A Democrat-dominated US House of Representatives voted last Thursday to adopt a legal measure aimed at curbing the US president’s powers to wage war on Iran. The measure was taken against the backdrop of an increasing US-Iranian military confrontation, reaching an extremely high level after a US air strike killed Qasim Soleimani, followed by an Iranian missile strike on US military air bases in Iraq. The House’s move, whilst it may have little to no impact on the actual on-the-ground realities of the ongoing conflict and may not prevent a war, does show that the war hysteria, in one way or another, is central to US politics, with both the Democrats and the Republicans pushing things in opposite directions. Although the Democrats’ move to curb Trump’s power may apparently seem as an ‘anti-war’ position, the Democrats’ eight long years under president Obama show that they are not ‘anti-war’ after all. With both parties pulling in different directions, it is quite obvious that both parties intend to use the present crisis to their political advantage in the up-coming US presidential elections.
How this is actually playing out in the US is evident from overwhelming references in presidential candidates’, including Trump’s, speeches. Trump said, in one of his most recent speeches, that Soleimani was “actively planning new attacks…..and we stopped him cold.” Ridiculing his Democratic opponents in the US Congress, Trump claimed that if he had consulted with them they would have leaked the secret operation to “fake news” networks.
What, in other words, Trump’s position indicates is that he, as a sitting US president and a candidate for the next 4 years, is ‘strong and tough’ against Iran, while the Democrats, being the party that arranged the nuclear deal with Iran, would have been ‘weak’ and ‘soft’; hence, the centrality of the ‘Iran crisis’ in the campaign.
The Democrats, on the other hand, aim to use the situation to hit Trump’s foreign policy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaking to reporters about the resolution, said Trump “must de-escalate and must prevent further violence. America and the world cannot afford war.” This is interesting in that the measure that Pelosi is referring to was introduced only as a concurrent resolution, a form of legislation that does not carry the weight of law at all, showing how this entire ‘legislative show’ was primarily meant only as a political instrument that could be used as an anchor point for the Democrats to rebuke Trump’s ‘flawed’ policies and thus gain political points.
While Trump has ever since taken a step back from wagging war and threatening to destroy Iran’s cultural heritage sites, Trump’s war rhetoric today does not match his 2016 election campaign rhetoric, when one of the most basic campaign promises included ending America’s “endless wars”, pulling US troops out of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and to “make America great” again.
That Trump was and still is on the verge of starting a new war, while failing to end other “endless” wars he had supposedly opposed, and that this is happening at a time when he is facing impeachment and campaigning for his re-election shows that Trump, like other US presidents, is spinning the war wheel in exactly the opposite direction. Back in 2016, Trump was saying just what the Democrats are saying today, showing again how ‘war-hysteria’ in one way or the other was a factor then in his campaign and still remains deeply relevant. Of course, the direction of the wheel is, to a great extent, determined by whether or not a given candidate and/or party is in or out of power. In 2015-16, Trump, like the Democrats, was not in power, and accordingly wanted to “end the wars.” Obama, then president, defended his decisions to expand US wars from Afghanistan to Libya, Syria and Iraq. Today, Trump being the incumbent president wants to wage a war to strengthen his presumably weak position; whilst the Democrats aim to rally their voters around the discourse of ‘no war with Iran.’
In light of current tensions with Iran, the US has deployed thousands of fresh troops to the Middle East, and Trump is defending his decision as a manifestation of his promise to ‘make America great’ again by defeating its enemies.
While Trump’s exit from the Iran-nuclear deal has been criticised by EU members, Russia and China, the US exit, which has been followed by escalating tensions, sanctions, dead negotiations and an exchange of strikes, shows that Trump has the least regard for international reactions and is mainly concerned about electoral gains.
Again, while Trump had promised to end American’s wars in the Middle East in 2016, today Trump is actively subverting his own promise. For instance, when Iraq’s parliament recently passed a resolution asking US troops to leave the country, Trump, instead of building on the scenario and end what George Bush and Obama had failed to do, threatened the Iraqis with “extraordinary” sanctions; hence, his message of endless continuity of what, in Trump’s own words, were only three years ago American’s useless and “endless wars.”
The decision to not leave Iraq, again, is linked with the ‘Iran crisis’ that Trump is using for political gains. “At some point we want to get out, but this isn’t the right point,” Trump said recently. “If we leave, that would mean that Iran would have a much bigger foothold”, he added further, showing not only his willingness to keep war hysteria alive, but also use the whole situation to sustain his ‘presidential career’ in politics. The Democrats, meanwhile, would most likely continue to ‘reverse-wag the dog’ in the name of peace.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.