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Wright writes: "The United States has a long history of provoking, instigating, or launching wars based on dubious, flimsy, or manufactured threats."

F22 fighter jet on runway. (photo: Getty Images)
F22 fighter jet on runway. (photo: Getty Images)

Is Trump Yet Another US President Provoking a War?

By Robin Wright, The New Yorker

14 May 19


he United States has a long history of provoking, instigating, or launching wars based on dubious, flimsy, or manufactured threats. In 1986, the Reagan Administration plotted to use U.S. military maneuvers off Libya’s coast to provoke Muammar Qaddafi into a showdown. The planning for Operation Prairie Fire, which deployed three aircraft carriers and thirty other warships, was months in the making. Before the Navy’s arrival, U.S. warplanes conducted missions skirting Libyan shore and air defenses—“poking them in the ribs” to “keep them on edge,” a U.S. military source told the Los Angeles Times that year. One official involved in the mission explained, “It was provocation, if you want to use that word. While everything we did was perfectly legitimate, we were not going to pass up the opportunity to strike.”

Qaddafi took the bait. Libya fired at least six surface-to-air missiles at U.S. planes. Citing the “aggressive and unlawful nature of Colonel Qaddafi’s regime,” the U.S. responded by opening fire at a Libyan patrol boat. “The ship is dead in the water, burning, and appears to be sinking. There are no official survivors,” the White House reported. In the course of two days, the U.S. destroyed two more naval vessels and a missile site in Sirte, Qaddafi’s home town. It also put Libya on general notice. “We now consider all approaching Libyan forces to have hostile intent,” the White House said.

The most egregious case was the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in 2003, which was based on bad intelligence that Baghdad had active weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. The repercussions are still playing out sixteen years (and more than four thousand American deaths) later. The beginning of the Vietnam War was authorized by two now disputed incidents involving U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. In response, Congress authorized President Johnson, in 1964, to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” The war dragged on for a decade, claiming the lives of fifty-seven thousand Americans and as many as a million Vietnamese fighters and civilians.

The pattern goes back even further. In 1898, the Spanish-American War was triggered by an explosion on the U.S.S. Maine, an American battleship docked in Havana Harbor. The Administration of President William McKinley blamed a Spanish mine or torpedo. Almost eight decades later, in 1976, the American admiral Hyman Rickover concluded that the battleship was destroyed by the spontaneous combustion of coal in a bunker next to ammunition. In 1846, President James Polk justified the Mexican-American War by claiming that Mexico had invaded U.S. territory, at a time when the border was not yet settled. Mexico claimed that the border was the Nueces River; the United States claimed it was the Rio Grande, about a hundred miles away. One of the few voices that challenged Polk’s casus belli was Abraham Lincoln, then serving in Congress. Around fifteen hundred Americans died of battle injuries, and another ten thousand from illness.

Today, the question in Washington—and surely in Tehran, too—is whether President Trump is making moves that will provoke, instigate, or inadvertently drag the United States into a war with Iran. Trump’s threats began twelve days after he took office, in 2017, when his national-security adviser at the time, Michael Flynn, declared, in the White House press room, “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” Flynn, a former three-star general, was fired several weeks later and subsequently indicted for lying to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Russia. The Administration’s campaign against Iran, though, has steadily escalated, particularly in the past two weeks.

On May 5th, a Sunday, the White House issued an unusual communiqué—from the national-security adviser, John Bolton, not the Pentagon—announcing that a battleship-carrier strike group, led by the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, and a bomber task force, including B-52s, were deploying off Iran’s coast. The Lincoln was headed to the Middle East anyway, but its deployment was fast-tracked, U.S. officials told me. Bolton claimed that the Islamic Republic was engaged in “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” but did not provide specifics. The Administration’s goal, he said, was “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” Bolton, who was a key player behind the U.S. war in Iraq, advocated bombing Iran before he joined the Trump White House.

