It’s an odd, eerie thing to watch the current actors on the global stage going through the motions that we’ve read about in history books, as if they’re illustrating the lessons of those books—making the same mistakes, unleashing the same dynamics of action and reaction, following the road wrongly taken to its winding dead end.
Watching the leaders of the United States and Iran ratchet up the “escalation ladder” toward the first shots of war is like watching the scene in a dopey horror movie where the teenagers go down in the basement to see what’s making noise and you want to yell out, “Haven’t you guys seen one of these movies?”
The problem is that our teenager in this real-life horror movie, President Donald Trump, hasn’t seen one of those movies. He hasn’t read the history books about how one thing led to another—how, for instance, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand led Germany to declare war on Russia, then to invade France and Belgium, which led Britain to declare war on Germany, which sparked World War I.
The parallels are far from precise—history doesn’t repeat itself, though it often rhymes, as they say—but it’s hair-raising to follow the news with those chronicles in mind. Trump pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal, reimposes the sanctions that the deal had lifted, presses sanctions on other countries that continue to trade with Iran; Iran feels boxed in; oil tankers are struck in the Gulf of Oman, maybe by Iran (as U.S. officials claim), maybe not; an American surveillance drone is shot down, definitely by Iran (whose officials say it was flying over Iranian territory, a claim U.S. officials deny); U.S. officials say if a single American is killed in the area in the coming days, it will be seen as a “red line” crossed.
If you’ve studied enough history, you can pretty much write the next chapter in this book—that is, if both sides in this game of chicken keep pushing their pedals to the metal and hope the other veers off the highway to safety.
Nothing in this scenario is inexorable or automatic. Recent archival research has revealed that the uncontrolled-escalation theory of the origins of World War I, popularized by Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 bestseller, The Guns of August, was an exaggeration. Germany, it turns out, was keen to expand its empire and eagerly exploited the opportunity opened up by the gunshots in Sarajevo. By the same token, one could argue, Donald Trump—or at least two of his key advisers—has been keen on “regime change” in Tehran, and his exploitation of similar opportunities may lead to the same fate: not a world war, but a bloody mess of one, anyway. The dynamics that Tuchman described—the interlocking gears and wheels spurred into motion by a string of fatal miscalculations—she got right, and it’s worth a president’s time to try to avoid them in a confrontation, to push the “Stop” button before things get too far out of hand.
President John F. Kennedy had read The Guns of August by October 1962, when the CIA spotted Soviet missiles being covertly installed in Cuba. For the next 13 days, conferring with his advisers over how to handle the threat 90 miles off American shores, he was keen to avoid the syndrome that Tuchman had outlined—so that some future historian would not write a book called The Missiles of October.
By the third day of the Cuban missile crisis, while most of his advisers were pondering whether to launch airstrikes right away or a few days later, Kennedy was trying to put himself in Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s shoes, asking why he would take such a dangerous risk, what he wanted to gain, and what kind of face-saving gesture might ease him into backing down.
Eventually, Khrushchev offered a trade: He would take his missiles out of Cuba if Kennedy withdrew similar missiles from Turkey, near the USSR’s southern border. Kennedy, who had mulled a similar solution on the second day of the crisis, snapped up the deal—though he told only a handful of his advisers that he was doing so, leaving the others and the rest of the world to believe the myth that he’d gone eyeball to eyeball with the Russians, and they blinked, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk later put it. (The truth didn’t come out until the mid-1980s, with the release of JFK’s secret tape recordings of all the meetings with his advisers.)
One difference between the Cuban crisis of 1962 and the Iranian crisis of 2019 is that, in the former, the American president wanted to avoid war, had read some history on how past leaders got locked into war, and thought deeply about how he might avoid the same trap. It also turned out that Khrushchev, his adversary in that crisis, proved to be an eager partner in the quest for a way out; he knew, from the outset, that if the Americans saw him putting missiles in Cuba before they were up and ready to go, he would lose a confrontation.
By contrast, in the crisis with Iran, Trump seems clueless on how to go about avoiding war; at least two of his aides—national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—seem keen on turning up the pressure, and we have no idea what the Iranian leaders, or their various factions, want.
Trump has been saying he doesn’t want war. He recently gave Swiss diplomats, who had served as intermediaries between the U.S. and Iran during previous periods of tension, a phone number where the Iranians could call him. The Iranians weren’t interested; they don’t trust him, nor should they, given Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, which they were honoring. More recently, Trump said that the attack on the oil tankers—which precipitated the rise in tensions—was actually a “very minor” thing. (He’s right, actually, but then why all the fuss? Why the request for 1,000 more U.S. troops in the region?)
In recent days, as part of their own ratcheting up, the Iranians announced that they would soon be enriching uranium beyond the level permitted by the nuclear deal. A State Department spokesman warned that this would be a very destabilizing step—ironic, given that Trump has said repeatedly (and falsely) that the deal was one of the worst ever negotiated and that it did nothing to stop the Iranians from building an A-bomb. (It would all be funny if it weren’t so frightening.)
Trump may well not want war; he may have intended his “maximum pressure” campaign as a way of driving the Iranians back to the bargaining table. As any specialist on Iranian politics could have told him, it was certain to fail, especially given that the Iranians never left the table; they are, in effect, still there, waiting for the United States—which walked out for no good reason—to come back.
In short, neither side wants to take the first step toward calm. Neither wants to appear weak or overly conciliatory. Trump still hopes the Iranians will make the move. The Iranians seem to be hoping that some of the other signatories of the nuclear deal—Britain, France, Germany, the EU, or especially Russia or China—might persuade Trump to give in first.
The exit ramp off this express lane to war is really pretty wide and clear. It might involve some cosmetic gesture, from both sides, to restart the Iran nuclear deal—perhaps attached to a new clause requiring follow-on negotiations to extend the deal’s deadlines. Those talks might go nowhere, but as Winston Churchill once said, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.” No one on the scene today is Churchill or Kennedy or Khrushchev. But can’t one of them put out a little bit of jaw?
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