Wednesday, January 8, 2020

BTRTN: Forget "Wag the Dog." "Fail Safe" is the Telling Movie Parable for Trump's Iran Gamble

If your kid drinks a fifth of vodka, drives off in the Audi, and manages to arrive back home at 3:00 a.m. without totaling the car, you don’t conclude that he knew the whole time that everything would come out fine in the end. For that matter, “all’s well that ends well” only counts when things have actually ended. Here is Steve’s take on Trump’s Iranian madness.  

It seems like every other article about the Iran mess has speculated that Trump’s motive for ordering the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was the “Wag the Dog” theory: start a war to distract popular focus from a particularly thorny domestic problem, like, say, an impeachment trial.

Fine. It’s an easy punchline; predictable and rather obvious. Indeed, type “Trump wag the dog” into the Google search bar and you get 4,250,000 results in 0.65 seconds. That’s the modern way to quantify ordinary.

But worse than banal, the “Wag the Dog” reference does not point to the really terrifying lesson to be gleaned from Trump’s wildly reckless Iran gambit.   

Indeed, if Trump’s idea of studying history is to cull through VHS rentals from the late 20th Century, I sure wish he had borrowed the 1964 classic “Fail Safe” instead.

Don’t know “Fail Safe?” Henry Fonda plays the President of United States, who learns that a computer error has sent a squadron of Air Force jets equipped with nuclear bombs on a mission to destroy Moscow. Efforts to recall the jets fail. Fonda’s fictional President frantically opens lines of communication with the Soviet Union to explain the horrifying error.

With bombers hurtling toward Moscow, Fonda realizes that the Soviet Union will soon unleash its full arsenal of nuclear missiles in retaliation toward the United States. This, in turn, would require the United States to respond in full measure, pretty much ensuring the extinction of human life on earth. All because of a single, stupid mistake.

Fonda comes up with a desperate plan to stave off Armageddon. He pleads with his extremely dubious counterpart in the Soviet Union to refrain from launching a full scale retaliation, vowing that if Moscow is indeed destroyed that he will order the U.S. Air Force to drop a nuclear bomb on New York City.

Call it an early version of “proportional” response. Sure enough, in “Fail Safe,” one U.S. Air Force bomber reaches Moscow and blows it off the map. Fonda honors his pledge to drop a nuclear bomb on New York City, even as the audience learns that Fonda’s wife – the fictional first lady – is visiting New York City at the time. The outbreak of global nuclear holocaust – and the end of civilization -- is avoided because Fonda concocts a “proportional response” that enables his adversary to trust him, to accept an “eye for an eye,” and agree that the crisis must end, allowing both to avoid mutual guaranteed annihilation.

“Proportional” or “commensurate” response are politi-geek jargon for calibrating a retaliation to an attack in a measured, equal way… the Biblical “eye for an eye.” The objective is to evenly settle the score so that both parties can move on. To respond in a manner that is perceived to be less substantial than the original attack is viewed to be a signal of weakness. To counter-attack with what is perceived to be an out-sized, exaggerated fashion risks forcing the original transgressor to, in turn, exacerbate and escalate the conflict by retaliating to the retaliation. Fonda identified “an eye for an eye.” His solution was perceived by his adversary to be fair and in proportion. It enabled the essential controversy to be ended. 

After a series of Iranian actions that had culminated in the killing of an American contractor in Iraq, Donald Trump was offered a menu of possible U.S. responses. Officials from his own administration are reported to have been shocked when Trump chose the most extreme option: the state assassination of Soleimani.

“Proportionate response” is pretty much exactly what Donald Trump did not do when he ordered the military to assassinate one of the most senior figures in Iran’s government.  Yes, let me be the one millionth writer to say that Soleimani was an evil terrorist, a brutal murderer, and a guy who deserved to be killed.

That’s not the point.  

The point is that Donald Trump recklessly threw the Middle East and, by extension, the world, into an incredibly dangerous moment in history when for 72 hours, the stability of the region and the world became the responsibility of a rogue, economically-ostracized state that sponsors terrorism. Donald Trump created the circumstances in which the fate of peace in the Middle East was contingent on Iran being the grown-up in the room.

Sure, Trump’s supporters can tell you that it all ended up fine, didn’t it? We killed their most senior military leader, and didn’t lose an American life in the process. Trump knew what he was doing all along! What brilliant gamesmanship!

Gamesmanship? Try craven recklessness. Lighting a cigarette while gassing up the car with the kids in the back seat.

Here are my two issues:

1.  When Trump decided to kill Soleimani, no one – no one -- knew how this one was going to come out. 

2.  We still don’t.

First: once Trump had Soleimani killed, there was no way of knowing what Iran would do.

...Fire missiles at Israel?

...Use surrogates to cloak their identity while killing U.S. military personnel?

...Assassinate U.S. embassy personnel or military leaders?

Moreover, Trump twice asserted that if Iran retaliated in any way for the assassination of Soleimani, the United States would strike back again… essentially guaranteeing a further acceleration of the controversy.

"Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have.........targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!"

“The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way...and without hesitation!” 

In spite of Trump’s warning, sure enough, Iran did retaliate, launching sixteen ballistic missiles at Iraqi Air Bases where U.S. military personnel were stationed.

Curiously, Trump’s first reaction to the attack was a tweet that indicated that he had finally realized the degree to which his action had created an unpredictable destabilization in the region:

All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”

These sure sound like the words of a man who had been bracing for an attack, had no idea what it was going to be, and was immensely relieved that it was not as bad as it could have been.

