Donald Trump made perhaps his most fatal foreign policy blunder so far this week by signing a memorandum authorizing the U.S.’s resumption of sanctions against Iran, violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known colloquially as the Iran Deal. Trump’s horrendous fuckup aside, the timing is more than a little creepy.
To fully illustrate what could happen this year, we have to rewind 50 years.
While stepping off a helicopter on Hill 471 during the battle of Khe Sanh, 1968, 25-year-old Army Captain Max Cleland spotted an unexploded M-26 grenade on the ground and, believing it to be one of his own, grabbed it just in time for the grenade to detonate. The devastating blast annihilated Cleland’s forearm and both of his legs.
Military doctors later amputated what remained of Cleland’s limbs, leaving him with one functioning arm, a one-way ticket out of the Vietnam War and a lifetime confined to a wheelchair in exchange for his dedication to serving his nation. Cleland emerged from the war with multiple decorations, including the Bronze and Silver Stars and in 1971 he began a decades-long career in public service, beginning with his serving in the Georgia state Senate then as secretary of state of Georgia and administrator of Veterans Affairs. And in 1996, Cleland was elected to the U.S. Senate.
A war hero like Cleland could have held his Senate post for multiple terms, even while representing a red state despite his being a member of the Democratic Party. But his career in Congress was fanatically roadblocked in 2002 by the Bush administration — specifically by Karl Rove and the Republican challenger for Cleland’s seat, Saxby Chambliss.
Those of you old enough to remember will likely recall the 2002 midterm election and how nearly every Democrat running for or holding office was, at that moment in time, an endangered species given the knee-jerk patriotism of post-9/11 America and the GOP’s branding of everything red, white and blue.
Like many Democrats in 2002, Cleland opposed the Bush administration’s plans for an invasion of Iraq in response to the 9/11 attacks a year earlier. For his opposition to President Bush’s military whimsy, Cleland was targeted for ouster by Rove and the Chambliss campaign, and the strategy was breathtakingly horrendous. The centerpiece of the campaign was an infamous television ad in support of Chambliss, which inconceivably linked Cleland with Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, the dual supervillains of that era, while also outrageously questioning whether Cleland had “the courage to lead.”
Prior to the ad’s dropping, Cleland was comfortably ahead of his challenger in the polls. In the days and weeks following the ad, Cleland dipped behind Chambliss and was ultimately defeated by a 6-point margin. He later told CBS News that the election had triggered his PTSD from the war. Chambliss went on to serve two full terms, retiring after the 2014 midterms.
Cleland, who left three limbs in Vietnam, was politically euthanized by the Republicans using a familiar early-2000s cudgel: Cleland was an unpatriotic terrorist sympathizer for his opposition to what became the Iraq War and therefore this decorated American soldier was unfit to serve in the Senate. He was publicly disgraced by the GOP establishment, as well as by an opponent, Chambliss, who received a deferment from the Vietnam draft due to an alleged “bum knee” from an old football injury. In other words, the draft dodger Republican was a true patriot for supporting the war, but a triple amputee and Vietnam War hero wasn’t patriotic or courageous enough for re-election. Worse, Cleland was named as part of a rogues gallery that included America’s most visible enemies at the time.
Fast-forward to present day.
We don’t yet know exactly what’s next with Trump and Iran, but if history continues to suffice as a litmus test for future events in this backwards age, there’s a very strong possibility the president’s timing of his Iran Deal decision might’ve been orchestrated to coincide with the 2018 midterms, not unlike the lead-up to the Iraq War 16 years ago.
Trump’s options with Iran are now are quite limited. Negotiating a new deal with Iran seems like a long shot given how Trump renegged on the first one despite Iran’s faithful compliance with it. But I don’t think a new deal is Trump’s goal. With crazy John Bolton barking into Trump’s ears, it’s entirely possible the White House is looking for a pretext to invade. Worse, Trump and his disciples already believe, contra-factually, that Iran is cheating on the existing deal, allowing Trump and Bolton to make the claim that we have no choice but to invade in order to stop Iran’s WMD program.
Does this sound creepily familiar? It should.
On top of using an Iran nuclear weapons program as a pretext for war, Trump has already labeled Iran as a state-sponsor of terrorism, providing the “you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” applause line against anyone who dares to oppose the run-up to a war in Iran. It’s all so goddamned obvious.
If the dual motives of WMD and the global war on terrorism are in play, and there’s no sign they’re not, Trump might be prepared to attack Democrats with the same vigor the Bush administration and the GOP used against American patriots like Max Cleland.
Thanks to the drumbeat for war in Iraq and the labeling of good men as terrorist sympathizers, the Republicans were able to flip the U.S. Senate from 51-49 in favor of Dems to 51-49 in favor of the GOP. The Republicans also picked up seats in the House where the pre-election balance of power was similar to where it is today. The Republicans controlled both chambers until 2006, and in that time the Bush White House was rubberstamped all along the way by Congress.
On the other hand, 9/11 was a long time ago. The terrorist threat isn’t nearly as significant as it was following the worst ever attack on American soil. Consequently, it’s a little more difficult today to exploit the post-9/11 fear that pervaded the nation. And, hell, Trump might not be thinking this deeply about Iran as it relates to the midterms. It’s worth bearing in mind though what the specter of WMD and terrorism can do to motivate the warmongering vote. It’s happened before and it can surely happen again.
So, if Trump and his flying monkeys start screaming about “mushroom clouds,” hang on tight.