We’ve all seen video clips in recent news reports showing the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group (with a B52 bomber task force) dispatched to Iran for the purpose of sending a message. It is an unsettling sight. As a worried friend said to me last Tuesday morning, “I hope Trump doesn’t get us into a war with Iran.”
Yes, this is a worrisome development, not just because a war with Iran could happen on purpose (with war hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo wielding influence within an unstable administration), but also because it could happen accidentally. The game the President is playing is commonly called Chicken.
Wikipedia observes, “the phrase game of chicken is . . . used as a metaphor for a situation where two parties engage in a showdown where they have nothing to gain, and only pride stops them from backing down.” The US played nuclear Chicken with the USSR during the Cold War, a version of the game Bertrand Russell identified with “youthful degenerates”—irresponsible boys driving fast cars at each other to see if one will swerve at the last second to avoid a head-on crash. When adults play Chicken with military weapons, that’s called brinksmanship, which introduces an element of “uncontrollable risk” that can lead to a “catastrophic outcome.”
Taken as a metaphor, Chicken played by a president should be recognized as immature, irresponsible, and potentially deadly. The comparison should alert us to the danger and should prompt us as citizens to object, especially when Chicken is Trump’s modus operandi.
Trump and his senior aides like to engage in saber rattling, as Karen DeYoung, Liz Sly, and Josh Dawsey report in the Washington Post. North Korea was threatened with fire and fury. Venezuela was told that all options are on the table. Tehran now is being sent a threatening message by aircraft carrier, with a suggestion that 120,000 US troops may soon follow. In each case, so far, Trump has backed away from the actual use of military force. He claims that “incoherence” is a strategy, that it is useful when an adversary doesn’t know what to make of the threat. Will the bombastic rhetoric lead to war, or will Trump pull back at the last minute? Trump claims it is a strategy for making a “deal.” Others worry that the situation can spin out of control, becoming so unstable and volatile that it ends in war.
Trump’s self-reported goal is not war, according DeYoung, Sly, and Dawsey. It is instead “to have a ‘tough’ and ‘strong’ military that doesn’t have to do anything—and to use rhetoric that scares people.”
New York’s Republican Congressman Peter T. King, a Trump supporter, apparently doesn’t grasp the metaphor and the danger it signals about playing the game of brinksmanship. Trump’s strategy, in King’s view, is to “shake things up with Iran.” “We’ll see if it works; I don’t think we’ll end up going to war. . . . It might not work, but I think people shouldn’t prejudge it.”
The threat might lead to war, or it might not, but we shouldn’t prejudge it? Iran or Trump might swerve away from a head-on collision at the last second, but both could decide (this time or next) that pride dictates a deadly showdown, a showdown from which neither side will benefit.
We should take our metaphors more seriously than President Trump or Congressman King, neither of whom seems to appreciate the uncontrollable risk of playing an adolescent game with adult weapons. And we should object.