Are we being led by lies into a conflict in the Middle East?

Informed Dissent: The gaslight presidency.

click to enlarge The Pentagon says the image shows Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Gulf of Oman. - Photo via US Navy
Photo via US Navy
The Pentagon says the image shows Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Gulf of Oman.

There are times when the White House’s torrent of bullshit seems almost inconsequential — another part of the Trump circus to which we’ve somehow acclimated. Through June 7, The Washington Post had chronicled nearly 10,800 of Donald Trump’s lies or misleading statements since he became president, an average of more than 12 a day made on Twitter, at his free-wheeling campaign rallies and while chatting with his favorite Fox News hosts. (On April 25, he made 45 false claims in a 45-minute interview with chief sycophant Sean Hannity. That’s almost impressive.) 

He lies about immigration. He lies about the Mueller report. He lies about his internal polling. He lies about Democrats wanting to murder newborn babies. He lies about trade deals. He lies about environmental proposals. He lies about lying. It’s second nature — what inevitably happens when he runs his mouth with no filter, little grasp of the consequences of his words and a pathological need to win the opprobrium of his intended audience.  

His staff does the same thing. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who announced this week that she’ll step down as press secretary at the end of this month, lied about things large and small, denied facts that were in plain sight, and she did it all with the monotone dispassion of a bored, dry-drunk soccer mom. 

They all lie. Lying is a tentpole of the Trump Circus. It generates the cycles of outrage and headlines that make Trump the center of attention. (In May, the president had nearly twice as many social media interactions, cable news mentions and Google search interest as all 23 Democratic presidential candidates combined.) The antagonistic coverage also gives Trump fuel to portray the “Fake News Media” as an enemy of the state, a tactic straight out of the authoritarian handbook to discredit critics and convince your followers of your invented reality. 

We’ve grown accustomed to the lying. His base either believes it or delights in the trolling; everyone else rolls their eyes. But Trump’s approval numbers don’t change. He’s a liar, everyone knows it, and we either care or we don’t. 

Trump’s impulsiveness and perpetually changing positions — the fact that what he says today may memory-holed tomorrow — have hurt American credibility on the world stage, though on occasion they’ve given allies and adversaries the impression that they’re dealing with an unstable, possibly irrational person whom they should consider placating to avert catastrophe. But Trump’s lack of credibility hasn’t provoked a war, at least not yet.  

Which brings me to the crisis with Iran. 

Last week, two Japanese oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman were struck by what the U.S. quickly claimed were Iranian limpet mines, which use magnets to attach to boats below the waterline. The Pentagon then released a grainy black-and-white video of what it said was an Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boat arriving on the scene and removing an undetonated limpet mine from the tanker’s hole, allegedly so Iran’s involvement would not be discovered. 

Two quick issues arise. One: The video showed the Iranians removing a bomb from well above the waterline, which seems to indicate that this wasn’t a limpet bomb. Two: Why would Iran responding to a distress call in waters near its territory be evidence of culpability? 

Indeed, the Japanese owner of one of the tankers contradicted the U.S. account, saying at a press conference that the explosion on the ship wasn’t triggered by a mine or a torpedo but by something dropped from an airplane. 

“We received reports that something flew towards the ship,” he said Friday. “The place where the projectile landed was significantly higher than the water level, so we are absolutely sure that this wasn’t a torpedo. I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship.”

Even having lived through the Bush administration lying to the world to engineer a ground war in Iraq, even knowing that the U.S. has a long history of bullshitting our way into bullshit wars — the Gulf of Tonkin, the U.S.S. Maine — I want to believe that Trump’s team isn’t lying about Iran to gin up a conflict. 

Even though National Security Adviser John Bolton is an unreconstructed neocon who’s never met a war he didn’t think someone else’s kids should die in. (He managed to avoid service in Vietnam — “I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy,” he later wrote, though he was, naturally, a big supporter of the war.)

Even though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is an end-times fundamentalist who believes a conflict in the Middle East will hasten Armageddon and bring Jesus back. 

Even though Trumpworld is up to its eyeballs in shady connections to the corrupt Saudi regime, which is vying with Iran for regional supremacy. 

Even though Trump started us down this path by reneging on the nuclear deal that the Obama administration and other world leaders had hashed out with Iran. (On Monday, after being blamed for the oil tanker explosions, Iran announced that it would soon break the uranium stockpile limit set by that deal, and that it might begin enriching uranium to near-weapons grade.) 

Even though they lie all the time, about everything, big or small, consequential or quotidian. 

Despite all that, I still want to believe that even an administration as mephitic as Trump’s wouldn’t lie us into yet another disastrous war, with the memory of the last one still fresh. And I still want to believe that, while Iran has certainly been a malign actor over the years, the president meant what he said about Iraq being “the single-worst decision ever made,” a mistake he wouldn’t repeat. 

But given what we know, such a belief is impossibly naïve. And that’s the real problem with Trump’s gaslight presidency. 


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