Beware of Trump Using the Coronavirus as a Cover for War With Iran

Strangling Iran’s economy, already devastated by Covid-19, isn’t enough for Trump, even though a new war would be a strategic disaster.

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2020, file photo, U.S. Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne board a C-17 aircraft at Fort Bragg, N.C., to be deployed to the Middle East. A push led by pro-Iran factions to oust U.S. troops from Iraq is gaining momentum, bolstered by a Parliament vote in favor of a bill calling on the the government to remove them. But the path forward is unclear. (Melissa Sue Gerrits/The Fayetteville Observer via AP, File)

U.S. Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne board a C-17 aircraft at Fort Bragg, N.C., to be deployed to the Middle East on Jan. 1, 2020.

Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits/The Fayetteville Observer via AP

The news is all coronavirus. Whether it’s cable news, national newspapers, public radio, or even my own Intercept podcast, we can’t get away from it.

The pandemic has overwhelmed us all; we talk, think, dream of little else.

But let me try and grab your attention for a few moments and point you in a different direction. How many of you noticed a rather disturbing New York Times story from Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt last week that was headlined, “Pentagon Order to Plan for Escalation in Iraq Meets Warning From Top Commander”? You didn’t? Well, in the midst of all the virus-related doom and gloom, it managed to send new shivers down my spine.

From the Times:

The Pentagon has ordered military commanders to plan for an escalation of American combat in Iraq, issuing a directive last week to prepare a campaign to destroy an Iranian-backed militia group that has threatened more attacks against American troops.

But the United States’ top commander in Iraq has warned that such a campaign could be bloody and counterproductive and risks war with Iran. In a blunt memo last week, the commander, Lt. Gen. Robert P. White, wrote that a new military campaign would also require thousands more American troops be sent to Iraq and divert resources from what has been the primary American military mission there: training Iraqi troops to combat the Islamic State.

Got that? A new military escalation in Iraq by the U.S. government “risks war with Iran.” That’s the “blunt” view of … the top U.S. general on the ground.

A conflict with Iran, as I have repeatedly pointed out, would be a strategic and humanitarian disaster. The United States would end up killing thousands of innocent Iranians; Tehran would lash out via proxy groups across the region, as well as the wider world; U.S. troops in Iraq would have a target on their backs; oil and gas prices would skyrocket. To quote the former head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Anthony Zinni, “Like I tell my friends, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll love Iran.”

Question: What kind of maniac risks such a war in the middle of a global pandemic?

Answer: President Donald Trump, aided and abetted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien. As the Times notes, they “have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country.

To be clear: An Iranian dies from Covid-19 every 10 minutes, while 50 people become infected in the Islamic Republic every single hour. The death toll is fast approaching 3,000. Yet for Trump and his top aides, this is an “opportunity” to push their hawkish, nay ghoulish, agenda.

As is so often the case, though, the U.S. military leadership is less keen on a new Middle East conflagration than the U.S. civilian leadership. “Military leaders, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been wary of a sharp military escalation,” reports the Times, “warning it could further destabilize the Middle East at a time when President Trump has said he hopes to reduce the number of American troops in the region.”

Remember the U.S. assassination of Iranian general and spymaster Qassim Suleimani on January 3? It feels like a lifetime ago. The Trump administration claimed at the time that the killing of Suleimani was “aimed at deterring future Iranian retaliation plans.”

How did that work out? On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that “Iran-backed militias are becoming more audacious in attacking U.S. personnel in Iraq, with rocket strikes against military bases occurring more frequently and, for the first time, in broad daylight.”

So by the administration’s own metrics, as Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, tweeted, the assassination of Suleimani “failed to achieve its goal. But according to the unfalsifiable logic of ‘maximum pressure’ the only answer is always… more pressure, more escalation.”

More pressure. More escalation. This is precisely what Lt. Gen. Robert P. White seems to have been trying to warn against. Will anyone, though, heed his warning? Will Democrats in Congress be willing or able to call for hearings on the administration’s reckless and dangerous Iran policy, in the midst of our current coronavirus crisis? Trump and his underlings don’t seem to care about the domestic implications of starting a new foreign war. This is an administration that publicly announces a fresh round of punitive sanctions on Iran’s battered economy, while privately urging U.S. military commanders to escalate a conflict with the Iranians on Iraqi soil.

Less than two weeks ago, in a piece about the cruelty and callousness of maintaining sanctions on Iran while a pandemic rages across that country, I described the people in charge of the U.S. government as “sociopaths.” Now we discover, courtesy of an internal memo written by a U.S. general and leaked to the New York Times, that strangling the Iranian economy isn’t enough for Trump and Co. They are bent on using the spread of a deadly disease as cover for a new war.

Perhaps “sociopaths” was an understatement.

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