John Bolton’s Dream: Saudi Oil and the Casus Belli for War with Iran

All wars require casus belli, ostensible justifications. After all, despite humanity’s long history of vicious warfare, interstate combat often requires a government distant from its working class to motivate its people to kill and die for distant institutions and esoteric ideologies. That said, Washington doesn’t exactly have a strong track record of honesty regarding its rationales for war. Few Americans know or care much for their own history, of course, but consider just a few incidents (in reverse order) spanning 207 years.

Many probably remember the ill-fated, illegal, and immoral 2003 invasion of Iraq, with its euphemistic (and Orwellian) military mission title: Operation Iraqi Freedom. Oft-forgotten is the scale of government failure and deception that led to a costly regime change operation. Similarly, the Gulf of Tonkin incident – whereby North Vietnamese ships ostensibly fired on U.S. Navy vessels – turned out to have questionable evidence and context. In 1898, a purported Spanish attack on the USS Maine in Havana harbor stirred up national war fever and created the conditions for the Spanish-American War. Before a serious investigation was completed, Uncle Sam fought a "splendid little war" which gobbled up most of Spain’s overseas colonies. Only it turns out that Spain was not behind the explosion, which was very likely accidental.

In one of the more openly aggressive wars in US History, President Polk brazenly lied to the American people in 1846, claiming falsely that a bloody skirmish with Mexican troops had unfolded on U.S. soil. As a result, Washington seized one-third of Mexico and occupied its capital. What’s more, after spending this past weekend in San Antonio, Texas, it struck me that even the justification for the mythologized defense of the Alamo was motivated as much by the perpetuation of black slavery – which Mexico had already banned – as some yearning for "democracy." Finally, but far from comprehensively, the War of 1812 – rationalized as a response to the British seizure of US sailors on the high seas – was declared after London had already agreed to cease the practice. This was further evidenced when Washington – rather than wage war on the oceans – opened the war with an immediate invasion of British Canada meant to conquer (again) the province.

Why, then, should the people buy the government’s lies next time the war drums begin "a beatin." After all, false pretenses are the norm in American war-making. And it’s a fully bipartisan phenomena, as the shady wars named above were kicked off by commanders-in-chief from the Democratic-Republican, Democratic, and Republican parties. Americans should keep that in mind regarding the now years’ long era of war scares with Iran, and most certainly in the wake of recent devastating attacks on the U.S.-backed Saudi oil industry. With US intelligence – the same folks who lied, deceived, and misanalyzed regarding Iraqi WMD – now having informed the public that Iran was behind the attacks, and that the "West" is now weighing a "response," war seems more likely than ever.

All this unfolds just weeks after Trump fired former National Security Adviser John Bolton, the gold standard in a Washington chock full of Iran hawks. Some speculated after Bolton’s departure that war with Iran might finally become less likely. Then Tehran was accused of temporarily crippling the Saudi oil industry – crude being the one "red line" resource it’s unacceptable to attack – the sort of event Bolton could only dream of. Indeed, he’d tried just about everything else to trigger such a war: penning a New York Times OP-ED titled, "To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran;" speaking before gatherings of the fringe Iranian dissident group, MEK, a veritable Islamist terror cult; and, finally, (for now, unsuccessfully) whispering sweet nothings of bellicosity into President Trump’s ear.

Still, Bolton’s life’s work and dream had yet to come to fruition, despite the suffering and death wielded upon the Iranian people by U.S. sanctions that always ultimately target the poorest citizens. When, in June, a US drone was allegedly shot down by Iran, Bolton undoubtedly hoped that’d be the miniature Pearl Harbor needed to bomb and invade the Islamic Republic. He must’ve then been heartbroken by Trump’s subsequent (and sensible) decision for restraint. Three months later, Bolton was out.

Which leads me to this author’s prediction (always, admittedly, a tricky matter) that this event, an attack on Saudi liquid gold, is more likely to lead to war than previous alleged attacks on US equipment or military personnel. Destruction of a multimillion dollar spy/assassination drone didn’t do it; nor did alleged (if questionable) Iranian-sponsored Iraqi militia attacks on US troops, which killed more than 600 service members. See, the over-adulated troops are a political prop, and a few million dollars is chump change for the Pentagon. What Washington does care about is economic control, and U.S.-benefiting economic "stability," which – even in the age of fracking – is inextricably linked with Saudi and other Gulf States oil.

Rational analysis and historical precedent clearly demonstrate that neither the Yemeni Houthis nor Iran pose any serious – nor certainly existential – threat to the US homeland. Not that that’s ever stopped America from going to war before. What has always mattered to Washington is even minor assaults on its empire, or on its primary imperial collaborators Israel and Saudi Arabia. Which is exactly what makes this latest attack seriously distressing.

So, wherever Bolton was when the Saudi oil strike occurred – whether binge watching Fox News, shuffling through the corridors of some neoconservative think tank, or counting cruise missiles to drift off to sleep – he most certainly cheered. That’s because Bolton knows a discomfiting truth that most Americans don’t: that attacks on Riyadh or Tel Aviv are just as likely (if not more so) as assaults on New York, to trigger a military response from the US war machine. Consequences be damned…

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen