Years ago, when I taught international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, one lecture concerned the persistence of old ideas that have helped shape the worldview of leaders many years after those ideas first came along – and sometimes even millennia later. It is important to realise that just those old ideas can continue to influence the way leaders to see the world and how they act on those ideas.
For that lecture, I focused on coming to grips with the mental map of American leaders in the early days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Thinking about this task, I came to the realisation that this view evolved from a combination of their understandable revulsion of British and French appeasement of Nazi Germany over Czechoslovakia in 1938 at the Munich summit, and the war that flowed from that meeting. That dark view combined with a deeply ingrained fear of the domino theory and its possibilities on the nations of Southeast Asia, southern Europe, and the Middle East.
Of course, the American policymakers of the 1940s and 1950s had largely been educated in the old New England prep schools, where the study was still steeped in the Greek and Roman classics. Almost certainly they had been exposed to Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War then, or a few years later in their university studies.
In the middle of that consequential war, there appears in Thucydides’ text Spartan general Alcibades’ famous speech to the Spartan assembly, after he has heard of the Athenians’ advance on Sicily. He tells the gathering:
“And now let me prove to you that if you do not come to the rescue, Sicily will be lost. If the Greeks would all unite they might even now, notwithstanding their want of military skill, resist with success; but the Syracusans alone, whose whole forces have been already defeated, and who cannot move freely at sea, will be unable to withstand the power which the Athenians already have on the spot. And Syracuse once taken, the whole of Sicily is in their hands; the subjugation of Italy will follow; and the danger which, as I was saying, threatens you from that quarter, will speedily overwhelm you.” [Italics added]
If Alcibiades’ speech hadn’t been uttered in the fifth century BC, and if the place names were just a little different – say, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia – the words might easily have been cribbed from a Pentagon or American National Security Council briefing paper, more than two millennia later.
But is an example of the domino theory the wrong one to be attuned to in today’s world? Or, is it the right one? For people like President Donald Trump, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right about now, history should be sending out 100 decibel warning sirens as they embark further with the zigs and zags of their current Iran adventures.
But history also gives us other examples to ponder. There is the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, after all. Here, the ability of the protagonists – President John Kennedy’s America and Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union – to ultimately avoid letting a conflict (over the secretly stationed Soviet ICBMs in Cuba designed to upend the strategic balance) head into actual combat, even as the two sides seemed to be moving inexorably to just such an eventuality, was crucial.
In October 1962, there was the real possibility of a run up the escalatory ladder until nuclear exchanges took place. Instead, however, the confrontation led to the first limited nuclear test ban the following year. But, as more recently released information has now shown, the unthinkable was much closer than the public reports of the time had described it.
But then there is also the example of 1914. Following the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s throne, the Habsburg foreign minister, Leopold Count Berchtold, had pushed hard to bludgeon the Serbian government into submission as the alleged perpetrator of the killing. Eventually, the demands were such that the Serbians resisted, bolstered by their Russian friends. The Germans then offered their “blank cheque” of support to the Austro-Hungarians; the invasion of Serbia commenced; and the structure of the “Concert of Europe” and the division of Europe’s nations into two camps – the Central Powers and the Entente – led to the First World War, as detailed military mobilisation and war plans swung into place, instead of diplomacy to head off a crisis.
Two other examples should be giving leaders pause right about now as well. In 1964, in two apparent naval confrontations, US destroyers, patrolling in international wars in the Gulf of Tonkin, were apparently attacked by North Vietnamese coastal patrol boats. Given the low-level American involvement in the fighting in the South already, those incidents became the pretext to set off a rolling escalation of the disastrous American engagement in the Vietnam conflict. A few years later, America was convulsed by its participation in that war, with half a million military personnel in the field that all led to military defeat for the US, the collapse of the South Vietnamese state, and vast numbers of casualties all across that Southeast Asian land.
In 2003, acting on an unreliable vision of the threats posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq; inaccurate, self-serving intelligence estimates from dubious sources, and the wish fulfilment of a search for a causus belli to deal with that regime – once and for all – George W Bush’s administration (with his vice president, Dick Cheney as principal cheerleader) argued the reality and imminent danger of those mythic weapons of mass destruction.
With that as a shaky rationale, the US commenced a full-on invasion of Iraq and an occupation of the country, once a ground victory had been concluded. The sad results of the Iraqi disaster remain, as well as the increasing destabilisation of the region writ large. One wonders if John Bolton or Mike Pompeo, let alone Donald Trump, has ever really contemplated such historical events and wondered just how badly things can go wrong, despite massive armament.
And so these historical thoughts should inevitably take us to the Trump administration’s current contretemps with Iran. Hostility between the two nations reaches back to 1979, as American support for the country’s long-time ruler, the Shah Pahlavi, crumbled in the face of a student revolt, and then the return of religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini from exile that ended the Shah’s rule. A student-led takeover of the American embassy made the break that much worse, and the hostilities have never ended.
