Here’s a story that’s never left my mind. Back in 2011, Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis was the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the war on terror across the Greater Middle East, and he was obsessed with Iran. He cooked up a scheme to launch a strike to take out either an Iranian oil refinery or power plant in the “dead of night,” an act of war meant to pay that country back for supplying mortars to Iraqi insurgents killing American troops. And in those years, when asked by President Obama to “spell out his top priorities” in the region, the general reportedly replied: “Number one: Iran. Number two: Iran. Number three: Iran.” His Iranophobic obsession finally unnerved the Obama administration enough that, in 2013, he was removed from his CENTCOM post five months early.
I bring up this ancient history only because these days Mattis, reportedly in danger of being ditched by the president after the mid-term elections, has proven to be just about the only “adult in the room” in Washington when it comes to Iran — and doesn’t that just speak worlds about the Trump administration? After all, the president’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has wanted to bomb that country since something like the dawn of time, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are both Iranophobes (as well as Islamophobes) of the first order, as is the president who has already torn up the nuclear pact the Obama administration negotiated with Iran and seems to be careening toward some kind of a conflict there. If so, given the American experience of the last 17 years in the region, what could possibly go wrong? As British journalist Patrick Cockburn ominously pointed out recently, “The exaggeration of ‘the Iranian threat’ by the Trump administration this week at the U.N. General Assembly in New York was very like what was being said about Iraq 15 years earlier.”
As the redoubtable Juan Cole, whose iconoclastic new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires, has just been published, makes clear today, Donald Trump and the congressional Republicans have wielded Islamophobia domestically the way the anticommunists of my childhood once did McCarthyism. When you stop to think about it for a moment, they might be considered addicts on the subject: they just can’t keep away from it or get enough of it. And here’s the weirdest thing of all: yes, their Islamophobic program is to keep you know who out of this country, and that’s often noted, but it seems, as well, to have another goal: to keep us in the Greater Middle East, militarily, until hell freezes over. After all, even under a president who once decried the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve never made it out of either place. We’re now more or less permanently in Syria as well and seemingly no less permanently enmeshed in the Saudi war in Yemen. Next stop: Iran?