Five days later, on May 10th, the Pentagon announced a second display of force: the U.S.S. Arlington and a battery of Patriot missile systems would join the Abraham Lincoln. The Arlington carries U.S. Marines and an array of aircraft, landing craft, and weapons systems to support amphibious assault, special-operations teams, and “expeditionary warfare.” A Patriot battery defends against ballistic missiles and aircraft. Both are meant to respond to “indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces and our interests,” the Pentagon said.

The Trump Administration is concerned that Iran, or its proxies, could strike U.S. assets in the Middle East, including in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Syria. The Iranians “have demonstrated the willingness and ability to attack our people, our interests, and our friends and allies in the confusing, complex zone just short of armed conflict,” General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said last week, at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in Washington.

Iran does, indeed, have a growing array of surrogates across the region. Lebanon’s Hezbollah—inspired, armed, and trained by Iran—is now the most powerful militia outside state control in the entire Middle East. In Syria, Tehran has mobilized Shiite allies from four countries—Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—to supplement its own forces helping President Bashar al-Assad reassert control over his fractured nation. Tehran has reportedly shipped short-range missiles to allies by boat through the Persian Gulf and deployed kits in Syria that convert imprecise rockets into missiles with greater range, accuracy, and impact. The Islamic Republic supports several Shiite militias in Iraq under the umbrella of the country’s Popular Mobilization Forces, which emerged in 2014, with Iraqi government approval, to fight ISIS. The caliphate has fallen, but the P.M.F. remains a powerful and divisive militia in Iraq.

Despite the Trump Administration’s aggressive stance, there have been no major incidents in the Persian Gulf for almost two years, after a spate of provocative acts by Iran—thirty-six in 2016 and fourteen in 2017—against U.S. warships, a Pentagon official told me. The last one was on August 14, 2017, when an Iranian drone approached the U.S.S. Nimitz as an F/A-18 was trying to land on the aircraft carrier. The drone, which was flying at night, did not have its lights on; repeated radio calls to its controlling station went unanswered. The Nimitz was in international waters, beyond the twelve-mile limit any nation can claim.

“We haven’t seen an unsafe interaction since then,” Captain Bill Urban, the spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told me. “It has been a long time, considering how many incidents we had in 2016 and 2017.” The U.S. still has regular interactions with Iranian ships. “It’s not unusual to have several attack craft come out and approach our ships and take pictures. But now they routinely stop at a safe distance or approach in manner that is not escalatory,” he said. “We continue to remain vigilant.”

The U.S. military deployments are the latest steps in the Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. The U.S. designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization last month and has imposed a steady stream of sanctions on Iran’s economy, the most recent of which were imposed last week and covered industrial metals produced in Iran. The Administration has vowed to keep increasing pressure until Iran changes its behavior—on its weapons-development programs, human-rights violations, support for militant movements, and intervention in other Middle East countries. So far, Tehran has not changed course.

“Frustration is building up in Washington, as maximum pressure has produced minimum strategic results, and the clock is ticking,” Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, told me. “Some in Washington and the region would welcome, or try to provoke, a confrontation in an effort to achieve what sanctions have failed at so far—cutting Iran down to size.” Vaez outlined two scenarios: Iran digs in, “prompting a frustrated White House to double down yet again on measures that alienate key allies and risk regional escalation,” or Iran calculates that it has little left to lose “and decides to escalate further in the nuclear realm or in the region.”

Iran has made aggressive moves of its own. Last month, Tehran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world’s traded oil passes, if the Administration blocks it from exporting its own oil. Last week, President Hassan Rouhani announced that Tehran would no longer comply with two smaller provisions of the 2015 nuclear deal: exporting excess uranium and also heavy water from its nuclear program. (It might not be able to export the stockpiles anyway, since the U.S. recently vowed to sanction any country that buys either.)

Trump withdrew from the agreement a year ago, but Iran continued to comply, according to inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Rouhani also issued an ultimatum to the deal’s other five signatories, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia: either help Iran sell its oil and circumvent U.S. sanctions restrictions within sixty days or Tehran would increase its enrichment of uranium, a fuel that can be used for both peaceful nuclear energy and building the world’s deadliest weapon. Rouhani’s announcement basically put the world on notice that Tehran would not keep to the agreement’s limits if it failed to receive its promised benefits. “We felt that the nuclear deal needs a surgery, and the painkiller pills of the last year have been ineffective,” Rouhani said, in a televised address. “This surgery is for saving the deal, not destroying it.”

