This is a very dangerous moment

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif (Credit: Washington Post)

Which one of these statements sends a clear message?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif:

“I’m making a very serious statement that we don’t want war; we don’t want to engage in a military confrontation,” Mr. Zarif told CNN in an interview. “But we won’t blink to defend our territory.

President Donald J. Trump:

“There are many options. There’s the ultimate option, and there are options a lot less than that,” the president told reporters in Los Angeles, while announcing a move to increase sanctions on Iran.

I feel pretty confident that the Iranians are not bluffing. But how confident can anyone be about American intentions?

You tell me how all this is going to play out.

Here’s why ‘Sharpiegate’ matters

The Abqaiq oil facility burns Saturday night. (Credit: Reuters)

Because when this administration claims it has evidence that Iran was responsible for a devastating attack on a Saudi oil production facility over the weekend, the world, and the American public, is right to be skeptical.

President Trump, enabled by craven and opportunistic aides and advisors, lies the way the rest of us breathe. As my friend and colleague Steve Saideman writes at his blog:

[W]e know that the Trump Administration has no credibility–it has lied about a great many things, so even if they come out with some evidence of either Iranian complicity (and Iran is almost certainly at least complicit) or Iran guilt, it will be easy for folks to dismiss these claims.

Let’s be honest. Can a president who would take a Sharpie to alter a weather forecast map in a childishly obvious attempt to cover for an inconsequential mistake, and then mobilize his Commerce Secretary to threaten to fire some of the nation’s top weather officials unless they also lied to support the president’s lie, be trusted to tell the truth on a matter of real consequence?

Even now, while the Trump administration claims photographic evidence proves the attacks came from Iranian territory, the Saudi government has so far declined to back that conclusion, according to Beirut-based reporter Dion Nissenbaum of the Wall Street Journal:

This all has real consequences, because Trump has again turned to Twitter threatening American military retaliation, raising the specter of triggering what virtually all observers realize would be an absolutely catastrophic war.

Of course this is not the first time that Trump has made a threat like this against Iran, as I’ve commented on here and here. Threats that this president, who seemingly believes tough talk is as good as tough action, has in every case failed to follow through on. I put it this way back in the good old days of “fire and fury”:

The problem is that Trump simply has no credibility. His words are not believable and therefore his threats likely carry no weight with North Korea or anyone else for that matter. Not even the American public believes what they hear coming out of the White House. So why should our adversaries?

Trump routinely lards his rhetoric with threats, violence, and aggression. Such language was part and parcel of his stump speeches as a candidate, reared its head in his inaugural address, and comes out when he talks to or about his political opponents and adversaries.

And he routinely fails to follow through on the threats he makes. He threatens to force Mexico to fund his border wall, but Congress is scrounging for the money. He threatened to withdraw from NAFTA but hasn’t. He threatened a trade war with China but was talked out of it. He threatened Germany over what he believes to be unfair terms of trade. He threatened to lock Hillary Clinton up and sue James Comey. Neither seems to be sweating over it.

Couple all of this with Trump’s penchant for lying and his administrations overall lack of credibility when it comes to the threats it so easily tosses off, and the danger is clear.

The key to successful application of coercive diplomacy – in short using threats of force to either deter an opponent from action, or to compel him to act – relies on more than the capability to inflict an unacceptable level of punishment if your opponent fails to comply. It also requires credibility. The opponent must believe that you will follow through on the threats you’ve made. Without that belief, coercion fails.

And then you’re stuck.

Fail to follow through and you create an impression of weakness, the perception that you are either unable or unwilling to deliver on your threats, a blowhard whose blustering can be safely ignored in the future. Or use the force you’ve threatened and risk dragging yourself into a military conflict no one wanted and which could easily spiral out of control.

The perception of weakness has dire consequences in international politics, which is why most responsible foreign policymakers are very cautious when it comes to the threats they make. Sadly, responsible policymakers are in short supply in this White House.

We’re going to have to wait to find out what the fallout from this particular episode is going to be. I’m not optimistic.

Our new old terrorism

Watertown, N.Y., Ku Klux Klan members, c.1870. (Library of Congress)

In April, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security released a report on domestic terrorism in the United States during 2018. They documented 32 terrorist attacks, disrupted plots, threats of violence, or weapons stockpiling by individuals motivated by a radical social or political agenda and who had not been influenced or directed by any foreign terrorist organization or movement.

All 32 cases were driven by far-right political or social ideologies. Thirteen of the 32 were perpetrated by race-based extremists, another 17 by right-wing anti-government extremists. African-Americans were targeted in 29 percent of all incidents, Jews in another 10 percent. Nineteen percent of incidents targeted law enforcement.

