Van Creveld: Trump’s scary saber rattling in the Middle East

Summary: Martin van Creveld looks at one of President Trump’s greatest accomplishments – one of the rare modern presidents who has not attacked any nations. Now he is on the edge of war with Iran (plus starting a trade war with China, and possible involvement in Venezuela’s civil war).  Van Creveld explains what it all means.

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Saber Rattling in the Middle East

By Martin van Creveld. From his website, 16 May 2019.
Posted with his generous permission.

One of the few things I like about Trump is that, two and a half years into his presidency, he has not (yet) begun any new wars. In this he is very much unlike some of his predecessors. Including Bill Clinton who, for reasons only he and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright understood, waged war on Serbia. Including George Bush Jr. who waged two wars – one on Afghanistan and one on Iraq, of which the first was stupid and the second both stupid and gratuitous. And including Barack Obama who helped turn Libya into a bloody mess from which it has yet to recover.

As the New Yorker put it, the U.S has a long history of provoking, instigating, or launching wars based on dubious, flimsy, or even manufactured threats to which it was allegedly subjected by other countries. Just look at what happened in 1846, when President James Polk justified the Mexican-American War by claiming that Mexico had invaded U.S. territory; at that time, in fact, the border had not yet been drawn and no one knew where it was running.

Editor’s note: America has paid a high price for our unjust wars. As President Grant wrote in his Memoirs.

“I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war [with Mexico] which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. …The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”

When their turn came Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt all used similar methods. As, indeed, Lyndon Johnson may have done when he came up with the Bay of Tonkin incidents and used them to initiate his campaign against North Vietnam. Now Trump, for reasons known only to himself, is rattling his saber against Iran. Including both renewed economic sanctions and an arms buildup in the Middle East.

“For all I know, our navy was shooting at whales out there.”
— About the Tonkin Bay incident, attributed to President Johnson. Earliest source is David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.

As the mysterious incidents in the Emirati port of al-Fujairah show, in all this there is plenty of potential for escalation, deliberate or not.

Ed.’s note: False flag attacks are a commonplace, shaping history because they are easy and effective. Washington’s Blog has documented this history: see here and here.

How it will end no one knows. What seems clear, though, are two basic facts. One is that first Pakistan and then North Korea were able to avoid the sanctions imposed on them from various quarters and acquired the bomb nevertheless. This, as well as the nuclear history of some other members of the nuclear club, suggests that, had Iran really made building up its arsenal a top priority as the U.S and Israel claim, it would have succeeded long ago.

The other is that the existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of those countries, both of which have quite bellicose traditions, has put an end to large-scale warfare between them and their neighbors. Such being the case, there is every reason to think that the same weapons, by reassuring the Mullahs that some American president will not make them share Colonel Gadhafi’s fate, will do the same in the Middle East.

Ed’s note: This is an essential point. See these articles.

And where do America’s European allies come in? Here I can only agree with The Donald. No point in worrying what Europe can and cannot, may or may not, do. Too stingy and too disunited to build up any real military strength, basically all it can do is watch from the sidelines while the vital decisions are made by others.

As it has done so often in the past.


Editor’s note

As I have said many times during the past ten years, I do not believe that the US will attack Iran using military force. Rather Trump will continue current policy (in this, as in so many other things): the 40-year-long policy of using broad spectrum pressure on the Iran to limit and contain its influence. Sabre-rattling is one component of this policy, with the repeated visits of US naval armadas off Iran’s coast.

This is the core policy of the US – Israel – Saudi alliance that now dominates the Middle East. The produces vast benefits for Israel and the Saudi Princes, does little for America (other than arms manufacturers), and has potentially horrific long-term consequences the people of the region – beyond those from the blood shed in the wars we have sponsored since 9/11.

Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy. See his Wikipedia entry.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has written 24 books about almost every significant aspect of war. See links to his articles at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

OF more general interest are his books about western culture: Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?, The Privileged Sex, and Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West.

To better understand our future, see his magnum opus – the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – describes the political order unfolding before our eyes.

His latest book is Hitler in Hell, a mind-blowing memoir “by” one of the most remarkable men of 20th century.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Iran, and especially these …

  1. Have Iran’s leaders vowed to destroy Israel? — No, but it’s established as fact by repetition.
  2. Stratfor: Trump’s art of wrecking the nuclear deal with Iran.
  3. We pay for Trump’s gift to the hard-liners of Iran & America.
  4. Jessica Mathews: why scuttling the Iran deal is MAD.

Books by Martin van Creveld about Israel

The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel (2010).

The Sword And The Olive: A Critical History Of The Israeli Defense Force (1998).

Defending Israel: A Strategic Plan for Peace and Security (2005).

The Land of Blood and Honey
Available at Amazon.
The Sword And The Olive: A Critical History Of The Israeli Defense Force
Available at Amazon.


18 thoughts on “Van Creveld: Trump’s scary saber rattling in the Middle East”

    1. Ron,

      “Even Donald J. Trump is smarter than Bush Jr.”

      What is your evidence for that?

      “Tit for tat, lots of missiles.”

      What are you talking about? As stated, that makes no sense.

      1. Larry,

        I have no evidence, just i gut feeling. I see Trump as an isolationist. He pulled out of Syria (maybe) and I don’t see him sending troops anywhere, except a full blown war.

        Tit for tat would be Trumps fondness for missiles to retaliate against any stunt Iran might try.

        A lot of saber rattling on, Trump meeting with Putin soon would be a good idea.

      2. Ron,

        “I see Trump as an isolationist.”

