In this most exciting quarter of July, with pyrotechnics burst into the air and tanks guarding Washington’s Mall as fierce sentries, it would help the nation to reflect that America’s independence owes as much to British folly as it does to the valor and zeal of the colonialists for freedom.
I am making this embarrassing reminder because the exuberant president who is so eager to wrap himself in a flag waving American superiority and who could, even as the republic celebrates Independence Day, has confronted Iran with a series of actions which are, in their evil – as capricious, ineffective and provocative a path as those that George III and his parliament launched against the 13 colonies. And, like the obviously mad British monarch, this “very stable genius” (to quote his self-assessment) of an American president is embarking on a path that seems doomed to end in the opposite direction of what he hopes to accomplish. .
It was the priceless Barbara W. Tuchman who first laid out a compelling story of the colossal ineptitude of England’s foreign policy towards the colonies in her scholarly and informative book, “The march of madness”, published in 1984 – at a time when a tortured America was still trying to make sense of Vietnam’s madness and had yet to begin imagining the Gulf War fiasco or the seemingly endless involvement in Afghanistan.
Consider some of the charges in his damning indictment, the mistakes made by the British as they stoke anger and ill will among the settlers with every ill-conceived action; it was almost as if the British were determined to push and push the besieged colonies until they had no choice but to declare their independence.
At the heart of British policy towards the Americas was the right of parliament to tax the colonies. To establish clearly this inalienable authority (at least in the mind of the king), duties were imposed on molasses, on cider, on sugar, then, in 1765, there was the Voluntarily onerous Stamp, the first tax. direct never received on the colonies. Tightening the screws even more, to impose the collection of customs duties, England issued assistance warrants, or search warrants, which allowed customs officials to force their way into homes and warehouses to unearth contraband goods.
But, Tuchman points out, what made these aggressive and confident policies so counterproductive was that the ill will they created was far greater than any tax revenue that could be collected. And losing the colonies – the continent’s natural resources and manufacturing potential, as well as its ambitious and inventive inhabitants – would do Britain more harm in the long run than a quick trickle of coins into the treasury. As Benjamin Franklin warned at the time, “Whatever one has the right to do is not better to do.” Especially when these taxes could not be effectively enforced by a kingdom whose military might resided across a vast ocean.
Today, nearly two and a half centuries later, we have the unsettling sight of a potential American monarch heading toward Iran with similar pugnacious and counterproductive actions. What, after all, is the purpose of American policy towards the Iranian theocracy? And, no less important, how are we going to try to achieve this result?
It is in America’s interest – that of the planet too – to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. Yet consider what the Trump administration has pointedly done in pursuit of that longed-for end. First, it withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal that would have put a 15-year hiatus in Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Then he doubled down on previous sanctions, making them even more intense, making it even more unlikely that Iran could maneuver to sell its oil on the world market. And after having put a proud country in its entrenchments, the president, whose declarations are as capricious as his promises, growls: “Watch out for threats, Iran. They can come back to bite you like no one has been bitten before.
In 1775, due to British intransigence and arrogance, a shot was fired at Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, which “was heard around the world.” And now I fear that the nation that was born in response to unworkable and self-defeating policies, under the leadership of an unstable president, unleashes its own madness that will be heard around the world with a resounding boom.
Howard Blum is a writer and editor for Vanity Fair, a former Village Voice and New York Times reporter, and author of over a dozen non-fiction books. His most recent, “Into the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught Russian Spies(HarperCollins), was published in 2018. Its next, “The Night of the Assassins”, will be published by HarperCollins next spring.