US President Donald Trump with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House. Photo: Mark Wilson / dpa for AFP

It has rightly been said that war is the bread and butter of the news media. It has wrongly been said that “good journalism” requires reporters and editors to have no opinion, no feelings, on the rights and wrongs of the wars they cover.

War coverage is not limited to the actual death and destruction inflicted on and by the combatants. It also includes the buildup to war and its aftermath. Those two peripheries can be just as depressing, as infuriating, as the bloodshed of the main event. Sometimes more so.

Just over 15 years ago, three Asia Times editors — a South African, a Canadian and an American — were sitting in a Bangkok bar trying to make sense of the buildup to the US invasion of Iraq. We failed. Within weeks, the website was awash in coverage of that now-infamous war.

Whether he actually said it or not, Mark Twain would probably approve of the observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” To distort another popular truism, we laugh because it’s funny, but cry because it’s true.

We’ve seen this movie before

So, here we are again, in another sardonic rhyme of history. Grim forces are working together, sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately, on a complex buildup to another huge conflict, probably centering on Iran but dragging into the mayhem all of the great powers. As usual, the United States is the main antagonist, but also, as usual, its reliable allies such as Britain and Israel will join the “coalition of the willing,” as will newcomers such as Saudi Arabia and that country’s own gang of subsidiaries in the Gulf dictatorships.

Asia Times Online gained most of its initial fame from accurately predicting that a country hardly anyone in the West knew anything about at the time, Afghanistan, would be the source of what would later come to be known as the “war on terror,” whose domino effect would throw the Middle East and its periphery into bloody chaos for the next decade and a half. The atrocities of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were just the opening acts.

Those acts and those that followed (besides the immense suffering and misery that all wars cause their victims) added fuel to the flames already practically out of control in a region defined by sectarian rivalry, greed for oil resources, ethnic persecution, and great-power political interference largely stirred up (as in nearly everywhere else in the world) by the Cold War — but having worsened if anything since the “end” of that phony conflict.

And here we are again. Yet this time the dull thud of war drums seems even more depressing as, unlike in the run-up to the Iraq war when millions marched in protest, most in the West are distracted by other concerns to care about yet another conflagration in that hopeless wasteland called the Middle East. Contributing to this unease is the growing threat of catastrophic climate change, an apparently never-ending shoveling of wealth into the numbered bank accounts of a tiny cabal of oligarchs, and anxiety manufactured by the merchants of disinformation in corporate-owned government and media.

Books have been written on the causes of war, but they can in every case be broken down into two main elements: stupidity and sheer bad luck

Books have been written on the causes of war, but they can in every case be broken down into two main elements: stupidity and sheer bad luck. The stupidity comes in many shapes and sizes; since around the middle of the last century it has mostly been the greed of the military-industrial complex, but also prominent in the mix are tribalism, xenophobia, racism, religion, and the lust for regional hegemony.

The bad-luck element is often in the form of serendipity, a series of unplanned events that feed off one another until they get so out of control that policymakers feel forced to “do something.” In nearly all such cases, opportunists — nowadays usually termed “populists” — stand ready to exploit the situation.

A prime example of potentially world-threatening serendipity is the current hysteria against Russia, America’s most likely contender in the Iran war. Who knew that a red-faced Democratic Party would concoct a theory that “Russia hacked the 2016 election” to put a clownish Manchurian candidate in the Oval Office? Who knew that the mainstream English-language media would so successfully exploit and keep on life support the Russiagate theory to shore up ratings and generate clickbait?

Who knew that the so-called Deep State would cash in on it at the same time, clicking its collective heels as media cheerleaders forgot about the lies and deception the security state had foisted on the US and UK public in the past, even as recently as 2003?

Who knew that someone, with apparently magical timing, would turbocharge the hysteria by poisoning a retired Russian spy living quietly in an obscure English town, just as the de-facto leader of the Wahhabist empire was busy wooing leaders of the capitalist empire in London and Washington into his apocalyptic quest to crush his Shia foes in Tehran once and for all?

The innocents always pay the price

The pieces of this puzzle are falling into place so quickly that it’s difficult to tell which are the result of canny planning and which are … well, just bad luck, at least for the women and children and working dads and rank-and-file soldiers who will, as always, pay the price for this folly, as the war-industry CEOs sit in the lap of luxury, as always. Some of the pieces are still to drop into place.

Complicating the situation — as if more complexity were needed — is that some of the likely players in the Iran war have their own agendas that do not fit neatly with those of the US and Russia. The Kurds are a third (neither Arab nor purely Persian) Muslim force scattered over four countries who want a nation of their own; the Turks are part of Nato but despise the Kurds and have their own dreams of a revived Ottoman Empire. Qatar, home to the most important US military base in the region, has been blockaded by the Saudi imperialists for being too cozy with Iran.

The best guess is that all of these relatively minor players will be bought off by the major belligerents. But the biggest unknown, for now, is quietly lurking within the walls of Zhongnanhai, headquarters of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing.

China is redefining Eurasian geopolitics

For years, China has been redefining Eurasian geopolitics not with guns and missiles (though it has these in abundance) but with investment (and the coincident debt traps), infrastructure mega-projects, subtly powerful allied groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS, and cashing in on shortsighted US foreign policies, especially vis-a-vis Russian and Europe.

China’s military complex is formidable on paper, but it has not been in a major shooting war since Korea in the the early 1950s. A major proxy war between its ally Russia and its hegemonic rival the US centered in Iran will leave Beijing on the back foot for the first time in its meteoric rise of the past several decades.

This raises another question: What is the real motive for Washington’s belligerence against Tehran? Its embarrassment at losing its puppet, the Shah, to an upstart ayatollah and the subsequent takeover of its embassy in Tehran now are just a few obscure pages in the history books, no more important to young Americans than the fall of Saigon. Iran’s bellicosity against Israel has always been mostly hot air. And the US has no dog in the Sunni-Shia fight perpetuated by the imams and ayatollahs in Riyadh and Tehran.

Maybe the long view is actually focusing on Beijing to reverse the apparently faltering quest to maintain Washington’s global dominance.

Worn-out principles no longer acceptable

Back in 2003, quality news websites like Asia Times were still quite rare, and the mainstream was still dominated by traditional media. Many of them behaved shamefully in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and its early stages, uncritically parroting the paranoia about Saddam Hussein’s ability to make mushroom clouds, gleefully “embedding” with the invaders, and smearing their old-fashioned colleagues who insisted on worn-out principles such as questioning authority and demanding to see evidence and to tap credible sources.

Arguably, it was the beginning of a long decline into the present day, when snake-oil salesmen like Donald Trump can simultaneously manipulate the media and slander them as purveyors of “fake news,” whenever and however it suits him. In days past, he would have been jeered off the stage. Now he is in the White House.

And so, we digitally ink-stained wretches, those of us who still think journalism is worth saving, brace for the ugliness of war, and when it comes we will record its horrors faithfully. But not objectively; forget about that. Not without anger and frustration. First, there will be the fire and fury, the piles of corpses, the overburdened hospitals, then “victory” for somebody or other, then the terrible aftermath — yet another flood of refugees, yet more broken promises of “reconstruction,” yet more failed states.

All will be faithfully recorded in the dim hope that this time we will not forget, and peace will prevail at last. But the far more likely outcome will be more cacophony from the monotonous rhyme of history.

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David Simmons

David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor's degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.

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