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Trump's indictment shows how the Iran war obsession threatens American democracy
The former president was arrested for trying to share secret war plans — because there's no public debate on
Yesterday, Donald Trump became the first U.S. president to be arrested on Federal charges. It happened in the funniest way possible. The former president was caught on tape showing journalists secret documents he had allegedly stolen from the White House, and admitting that he shouldn’t have them. The indictment against Trump includes a bizarre photo of the files stacked up in Trump’s bathroom.
The content of the documents themselves are less funny: war plans with Iran. A couple years ago, the New Yorker reported that Trump had wanted to wanted to attack Iran, only to be stopped by his generals. Trump claimed that the report was false, and apparently believed that showing the generals’ war plans to journalists would prove that he did not come up with the idea of attacking Iran.
Other documents the FBI found at Trump’s mansion include files on “nuclear weaponry in the United States” and the “nuclear capabilities of a foreign country,” according to court documents. God knows what arguments Trump was planning to settle with those.
The existence of military plans on Iran, of course, doesn’t prove that the generals were pushing Trump to war. The Department of Defense spends a lot of time mapping out every possible scenario and option; military officials even kept up-to-date plans for an invasion of Canada up until World War II.
The whole episode shows how twisted the American debate on Iran is. An invasion of Iran would be the largest U.S. war in decades. Yet the public is told very little about the deliberations under way in Washington, and has even less of a chance to participate. Americans only learn how close their leaders have come to starting a war through leaks and surprise incidents like the Qassem Soleimani assassination.
Ironically, Trump trying to talk about war with Iran has caused more of a political earthquake than the fact that Trump could have started a war with Iran.
It’s quite similar to the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was caught selling weapons to Iran and using the profits to fund a secret war in Nicaragua. Then as now, the media and political class focused more on than legal and secrecy issues around war planning than the war itself. The historian Greg Grandin writes in Empire’s Workshop that:
Democrats, in all the many, many hours of hearings broadcast on PBS, never once questioned the underlying objectives Iran-Contra was designed to carry out. They never once critiqued the premise that underwrote Reagan’s brutal war on the Sandinistas: that the United States had the right to interfere in the domestic politics of Nicaragua. They instead focused on procedural issues, or on criticizing the White House for lack of supervision of the National Security Council.
While the media has portrayed Trump has a uniquely unhinged warmonger, war with Iran is a bipartisan political project. The Bush II, Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have all threatened to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. The allegation isn’t exactly that Iran is building a nuclear weapon, but that Iran is stockpiling uranium isotopes that could be used to build a nuclear weapon in the future.
The public threats are always vague, and the specifics only come through anonymous officials leaking to the press. Iran is supposed to receive the message that the United States is ready for war, while the public is not supposed to pay attention enough to actually debate the idea.
Sounding a bit like a character from a Mafia movie, a U.S. official obliquely warned earlier this week “that if [Iran] were to take some steps, it could lead us to a very dangerous spot, and we’ve been very clear that they should avoid them.” Apparently that red line is Iran enriching uranium to 90 percent 235U, which would produce weapons-grade material.
It’s hard to understate what a big deal such a war would be. Many politicians are under the impression that they can destroy Iran’s capabilities in a “limited” war. However, destroying the Iranian nuclear program would require a massive air campaign. And it’s hard to see any president holding back from further escalation, especially if Iran inflicts American casualties.
The military is a lot more cautious than civilian politicians. General Kenneth McKenzie told the New Yorker in 2021 warned about the possibility of a “bloody war” because Iranian missiles can “overmatch” U.S. defenses. “We would be hurt very badly. We would win in the long run. But it would take a year,” said McKenzie, who oversaw U.S. forces in Western and Central Asia at the time. That’s a pretty remarkable thing for a general to state in public.
While a war with Iran would be larger and take longer than the Iraq War, it would involve even less public discussion and preparation. The Bush II administration spent months getting the public hyped up to fight against Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” and did so when Americans were genuinely traumatized by the threat of Middle Eastern terrorism.
This time around, U.S. leaders aren’t even bothering to build public support for war. Politicians seem to calculate that it’s better to just rally the public behind the military after the missiles have started flying. (That was Trump’s strategy after the Soleimani assassination.) Discussing the idea in public beforehand might backfire, especially if the White House makes promises it can’t keep, as George W. Bush did in Iraq.
On the other hand, U.S. leaders don’t even know themselves when a war would start, since such a decision depends on local conditions, like the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and the state of the Israeli-Iranian conflict
This state of affairs is really bad for democracy. War is the biggest decision a country can make. The U.S. Constitution puts that decision in the hands of Congress in order to force a public debate. However, Congress hasn’t declared legally war since World War II, instead allowing presidents to wage war through UN resolutions, treaties, or vague “authorizations for the use of military force” passed by Congress.
Presidents now understand that they can start a war and negotiate the details with Congress later. What was supposed to be a matter of serious public debate is now a decision made in secret by cabinet members, generals, mid-level bureaucrats, and the few members of Congress lucky enough to be given a security clearance.
During the Soviet Union, foreign media used to perform “Kremlinology,” educated guesses about Soviet policy based on the few bits of information that emerged from Moscow’s Kremlin palace. Kremlinologists pored over official announcements, staffing decisions, and even the seating arrangements of Soviet ministers to figure out the secret workings of Russian elite politics.
American journalists perform Kremlinology on their own country, too. An anonymous source leaks one version of the closed-door discussions to Reuters; a rival official leaks a different version to the Washington Post. Trump was playing that same game when he showed journalists the allegedly stolen war plans. And there are no real answers to why Trump ordered the Soleimani assassination, or what plans he had for a further war — just incomplete and contradictory stories in the press.
The United States is different from the Soviet Union in some important respects. Journalists have much more freedom to compete for and publish scoops. Officials are disciplined by public trial rather than secret inquisition. And American political culture is a lot more whimsical. It’s hard to imagine a former Soviet premier getting arrested for hiding secret documents in his bathroom, and then throwing an improvised birthday party on his way home from the courthouse:
But make no mistake: the U.S. national security process is just as secretive and closed-off as Soviet politics were. And the stakes are just as deadly. Trump is facing charges because he allegedly stole his generals’ war plans. If he actually implemented those plans, without the consent of the people and against the U.S. Constitution, he might have been rewarded.
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