With Charlie Harper
As Americans awoke on New Year’s Day, their thoughts may have initially been of a reflective nature, contemplating the end of one astonishing decade in their recent history and legitimately wondering what the next ten years might bring to top the tumult and turmoil to which they have unfortunately become accustomed.
Not so fast.
Yesterday’s headlines reminded Americans and the world that Washington’s decisions and actions taken over 15 years ago have consequences far beyond the immediate daily TV news cycle. In invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, the US made several huge errors.
First, the pretext for the invasion was spurious. Remember the whole Weapons of Mass Destruction search? And in any case, the real target after 9/11 was Afghanistan and its border regions with Pakistan, which afforded a safe harbour for Osama bin Laden and his malevolent colleagues.
Then the US compounded its initial error by clumsily dispatching many of the elements that could have helped to resurrect a viable, even democratic Iraq. Iran and its surrogates moved gratefully into the ensuing vacuum and have gradually resumed the level of influence in Baghdad that they enjoyed before Saddam Hussein consolidated his position in a bloody conflict with Iran from 1980-88.
Now, though, Iran seems to be back in earnest. The world saw images this week showing presumably Tehran-backed mobs breaching the perimeter security of the huge fortress-like American Embassy in Baghdad that were eerily and most uncomfortably reminiscent of scenes from over four decades ago.
Flags were burned. Banners were hung on fences. Insults were shouted. Fists were clenched and thrust into the air. There was anger everywhere.
On November 4, 1979, the US Embassy in Iran’s capital was stormed and overrun by Iranian mobs angered by America’s continuing embrace of the repressive and corrupt regime of the Shah of Iran. The US suffered the humiliation of dozens of its staff members being held hostage for 444 days, literally until the day when newly-elected American President Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981. Predecessor Jimmy Carter had to slink out of Washington, his bid for a second term as president at least partially undone by the Iranians.
The Iranian government was then taken over in a revolution by militant Muslim clerics whose successors continue in power today in Tehran. Engaged in 1979 - as now - in an uneasy but mutually beneficial relationship with Moscow, the Iranian religious leaders will still not yield to America – four decades ago - as now - dubbed The Great Satan.
Many will recall that when Barack Obama took office in 2009, one of his diplomatic goals was to engage in fruitful and respectful dialogue with “rogue” nations like Iran.
Eventually, this approach helped to produce the Iran Nuclear Deal which was implemented four years ago. Among the signatories to that deal were Russia and China.
US President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to disavow that multilateral attempt to bring Iran more compatibly into the cooperative company of the West, upon whose trade dollars Iran depends for the foreign exchange that helps to quiet its restive middle class. Trump kept that campaign promise, withdrawing America from the nuclear deal even as the other signatories vainly protested.
While Trump has occasionally flirted with reaching out to Iran to practice his own brand of personal public diplomacy, he has mostly demonised the Islamic republic.
But Trump also campaigned on a promise to pull US troops back from unwise overseas commitments and to avoid getting involved in any more “stupid foreign wars”. He is a man who likes to keep his campaign promises.
So now, Trump faces perhaps his most significant international challenge. On the one hand, he clearly wishes to avoid ever appearing weak or having come out second best in any dispute. He will surely remember Jimmy Carter’s fate in dealing with Iran.
But on the other hand, what if Trump sees no way to avoid seeming weak except to initiate a military escalation that would surely threaten a wider conflict in the highly combustible Middle East? No more “stupid wars”.
But he might also recall that a wartime president generally commands widespread allegiance among American voters. He might remember the lesson of George W Bush, whose errors in Iraq led to the current mess, but who was nonetheless re-elected in 2004 – as a wartime president.
It’s enough to take your mind off impeachment for a while. That might be just what the doctor ordered for Trump.
Brady and the playoff bunch
Meanwhile, the NFL regular season is complete, and the playoff field is set – as usual, with no participation from either New York or Washington. Nor from Chicago or Los Angeles or Dallas. League executives who watch television ratings might feel a bit uneasy at the absence of these large markets from the 2019 post-season line-up.
Saturday will feature two AFC games. In the early contest, the Buffalo Bills visit Houston. The Bills have a sturdy defence but an inconsistent quarterback. The Texans are playoff battle-tested and are likely to have defensive star JJ Watt active for this game. Houston’s Deshaun Watson is much the superior quarterback.
Later, shockingly, perennial division winner and six-time Super Bowl champion New England is playing on the first playoff weekend for the first time in a decade. The Patriots will host the upstart Tennessee Titans, who are led by the league’s leading rusher Derrick Henry. This season has been full of hand-wringing by the sports punditry about Pats QB Tom Brady, who is now 42-years-old. Is this finally when age catches up with him? Likely not this weekend.
On Sunday, the New Orleans Saints host Minnesota in the first game. The Saints, long touted in this space, are heavy favourites. Their own 40-year-old future Hall of Famer, Drew Brees is reassuringly back at the helm after an injury sidelined him for five Saints wins earlier in the season. Vikings QB Kirk Cousins has a history of playing small in big games.
Later, the Seattle Seahawks travel all across the country to visit Philadelphia and are the only road betting favourites of the weekend. The banged-up Eagles are noble warriors and nimble opportunists, but they are champions of the NFL’s weakest division. The Seahawks came literally within inches Sunday night of winning the league’s toughest division.
Resting and waiting to play next weekend are the four top teams in this year’s standings, Baltimore and Kansas City in the AFC and San Francisco and Green Bay in the NFC.
The greatest league on Earth
Now let’s turn to the world’s best, most exciting league in any sport. The NBA and the NFL surely command devoted followings in far-flung regions well beyond American frontiers.
The NFL may expand with teams in London and Mexico City during this decade. And basketball has gained a solid footing in China and Europe and is successfully pursuing an expanded global footprint.
But soccer is the world’s sport, and the English Premier League is its best club showcase. This season has lacked suspense at the top of the league standings, as current European Champions League titleholders Liverpool have not lost since last January in the EPL and currently enjoy a seemingly insurmountable lead en route to their first league title in 30 years.
No suspense at the top, but no matter. As the EPL’s teams battle each other in draconian dogfights throughout the “festive” Christmas period while the other major European leagues take a mid-season break, the real struggle is for the three 2020 Champions League places available alongside Liverpool.
Leicester and Manchester City seem poised to take two of those lucrative slots. They can’t run with Liverpool, which may be one of the half dozen best clubs ever assembled. But they can certainly beat anyone else in the EPL. Both have shown skill and resiliency so far, but have also stumbled against lesser teams with much lower payrolls.
Indeed, upsets have become almost routine this season as an emerging middle class of teams is challenging the Big Six of Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United and Man City.
Chelsea holds the last Champions League position today, but the Blues have a very young squad and a new manager in long-time club star Frank Lampard. It’s less certain they can sustain a season-long pursuit of a top four position.
Arsenal and Tottenham have both replaced their managers this season, and while the new men will likely improve the teams’ performances, these venerable North London clubs may have to settle for rebuilding this season.
Happy New Year to all!