Peril in the Middle East, Peril at Home: Our Top 10 Stories of 2020

2020 was a monster of a year, leaving three million Americans dead (a record), probably nearly half a million of them of Covid-19 once everyone is counted. The fecklessness of the outgoing Trump administration was responsible for a good deal of this national catastrophe, one that did not strike our allies South Korea or Germany to nearly the same extent (what with their having competent, rational leaders and a funded health care system, and all). It was also a year that Trump played chicken with the ayatollahs in Iran, skating close to a spiraling conflict (and he has nearly a month left to continue that skating). Moreover, Trump’s dangerous encouragement to white supremacist militias endangered the governor of Michigan and other officials, even as he sent federal forces in to arrest 200 protesters in Portland, Or. Trump continued to demean immigrants and Muslims, maintaining his cruel and unconstitutional Muslim visa ban, even as a Muslim-American headed his Operation Warp Speed to produce a vaccine, and German-Turkish immigrant scientists got there first. It was a year in which 80 million Americans finally put their feet down and said “enough.”

Here are some of the Informed Comment stories that most excited readers this year:

1. January 3, 2020: Trump, Troll-in-Chief, wags the Impeachment Dog by Going to War with Iran

Trump abruptly assassinates Iranian general Qasem Soleimani with an airstrike on Baghdad International Airport:

Trump has from the beginning of his presidential campaign appealed to the worst and most fascistic elements in American political life. At a time when the US has no credible peer military rival, he added hundreds of billions of dollars to the Pentagon budget, and the pudgy old chicken hawk lionized war criminals. Up until now, however, Trump shrewdly calculated that his base was tired of wasting blood and treasure on fruitless Middle Eastern wars, and he avoided taking more than symbolic steps. He dropped a big missile on Afghanistan once, and fired some Tomahawk Cruise missiles at Syria. But he drew back from the brink of more extensive military engagements.

Now, by murdering Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Jerusalem (Qods) Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Trump has brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran. Mind you, Iran’s leadership is too shrewd to rush to the battlements at this moment, and will be prepared to play the long game. My guess is that they will encourage their allies among Iraqi Shiites to get up a massive protest at the US embassy and at bases housing US troops.

They will be aided in this task of mobilizing Iraqis by the simultaneous US assassination of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces. Al-Muhandis is a senior military figure in the Iraqi armed forces, not just a civilian militia figure. Moreover, the Kata’ib Hizbullah that he headed is part of a strong political bloc, al-Fath, which has 48 members in parliament and forms a key coalition partner for the current, caretaker prime minister, Adil Abdulmahdi. Parliament won’t easily be able to let this outrage pass.

Mourners carry the coffins of slain Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and eight others inside the Shrine of Imam Hussein in the holy Iraqi city of Karbala,during a funeral procession on January 4, 2020. – Thousands of Iraqis chanting “Death to America” today as they mourned an Iranian commander and others killed in a US drone attack that sparked fears of a regional proxy war between Washington and Tehran. 

2. January 5, 2020: Making America Hated Again: Tens of Thousands of Iraqis Chant “Death to America” at Soleimani Funeral in Baghdad:

    • rime Minister Adil Abdulmahdi, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and other high Iraqi politicians attended funeral ceremonies for Trump-assassinated Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. So writes

Nabih Bulos of the LA Times

    • . So if anyone was wondering where the Iraqi political elite stood with regard to siding with Trump or with Iran, that’s a pretty dramatic answer.

Not only that, but what look to me like hundreds of thousands of Iraqis filled Baghdad’s streets, chanting “Death to America, Death to Israel.” Most of the US press is calling the massive crowds “thousands.” A few grudgingly concede “tens of thousands.” But I’d say that’s at least 100,000, which would make it among the biggest demonstrations in Iraq since 1958. Although Iranians often ritually chant “Death to America” (with less and less genuine conviction until last week), this is not common in Iraq and certainly not on this scale.

3. January 11: We pointed out all the times the US military and intelligence had de facto allied with Soleimani and his Revolutionary Guards Corps.

4. February 16: Rockets slam into US Embassy Compound in Iraq, as Base with US Troops also Comes under Fire.

    • Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) –

Agence France Presse Arabic 

    • is reporting that early Sunday morning several rockets or mortars slammed into the area around the US Embassy in Baghdad. Warning sirens sounded, and fighter jets began patrolling the skies.

Reuters reports an American military officer as saying that a base at which US troops are stationed in Baghdad also was attacked.

There are no reports of any casualties from these attacks.

The attacks came hours after the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (the Movement of the Nobles of the Party of God), led by Akram al-Kaabi, had announced a “countdown” to the expulsion of US troops from Iraq. I reported that in early January, “The movement’s official spokesman, Nasr Al-Shammari, warned American soldiers in Iraq, saying: “Do not close your eyes, for the revenge of the martyr Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is inevitably coming at the hands of the Iraqis, until the last American soldier is expelled.” In February of 2019, the US had designated the al-Nujaba’ a terrorist organization. On Sunday January 5, the Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdulmahdi asked parliament to vote to expel US troops from Iraq, and the country’s legislature did so vote by a majority. This vote was not, as US officials keep saying, ‘advisory.’”

5. March 13: “A Toothpick in a Tsunami”: US Big Oil Faces Bankruptcy as Prices Plunge 30% on Saudi Expansion:

    • Monday’s was the biggest one-day fall in prices since George H. W. Bush launched the Gulf War in January, 1991, when markets concluded that the Gulf crisis that began with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, would soon end and oil production would be unaffected by the war. One oil analyst in 1991, Peter Beutel, said that the market had been tossed about like a “toothpick in a tidal wave.” I stole this line and updated it for my title today.

