Despite long lines on the weekends, the port of entry in Blaine, Washington, is ordinarily a quiet border crossing. Its most memorable feature is the Peace Arch, a monument honoring the friendship between the United States and Canada that has become a popular spot for Instagram photos.
This month, however, it was a site for the mass detention and questioning of Iranian Americans. As many as 200 travelers who were returning to the United States were held by Customs and Border Protection agents in Blaine and asked for details about their families in Iran, their parents’ military service, and their social media accounts. The incident appears to be one of the first domestic consequences of the Trump administration’s decision to assassinate Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.
The killing of Suleimani, Iran’s most senior security and intelligence official, has essentially plunged the United States into another calamitous war. A diplomatic resolution to the 40 years of conflict between the two countries seemed possible in 2015, when the Obama administration negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, easing economic sanctions on Iran in return for meaningful limits on its nuclear program. But when Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018, tensions between the two nations started to rise, culminating in the US drone strike that killed Suleimani just outside Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.
Anyone who lived through the early 2000s will recognize the early signs of a massive foreign policy debacle, and this past month bore all of them. The administration fumbled repeatedly as it tried to justify the assassination. Trump announced, in his usual bombastic style, that the Iranian general was the No. 1 terrorist in the world, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that Suleimani arranged the travel of “10 of the 12 terrorists” who carried out the attacks on 9/11. (In fact, there were 19 hijackers, all of whom had sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda, a Sunni terrorist organization that views Shias like Suleimani as heretics.) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that Suleimani was planning “imminent” attacks against the United States, before redefining the word to mean “this was gonna happen.”
With few exceptions, Republicans immediately rallied around Trump, repeating his claims that American diplomats and military personnel were under immediate threat and lambasting anyone who expressed skepticism as a traitor to the United States. This would be farcical were it not so dangerous. Republican legislators seem to think war with Iran would be a brief and easily winnable conflict in which indeterminate bad guys will die and everyone else will be safe and go on peacefully with their lives. But war is not tidy, and it isn’t fought on the battlefield only. It can affect civilians near and far, including hundreds of millions of people who had no say in this conflict.
We’ve heard this all before, back in 2001 and 2003. Remember Dick Cheney’s promise that American troops would be greeted as “liberators”? Remember Donald Rumsfeld’s prediction that the war in Iraq would last “five days or five weeks or five months”? Yet here we are. The disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have taught the political class only one thing: that there are no legal, professional, or even social consequences for leading the country into war, for torture and extrajudicial killings and indefinite detention, for sending troops to die by the thousands, for wrecking other countries and killing, wounding, or displacing millions of civilians. These days, George W. Bush paints dogs and hangs out with Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle Obama. Rumsfeld released a game app. Condoleezza Rice and John Yoo hold faculty positions at prestigious universities. David Frum writes cover stories for The Atlantic. Joe Biden is running for president. The list goes on and on.
Those who warn about the dangers of war, on the other hand, face a different reaction. When Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) announced that legislators at a classified security briefing on Iran had not been shown any evidence of an imminent threat, she was attacked by Representative John Rutherford (R-FL), who wrote on Twitter, “You and your squad of Ayatollah sympathizers are spreading propaganda that divides our nation and strengthens our enemies.” Similarly, when Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) said that the events in Iran had given her post-traumatic stress disorder, Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) responded that her statement was “a disgrace and offensive to our nation’s veterans who really do have PTSD after putting their life on the line to keep America safe.”
This juvenile understanding of patriotism must stop. Given the lives at stake, Jayapal has every right to treat US intelligence with seriousness and skepticism. Nor are Omar’s traumatic experiences as a refugee any less real than those of troops on the battlefield. Jayapal and Omar are doing their country a great service by refusing to accept the administration’s claims in the absence of compelling evidence.
It’s important to keep in mind that Trump faces an election in less than a year and the Iranian regime is dealing with popular protests at home. So tensions between the two governments are not likely to abate soon. War with Iran will affect hundreds of millions of Americans, Iranians, Iraqis, and others. It will shatter the lives of troops and civilians. It will cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, even as they are denied universal health care and relief from student debt. And it will exacerbate global warming. The time to raise questions is now.
As we’ve seen with Afghanistan and Iraq, the architects of the war with Iran will not be the ones paying the price. Instead, that cost will be borne by service members and civilians, some of whom—like the travelers in Blaine, Washington—will pay it here at home.