Best wishes for the New Year, 2020.
A new decade dawns, while old problems recur. One problem has gotten the most mention in the last several days: Iranian proxies attacking Americans in Iraq. Although this has been going on for some time, the activity has become concentrated and overt in the past week, with Iraqi “popular militia” forces – backed and armed by radical Iran – launching rockets at Americans in Kirkuk, and attackers from the same Iran-backed forces besieging the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. The PMF attackers, waving the flag of Kataib Hezbollah and shouting “Death to America,” broke down an embassy security gate and did damage to the embassy, while Americans took refuge in secure facilities inside.
President Trump has vowed that “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE!”
….Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2019
Security at the embassy reportedly used tear gas to repel the attackers, and AH-64 Apache helicopters operated overhead dropping flares. Ready-reaction Marines were sent in from Kuwait to reinforce embassy security, and the latest report is that an Army infantry battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg (North Carolina) – some 750 soldiers – is being sent to the theater to beef up the reaction force.
Attacks on a U.S. embassy by Iranian proxies evoke echoes of Beirut in 1983, of course. (To perfectly evoke 1979, the attack would have to be in Iran and undertaken by actual Iranians. But imperfectly is still meaningful.)
Other commentators are naturally bringing up the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi in 2012, although that wasn’t demonstrably about Iranian proxy activity, per se. There will be much talk in the coming days about the illustration the most recent attacks offer of where we are in a long war with radical Islamic ideologues, and how none of this is new.
In separate realms, there are other familiar patterns: a trade war with China – a centuries-old pattern of nation-states and geopolitical power blocs; an attempt to impeach the president of the United States and railroad him out of office, because his policies are inconvenient for the impeachers’ sinecures in an aging republic – a millennia-old pattern of political power; and a dramatic rise in overt anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic attacks around the globe, in some ways weirdly rote and formulaic, but in impact very real and alarming.
We have the Internet now, and the passage from an Industrial Age to an Information Age, and yet so much has remained unchanged.
Still, some things have changed. We can’t predict how the current crisis in Iraq will go, because the American president isn’t like his immediate predecessors – or indeed, like most of our post-World War I presidents (and yes, I mean World War I). Trump doesn’t rub bromides on political crises like a topical ointment. He doesn’t like using military operations as policy tokens; he prefers to use military operations for their most straightforward purpose: changing situations on the ground, in order to decisively affect the will of the opponent.
We saw that with the response to the rocket attack on Kirkuk, in which an American contractor was killed. On Sunday, Trump could have attacked the headquarters and weapons stores of the Iran-backed militias in response. But instead he attacked Iran’s highest-value assets in the Syria-Iraq theater: the proxy forces that occupy the border crossing points at Al Qaim, Iraq, and Al Bukamal, Syria. These are the key-terrain guardians of Iran’s tenuously-held land bridge across Mesopotamia.
Iran’s whole vision of regional dominance and apocalyptic fulfillment depends on the land bridge. This time, the U.S. strikes were not devastating. But they went for the jugular – on a stretched tether for Iran, they achieved a meaningful effect – and demonstrated that they could be devastating, in a way that striking only the PMF logistics inside Iraq would not have been. The PMF base locations can always be added to any campaign to disrupt the land bridge, since the PMFs’ power in Iraq is a key component of holding the land bridge. But the point this time was to show that it’s Iran’s whole endgame that’s at risk. America won’t be suckered into fighting on Iran’s schedule; we’re already executing a longer-visioned strategy, which starts with unbearable pressure on the regime in the economic and political realms, and is currently relying on containment in the military realm. Crush the regime itself, and the land bridge will revert to some real estate fled by ghosts.
The U.S. strikes were a true “reprisal” against the attack in Kirkuk, and not just a retaliation. A reprisal seizes back the initiative, on the terms of the party executing the reprisal. Done well, a reprisal is extremely informative for the attacker – which is why Iran is now testing the Trump administration for its level of will and intent at the embassy in Baghdad. The world is not actually betting against Trump, however much Ben Rhodes may be.
Trump sanctions on Iran have done nothing to change Iranian behavior except make it worse. This is what happens when your foreign policy is based on Obama envy, domestic politics, Saudi interests, and magical right wing thinking. https://t.co/HDn0ywZnHu
— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) December 31, 2019
The curiosity of entering the 2020s is that so many observers can’t see that. There is much they can’t see, or refuse to see, or can’t process or understand, or simply lie about. If ever an iconic quote from literature were applicable, it seems it is this one: It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.
America has a booming economy, millions are back to work, the economic picture is brighter for many of the longest-left-out Americans. Worldwide, levels of poverty have been dramatically transformed over the last 50 years, with the old, endemic curse of grinding need and want significantly reduced even in Africa and Asia. Literacy, invention, trade, the exchange of ideas, opportunities for women and ethnic minorities – at no time has the world seen them on such a tidal surge.
Yet governments and other institutions – the media, academia – are badly out of step with the peoples of many nations. The people cannot be induced to recognize this as a fault in themselves. They’re pretty sure the problem is their governments and institutions.
The people are also equipped to see what the Trump strategy is for Iran, when it’s laid out for them. The institutions seem unable to process anything beyond an endless angling against Donald Trump. That is becoming embarrassingly noticeable, even freakish.
It’s 2020 now, and it seems appropriate to launch the decade with three poems that evoke some of the visceral sense of the time. There is a burden of weariness on the public spirit, to be sure. It is not only the nature of nature that seems out of kilter, or even of man’s relation to his environment. It’s the nature of man himself. In a collective sense, we keep reacting unexpectedly. It makes us jittery and tired.
I saw an article the other day proposing that we have a “Roaring 20s” again, like the economic boom-time of the 1920s. I don’t think anyone is much in the mood for roaring. More backyard barbecues with family and friends would be nice. Maybe a boat for the lake.
We’re losing interest in ourselves as public beings, and we’d like for the personal-is-political crowd to lose interest in us. Its predatory patterns have become too intrusive. If anything is a rough Beast slouching toward Bethlehem, it might be that.
But America is still America, and has a core that has not changed significantly since the days when de Tocqueville found us on the frontier, raising barns for each other and heading West hopefully in wagons with children, a few books, a long gun and a violin loaded carefully, and perhaps a cow or an ox in tow. Being weary of our world is a dangerous thing, whether the civilizational shocks came from World War I or Napoleon Bonaparte. But America keeps weathering it and coming back.
Here come the 2020s. Roar if you must. Never give up. And let freedom ring.
The World Is Too Much with Us
William Wordsworth, 1802
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
The Second Coming
William Butler Yeats, 1919
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Village Blacksmith
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1840
Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.
And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.
He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter’s voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.
It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.
Happy New Year from Liberty Unyielding to all our treasured citizens of LU Nation.