Here’s what most industry analysts won’t tell you. The US petroleum industry is on its last legs, and it is because of increasing public alarm about the climate emergency. The industry has been unable to attract new investments despite its short-term profitability. Investors know that petroleum is a polluting industry that will increasingly be blamed (and successfully sued) for wrecking the planet through heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions. They are increasingly afraid of reputational damage but also are aware of what I mentioned above, that the electric car is about to destroy the market for petroleum.

A citizen walks along a waterfront oil refinery plant in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Liaison)

6. April 5: At Last, Someone is Suing Fox “News” for Journalistic Malpractice in Misguiding People over Seriousness of Coronavirus:

    • Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – I have long thought that Fox Cable “News” was open to lawsuits for its persistent purveying of falsehoods to viewers, some of which will cost lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets sued over it climate change denialism, for instance. All you need is for a viewer to maintain that they lost the value of their beachfront property as the seas rose because they depended on Fox’s denials that it was happening.

I am not urging a rash of lawsuits against media for innocent mistakes, which would harm our first amendment. But in the case of Fox, they have a systematic editorial policy of outright dishonesty, and where that leads their viewers into danger, it is a tort.

But one group has decided to go ahead with a suit over the “network’s” false and dangerous “coverage” of the coronavirus pandemic, in which its anchors and guests have repeatedly referred to the most dangerous disease outbreak in over a century as a “hoax” and have advised against social distancing techniques as an overblown “panic” response.

7. April 23: The Scum of all Fears: America declines the Trump Administration’s Invitation to Die. David Faris, an Informed Comment regular, presciently summed up the Trump approach to the pandemic and pointed out how unlikely an electoral strategy killing hundreds of thousands of Americans with criminal insouciance was to succeed:

    “By decreeing that America is “open for business” and that what he has taken to calling “The Invisible Enemy” (which is better than the China Virus, to be sure) is nearly vanquished, the president is making arguably the most insane gamble in political history: that he and his gang of scientifically illiterate, dim-bulb governors, rich-doofus grifters and slavish op-ed hacks know more about epidemiology and virology than tens of thousands of doctors, public health officials and nearly every other government on Earth, and that together they can either jumpstart the U.S. economy before November without widespread human carnage, or successfully dodge accountability for the ensuing disaster as they have thus far done with every other act of self-interested, homicidal malfeasance over the past four years.”

8. May 16: I guess “Islam” doesn’t Hate us After All: Trump pins hopes for Vaccine on Muslim-American Slaoui:

    • So, having bad-mouthed Muslim Americans, having accused them of being too dangerous even to live in their own country, having accused them of hating their own country, who does Trump turn to in his “Operation Warp Speed,” his quest to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus by the end of 2020?

A prominent Muslim American.

Monçef Slaoui (pronounced Munsif Slawi) was born in the city of Agadir on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. I’ve been to Agadir and liked it a lot. Agadir Beach is Blue Flag quality (something to remember for after Dr. Slaoui’s efforts bear fruit and we can travel again).

9. July 18: Trump’s Secret Police whisk Portland Protesters into Unmarked Cars, but allowed Right wing armed militiamen to invade Michigan State House:

CPB agents, Federal Marshals and agents of the Department of Homeland security were detailed to Portland, ostensibly to protect the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse and other Federal property during the past six weeks of demonstrations in Portland. The courthouse has often been painted with graffiti. The Feds say they have defended the building from charges at it by demonstrators.

It is not clear to me why the defense of the courthouse in Portland is not the responsibility of the civil police in Portland. The Trump administration, as we saw in Washington DC at Lafayette Park, likes having shadowy goons at its service.

U.S. Attorney Billy Williams concurs that an investigation of the arrests is warranted.

That these arrests were a Gestapo sort of politics rather than law enforcement is easily demonstrated.

On May 1, armed protesters entered the State House in Michigan. Some broke into the legislative chamber and stood, with guns, over the state representatives, one of whom put on a bullet proof vest. The militias and right wing agitators came again two weeks later and the legislative session was canceled. These were a right wing mob protesting the shut down of some economic activities by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as a mitigation measure against the coronavirus. As a result of Whitmer’s measures, Michigan is in a substantially better place than the slavishly pro-Trump Deep South this July.

Trump had encouraged such lawlessness, tweeting, “Liberate Michigan.”

You will notice that no CPB agents were flown out to Lansing to defend the State House from this potentially violent armed mob. None were hustled into unmarked vehicles by nameless Federal agents.

10. December 23 : Trump Pardons Blackwater 4 for Nisour Square Massacre in Iraq, because Whites must never Suffer for Killing Innocent Brown People :

Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – On Tuesday, Trump the Mad pardoned 4 Blackwater mercenaries who killed 14 Iraqi civilians, including a nine-year-old boy, with indiscriminate fire at Nisour Square in downtown Baghdad on September 14, 2007. The four were convicted at then VP Joe Biden’s insistence, and were serving jail terms.

WaPo says, “Investigators for the military and the FBI later described the shootings, in which the contractors unleashed a blaze of gunfire and grenade explosions in a busy Baghdad square, as unprovoked and unjustified. Federal prosecutors said that many of the victims, including women and children, some with their hands in the air, “were shot inside of civilian vehicles while attempting to flee . . ”

Trump’s four years in office have been one big effort at running interference for white supremacy, and it is the real reason for these pardons.

Blackwater was owned by Trump crony Erik Prince, the brother of plutocrat/ secretary of education Betsy DeVos.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on December 26, 2020, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.

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