If political elites want war, they can usually find a way of mobilizing public opinion to support military aggression. This typically happens by first demonizing a designated enemy, then blaming the latter for some particularly heinous deeds. And if the chosen enemy has been successfully demonized, then the public readily believes charges made against it even without compelling evidence. I call this process of fomenting warfare the military blame game.
Consider three well-known examples of the military blame game. In 1898, political elites, including Theodore Roosevelt (then assistant secretary of the Navy) and newspaper moguls William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, wanted war with Spain to expel that country from the Western Hemisphere and seize its colonies. When an internal explosion of unknown cause destroyed the U.S. battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, the disaster was quickly attributed to Spanish treachery. The propaganda surrounding this incident led to both the Spanish-American War and the subsequent, even more deadly, Philippine-American War.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson and his allies wanted to attack North Vietnam in order to forestall a Communist-led revolution in South Vietnam. On Aug. 4, 1964, two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin reported being attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. This putative attack motivated the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the use of military force against North Vietnam. The Vietnam War continued for 11 more years, resulting in the death of 60,000 Americans and more than 2 million Vietnamese. Subsequently, a thorough investigation found that the Aug. 4 attack never happened.
In 2003, President George W. Bush wanted to attack Iraq with the intent of making the Middle East more congenial for the United States and its ally Israel. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed that the government of Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, which endangered the American people. This claim induced Congressional endorsement for the use of military force against Iraq. The subsequent U.S. invasion caused the death of over 500,000 Iraqi people, produced millions of refugees and destabilized the entire Middle East. Despite exhaustive searches, no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were ever found.
We are now confronted with a new military blame game directed against Iran. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo obviously desire a war with Iran. Apparently, they want to punish Iran for its long standing defiance of American imperialism. Iran has faithfully abided by the terms of the nuclear deal (which President Donald Trump rejects), and most countries regard the Tehran government as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Bolton and Pompeo insist that Iran is the principle sponsor of terror in that region, and they blame Iran for virtually every transgression that occurs around the Persian Gulf. One month ago, Bolton and Pompeo, without any supporting evidence, accused Iran of attacking four commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz. Last week, Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers were assaulted in the Gulf of Oman. Bolton and Pompeo immediately accused Iran of perpetrating the assaults. Several claims made by these two warfare enthusiasts have already been debunked. Moreover, the attacks upon the oil tankers occurred while the Japanese prime minister was visiting Iran. He came to urge the use of diplomacy to resolve regional conflicts, an approach which the Iranian government also favors.
It is hard to see how Iran could benefit from unprovoked attacks upon shipping in the Persian Gulf. Such attacks can only benefit enemies of diplomacy and advocates of war like Bolton and Pompeo. An attack upon Iran would precipitate a catastrophe even greater than the 2003 assault upon Iraq. Let us hope the American people have enough wisdom to resist this latest version of the deadly military blame game.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.