Pulling back from the brink of war

No one who has seen real war can possibly want it. Its long-term consequences are difficult to calculate. Yet this truism does not prevent some individuals, groups, or nations from edging toward it. They have short-term interests to pursue or protect, and they hope that the enemy would blink in the face of mere display of a forceful threat.

Such was obviously the frame of mind of US President Donald Trump when he gave the order to assassinate the highly revered military commander of Iran, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, shortly after the latter’s arrival at the Baghdad international airport. Trump needed a dramatic shift in media attention — away from the troubles that beset his bid for reelection toward something that could resurrect the image of a willful personification of American supremacy in a dangerous world.

Killing Soleimani shocked everyone, including America’s own political leaders, its allies and the international community. It was a brazen provocation, tantamount to a declaration of war against the Iranian nation, and it demanded a response. In the middle of their national mourning, Iran’s highest leaders vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death. The sentiment of the millions who came to his funeral was one of collective anger begging to be appeased. At no other time since 9/11 has the world expected war to break out at a moment’s notice.

Yet, keen observers of the Middle East did not expect Iran to respond to Trump’s taunting by launching a full-scale retaliatory war. No one doubted that Iran would be completely destroyed by such a war. Iran’s leaders themselves would not have been oblivious to what happened to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria in recent years.

When it came, the expected retaliation took a form that was clearly meant to recover some face for the Iranian nation while not providing any cause for further escalation of the conflict. It was mainly an acoustic retribution. A dozen Iranian missiles rained down on two US bases in Iraq, but there were no casualties. The Iraqi authorities were apparently informed beforehand, and it is assumed they had warned the Americans.

As though on cue, President Trump promptly called a press conference to announce that Iran’s retaliatory missile attack on American bases inflicted no loss of American lives and very little damage. He took this as a sign that Iran was “standing down,” and that therefore there would be no need for military countermeasures. Satisfied that he had put Iran in its place, he made it clear that the economic sanctions against it would continue with greater intensity.

The world heaved a sigh of relief. The panic that caused a spike in oil prices at the beginning of the year instantly subsided. Philippine authorities who had earlier announced the mandatory evacuation of Filipino workers in the Middle East quickly scaled down their rescue plans. The repatriation of OFWs in the region, they said, would now be on a voluntary basis, except for those working in Iraq, mostly in US bases.

It would be foolish to think that this is where it ends. As leader of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Soleimani was the chief architect behind the formation of numerous Shia militia groups spread throughout this beleaguered region. The armies he created, trained and funded were designed to wage an asymmetrical war over a territory that knows no boundaries.

But to assume that they are entirely under the command of the Iranian government would be an oversimplification. With Soleimani’s death, it is likely that their one solid link to the Iranian state has now been considerably weakened, rendering them relatively free to pursue their own agendas.

What they do from here on cannot be predicted. They are not fighting one country’s war. It might be more accurate to say they are fighting a “civilizational” war, as some observers note. Soleimani’s absence from the scene gives Iran plausible deniability for any actions they might henceforth pursue.

Iran’s interests are easier to read. They include the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and the lifting of the economic sanctions that have hurt the Iranian people. Soleimani’s death does not change these objectives. Iran has shown that it would not be drawn into a war just to avenge the death of a beloved general. It seems prepared to wait until the US agrees that negotiation aimed at the eventual lifting of sanctions is the only path to peace in the region.

By contrast, Trump’s options in the Middle East seem limited. As a presidential candidate, he had campaigned on a platform to put “America first,” vowing to disengage from the endless wars and military commitments that had drained the nation’s resources. He had projected the image of a ruthless businessman who would bring to America’s global relationships his vaunted mastery of the art of the deal.

It would now seem that he had pushed Iran to the brink in order to force it to sit down and accept an American-crafted deal. But the killing of Soleimani has produced no such leverage for the United States. Iran is nowhere near to acquiescing to American demands that it give up its nuclear ambitions. The Iraqi parliament has called on America and other foreign governments to withdraw their troops from Iraq. The US Congress itself is poised to review and limit the executive’s power to use military action without prior authorization.

Thankfully, Trump is not president of the Philippines, where he seems to have more admirers than in his own country. It is blind public adulation, compounded by weak institutions, that brings out the worst in populist strongmen.