I well remember that I kept putting my hands to my head as I read, terror-stricken, Christopher Clark’s provocative The Sleepwalkers, which boldly posited that World War I was not part of anyone’s grand strategic design.
Instead, Armageddon came about through a number of countries and statesmen making lesser errors, which compounded somehow produced the hellish dynamic of a war that was to become the original sin of our modern world.
Clark’s astute analysis for how things can so quickly get out of hand can be seen in the present crisis between the US and Iran.
It is palpably in neither President Donald Trump nor Supreme Leader Khamenei’s interests to start a ruinous, full-on war. But, somehow, in sleepwalker fashion, here we are.
The key to why this crisis is so dangerous is the political risk dynamic beneath it: we have a series of tit-for-tat, ever-escalating provocations between two honour cultures, neither of which can easily ideologically back down. It is the vicious cycle lying beneath the crisis that is so chilling — and so dangerous.
Much like Maoist China, Tehran needs perpetual revolution to keep its whole rickety enterprise going. Being seen to compromise with — or even worse, give into — the US is simply not an option.
But in Trump, Tehran confronts the first Jacksonian president in memory. This world view has been around since the 1820s, yet scandalously almost no one outside the US has any real knowledge of it.
Trump’s Jacksonian ideology means that, unlike all his post Cold War predecessors, he has not yet engaged in a new war. Instead, the President has made it clear he wants to get out of the “endless, mindless Middle East conflicts” that have so bogged America down, and concentrate on “America First”.
Jacksonians believe that US foreign policy should prioritise American national sovereignty, internal coherence, and independence of action. They do not want to dictate to far-away people, but are determined to protect their own lives, values, traditions, and above all dignity from outside interference. Jacksonianism is an honour culture.
The tit-for-tat nature of the present crisis therefore means that both sides are locked into an escalation — for honour’s sake, neither would ever commit to backing down.
The macabre dance has gone like this. Trump points out that Iran, even after the nuclear deal signed with the Obama administration, is still expansionistic in the Middle East, and abruptly withdraws from the accord, reinstituting highly effective sanctions on Tehran.
Humiliated and pushed into a corner, Iran responds by attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf, shooting down a US drone, attacking Saudi oil refineries, and generally making a nuisance of itself. However, it goes a step too far and uses proxy Kataib Hezbollah fighters in Iraq to attack a US base there, killing an American contractor.
Humiliated, and enraged at the loss of an American life, Trump responds by attacking Kataib Hezbollah, killing 25. In turn, Iranian proxies in Iraq, led by the powerful Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Force militias, immediately storm the US embassy in Baghdad, further angering the US.
So, in true Jacksonian fashion, the President went one step further himself, killing near-mythical General Qassem Soleimani, the immediate author of these provocative Iranian moves and the second most powerful man in the country, who amounts to a sort of a western-style head of special operations, CIA director, and presidential special envoy rolled into one.
Predictably, Iran has responded rhetorically, with Supreme Leader Khamenei tearfully promising death to Americans as revenge. If such a thing comes to pass — and given Iran’s own honour culture, it will — President Trump has already vowed to respond by attacking 52 sites in Iran.
And then we will have war.
I have studied Qassem Soleimani for a long time; no one familiar with the copious blood on his hands should mourn his passing. Further, I am philosophically a realist, aware that war has been part of the human condition since Athens and Sparta, and will be so forever.
But this honour-driven vicious cycle must be stopped. For, as was true for the sleepwalkers in 1914 who set their world alight, the costs of this war far outweigh any gains.
In terms of political risk, China is the only possible peer competitor threatening American dominance in the near term. Washington focusing on anything else geopolitically is simply beside the point.
In terms of personal ethics, a war fought for no real reason other than pride on both sides is worse than a tragic waste — it is wicked.
Main image credit: Getty