How often, as baby boomers, have we been reminded to heed this advice from 19th-Century philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Last week, BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs was mindful of it once again, as the U.S. looked like it was on the brink of another war in the Middle East. This is his Boomer Opinion.
NOTE TO PRESIDENT TRUMP, from one baby boomer to another, since we’ve both lived through ill-conceived wars: next time you think of setting a military strike in motion that could have global ramifications, ask about its potential consequences more than just ten minutes before you’re set to pull the trigger (if in fact the reports aren’t true that you’d already been told, then changed your story). In other words, better to ask before you’re “cocked and loaded” (as you put it) than after. And if you don’t think of asking, put together a national security team that will tell you anyway. After last week’s brush with a ballistic war, it’s pretty obvious that yours didn’t.
That’s not to say that in a rare moment of rational reflection, you didn’t do the right thing. You did. You were right, if reports are accurate, to reject the recommendations of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security advisor John Bolton, who look like the Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld of your team. You were right to decide that since no Americans died when Iran destroyed our drone, the “approximately 150 people” who some general apparently told you would die in Iran if you launched the attack was “not proportionate.”
Of course even stronger sanctions might not be “proportionate” enough— but they are less likely to mushroom into war than missiles and bombs, because the death toll from missiles and bombs quite possibly could climb higher than 150. A lot higher. And not just on the Iranian side. As Trump’s first defense secretary Jim Mattis once put it as a warning that the good guys don’t automatically win every conflict, “The enemy gets a vote.” Which is what makes this such a dangerous game. It could just take a small spat… they hit us, we hit them, they escalate, we escalate… and suddenly it explodes into far more than anyone wants.
Then, “150” could become 1,500, 15,000, who knows where it goes from there? The “collateral damage” (as our leaders called it during the war in Vietnam) could then encompass not just our enemy Iran, but key American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Not to mention U.S. servicemen on the first line of offense. It might some day become an abhorrent imperative, but surely not now.
I know from my own long experience in Iran, covering the Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis, that many young people back then, the same generation as ours who today help drive Iran’s government, were well educated in Europe and the U.S. (including Iran’s foreign minister, who earned a B.A., two M.A.s, and a PhD here). They are the moderates (in the context of a revolutionary state). And despite Iran’s sinister slogan of “Death to America” which I first heard there 40 years ago, they are smart enough to know that while they would inflict some damage in a face-off against the U.S.A., they would not win.
But there also are religious radicals there who might well want to be suicide-bombers with their nation strapped to their chest, hallucinating about some dire diehard dream. We can speculate until we’re blue in the face, but we really don’t know who there actually has their finger on the button.
So what got us to this perilous point? To begin with, there’s no doubt that Iran took down the drone. In their own rare admission of responsibility, they openly said, We did it. But they also said they did it because the drone had invaded Iranian airspace. Which the United States denies. Given Iran’s history of deceit and deflection, there is plenty of reason to doubt its account. But at risk of being realistic, when an American president is pompous or aggressive or simply ill-informed— or when we have unrepentant hawks hovering over the president who might do anything to have their way— we too can make claims we ought not make and be led to places we ought not go. Exhibit A, which helped shape our generation: the Vietnam War. Exhibit B, which helped reshape the Middle East: the Iraq War.
Some of Mr. Trump’s allies praise his on-again-off-again battle stance against Iran, claiming that just by rattling his sabers, he had the Iranians quaking in their boots. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, as I said before, it’s a dangerous game. Other allies see it differently, like the fast-rising clone of ex-Vice President Cheney, his daughter Liz, already one of the top Republicans in the House of Representatives. She said in a radio interview, “A world in which response to attacks on American assets is to pull back, or to accept the attack, is a world in which America won’t be able to successfully defend our interests.”
That may very well be true, but it’s equally true that a world in which an American response to a non-fatal assault kills an estimated 150 people… or if it escalates, many, many more… is a world in which America simply won’t have many friends to help defend those interests.
A colleague advanced a theory about the president’s abrupt pullback from launching the attack: given his infamous intolerance for briefings, whether written or oral, maybe through the planning stages of a retaliatory attack, he just wasn’t paying attention. Maybe he wasn’t even there. And didn’t realize what his rhetoric had almost spawned until it was almost too late.
And here’s another, which I advance myself only as a personal theory, admittedly based on nothing but Donald Trump’s overblown ego, which is immeasurably bigger than the drone we lost. Maybe he realized that if his strike became a full-blown war, it could distract attention from— maybe even force him to scrub his trip later this week to— Japan, where he hopes to put out the fire he started in the first place and come home with a trade agreement with China’s president.
But at least, for whatever reason, he called it off. So far, so good, although I still wouldn’t put anything past this president. Not even war, if his ego, which prompts pompous rhetoric like “obliteration (of Iran) like you’ve never seen before,” demands nothing less. Hopefully though, next time he’ll think it more thoroughly through… more than just ten minutes before pulling the trigger.