How did we get to the brink of an unconstitutional, world-shattering war against Iran, almost certainly far worse for the United States than the self-destructive war against Iraq?
And how did we get to the moment when the US Border Police started detaining and interrogating Iranian-Americans and confiscating their passports -- -- mostly US citizens, many US-born -- who were returning to their US homes after a major Iranian pop music concert in Vancouver?
Four years ago, history seemed to be going the other way. In January 2016, The Shalom Center celebrated the peaceful achievement of an extraordinary agreement among the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Germany, the European Union, and Iran that put an absolute end to any effort Iran had been making to make nuclear weapons.
The essay we wrote is at https://theshalomcenter.org/mlk-iran-shalom-center, along with this note from Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky thanking us for mobilizing Jewish leadership to support the agreement despite the efforts by AIPAC (in accord with the Netanyahu government of Israel) to get Congress to torpedo the agreement.
The process by which the agreement was achieved pointed to the wisdom of one of the most powerful teachings of Jewish tradition about peacemaking. Traditionally, every evening Jews pray that YHWH, the Breath of Life, the Interbreathing Spirit of the world, the Wind of Change, will “Ufros alenu sukkat shlomekha -- Spread over us the sukkah of Your shalom.”
Why a sukkah of shalom -- a Sukkah, the flimsy hut with a leafy, leaky roof that is open to rain and wind -- rather than a fortress, a palace, even a solidly built house?
Precisely because the Sukkah is so vulnerable. The tradition is teaching that one way to peace is for everyone to recognize that all of us are, each of us is, vulnerable. In order to choose the nuclear agreement, the Great Powers decided they were vulnerable to a possible Iranian nuclear arsenal. And the Iranian government decided their country was vulnerable to sanctions by the Great Powers. By sharing their vulnerabilities, they could agree on how to give all the parties shalom.
The agreement worked. Deeply intrusive inspections in Iran, agreed to by Iran as part of the agreement, showed Iran was adhering to its rules.
But a new US President, elected Constitutionally but undemocratically by a minority of the people, decided to smash the agreement. He may have been motivated by rage against former President Obama, both out of his own racism and because Obama had publicly humiliated him in a White House Correspondents’ dinner. Or by wanting to support Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, both of whom feared and hated Iran. Or by his own preference for bullying people into submission rather than negotiating with them. Or all three.
Result: After a year of trying to reestablish the agreement with European help, Iran began acting as if it didn’t exist. Reopening its nuclear facilities. The US jammed draconic sanctions down Iran’s throat, punishing its people for having elected a peace-seeking government and having thrown out a war-wishing political faction. Iran responded by increasing its pressure in and on Iraq.
At home, Mr. Trump was experiencing more and more political pressure. Impeachment is no joke. One of the most famous of political maxims came into play: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” (Samuel Johnson, said in April 1775 just as King George’s troops were preparing the attacks that became the battles of Lexington and Concord). When the scoundrel finds his political fate still worsening, the ultimate advice comes into play: “War is the very last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Mr. Trump and his allies are already trying to make this reckless killing justification for opposing an open, impartial, and fact-based impeachment trial. But the opposite response would be wiser: That this unconstitutional, illegal act of war is another example of this President’s abuse of power.
General Suleiman was no ordinary grunt, just following orders in the trenches. He had planned attacks on enemy soldiers and mercenaries, including Americans. He may have been more violent than some important generals of other governments. He was certainly no worse than the Saudi Crown Prince – Mr. Trump’s pal -- who personally ordered the murder of a dissident journalist and politically has ordered the killing of tens of thousands of Yemenites, while crucial US help was being given by Trump despite Congressional efforts to end all US involvement.
And one of the main "charges" against General Suleiman -- that he commanded and organized the killing of hundreds of American soldiers -- seems to be about attacks on the US Army that President George W. Bush sent to invade, occupy, and conquer Iraq. Certainly a nonviolent resistance to that occupation would have been far preferable to what General Suleiman planned, AND -- the bloody hands responsible for the deaths of those American soldiers belong in the first case to Mr. Bush, who sent them to die in a war built on lies.