In short, what the NJOHS reported in April is perfectly consistent with what I have been asserting for nearly all of the four years that I’ve been writing this blog. The primary threat of terrorism in the United States comes not from wild-eyed jihadists but from the ranks of America’s anti-government and racist far right.

But lest we think this is some kind of recent development, a new dataset on terrorist organizations that formed between 1860-1969, compiled by University of Iowa Ph.D candidate Joshua Tschantret, reminds us that this is nothing new at all. It is, rather, the historical norm.

According to Tschantret’s data, 28 terrorist groups formed and were active in the United States between 1860 and 1969. Of those 28, nearly half, some 13 organizations, carried out acts of violence, including bombings and assassinations, in support of right-wing ideologies. All but one of these were motivated by white supremacist ideology. The lone exception was the Secret Army Organization, formed in California in 1969 and targeting the organizers of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. All of the rest used violence in pursuit of explicitly racist goals.

The earliest of these groups came together in the South during the early years of Reconstruction, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, groups like the original iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, and others such as the Southern Cross and the Knights of the White Camellia. The White Line would spring up a decade later, in 1874 in Mississippi, and the Klan would be reborn in Atlanta in 1915. A decade later would come the Black Legion, a Klan splinter group organized in Bellaire, Ohio by a doctor named William Shephard.

Atlanta would also see, in 1946, the emergence of the Columbians, a racist and anti-Semitic pro-Nazi organization. Edward Folliard of the Washington Post would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his reporting on the group. The 1950s would bring yet another rebirth of the Klan, this one still in existence today, along with more offshoots, like the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, born in 1955 in Birmingham, Ala., followed by the United Klans of America in 1960.

The 1960s would spawn two more white supremacist organizations. The Silver Dollar Group emerges in Louisiana in 1964 as a Klan offshoot organizing in leaderless resistance cells which assassinated African-Americans and bombed the cars of NAACP organizers. The White Knights of Mississippi, another Klan branch, also organized in 1964 and continues in existence today.

The definitions of terrorism that scholars like me adopt when we study and teach about this phenomenon tend to point to 1860 as the birth of the modern era of terrorism. That brings us face to face with a sad but inevitable conclusion:

Our past history of racist, right-wing terrorism in America is consistent with our present reality of racist, right-wing terrorism in America. El Paso is just the bloodiest, most recent example.

There’s Trump’s July 4th, and there’s all of ours

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Donald Trump’s plans for 4th of July celebrations in Washington, D.C., are just the latest indicator that the man doesn’t know America.

His desire to turn a celebration of our nation’s independence into a feeble, self-aggrandizing imitation of the Bastille Day display he fell in love with on his first state visit to France speaks volume’s about the small insecure man’s lack of understanding of our history, our country, our people, and our principles.

Military flyovers, tanks displayed on the National Mall, and a political speech made before political loyalists seated in a roped-off VIP section for cravens, cronies, and lickspittles, have nothing to do with the occasion we celebrate on July 4th. On this day we do not celebrate American military might. On this day we celebrate an act of political defiance, of 18th century #Resistance if you will.

Ratification of the Declaration of Independence on this day in 1776 was a statement of principles made on behalf of all Americans, even as we still struggle to fully live in to those principles.

The ratification of the Declaration came more than a year after the first shots of the War of Independence were fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, and nine years before victory was finally won on the field at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1789. Yet we celebrate neither the feats of arms that began our quest for independence nor those that concluded it. Instead, we celebrate the day that we formally proclaimed the principles that would motivate that dreadful struggle and see it through.

We are not a nation that flaunts its military might in gratuitous display, nor one whose calendar revolves around its martial history. We celebrate neither the great victories of our history nor commemorate our tragic defeats the way other, frankly less capable and self-assured, nations do.

Consider the other patriotic holidays that mark our national calendar. On Memorial Day we remember those who sacrificed all in the service of their country, on countless battlefields and duty posts abroad and at home. On Veterans Day we honor all those who served and celebrate their contribution to our collective freedom and security.

It is worth remembering that Veterans Day was once known as Armistice Day, a holiday marking neither victory nor defeat, but peace, the falling silent of the guns on the Western Front slaughterhouses of the First World War.

We mark our nation’s independence in celebrations that bring us together, despite our differences, not divide us. We celebrate not with partisan diatribes, neither with marching boots nor the rumble of tanks, but with picnics, cookouts, ballgames, carnivals, and neighborhood fireworks displays.

Donald Trump wants to change that, and make the day about himself. In true draft-dodging chickenhawk fashion, he wants to bathe himself in the reflected glory of one of the few American institutions that the vast majority of us still respect. He wants to change the day.

Donald Trump wants to change America. But he can’t.

Unless we let him.