World War III?
Shortly before unleashing his million-strong army on European soil, the Persian Emperor Xerxes confidently rebuffed the misgivings of his cautious adviser, Artabanus, who seemed unsure about the viability of the ill-fated second Persian invasion of Greece. Overcome by megalomaniac ambition, the Persian emperor emphasized the value of decisiveness, arguing, “if you were to take account of everything,” you would end up “never do[ing] anything.” It’s always “better to have a brave heart and endure one-half of the terrors we dread than to [anticipate] all of the terrors and suffer nothing [in the actual world] at all,” he said. Xerxes, the most powerful man of his time, fervently believed in bold leadership—that, ultimately, “[b]ig things are won by big dangers.” However, for ancient historians, Xerxes’ failed invasion of Greece marked the beginning of the end for the world’s first global empire. To critics, Donald Trump is the modern Xerxes, who would spell the end of the American empire by embarking on misguided foreign policy campaigns based on a hubristic belief in the genius of his negotiation instincts. In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump nonchalantly boasts: “More than anything else, I think deal-making is an ability you’re born with.” Both men, the most powerful leaders of their time, belong to what British philosopher Isaiah Berlin characterizes as the “hedgehog” personality type (as opposed to the “fox”), who “relate everything to a single central vision … a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.”
Berlin’s immortal analogy was inspired by the Greek poet Archilochus’ works, who wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In Trump’s case, that “single central vision” is the domination of rivals and opponents. Or, in the acerbic wisdom of Gore Vidal, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
But the risk with hedgehogs in charge of empires is that, as leading historian John Gaddis pithily warned, “‘with great power comes great responsibility … but also the danger of doing dumb things.”
Last week, to the shock and consternation of even leading American politicians, Trump, citing “self-defense,” ordered the killing of one of the most powerful military commanders in recent memory, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
“Reckless” was a common refrain among critics, with leading presidential candidate Joe Biden warning: “President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.” In response, Tehran has promised “severe revenge,” raising the prospect of all-out war in the world’s most unstable region.
Soleimani, who played a central role in mobilizing Iraqi forces to drive out the Islamic State terrorists from much of Iraq, was no ordinary general. Even his rivals, including famed American generals such as Stanley McChrystal, couldn’t help but highlight “his brilliance, effectiveness, and commitment to his country [which] have been revered by his allies and denounced by his critics in equal measure.” Soleimani, said McChrystal, “helped guide Iranian foreign policy for decades—and there is no denying his successes on the battlefield.” In effect, he was also a statesman who combined the roles of vice president, defense minister and head of overseas security operations in a major Asian country. The American attack marked the apotheosis of a new phase of conflict unleashed by Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, a landmark multilateral agreement negotiated by the Obama administration and still approved by European powers, the United Nations and leading global experts. Such misguided unilateralism hasn’t only led to punishing sanctions against tens of millions of innocent individuals, including children in need of medicine, but has also beckoned war.
Surely, no one wants war, which will ultimately hurt the poor, innocent and defenseless. But as Barbara Tuchman memorably wrote on the genesis of World War I, never underestimate the likelihood of supposedly rational powers sleepwalking into conflict. “One constant among the elements of [war] was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true,” she wrote in her classic “The Guns of August” (1962).
All politics is local, it’s said. Tellingly, Trump, now facing a tough reelection bid under the shadow of impeachment and economic slowdown, had warned earlier this decade: “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.”
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(Note: The article is partly based on the author’s latest book, “The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery” [Palgrave Macmillan])
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