A few hours after U.S. President Donald Trump announced on May 8 that the United States had exited the Iran nuclear deal, the doyenne of progressive political-action committees, MoveOn.org, sent out a fundraising email to supporters warning that “Trump’s war is coming.”
Among Americans, the world’s most generous nation when it comes to philanthropic and political causes, there’s a tacit understanding that funding appeals are given greater license to sound the alarm if doing so helps secure greater revenue. Still, one’s basic claims have to be credible and sound; when they are not, as is the case here with MoveOn’s fanciful warnings about Iran, one has to wonder whether those who chip donations to the network’s campaigns aren’t being taken for a ride.
This isn’t the first time that MoveOn has used Iran—and specifically, a defense of the former Obama administration’s appeasement of Iran—as a means of boosting its flagging fortunes among progressives. In the weeks after the deal was announced in July 2015, the PAC raised more than $11 million out of its vindictive campaign against leading New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer over the latter’s temerity in opposing Obama and John Kerry’s deal.
Reminding donors of its role in lobbying for the nuclear deal—Obama’s dearest legacy—MoveOn then depicted Trump as a warmongering Generalissimo itching for an excuse to go to war. To wit: “If you look at all of Trump’s actions and rhetoric together, you’ll see a man assembling a war Cabinet, laying the groundwork to roll out military action, and hungry to push our nation into combat.”
It’s all a little 2003—suspiciously so, in fact, given how different the present Middle East is to the circumstances that prevailed in the region on the eve of the Iraq war. But that war and the movement that opposed it presses all the right buttons among anti-war progressives, who remain as unperturbed now as they were back then about being in the same camp as Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In grafting the Iraq war onto the current Iranian theater, MoveOn believes that the specter of renewed American military deployment will ignite the fervor of progressives as the midterm elections approach. But the underlying thinking is flawed enough to invite skepticism—not least among progressives themselves—over whether anyone is actually going to be persuaded by this line of argument.
It’s perfectly reasonable to contend that Trump’s announcement might accelerate a military confrontation with Iran. But that is not going to be a confrontation that will lead to the deployment of 178,000 U.S.-led troops in the region, as occurred in Iraq. Nor are American interests and assets going to be the direct targets of such a confrontation. A war may well be on the cards, but not necessarily our war.
For progressives like MoveOn, foreign wars are only of political interest if they negatively implicate U.S. corporations and politicians. It helps even more if these wars are amenable to a grand, anti-imperial narrative—in the months before President George W. Bush went to war, millions of people in cities across the world marched to protest what was presented as an imminent, unjust onslaught on Iraq, the main purpose of which was to cement the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Nothing so convenient is available when it comes to Trump and Iran, however. Just as it’s not obvious that Trump is leading Americans into war, it’s not entirely clear which anti-imperial cause is at stake here. Iran—Persian and Shia—is certainly not a cause that animates the Arab street. Indeed, when Iranian protestors chant “Not Gaza, Not Palestine, My Life for Iran” during anti-regime rallies, it’s safe to assume that most Palestinians would return the compliment. More broadly, most Arab, Asian and European Muslims would not regard an attack on Iran as an attack on them; quite a few of them, including some Persians themselves, would welcome it.
Ironically, they would face in the same challenge in persuading Trump to go to war that MoveOn does when it insists the president wants nothing more: Trump has said and done very little that would slot him into the “warmonger” category. If he has a strategic doctrine, it’s one that leans on local allies to maintain their fundamental security and restricts U.S. military participation to short, demonstrative air strikes.
Crucially, in his dealings with North Korea as with Iran, Trump has shown himself to be an advocate of regime reform, rather than regime change—another key difference with the Iraq-war era. Instead of going to war, the United States demonstrates its unrivaled power by persuading and cajoling rogue states to moderate their external behavior as the price of survival. That, at least, is the theory that is about to be tested in the case of North Korea. Iran similarly has the option to directly engage the U.S. president—something Trump made crystal-clear when he announced America’s departure from the Iran deal.
Most irritating of all for those with fond memories of the anti-war activism of the 2000s, it can be argued that Trump’s Iran policy is hawkish enough to satisfy opponents of the Iran deal, yet cautious enough to allay fears of American troops being dragged into an imminent war. And if you talk to Israelis or read the Israeli press, you will realize that when they discuss what a war with Iran might entail, the universal assumption is that the Israel Defense Forces, and not the U.S. armed forces, will be doing the lion’s share of the fighting. That, perhaps, is the biggest difference of all.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.