the U.S. killing of Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, and the subsequent Iranian rocket attacks on American bases in Iraq that resulted in 109 traumatic brain injuries to U.S. service members stationed there, the two sides are escalating against each other.
For example, the White House recently approved plans to sell Israel eight KC-46A mid-air refueling planes that would make it easier for Israel’s air force to strike unilaterally against suspected Iranian nuclear weapons sites. Moreover, Israel has increased its military’s operational tempo against Iranian forces in Syria. Israel’s top think tank, the Institute for National Security Affairs, warned that Israel would face a war this year with Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Americans also have increased their naval patrols directed against illicit Iranian weapons shipments to Houthi Rebels and Assad’s forces in Syria. Meantime, a massive cyber war is underway between the two powers just beyond the sight of the public. Any of these actions could lead to open conflict between Iran and the United States.
These actions mirror the escalation that occurred between the United States and the Japanese Empire in 1940-41. As the year progresses, the slow march to war will intensify—particularly as Iran presses ahead with their development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The only saving grace here is that the coronavirus pandemic appears to be weakening Iran at a time when Iran’s economy and political situation were already deteriorating. Yet, neither a flagging politico-economic situation nor the presence of a novel pandemic likely is enough to deter Iran.
A Real War In Very Near Future?
Clearly, the Trump Administration is committed to positioning itself to attack Iran. It looks to be a matter of “when” and not “if.”
Perhaps such a conflict will begin after Trump’s reelection. Already, American war planners have spoken of designs to cleave bits of oil-rich and strategic territories along Iran’s coastline away from Iranian control. Ultimately, as it was for FDR, the goal of the Trump Administration appears to be to deprive Iran’s regime of its territorial expansion by protecting U.S. allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, while seeking regime change through nonmilitary and, potentially, military means.
There will be disagreements on the Left and Right as to the efficacy of this policy. But everyone should agree that it’s irresponsible to let Iran acquire nuclear arms and use those weapons (or the threat of using them) to continue their reckless foreign policy in the region.
Nevertheless, embroiling the United States in what would be another major war in the Middle East might not be the best thing for either the country or for Trump’s historic presidency.
The American people must be allowed to have an actual national debate—precisely what we were denied in the run-up to the Iraq War. Before the Trump Administration potentially commits this country to war once again, Americans need the opportunity to be persuaded that it’s necessary.
At this point, though, it seems that a war with Iran is a foregone conclusion at some point within the next four years. With the coronavirus driving down demand for oil globally and the price of crude sinking to historic lows—some are even predicting we could reach $20 a barrel this year—a Mideast war might be appealing to all parties, since it would most likely lead to a spike in oil prices.
After Iranian-backed militias operating in Iraq launched a rocket attack that killed and wounded U.S. and British troops at a base in northern Iraq, American warplanes took to the skies over Baghdad and blasted the suspected base from which the Iranian-supported militia launched the attack. This is yet another round in a seemingly ceaseless cycle of escalation that will eventuate in greater conflict and regional destabilization.
— Steven Nabil (@thestevennabil) March 12, 2020
Don’t be fooled: just as conflict with Japan was a fait accompli by the summer of 1940, at this point, some direct conflict with Iran is on its way.
Are you ready?