Many generals do their bloodshed with care not to explode an uncontrollable war that will kill tens of thousands and wash blood for decades into the future. Sometimes clever generals even order disruptive action short of killing, as when Iraqi militias responded to US attacks that killed 25 of their soldiers with demonstrations at the US Embassy in Iraq that burned buildings but killed no one, and then withdrew.
The whole war system needs to be treated and cured as a lethal disease of humankind. But impulsive violent bullying is not the way to do that.
Impulsive violent bullying is what Trump did.
He ignored the Constitution and the law requiring the permission of Congress to begin a war – let alone the United Nations Charter, treaty law that the Constitution says is also “the law of the land.” His Secretary of State is citing an alleged urgent danger that the Iranian general was plotting an attack against Americans. Thousands of them.
Really? What’s the evidence? As “truthful” as the lie that Iraq was hiding nuclear weapons, the lie that killed and maimed a million Iraqis and thousands of Americans? Where were and are these thousands of endangered Americans? Even SecState acknowledges this alleged plot was not to attack anyone on American soil. And various military officials are telling the US press that evidence of an impending attack was unclear and uncertain. There would have been plenty of time to take protective -- not aggressive -- action.
A story from 65 years ago: In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, in a seminar led by Professor Howard K. Beale, we were studying the foreign policy of President Theodore Roosevelt, including his decision in 1907 to intimidate Japan by sending the US Navy – the “Great White Fleet” -- uninvited to its shores. Professor Beale asked us in his seminar, “What do you think was Japan’s response?”
I answered, “Pearl Harbor, almost 40 years later.”
He whirled on me, astonished, even angry. “That is what my study of the Japanese archives shows. But you –- how did you know that?!”
“It just makes sense,” I said. “No country, no government, likes being humiliated. Even if it takes 40 years –- "
Now what? Iran threatens retaliation. By attacking oil tankers in the Gulf, disrupting the global economy as Iran’s economy has been disrupted? By seeking to fire hundreds of missiles into Israel or Saudi Arabia, Trump’s allies? By slowly unfolding years of terror attacks against Americans without an Iranian label -- perhaps cyber-attacks against American water supplies, electric power? By assassinating, say, Prime Minister Netanyahu or Crown Prince MbS? By holding its anger tight and redoubling its work to create a nuclear arsenal?
Will the American people support this killing as “patriotic”? And reward it by reelecting the President who ordered it? Or denounce it as unconstitutional, murderous, self-destructive, far too risky of many many deaths in a bully’s gamble for power? And punish it by electing a President who will try to restore the denuclearization agreement with Iran – far harder to do now, after fear and distrust have been so intensified?
The answer, my friends, is “blowing in the Wind.” That sacred Wind, that Breath of Life, that comes alive when a great community, a steadfast People, breathes into life the Wind of Change.
By breathing its thoughts, our thoughts, out loud, and concerted. Just now, a phone call to your Senators and Congressperson would do that: 1202-224-3121. Your own feelings, your own words. Perhaps along these lines: "My name is Xxxx Yyyy, and I live in Qqqq. I am a constituent of yours. [If you have a defined religious or civic role in the community, you might mention it.] I am calling to urge that you speak out and vote to rebuke Mr. Trump for committing an act of war and risking a disaster far worse than the war against Iraq, without even consulting Congress, without obeying the Constitution and the law and the UN Charter. I urge you to demand public hearings on the claims that try to justify this act. And I urge you to take vigorous action to prevent a war against Iran. "
Says Psalm 34, “Seek peace and pursue it. Turn away from evil; do good.” The rabbis interpret: “Not only seek peace but pursue it, especially when it is running away from you. Not only turn away from evil, but take vigorous action for good.” That wisdom rests on each of us, not only Congressmembers.
Shalom, salaam, paz, peace -- sohl [“Peace” in Farsi, the language of Iran] -- Arthur