Tuesday 18 June 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'The world is sleep-walking into the most dangerous situation since the 1980s, and it is terrifying...'

'Perhaps the most damning indictment of Trump is that the Iranians have, up to now, emerged as the more sensible of the two sides.' Photo: Reuters/Leah Millis
'Perhaps the most damning indictment of Trump is that the Iranians have, up to now, emerged as the more sensible of the two sides.' Photo: Reuters/Leah Millis
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

WITH the news that Donald Trump could touch down in Ireland in June, the preparations are already under way. Normally, the imminent arrival of an American president would involve senior politicians carefully crafting their welcoming statements and making sure they were invited to all the important functions.

In this instance, however, the trip has already been overshadowed by the unusual sight of public squabbling over the appropriate venue for any meeting (to Doonbeg, or to not Doonbeg?), reports of divisions in the Cabinet over the best way to handle what could be an unmitigated public-relations disaster, as well as Leo Varadkar's baffling assertion that, had he been eligible, he would have voted for Hillary Clinton instead.

That's hardly going to come as a surprise, although many observers were left scratching their heads as they wondered why the Taoiseach would potentially provoke the irritation of the notoriously thin-skinned president.

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Travel arrangements are normally kept private, as indeed are the personal views of a sitting Taoiseach ahead of such a visit.

But while the protesters prepare themselves, and loftily think they can speak on behalf of the whole country when they say he isn't wanted by the people of Ireland, his visit also coincides with far more ominous developments overseas.

There is an inevitable degree of Trump fatigue with many people. He seems to lurch from one self-created crisis to another, to such an extent that it is hard to keep up with each new Twitter announcement or policy pivot.

But we would be misguided to view his latest rumblings against Iran as just more of the same old bluster. Quite simply, the world is sleepwalking into the most dangerous situation we have seen since the 1980s, and it's nothing short of terrifying.

The Americans and the ayatollahs have a four-decade history of visceral loathing and enmity that is normally conducted in the shadows. But developments in the past few weeks now threaten to push the situation to explode, quite literally, into the daylight. It is impossible to overestimate just how catastrophic the current Middle Eastern sabre-rattling could become.

Since Trump appointed John Bolton as national security adviser, this hawkish relic from the Bush era has been increasing the pressure on the Iranians in a region already teetering on the edge.

In a disturbing parallel with events leading up to the invasion of Iraq, Bolton has been accused of cherry-picking intelligence sources to justify a military campaign, and the decision to send another aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and more B-52 bombers into the area has been denounced as a needlessly provocative move designed to counter a threat which simply doesn't exist.

Senior American intelligence sources, as well as their British allies, have expressed their alarm at this ramping up of both the rhetoric and the military presence, and perhaps the most damning indictment of Trump's handling of the affair is that the Iranians have, up to now, emerged as the more sensible of the two sides.

The former first sea lord of the royal navy, Admiral Lord West, is one of many experts who have warned that the Americans are seemingly hell-bent on a path to war; a war which he estimates would require a million extra American troops on top of the 120,000 who were recently mobilised.

Admiral West then called Bolton and Trump "idiots", before taking the unprecedented step of warning that either America does more to diplomatically engage with the Iranians or "we face the prospect of a nuclear war in the Middle East". Any hopes that calm heads might begin to prevail took a blow on Sunday when a missile was fired at the American embassy in Baghdad.

The US has recently withdrawn all non-essential personnel from the Iraqi capital in anticipation of such an occurrence and they were quick to blame the Iranians, with Trump tweeting shortly after the attack on the embassy that: "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again."

That prompted the Iranians to denounce his remarks as "genocidal", but they are merely an echo of previous announcements from the White House that Trump was prepared to engage in a full-scale conflict with the Islamic republic.

When we see senior figures such as Admiral Lord West openly mentioning the apocalyptic prospect of a nuclear exchange in the region, it's impossible not to be dragged back to the darkest days of the Cold War, when people lived under the permanent threat of global annihilation.

In many ways, it almost seems as if the past few decades never happened and the fact that an American invasion of Iran was once a common fictional device for nuclear war dramas during the 1970s and 1980s is a rather chilling reminder that some things never change, merely the people involved.

Is Trump engaging on this apparently insane course of action to deflect attention from his domestic problems?

The Mueller investigation may not have found a smoking gun involving the allegations of collusion with Russia, but he is by no means out of the woods yet, and he wouldn't be the first American president to use a foreign escapade to distract the voters from problems closer to home.

But that analysis fails to take account of the fact that he ran on the firm promise of not sending any more young Americans to die for foreign causes.

His public position has always been one of economic isolationism and military non-intervention. But while those of us who live outside the United States have the luxury of simply judging him by his tone or his comments, the economically deprived towns of the Rust Belt that delivered his election are also the towns which provide many of the soldiers, and his call for "no more caskets" was warmly received.

Far from bolstering his domestic popularity, a dramatic escalation in tensions such as we are seeing now would be regarded by many of his voters as a profound betrayal of one of his core pledges.

In further addition to the already febrile mood in the region is the fact that Russia provides many of Iran's nuclear scientists. Moscow has warned that any injury to their citizens would be seen as an act of aggression. More ominously again, China has been urging restraint, while offering quiet support to the Iranians.

In many ways, observing Trump has become something a parlour game. The president who doesn't play by the rules, simply because he doesn't seem to know those rules, still hasn't been quite the disaster many predicted. The fact that he has a good chance of winning re-election is testament to that fact. But by bringing old warhorses such as Bolton into his inner circle, he has managed to drag the world to the brink of a truly catastrophic conflict without many people even realising it.

Many of Trump's previous comments have infuriated some people and amused others. But these latest developments should be enough to terrify every one of us.

Irish Independent

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