Fears that the Iranians were developing nuclear weapons to go with their missile developments ultimately moved the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China to act in concert to bring Iran to the negotiating table to sign an accord that put a rather tight straitjacket on Iran’s further nuclear efforts, for a decade. However, the accord said nothing (nor was it designed to) about Iran’s missile research and development efforts, or about Iranian support and participation in a vicious civil war in Yemen, or its support for Bashir al-Assad’s government in Syria in the civil war there as well.
Now, enter the Trump administration. The Iranian accord had been signed by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and that fed Trump’s ire about all things Obama, in addition to the obvious fact that those Iranian missiles and that country’s adventures in Syria and Yemen went unmentioned in the accord. Meanwhile, Iran’s regional opponents – most notably Binyamin Netanyahu’s Israel, Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia, and a number of the smaller oil/natural gas-rich nations on the Persian Gulf – had been lobbying hard for greater US pressure on Iran. The Trump administration saw that grouping as a way to offset Iran’s impact on the region – and perhaps to channel away the possibilities of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities as well.
Once in office, the Trump administration quickly abrogated its participation in the nuclear accord and ramped up a range of economic and financial sanctions on Iran (including making it increasingly difficult for the country to market any of its oil after the easing of strictures on that action that had been part of the nuclear accord). This was apparently in an effort to provoke a revolt from below that would end the rule of the ayatollahs. Accordingly, the Trump administration advanced the bellicosity of its words towards Iran. Meanwhile, the Iranians offered their own harsh words, but they largely continued cautiously along their previous track – declining to abrogate their own participation in the accord for the most part, but, similarly, failing to roll back support for their chosen sides in the two civil wars – Syria and Yemen – that were bracketing the Arabian Peninsula.
Geopolitics is obviously important here. A quick look at a map shows that the Persian Gulf is one of the most important waterways in the world, as at least 30% of the entire globe’s consumption of natural gas and petroleum comes from the states clustered around the Gulf.
From there, it flows to Asia, Africa and Europe and so the waterway is a chokehold on global energy supplies. At the narrowest point at the Strait of Hormuz leading out from the Persian Gulf, the distance between the respective Iranian and Omani/United Arab Emirates’ sides of the Strait is only around 30 kilometres across.
Meanwhile, literally thousands of vessels transit that waterway, and the facilities placed along the coast and the ships sailing on the Gulf all make tempting targets for officially determined military actions, let alone attacks by non-official actors or actual terrorist groups, all eager to provoke something.
To avoid offering easy pickings for terrorists, a massive natural gas trans-shipment facility has been constructed in that bit of Omani territory fronting eastward onto the Arabian Sea at the tip of the Musandam Peninsula, but there is still that vast number of ships heading into or out of the Gulf and billions of dollars worth of highly flammable, hi-tech oil and natural gas installations in the various nations there.
In recent days, four commercial vessels transiting the Strait have been hit by low-level but targeted attacks, although no one has claimed responsibility so far. In response to the upward ratcheting of tension, the US has now dispatched one of its aircraft carrier battle groups and a wing of B-52 strategic bombers to the area. The bombers would be stationed at one of the US military facilities fringing the area (there are significant US military facilities in the area already) and the carrier and its associated ships would begin to patrol the area near the Strait, demonstrating an American unwillingness to allow the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz to slip into effective Iranian control.
The problem, now, is that the rhetoric from Tehran and Washington continues to flow hot and cold on the idea of further confrontation – although, admittedly, the Iranians at least are speaking with one voice – President Hassan Rouhani’s. By contrast, American officials – Trump, Bolton, Pompeo – are pretty much all over the map on their intentions, goals and objectives, thereby generating confusion in the region as well as among America’s other traditional allies beyond.
In a climate such as this one, there are the chances of a miscalculation, minor mistakes, real lethal accidents, or the dangerous testing of resolve that could easily trigger unpredictable consequences, as the two sides reinforce their personnel, ships and aircraft that could provoke the other side.
Is it too hard to imagine a rhetorical flourish from one side that provokes an unexpected belligerent response from the other side, or perhaps an opportunistic moment by an ally or by irregulars eager to mix it up a bit?
Or, perhaps, two fighter pilots in their respective craft over the Strait decide to bring a little testosterone to the game, just to see how hard or how close they can push things until the other pilot blinks – Top Gun-style? And once that happens, just how would the retaliatory cycle proceed thereafter? Given the rhetoric so far (and especially the confusion from US officials over intentions and goals), is it reasonable to expect careful consideration of all the historical antecedents from Syracuse to Cuba, Iraq, or World Wars I and II?
In the meantime, of course, the Trump administration is waging a growing trade and tariffs conflict with China that is roiling international markets; continuing its on-again, off-again diplomatic tussle with North Korea; sparring with Russia over a whole host of questions, and trying to figure out how to effect an end of the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela without the use of US forces. This is quite a messy international table that the Trump administration has set for itself, and the end is clearly not in sight.
No, not by a long shot. But then there is the run-up to the 2020 American general election, the growing spate of congressional investigations, summonses, and other legal annoyances – and the possibility that the economy may head into an economic downturn just as the primary elections, and the lead into the general election, all begin.
And so, is this when Donald Trump demonstrates his mastery of bluster and bullying, or will he finally show his self-proclaimed skill as the master of the deal? DM
In other news...
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