The sense of foreboding is tangible, the threats from both sides are no longer rhetorical. Before the nuclear-deal negotiations began, in 2013, Washington was consumed with hyped talk of the United States or its allies bombing Iran. If the nuclear deal formally dies, talk of military confrontation may again fill both capitals—even if neither country wants it. “Make no mistake, we’re not seeking a fight with the Iranian regime,” McKenzie, the Centcom commander, said last week. “But we do have a military force that’s designed to be agile, adaptive, and prepared to respond to a variety of contingencies in the Middle East and around the world.” The problem, as U.S. history proves, is that the momentum of confrontation is harder to reverse with each escalatory step.

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+18 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-05-14 10:25
Why are the names Israel and Netanyahoo missing from this story. Bolton and Pompeo are working directly with Netanyahoo on the US policy toward Iran. Trump is just following along. He's playing GW Bush's role in 9-11: reading to the kiddies about a pet goat while others ran the 9-11 operation.

Robin Wright says, "The Trump Administration is concerned that Iran, or its proxies, could strike U.S. assets in the Middle East, including in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Syria." This was information given directly to Pompeo and Bolton by Netanyahoo, who prompted them to order an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.

Also the really dramatic build up of US forces surrounding Iran is scary. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, the corporate media reported on much of the US build up around Iraq, but now there is almost no discussion in the corporate media. Sources outside of the US, including Iranian Press TV -- which was banned by Google last month -- have good and reliable information about the US war planning.

This is really serious. Unelected political appointees, Bolton and Pompeo, are taking orders from a foreign nation and maneuvering the US into a major war. Iran is not Afghanistan. I has nearly 100 million people and a very well developed infrastructure. Iran has been planning for a US attack for decades.

The US has no interest in a war against Iran. Bolton and Pompeo are committing treason by working for Netanyahoo.
+1 # yolo 2019-05-17 17:18
"Iran, or its proxies, could strike U.S. assets in the Middle East"

More like Israel, Saudi Arabia or one of their proxies who want the US to fight their battles will strike US assets in the ME and blame it on the Iranians. Similar to the chemical attacks in Syria which were blamed on government forces and Assad, so the US would intervene against Assad.
+6 # Citizen Mike 2019-05-14 10:56
The Iranians are too smart to take the bait.
+4 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-05-15 06:39
Assad in Syria never took the bait and he was attacked by the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia anyway.

There's a new Axis of Evil in the middle east. It is the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia. They will attack and destroy whatever nation they wish. Iran is in their bomb sights now. This will be very hard to stop because the policy is driven by people who are truly insane -- Bolton and Netanyahoo.
+9 # Kootenay Coyote 2019-05-14 12:30
The USA’s history of false casi belli pretexts, provocation & plain idiocy implies that any such adventurism as that suggested above will end in disaster for all: as witness Iraq, for merely one.
+11 # PABLO DIABLO 2019-05-14 12:51
" Bolton claimed that the Islamic Republic was engaged in “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” but did not provide specifics."
Do you think the American public would accept the USA saying,"They didn't give us what we want, so we are going to bomb them back to the Stone Age (which is what Clinton and Blair did before W.Bush even stole the Presidency)? Iran has a huge well developed military plus the ability to hack into computers running our military. Won't be a cakewalk. Why are we bombing seven (maybe 9) countries anyway. I thought we were focused on a coup in Venezuela so we could steal their oil. Not working out as Bolton, Abrams, and Pompeo hoped is it.
+1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-05-15 06:48
PD - "Do you think the American public would accept the USA saying,"They didn't give us what we want, so we are going to bomb them back to the Stone Age"

1. No one in the US-Israeli war machine gives a shit about what the American public accepts or does not accept. The American people are irrelevant when it comes to the global wars of the American and Israeli oligarchs. It does not matter who is elected president. They are all beholden to Israel. Trump, Bush, Clinton, Obama, and all of them will send American soldier to die for Israel.