        That’s quite weird. He’s been in office 29 months and hasn’t done anything isolationist.

        “He pulled out of Syria (maybe) ”

        That’s quite a mad statement. So anything that even slightly reduces our involvement in foreign wars is “isolationist.” I hope you and your children have signed up to fight in them. Please leave the rest of us out of your mad adventures.

      3. Larry,

        “That’s quite weird. He’s been in office 29 months and hasn’t done anything isolationist.”

        Pulling out of the Paris climate accord and trying to get a wall built are two examples.

      4. Ron,

        “Pulling out of the Paris climate accord”

        No other democracy, no other major nation allowed one guy to commit their nation to the Paris Agreement. Only the US, with constitutional scholar Obama’s stunning violation of the US Constitution. Even some third world and authoritarian states required more than one guy’s approval. See <a href=”” “rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>the details here.

        “trying to get a wall built are two examples.”

        Wrong in two ways. The first border wall was built in 1990. It has been expanded by every President since. It was substantially expanded by Bush Jr. and Obama. Also, control of borders is a primary aspect of State power. Limiting immigration has been US policy for 130 years. The President taking the most drastic action to stop immigration over the southern border was FDR.

        I used to believe such ignorance by partistans Left and Right was a problem. Now I believe it is an expression of a deep and serious, even critical, problem: American’s collapse into tribes. Each with tribal truths, with members indifferent to facts. As seen in this thread with Ron – and a thousand others like it. Correct two of his falsehoods, he replies with three more. Experience has shown that partisans can continue this forever, eventually repeating the falsehoods with which they began the thread. It’s a waste of time.

        But no problem is static. I wonder where this will end. In ten years will Ron and his ilk be asserting that 2+2=5, because that’s what they’ve been told?

      5. “But no problem is static. I wonder where this will end. In ten years will Ron and his ilk be asserting that 2+2=5, because that’s what they’ve been told?”

        Let’s hope I’m right and you and your ilk are wrong.

      6. Ron,

        Since you are unable to provide the slightest evidence to support your beliefs, which contradict simple facts, they are easily and properly ignored. Other than to show the large (hopefully not decisive) role of propaganda in US politics.

      7. Ron,

        As I’ve written many times during the past ten years, I don’t believe the US will attack Iran. That would be too mad even for us.

        The sabre-rattling is, however, causing ripples in the region. Probably with bad results.

  1. I would be VERY suspect of U.S intelligence for our intel track record is NOT good. What are our “allies” intel saying? Also, are there still “those” in the intel community the likes of Brennan and Clapper who successfully politicized/weaponized intel for opposition research purposes/political agendas who still want to mislead/misread the White House leadership sending WH and NSC down an errant path to cause a corybantic uproar/major misstep?????

    1. GI,

      That’s an important point! Not only do our intel agencies have a poor record of performance (often reporting what they are told to say) – there are indications that they have been politicized, becoming servants of the Democrats.

    1. Sven,

      “We better not get involved with Venezuela.”

      I hope not. I also hope that we’re not already involved with Venezuela.

      Odd how of all the troubled nations in the world, our leaders find that those with massive oil reserves deserve our “attention.

  2. Hi Larry,

    May Trump find the fortitude to follow his “no stupid wars” instincts. He’s doing himself no favors surrounding himself with people like John Bolton. FWIW, here are a few related pointers I found to help me understand better what’s going on in the Middle East, Iran, and the White House:

    Dexter Filkins’ John Bolton on the Warpath in The New Yorker. Intelligence is not wisdom, nor is it proof against folly. The man is a diplomatic disaster (cf. e.g. demanding North Korea adopt the “Libya model” for nuclear disarmament).

    Stephen M Walt’s If Nobody Knows Your Iran Policy, Does It Even Exist? in Foreign Policy. If we don’t know, how can Iran know? In what light are they to illuminate their decisions about our actions?

    Narges Bajoghli’s The Hidden Sources of Iranian Strength in Foreign Policy. Imperialists cannot understand anti-imperialism, it seems.

    Add it all up, and it seems that we have an administration internally at cross purposes confronting adversaries it doesn’t fully understand. It’s a shame, because Trump — whatever you think of him — is missing the opportunity of being a truly transformative president by formally ending the Korean War and ending the Afghanistan War and bringing those troops home. As it stands, he’s on his way to being remembered as a feckless, corrupt one-termer, and if he stumbles into yet another stupid war, a disastrous, feckless, corrupt one-termer.



    1. Bill,

      I agree on all points.

      “missing the opportunity of being a truly transformative president”

      True, but Trump has governed as a bog standard somewhat far Right GOP candidate. Bob Dole, two steps to the Right, with tweets. This was evident from his first round of appointments. And his rapid abandonment of campaign promises. I don’t understand how after 28 months of this people still expect something else.

  3. This is not directly related, but an International Student of mine just gave a talk on the US vs China Trade War,
    the Chinese response inside China is called 996.

    That is the workers in private enterprise are called on to work 9 am to 9 pm 6 days a week, since there is so much competition they just accept it. A Vietnamese student then said this is already pushing down Chinese costs of exports into other nations. That is they are not going to just push up consumption internally, but export deflation, via reduced costs.

    The student that gave the presentation, just wants Permanent Residence into Australia, as there are too few jobs now and they used to work 9 to 6 pm, Monday to Friday.

    This reminds me of a great Aunt of mine alive in the 1930’s depression, she was a Civil Servant and they all agreed to 25% pay cut, for the same hours of work, on the condition there were no job losses, not sure the West anywhere could do that again.

    We need to all take care who we fight and how many we fight at once.

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