When President Trump called off an airstrike on Iran with the planes already in the air, he justified the hopes many of us had placed in him in 2016. No other president would have had the guts to do that.
Unfortunately, while that action avoided war with Iran last week, the danger of war remains high. The confrontation between the U.S. and Iran is almost certain to continue. It is strategically disadvantageous for both parties. But powerful domestic political factions will continue to drive it nonetheless. In Iran, the Revolutionary Guard Corps needs the American threat to justify its own domestic power and the benefits of corruption that flow from it. In Washington, the Likud lobby, which includes people highly placed in the White House, desperately wants a war between the U.S. and Iran so Israel’s Likud-led government can seize the West Bank (see my column, “Bait and Switch”, in the latest issue of The American Conservative). So, the question becomes, how do we continue to confront Iran without war breaking out? That seems to be the best realistic objective.
Both sides may have offered up the beginnings of an answer. President Trump called off the airstrike when he was told it would kill around 150 Iranians. Iran had only shot down an American drone. No American lives were endangered, and the Pentagon has no shortage of drones. Similarly, the Iranians said they did not shoot down an American P-8 naval patrol aircraft they claimed had also invaded their airspace because doing so would have killed Americans. In other words, both sides called a halt at the point where their actions would have caused casualties.
The same has been true of Iranian attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf–if the attacks were in fact actions of the state of Iran, which is by no means clear. They could have been done by elements of the Revolutionary Guard Corps that do want a war, without authorization. Those Revolutionary Guards could have been in the pay of another power that wants a war, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel. The “Iranian sailors” could have been German soldiers dressed up in Polish uniforms. History has witnessed such things.
The restraint both sides have shown so far could be the basis for a shared rule: no human casualties. That still leaves both Iran and the U.S. plenty of options for annoying each other. Embargoes, cyberwar, driving up marine insurance rates, isolating the other’s proxy forces in various theaters, attacking facilities and equipment where there is no risk to people, the list is endless. But so long as no people are killed, there is no war.
This kind of ritualization of war is historically common. Ritualized war is in fact far more frequent than total war. The reason is obvious: the cost is lower. Each side gets to preen, pump, do its victory dances and so on while their respective societies carry on normal life. Think of it as the NFL without the big salaries.
After a campaign of mutual annoyance but not war has gone on long enough, both Iran and the U.S. may come to realize a negotiated solution would benefit both. President Trump has made it clear he is open to that outcome. So far, Iran’s leadership is not. But I suspect the Iranian people are, and the Ayatollah cannot ignore them forever.
What everyone needs now, except Likud and its American agents, is no war, i.e., no casualties. If President Trump continues to insist on that rule and the Iranians do the same, the war fever will eventually break.
Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.