DEATH BY DEMAGOGUERY

The whole world is mourning the death of 176 passengers, including 57 Canadians, aboard Ukranian Air Flight 752 that crashed just after takeoff from Tehran on January 8th.  Late last week it appeared that the story would command the world’s attention for some time as it transitioned from one of identifying and grieving the dead to addressing the initially unknown but highly suspicious cause of the disaster.

But three days later, in a dramatic turnaround, the Iranian government admitted to what was increasingly obvious to all; the aircraft was downed by surface-to-air missiles fired by its own Revolutionary Guard when it mistook the aircraft for an American cruise missile.  The mistake was not an unusual one; mistakes like this have happened many times before when armed forces are required to make quick decisions in a state of high alert and readiness.  It happened to Iranian airliner in 1988 over the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, and it happened most recently to a Malaysian airliner over Crimea in 2014 during the height of tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

The surprising Iranian admission has taken the wind out of those most angrily demanding transparency, but the Canadian government continues to rightly push for the specifics behind this mishap.  The Iranians have already made some arrests (interestingly including in its first wave the unlucky citizen who filmed and uploaded the missile impacts on his or her cell phone camera!), and, as in the case of the Saudi handling of the assassination of Jamaal Khashoggi, there will undoubtedly be an opaque investigation by the Iranians that will result in one or more officers or foot soldiers being tried and perhaps even executed for this debacle.  Case closed.

But looking beyond human error in the fog of (almost) war, there is a more troubling culpability to consider.  The chain of events that led to the over eager missile finger is the product of some very deliberate actions by entirely responsible parties that have had grave consequences.  No matter how the Americans choose to view this, it does indeed start with the decision to assassinate Revolutionary Guard General Qasem Soleimani on January 3rd.  This was the act that transformed the long simmering proxy war between the US and Iran into a direct confrontation.  The apparent justification for this undeniable provocation was the storming of the US Embassy in Baghdad by Iranian supported Iraqi proxy forces four days earlier.  Although no Americans were killed or hurt, the symbolic reminder of the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 that resulted in 52 American hostages being held for 444 days was not something the Americans were prepared to treat as part of the usual exchange of unpleasantries.

What came next was a fascinating and deft dance of de-escalation.  The Iranians fired off a barrage of missiles to strike two Iraqi bases used by the US and its allies that, miraculously, resulted in no deaths or injuries to anyone.  For his part, Donald Trump immediately and uncharacteristically downplayed the significance and malevolence of the Iranian strike, and even confirmed that he expected no further hostile action on the part of the Iranians.  A conspicuously active Iranian General was killed, an obviously orchestrated “attack” was stage-managed to save face for the Iranians, and everyone agreed to stand down.  In terms of their critical strategic actions, Trump and Khamenei look like Kennedy and Khruschev during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Where both sides were considerably less stateman-like, however, was in their rhetoric.  Trumps’s demonstrably illegal and inflammatory threats to Iranian cultural sites unnecessarily and unhelpfully doubled down on the provocation of the drone killing.  In response, the excesses of the state-organized “Death to America” rallies proved hard to control.  The consequences were grim.  Fifty six irresponsibly-provoked mourners died and a further 213 were injured in a violent stampede at the funeral procession for General Soleimani in his home city of Kerman.  And given the obviously over-anxious trigger finger on the surface to air missiles, it seems clear that the Iranian defence forces might have been insufficiently briefed on the pre-negotiated theatrics of the military response, resulting in another 176 deaths.  A well controlled and responsibly managed exercise in de-escalation held the intentional death toll to a single General.  The excesses of demagoguery engaged in by both sides as part of that exercise, however, resulted in 232 deaths.

In debating the performance and legacy of Donald Trump, many believe that his style can and should be ignored.  It is inarguable that no matter how one views the substance of his actions, his manner of conducting himself and his relationships with domestic and international counterparties is far worse.  America bears the burden of global leadership, and particularly so in the context of aggressive actions taken by its forces in foreign territories.  American leaders will always be judged on both the style and substance of their actions.  Barack Obama has been subject to much criticism for his use of extra-territorial drone killings as an instrument of US defence policy during his presidency.  However, in doing so, Obama was always careful to avoid escalating those actions with provocative rhetoric.

Rhetoric can have consequences independent of the substantive actions it serves.  Both Donald Trump and his supporters seem to be unaware of this reality.  The results, both domestically and internationally, are always damaging and sometimes deadly.

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