Then, Wednesday morning, Trump went to the White House lectern to report that Iran had “stood down.” More curious language. The U.S. attacked Iran, and Iran retaliated. Iran announced it would not launch any further attacks if the United States did not, knowing full well that Trump had just tweeted the U.S. respond to any Iranian retaliation for the Soleimani murder “without hesitation.”

So, um, let me get this straight. The people who just launched the missiles are the ones who are “standing down.” And the ones who “vowed to retaliate” but didn’t are … not standing down? Huh? No, Mr. President, one leader is actually working to ease the tension, and the other -- you -- is attempting to position recklessness as victory at just the moment you should be "standing down."

Yes, friends, here is the quick way to read this one: if they were filming a re-make of “Fail Safe” based on this incident, it would be Iranian Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei whose role would be played by Henry Fonda.  

It was the Iranians who developed a thoughtful and measured “proportional response” that prevented our President from potentially triggering World War III.

Trump’s over-reaction in ordering the assassination of Soleimani was essentially the equivalent of the sending bombers flying toward Moscow in “Fail Safe.” Once those bombers had their orders and are en route, the ability to calmly manage a chaotic, rapidly unfolding, unpredictable situation is radically reduced. Intentionally triggering such chaos dramatically increases the likelihood of misinterpretation, mistrust, precipitous actions, and pre-emptive aggression. Once the tragedy was set in motion, all the United States could do was wait to find out whether Iran’s leadership was crazier than ours.

Trump took a wild, impulsive gamble that may well have rapidly devolved into a chaotic regional conflict that could have involved every bit as much America blood and treasure as George W. Bush’s Iraq war.

What incredible irony. Once Soleimani was killed, the people of the United States were in the position of hoping and praying that the leaders of a rogue nation that sponsors terrorism would act more rationally than our own president.

Let’s move on to my second point: the long-term implications of this action are far from understood. We still don’t know how this will turn out.

One pundit on Wednesday predicted that Donald Trump’s White House television address will go down in history as Trump’s “Mission Accomplished” moment, invoking George W. Bush's wildly premature declaration that the Iraq war had been "won" in the first three weeks. It may take even less time for us to discover just how little thought Trump gave to the consequences of his action.

Again, no one – no one – knows what the long term consequences are going to be. Trump’s inability to foresee the vast variety of negative consequences of his impulsive act reminds one of the scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” in which Butch attempts to game out all the options that their pursuers could employ:

Butch: “We could fight - they'll stay right where they are and starve us out. Or go for position, shoot us. Might even get a rock slide started, get us that way. What else can they do?
Sundance: “They could surrender to us, but I wouldn't count on that.”

Sundance is right, Mr. President. Iran is not going to surrender. Here are the more likely bets:

1.  Now that Trump has utterly crushed Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, Tehran will race to build nuclear bombs. Why not? The best way to deal with a bully is from a position of strength… would Trump have risked killing Soleimani if he knew there was a nuclear missile aimed at Tel Aviv?

2.  Whereas Iran had previously been engulfed in internecine conflict as protesters who wanted to improve economic ties with the west waged anti-government marches, the country will now be united in its hatred of the United States. Indeed, Trump’s threat to destroy “cultural icons” no doubt inflamed the anger of Iranians, for whom such language would likely imply religious imagery and structures.

3.  If anything, Trump’s murder of Soleimani will only embolden Iran to continue his legacy of proxy wars and state-sponsored terrorism.

In short, things will change… for the worse.

From the endless video of thousands and thousands of Iranians filling the streets to mourn the assassination of Soleimani, it’s fair to conclude that Donald Trump has infuriated and violated the people of Iran in a way that they are not soon likely to forget.  Long after Donald Trump is dead and gone, American Presidents will pay for the anger, hostility, distrust, and resentment that Trump caused with one impulsive act.

Hey, we can hope I am wrong.

Maybe Iranians will see a whole different way to retaliate.

Maybe instead of overtly fighting Trump, they will realize how easily he can be manipulated into serving their goals.

Maybe they will be shrewd enough to follow the model of Kim Jong-un… who cleverly cut out all the angry rhetoric and start talking about what a great guy Donald Trump is. It sure worked for the North Korean dictator… he’s been sucking up to Trump for television cameras as he buys time to fully ramp up a world-class nuclear weapons arsenal.

Maybe Iran will contact Trump and offer to help him by interfering on his behalf in the 2020 elections. Iranians may realize – like Putin before them – that it is far easier to get what you want out of Trump if you’ve got kompromat on him.

Maybe Iran will announce that they have dirt on Joe Biden, and that they know where the DNC server is. Wow, that would sure get some of those sanctions lifted fast.

Maybe Iranian leaders should go on Sean Hannity’s show and talk about how Trump is such a stable genius. In no time you’d have Trump talking about his love letters with Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran.

Maybe Iranian leaders will endorse Mitch McConnell’s position on impeachment, and agree that there really is no need to have witnesses or evidence in the trial. Wow, thinks Trump… those Iranians are nicer to me than Nancy Pelosi!

How’s this?

Maybe Iran will have a propaganda movie made about the last 72 hours, and they will find some Henry Fonda doppelganger to play Donald Trump.

Donald Trump will really, really enjoy it.

He will love it, right until the very end… when Trump realizes that his character in the movie is the one that has just dropped a nuclear bomb on the United States of America.

And we will all realize that there is no such thing as failing safely.

If you would like to be on the Born To Run The Numbers email list notifying you of each new post, please write us at

1 comment:

Leave a comment