The irony is that Russia could invade the United States and no one would notice because the media is so focused on the investigation into Russia. One imagines the amphibious landing vehicles opening their maws, the paratroopers drifting down, Vladimir Putin smiling wickedly as he pulls down a map with the entire world labeled “Novorossiya”—and Brian Williams putting his finger to his ear: “Hold on…I’m being told that Robert Mueller may have used the words ‘obstruction of justice’ in a text message six years ago. Can we confirm that please?”
I’m being less farcical than you think. While news coverage over the weekend was dominated by tedious hearsay over Mueller’s probe, the White House really did escalate towards a potential war. After a Syrian jet dropped bombs near U.S.-backed rebel forces, an American Super Hornet shot the plane down on Sunday. This was an unprovoked attack—some of the rebels were injured by the Syrian bomber but no American troops were affected—and an illegal one, given that the United States has never passed an authorization for use of military force against the Assad regime or any of its allies.
And it was the fifth such action against the Russian/Iran/Hezbollah/Assad coalition in only three months. You’ll well remember Trump’s trumpeted strike on an regime airbase where Russians were stationed; since then, American forces have bombed a Syrian tank convoy, attacked an Iranian militia operating in Syria, and blown out of the sky an Iranian-made drone. Once upon a time the United States tried to defuse tensions after Turkey fired on a Russian jet; now we blow up the hardware ourselves with seemingly little regard for the consequences. The culprits are Donald Trump’s preprandial approach to ordering killings in the Middle East, and the president’s hardline advisors who want to use Syria as an excuse to confront Iran and Russia. Thank goodness even noted Iran hawk James Mattis thinks this approach is too hot.
So the amplifier has been cranked another digit closer to 11. The Kremlin has announced that they’re suspending the deconfliction channel with the United States over Syria, just as they did after the Sharyat attack. American jets flying over Syria will now be treated by the Russians as targets, to be tracked by their SAM systems (though Moscow didn’t specify whether they’d be shot down). “But we showed strength!” grunt the hawks. Strength in service of what? A strip of desert? The rollback of “creeping” Iranian power? Iran’s influence can’t “creep” into Syria; it’s been there for decades. And while Tehran does wield more control over Iraq than it used to thanks to the proliferation of its militias there, that hardly necessitates our involvement. It’s precisely because we invaded Iraq that Iran was able to extend its tentacles into its westward neighbor.
Even in fiscally psychotic Washington, the cost-benefit analysis of risking a great-powers war with Russia over such fictitious interests should come back with alarms. Am I being overdramatic here? Maybe. But as I’ve warned before, if we are to fight another war, it won’t start with some out-of-the-blue incident; it will be backed into slowly, with the players swapping gradual escalations until we realize we’re trapped in conflict—with Iran or worse—and can no longer tread the maelstrom we’ve created. Couple our provocations towards Russia of late with the most febrile anti-Moscow climate in Washington since the Second Red Scare, and even the humblest student of history can recognize the danger, remote though it might be.
World War I was preceded by years of empire maneuvering in Africa and the Balkans, until the question wasn’t so much if the armies would bring the fight home to Western Europe but when. And just as Morocco wasn’t worth the wholesale carnage of the Somme and the Marne, neither is Tabqah worth even the most infinitesimal likelihood of the bloodshed that could follow. Not the travel ban, not the convulsions on Twitter—this is the most heedless thing Donald Trump has done. It is also where Trumpism aligns most with official Washington opinion, fraternal forms of extremism that blur together when you squint.
For years, many have demanded that we reassure allies that don’t behave like allies, confront enemies that don’t have to be enemies, show strength even where it isn’t needed. Today, as more American forces head for Syria and lupine smiles creep across Saudi countenances, we see the consequence of this approach: a more dangerous world, not a safer one.