Although it probably isn’t true, the story of the Roman Emperor Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned has come down to us as a cautionary tale, describing a narcissistic leader who didn’t care about the suffering of his people. The legend has resonance today; as the most powerful country in the world is led by a man who fiddles on his favorite social media platform as his country is fighting a number of wars, some overt, most covert, ironically enough in many of the countries that once constituted the hinterlands of Nero’s empire.
As if to tragically highlight this, four American soldiers were ambushed and killed in the African nation of Niger, a country normally off of most people’s radars and not an area where hostilities have been officially declared. Understandably, this news was somewhat overshadowed by pressing domestic issues, including the ongoing suffering in Puerto Rico and the president’s ill-considered, cruel attack by fiat on the Affordable Care Act and, by association, his country’s most vulnerable citizens.
Despite this, the media failed to ask real questions about the very presence of these troops in Niger and the main cable news networks only began covering the story after Trump was deemed insensitive in a phone call with the pregnant wife of one of the deceased soldiers, La David Johnson, two weeks after the attack.
Even then, in discussing the ambush, cable news panels concentrated on issues of tactics, complaining that Niger doesn’t allow air-strikes on its soil, rather than the fact that mainly working class American soldiers are being deployed, obviously dangerously, throughout Africa and no one is able to provide a reasoned answer for why the U.S. and its allies ( including France and Germany, who also have bases in Niger) are essentially garrisoning most of the continent.
While the explosion of criminal gangs, including Salafist groups, in North Africa and the Sahel region is troubling, it could more effectively be tackled as a law enforcement rather than a military matter. In some ways, most African nations are facing the opposite problem from Western ones. Many of us worry about the militarization of the police in our countries, many Africans worry about the military being used for policing in theirs.
While most people who followed the 2016 election understood that Hillary Clinton was much more of a hawk than President Obama (himself no pacifist but favoring covert operations over messy interventions), it was often difficult to tell where Trump stood on issues of war and peace. He often contradicted himself or would say something incendiary at a rally or during a debate then later walk it back using the huge amount of free air time offered to him by ‘Morning Joe’ and other mainstream cable news shows throughout the campaign.
Sometimes he appeared to embrace foreign policy realism, a school of thought that in the modern era includes Henry Kissinger and former President George H.W. Bush. This is a philosophy with its own problems, the main one being that it too often casts aside ethical concerns in the name of so-called ‘real politick’, seeing whole countries and peoples as pawns to be moved around a global chessboard by great powers. ()
At other times, the President seemed to embrace the most radical neoconservative positions, most of them also voiced by his Democratic opponent. This hawkish ideology was first promoted by disillusioned Trotskyists, and belligerently calls for the use of force to spread Western-style democracy throughout the world, whether the countries targeted want it or not. This tendency has seemed to be winning out during Trump’s time in office, due, at least in part, to his cabinet picks and seeming lack of curiosity about the world.
Take his appointment of the predictably neoconservative Nikki Haley as U.N. Ambassador, a post she has already used to grandstand more than her infamous predecessor, Samantha Power, who used an organization created to prevent war to continually engage in saber rattling, most famously working to rubber-stamp the destruction of Libya as a state, a still ongoing disaster, which quickly spread the chaos to Mali, and, to a lesser extent, other countries in the Sahel region, including Niger.
Soon after he took office, it became clear that, besides working to overturn the achievements of his predecessor, an ongoing process that seems to be the only aspect of the job he relishes, Trump gave oversight of America’s military operations to the former Generals in his administration and the Pentagon. Unsurprisingly, civilian casualties on the battlefields where the United States is engaged have gone up significantly.
Then, last Friday, October 13th, Trump made a speech that was not only divorced from reality but arguably dangerous to his country’s position in the world over the longer term, as other nations begin to realize that the partisan divide in American politics that is paradoxically both superficial (in the sense that outside of social issues, both parties usually march in lock step) and deep, has so paralyzed the country that it can no longer be expected to live up to international agreements from one presidential administration to another.
Reneging on the Iran nuclear deal
Trump’s speech focused on what most arms control experts call the most important multilateral arms agreement of recent years, the Iran nuclear deal or, more correctly, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), saying that he was decertifying it and passing it back to the U.S. Congress for “renegotiation”.
The quarterly re-certification process was passed by the U.S. Congress and is not actually a part of the JCPOA itself, which was painstakingly negotiated by all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, France, the U.K., China and Russia) and Germany, a rare triumph of diplomacy in an age of ever-increasing tensions.
As former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Perry, not exactly a fringe figure, explained at the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe held in Paris this year, “It is a fallacy that a better agreement can be negotiated. It is a misunderstanding on the part of the president.”
“No one pays and all gain,” Hans Blix, the former director of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), said of the JCPOA at the same conference.
More importantly, a majority of Americans (75%) said they were “somewhat in favor” or “strongly in favor” of the deal in a recent Ipsos poll. But, as with so many other things, the influence of to deep pocketed donors and lobbyists is more important to American policy makers, including the so-called populist president, than the will of voters.
Similar to his appearance at the U.N. a few short weeks ago, the President’s speech played fast and loose with the facts. This was made much easier because he was mostly just repeating many of the lies and half truths about the country that have been made uncritically by American politicians (and, more shamefully, most of the world’s English language press) for decades.
For Trump and his neo-conservative bedfellows, as well as the man I call the ‘Trump Whisperer’, Israel’s extremist right wing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, history is cherry picked to create a narrative of the country and its current leadership as uniquely evil. He made no mention of the brutality of the Shah, once a close American ally, overthrown in 1979, or the coup against the country’s popular, democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddeq, in 1953, which was helped along, if not directed, by American intelligence.