2. Wayne Madsen in a new article says that Trump will bomb a nation back into the stone age if they don't give him what he wants --

Wayne Madsen, "Trump: Extortionist in Chief."
0 # yolo 2019-05-17 17:27
The American people are not irrelevant but the public will be deceived and mislead in order to manufacturer consent for war. Similar to the Gleiwitz incident which Hitler used to justify his invasion of Poland and start WWII to the German people.
+10 # Lgfoot 2019-05-14 13:45
Trump needs to be a 'war president' to win reelection, just like W in 2003, when Turdblossom convinced him to gin up a phony war with Iraq to insure his reelection.
0 # crispy 2019-05-16 21:45
yes, we have him warning Obama was going to do so to be re-elected. Then we have past republican presidents doing it: ALL of them going back to Nixon! No democrat on that list although Clinton intervened in Yugoslavia.
+10 # janie1893 2019-05-14 13:54
Well, of course Trump wants war (but not near the US, of course). Americans never vote out a president when there is a war making America rich!! War creates jobs, opportunities to control masses of people, excitement, blind loyalty and, most important,PROFI T.

It also creates death, devastation, civil unrest and anger, enemies and DEAD PEOPLE.

What's not to like???
+9 # giraffee23 2019-05-14 14:18
Vote BLUE in 2020. Yes the stupid lying Trump is building up for a war - it is so obvious.
+1 # 2019-05-14 14:30
With all due respect to Tromp and his triumviarate of Bolton, Abrams, and Pompeo
they hardly hold a candle to George W. and
"turdblossom" #Lgfoot above rigged the Iraq disaster. Alas!
-17 # BKnowswhitt 2019-05-14 14:42
The Mullah's in Iran are pure evil based with their religion. Bolton should have been gone after misleading us in Iraq. Trump is smart. He has the pit bull Bolton on a leash by his side. No cigar but Churchill like. Dumb Dems let Iran off the hook .. they still are making the bomb. And contrary to leftie thought .. Trump is not a war monger did not back Iraq and does not need a war to win re election .. he has the Dems doing that for him ...
+2 # Skeeziks 2019-05-15 06:54
Always curious to know, if there is any voter remorse from those who voted for trump?
0 # DongiC 2019-05-16 06:23
Remorse implies intelligence which the Trump base is sadly deficient
in. So the answer to your query is "no". Check it out. Talk to some of those people wearing red hats with MAGA inscribed on it. Depressing.
+3 # DongiC 2019-05-16 07:01
In the 1980's Iran and Iraq slugged it our in a murderous war which ended in a stalemate. At one time or another, America supported both sides with military weapons. Then, America focused its animosity on Hussein and Iraq because the Iraqi leader invaded oil rich Kuwait. Then, the American military forces came home.

In 2003 America, smarting from the attack on NYC by El Qaida, attacked and invaded Iraq under the false charge that Hussein was accumulating weapons of mass destruction which, incidentally, were never found. The US killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis in its terrorist invasion of their country.

The widespread carnage and destruction in Iraq resulted in a weakened country which led to an invasion by Issis, a truly Satanic force. Iran sent equipment and troops to Iraq, once its sworn enemy, to help them resist Issis. These helped organize the Popular Mobilization forces which are still active and consist of several Shiite militias. So American foreign policy has driven two countries hostile to each other into each others' arms. So if we attack Iran we are uncertain about Iraq. This is commonly known as stupidity and was the consequence of actions by a stupid president. (George W. Bush).
+3 # DongiC 2019-05-16 07:08
We have another stupid, Republican president in office, Donald J. Trump. What idiocy he is capable of, blows the mind, Perhaps, the ignition of World War III by an attack on Iran which is an ally of Russia in the Shanghai Peace Organization. China and Pakistan are members too. The tree of stupidity, certainly, bears strange fruit.

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