There used to be, back in the day, a thing called the “silly season”.
Christmas, etc, came along and the northern hemisphere calmed down for a couple of weeks. Australia shut down for a month and newspapers filled up with global wire copy, bought-in op eds from UK writers with names like “Piers Dreever-Drax”, and “summer stories” by B-list novelists (‘As the gulls cawed over Lorne pier, trembling, I put down my can of Clear Cola and kissed her Poppy-King lipsticked mouth…’).
It was hell for a news junkie, that stuff, but I miss it, given that silly season is now marked by a week in which the country burns down, and the US assassinates the de facto co-leader of a regional power in the Middle East.
First week out. Fantastic.
The killing of Qassem Soleimani gained what we might now have come to recognise as an all-seasons silly season effect, in which the global power relations of an earlier era — the last two decades or so of the Cold War — were superimposed on the current messy reality.
The mainstream US media jumped into depoliticised mode of moral reasoning about taking out a bad guy — unquestioned in conservative media, debated in liberal media — while sections of the left and the isolationist right warned of Iran’s terrible revenge, cauldron of radical forces, do not bait the Persian lion in his den, etc etc.
There was some logic to this, as far as US conduct goes, in that the Trump administration has returned US foreign policy not to a pre-WWII isolationism (as some conservatives hoped he would and projected onto him) but to a pre-9/11, Reaganite, “appearance of victory” conduct. So nothing like Iraq 2003, nor even the 1990 Gulf War, nor even Obama/Hillary’s Libya op.
Trump made it clear in his 2016 campaign that he wasn’t about disengagement, he was about winning. So, get out of the tangled business of protecting the Syrian Kurds — even if they’re a good bet for ongoing regional US influence — and back into the business of supporting South American coups, like the recent ousting of Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Assassinating Soleimani is the sort of gangsterish operation — though morally no worse, and perhaps in some cases better, than Obama’s drone wars — that appeals to Trump, and to sections of the heartland. But if that part was a successful Cold War-style operation, much of the response was obvious wish-fulfilment for a time when there was a global anti-imperialist other, however flawed, that would respond.
That was a yearning for the days when the US risked attacks across the world, as reprisals for an attack on one resistant entity. In the absence of such, the muttering about the terrible revenge Iran would wreak took on a vaguely orientalist character, as it came to be suggested that the Iranian leadership — an authoritarian technocracy, stymied by sanctions — would not be able to restrain itself, etc.
This was to suggest that the leadership was as one with the populace, but also that all the recent demonstrations against the regime had no element of staging to them.
When Iran responded with a missile strike against a minor US base, Trump tweeted “All is well” and the transactional nature of the exchange was made clear (there’s no point saying “imagine if Obama…” anymore; the asymmetry is now total, in that regard).
The take-away seemed to be that Soleimani got careless and arrogant — the man seemed to be a self-mythologiser of epic proportions, with a huge social media presence; a silver-fox beard to, well, die for; and a Paris Hilton head-tilt for the papparazzi. The US took its change.
Contemporary US-world relations are repeated, first as The Godfather, then as The Godfather parts two and three. That’s not to say that Iran won’t take action, once the fuss has died down, that quietly dissuades future administrations from such bold action. That would be attacks by proxies and clients, too small for headlines but making stable presence impossible.
But they may not. Soleimani’s great skill was apparently in assembling a large and varied orchestra of Shia and pro-Shia non-state groups across the region, in preparation for the time when the US really quits the region and the Sunni-Shia-Russia jostling for power begins.
In that scenario, Iran and the US have shared interests in a loose back-channel alliance — and Iran-contra retro! What could be more Reagan-era than that? The only difference is that there is not now a Cold War game of nations, but a social war going on in dozens of places: Lebanon and Iraq on the brink; huge (and unreported) regional general strikes in India, and so on. Including the US.
All politics is local as they said in the Reagan times, and the Soleimani strike occurs as Trump’s trade fails to deliver to the heartland — virtually as the missiles landed, Mack Trucks announced it was closing a main-branded plant in Pensylvania, which will hit like a missile strike of its own. GM is on strike, also unreported, even though these are the largest US autoworker strikes for some years.
The people who said Trump couldn’t win four years ago are now saying he can’t lose. Both judgements were, and are, a condescension to the voters.
Trump, or his team, would know that their boom is mostly low-waged and part-time work, and if iconic truck factories are closing then many Trump voters may feel they gave him a chance and he didn’t deliver.
Nothing like killing a bad guy to get the corn-syrup-feel of global dominance flowing again.
With no Democrat willing to take an economic left/global right position — Medicare for all! Bomb Iran! — the party once again gets tangled in progressive knots. And will all the way to the election.
Silly season abolished? No, it’s permanent.
‘As the moon rose and “Video killed the radio star” played, she took the scrunchie from her hair and missiles arced over Portsea yacht club…’
Will Trump’s Middle East adventures save him? Let us know your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your full name to be considered for publication.