Then there was the invasion undertaken by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with support from the United States, France and other countries that led to a 100,000 civilian dead and an even greater number of soldiers fallen. Lasting from 1980-1988, it is often called one of the longest wars of the 20th century and is conveniently absent from most western accounts of Iran’s history, including the air-brushed version included the President’s speech.
As we might have expected given his earlier pronouncements on the topic,Trump gave a lot of attention to the money that was released to Iran as part of the deal. It’s possible that he doesn’t realize, even though it’s been reported widely, that far from being some kind of pay off, the money always belonged to the country and was frozen by the sanctions that the JCPOA was negotiated to remove.
This money had to be returned to the Islamic Republic when the sanctions related to the country’s nuclear program ended. As with so many things Trump, it’s hard to tell whether he is simply ignorant, lying or a combination of the two.
Speaking of fabrications, perhaps the worst of these in the speech was accusing Shia Iran of being a long term supporter of Sunni militant groups the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This accusation was added to the usual charge that the Islamic Republic is the world’s ‘largest state sponsor of terrorism’, which has been repeated so often that it’s become received wisdom, despite the fact that it is demonstrably false.
In terms of Shia Iran’s presumed ties to Sunni extremists, as Ted Snider recently wrote in a comprehensive article that takes apart the Oct 13th speech piece by piece, “Contrary to Trump’s claim, after 9/11, Iran backed the U.S., cooperating with them against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban… Iran offered its air bases to the U.S. and permitted the U.S. to carry out search and rescue missions for downed U.S. planes. The Iranians also supplied the U.S. with intelligence on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets.”
Trump also used the speech to announce he was proposing new sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), probably the most hard line faction in the Iranian government, whose soldiers are deployed to many of the countries that the U.S. is fighting in, often nominally on the same side in the fight against Sunni militants. Any sanctions could have the opposite of the presumed effect, strengthening the hand of of the IRGC in the country’s politics rather than diminishing their power.
Washington’s magical dissembling continues, with an orange face
Trump and his subordinates, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, claim that Iran is in violation of the “spirit” of the JCPOA. Having read through its almost 160 pages of legalese, I can honestly say that it is about as soulless as a document can be, and with good reason. The JCPOA is not intended as a literary text, so it shows how little is wrong with it that those opposed to it are forced to use the term ‘spirit’ to argue that Iran is in violation of its detailed provisions.
Step by arduous step, the JCPOA lays out stringent legal obligations that every party to the agreement and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) who are responsible for enforcement, say are being met by the Islamic Republic. While Iran has on several occasions been found to have been in violation, mainly in regards to going over the limit of 130 metric tons of heavy water, which the U.S. President mentioned, the fact that the government there then worked within the framework of the deal to come back into compliance shows that the agreement is working.
As Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association told the web-site Fact Check.org in regards to the heavy water, the Islamic Republic mistakenly believed the, “130 ton limit was an estimate, not a hard cap.”
Trump also railed against the ‘sunset provisions’ in the deal, which relax certain restrictions over periods of 10 to 25 years. These clauses, not uncommon in these kinds of negotiations, don’t mean that the country can then freely begin the process of building nuclear weapons after they come into effect.
When these periods of time pass, “Iran as a member of the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) and the Additional Protocol will continue to remain under IAEA inspection and will be prevented from building a nuclear weapon.”
Finally, the president also asserted, without offering any proof that, “many people believe Iran is dealing with North Korea”.
While the President’s own belligerence via Twitter and his U.N. speech have to have played a role, the uncertainty about whether the United States would live up to its end of the JCPOA may have influenced the decision by North Korea (DPRK) to not engage in diplomacy at present to resolve the ongoing crisis caused by its nuclear weapons program (whether this includes the back channels being used by the current U.S. Secretary of State is not clear).
As an unnamed North Korean official reportedly told CNN, “before we can engage in diplomacy with the Trump administration, we want to send a clear message that the DPRK has a reliable defensive and offensive capability to counter any aggression from the United States.”
In de-certifying the JCPOA, the Trump Administration is also alienating long time allies including Germany and the European Union as a whole, a strategic blunder that could lead the EU to embrace less unstable powers like China, who have taken a less militarized, more development (and profit) oriented approach to the developing world (and southern Europe) through its OBOR (One Belt, One Road) initiative and even Russia, which for all the faults of its rightwing government, is a country with vast natural resources that behaves in a predictable and rational way.
Besides, as veteran reporter Eric Margolis recently wrote, the EU is already trying to take advantage of the opening with Iran to do business there, “Europe has lately signed billions in new trade accords with Iran, most notably and $18 billion deal with Airbus for the sale of commercial aircraft.”
There is a good chance that at least some of the signatories to the deal will try to keep to it even if the United States eventually scraps it, another nail in the coffin of U.S. credibility in terms of diplomacy.
While there were things that the President said that could be called factual if biased, and Iran should be tirelessly rebuked for its treatment of the country’s LGBTQ communities, minorities and slow progress on the rights of women, there was much nonsense, which unfortunately many people will believe, due in part to a demonization campaign that started decades before Trump ever stepped foot in the Oval Office.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, a country which was recently celebrated in Western media for allowing women to drive (a restriction it should be mentioned has never existed in Iran), and although religious leaders remain the ultimate authority, there is space in Iran for reformers like the current President Hassan Rouhani to slowly legislate change. By pulling out of the JCPOA, the American President has unwittingly struck a blow against these forces, strengthening the country’s hardliners in the process.
As so much of the world burns, America’s answer to Nero, rather than fiddling, seems intent on pouring more gasoline on the fires.