Most wars happen: sometimes because a predator sees an easy target (Mexican-American War 1846, Korea 1951), sometimes because it is believed God or some ideology decreed it (The Crusades, Iraq 2003), sometimes because domestic politics demand it (War of 1812, Israel-Lebanon 2006), and sometimes because of stupid accidents (World War I). Amazingly, the last two years has opened the possibility for several wars to break out via the stupid mistake route. North Korea, Venezuela, Israel-Palestine, and India-Pakistan all fit the bill.
But two confrontations have the greatest potential for accidental conflict: Trump vs. Iran and Erdogan vs. Greece and Cyprus. I chose to personify the United States and Turkey with their two leaders because both confrontations are a consequence of some remarkable similarities between the two. Both have a bombastic nationalistic style wrapped in old-fashioned religion that appeals to their core constituency, both believe that threats of military force compel concessions and both have surrounded themselves with sycophants who play to their worst instincts. In Turkey’s case, unfortunately, the principal opposition parties pour oil on the fire by adopting even more jingoistic rhetoric. Erdogan has, through purges, already reshaped the Turkish military into his cult of the individual. Trump has just begun the process with the U.S. military. We should worry when Trump toadies in the White House persuade a U.S. Navy Admiral to drop a tarpaulin over the name of the destroyer USS John S. McCain to avoid offending the ego of Our Glorious Leader.
Erdogan dramatically improved Turkey’s economy for a decade before wrapping himself in the mantle of Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleiman the Magnificent. Trump has juiced the American economy with tax cuts and prodigious spending but leaped into the role of Andrew Jackson and James Polk early in the game. Both leaders have picked what they may consider weak foreign enemies to intimidate for domestic gain and both may have opened a Pandora’s Box that will lead to war.
In Turkey’s case, Erdogan has taken the irredentist path to recover the Ottoman lands so treacherously surrendered by Kemal Ataturk, the man whose legacy he wishes to erase. Erdogan rhetorically demands restoration of Turkish sovereignty over Mosul in Iraq, Cyprus and the Aegean Islands (“so close I can shout to them”) that Ataturk so cravenly abandoned in the Treaty of Lausanne. The Iraqi adventure, combined with his excursion into Syria, has not gone well. Turkish troops entered both countries but have been checked by Russian and American forces. Violating the axiom that one does not open multiple fronts at the same time, Erdogan challenges Cypriot and Greek control of their own Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Erdogan sent frigates to scare off an Italian Company that had a concession in the Cyprus EEZ. Now he has sent Turkish exploration ships, escorted by warships, into the Cyprus EEZ off the Turkish-occupied northern part of the island republic. Turkish warplanes and ships continue to violate Greek airspace, territorial seas and, occasionally, overfly the islands themselves.
So far, his luck has held. But even though the current Government in Athens may be the least nationalist and most pacifist in modern history, it still has red lines. The danger stems from Erdogan’s purge of experienced senior Turkish officers who knew those red lines and who worked with their Greek counterparts to keep unintended incidents from spiraling out of control in the past. The system failed only once, in 1996, when Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller pushed the envelope by ordering a landing on the small and uninhabited Greek island of Imia. The two countries’ air and naval forces were clearing the decks for action when President Clinton intervened to calm things down. Recently, a series of incidents has illustrated the current absence of adult control in the Turkish Armed Forces such as the ramming of Greek patrol boats and deliberate buzzing of aircraft carrying senior Greek officials. Imagine what would happen should an inexperienced Turkish pilot crash into the Greek PM’s helicopter.
Similarly to his Turkish doppelganger, Trump has demonstrated his determination to erase Obama’s legacy (appealing to those threatened by a non-white President). Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran (“the worst agreement ever”), and has tried to coerce Iran into concessions greater than whatever Obama got. “Maximum pressure” based on cutting Iran’s oil exports has done real damage to the Iranian economy. He has reinforced the U.S. military presence in the region and threatens to “end Iran” if provoked. Unfortunately, he and his team have failed to articulate exactly what they want Iran to concede. Trump has surrounded himself with a foreign policy team that appears to have focused on regime change in Tehran, in other words, a demand that the mullahs agree to commit suicide. They also ignore the fact that the Iranian people have a sense of three millennia of history. No matter how much they may disapprove of their leaders, they will not succumb to foreign pressure especially when they see Trump acting on behalf of their declared enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Trump appears determined to avoid war as he promised his voters. So does the leadership in Tehran. The Iranians are skilled diplomats and can manage provocations. However, Trump lacks the most basic knowledge of how the system works. He has alienated all our allies, coerced otherwise friendly countries into acting against their own interests, and has allowed the least capable of the neocon crowd that organized the war in Iraq to run his team. Worse, he has put himself at the mercy of other players, i.e., Israel and Saudi Arabia, who openly desire an American attack on Iran. Both have the skill sets to create incidents that will help Trump’s super chickenhawk National Security Advisor, John Bolton, stampede him into “retaliatory” military action. They can easily set off a bomb or fire a rocket of unknown provenance and tell us that the Iranians did it. If the casualty list among Americans is big enough, Trump will not be able to stop a headlong rush to war.
The only check on Erdogan today is his entrapment by Vladimir Putin. No one, least of all the gutless wonders of the GOP in Congress, can check Trump. Nor does anything in his experience indicate that he understands the dangers of his current course of action. Almost certainly, our Leader has never read the great Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz who wrote, “War is the province of Chance.”