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Trump’s Dick-Measuring Contest Is Going to Get Us Killed

America’s latest escalation with Iran has the familiar ring of dumb masculinity

The night Americans found out the Pentagon had killed Iranian strongman Qassim Suleimani in a rocket strike at Baghdad International Airport, it was hard to stay off the timeline, where panic and jingoism were at a steady boil. But confusion was the stronger note. I stopped on a tweet that asked, “Why is ‘World War 3’ trending?”

On March 19, 2003, two days after I turned 18 and mailed in my draft registration, as U.S. males are compelled to do, America invaded Iraq. Six months before, President George W. Bush had described Saddam Hussein as “the guy who tried to kill my dad,” as if that were justification for a war that would cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. Between this evocation of a blood feud and the lie about weapons of mass destruction, the why of this unnecessary conflict felt, from the start, like the anxiety of virility. 

The Gulf War hadn’t lifted Bush Sr. to a second term, but for his son, there was muscle to flex as new, unaccountable agencies had formed in the wake of 9/11. The same day of the “kill my dad” quote, W. turned Congress’ efforts to lodge some input on the Department of Homeland Security into a dick-measuring contest: “They want to tell the executive branch … who you can hire, who you can fire, who can move there. … I am not going to accept that.”

Oh. This again.

Trump’s catastrophic decisions in the Middle East, though he lacks the ability to know it, derive from the same cowboy machismo and total faith in executive power that animated his predecessors, and the whole atrocity of American Empire. He grabbed his chance to incinerate a state military leader who had asserted primal dominance in Iraq — but only after Suleimani had gone after the president’s manhood. “We are near you, where you can’t even imagine,” the Iranian commander had said in a speech mocking Trump. “We are ready. We are the man of this arena.”

For Trump, the madness of acting unilaterally and without regard for an already imperiled region didn’t enter the math, a crude equation that only told him he’d rattled his saber long enough and his threats had lost their bite.

The president’s action already feels like an absurd mistake; it opens the door to familiar ruin. It’s a victory for the dude who picks a bar fight in a town where he has no friends, who cannot help but spread injury because he thinks it gives him control. Don’t doubt his happiness at this moment. Some will not go further than tweeting their bloodlust, and others will strive to enact it, at home or abroad, knowing the president’s fetish for tough guys can excuse the most horrifying evil. Maybe Trump’s furious, red-faced foot soldiers will actually get what they and the Republican establishment always want: a crusade for men with nothing better to do.