The current standoff between the US and Iran represents the symbiosis of hard military assets and cyber escalation.

The front cover of the 11 May 2019 edition of the Economist features an image of an aircraft carrier entitled “Collision Course: America, Iran and the Threat of War.”  The imagery of this naval vessel in the Gulf, along with the recent deployment of B-52s bombers to the Al Udeid base in Qatar, is emblematic of America’s modern war-making capacity in the air and on the sea.

At the same time, a post-modern conflict rages in cyberspace that does not generate the imagery and aesthetics destined for the front pages of the media. US national security adviser John Bolton’s tweets intimidating Iran serve as a parallel means of projecting American hegemony. 

The spectacle of deploying massive military force to the Gulf while threatening Iran with 140-character messages is symbolic of how American foreign policy has evolved under the Trump administration, an outcome of a reality TV show presidency, blurring the distinction between real and surreal.

The Economist's fron cover of its 11 May, 2019 issue on Iran-US tensions.
The Economist's fron cover of its 11 May, 2019 issue on Iran-US tensions. (Twitter)

Projecting Modern War Power

Modernity can be described as the condition of when “mass” took over the economy resulting in mass cultural changes. It emerged with mass production and mass consumption, complimented by phenomena from mass media to mass transportation. It is embedded in the lexicon of warfare, with terms such as weapons of “mass” destruction.

The B-52 bomber and aircraft carriers are modern in several aspects. The B-52 is known as the Stratofortress. Opposed to a pre-modern fortress on the American frontier, built out of wood in a circular fashion to defend from Native Americans, the Stratofortress is mass produced, with 744 built in total, and travel mass distances, as the B-52s deployed in the Gulf had departed from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. They can deliver mass destruction, whether it is through conventional saturation carpet bombing or delivering nuclear weapons.

The aircraft carrier, like the USS Abraham Lincoln that deployed to the Middle East, is the modern version of a mobile island. In the pre-modern era, islands were to be captured to serve as naval bases. 

In the Mediterranean, islands such as Sicily, Malta, Crete and Cyprus were coveted by empires not just for their resources, but as bases for navies to control this body of sea, from antiquity to World War II.

The British empire’s global naval presence was dependent on controlling strategic islands ranging from the Falkland Islands in the Atlantic to Singapore, allowing it control of the Strait of Malacca and access to the Pacific.   

Islands are still of geopolitical importance today. Bahrain serves as a base for the American 5th Fleet, but the aircraft carrier has enabled America hegemony in a way that differentiates it from the British empire, as the former can project naval and air power without the need to occupy and control territory near a conflict zone, obviating the need for permanent air bases. 

It is no surprise then that during a 2015 Peoples’ Liberation Army military parade in China their new DF-21D missile featured the designation of “carrier killer” painted on the sides in big white letters, knowing that Western military analysts were monitoring the spectacle.

The fact that a US carrier fleet can span mass distances, carrying weapons of mass destruction as well, make this modern weapon platform integral to America’s neo-imperial reach. 

The fact that the mass media places this naval vessel on its front page indirectly advertises American military might. Such displays seek to intimidate Iran, just like the post-modern tweet barrage launched by members of the Trump administration.

Projecting postmodern hegemony

While there are numerous, often complex definitions of the term postmodern, the most succinct I have found is by a professor of science fiction literature, who defines “postmodernism as the culture of the easy-edit, a time when science and technology allow us to change just about anything,” from genetically modified crops to gene editing programs like CRISPR.

The 'tweet' is a postmodern form of political communication.  In the modern era, Franklin Delano Roosevelt reached American audiences via the radio broadcasted Fireside Chats. 

John F Kennedy’s telegenic appearance and relaxed demeanour in front of a TV camera gave him an edge over his competitor Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential debate. 

Twitter allows Trump the ease to reach millions, instantaneously, without the need for a radio or TV studio. Whereas no one can take back a political gaffe once uttered on radio or TV, Trump can easily edit his tweet before it is sent out, even though he has produced his own mistakes with the infamous “covfefe” tweet, failing to take advantage of the spell check that could have easily edited the word into “coverage.”

In the modern era, members of a presidential administration might express differing views during a press conference or newspaper interview. In the postmodern age, this divergence can happen over differing tweets and contradictory statements.

For example in September 2018, while giving a speech, Bolton spoke in bellicose terms about the Islamic Republic: “The murderous regime and its supporters will face significant consequences if they do not change their behavior.” 

His tone stood in contrast to an early morning tweet that same day from Trump who wrote that he was sure that Iran’s president Rouhani was an “absolutely lovely man”.

On May 9 Bolton tweeted: “The United States will continue its maximum pressure on the Iranian regime until its leaders decide to change their destructive behavior, respect the rights of the Iranian people, and return to the negotiating table.” 

On the same day, Trump announced to reporters at a White House press conference, “What I would like to see with Iran, I would like to see them call me.”

On one level this dissonance can be explained by a “good cop-bad cop” strategy. The headline of a Politico article referring to Venezuela, “Regime Change By Tweet? John Bolton Hopes So,” epitomises the postmodern nature of the Trump administration.

The convergence of modern and postmodern during this political standoff stands in stark contrast to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis

During that crisis, communication between Kennedy and Khrushchev occurred through the slumbering process of sending diplomatic cables to each other and nervously awaiting a response. 

After the crisis, a direct “hotline” communication link was established between Washington and Moscow to defuse future crises. In the postmodern era, tweets can be typed in a few seconds and reach millions, sparking international tensions - which opens another type of hotline that can both escalate or defuse tensions at the drop of a hat.

In 1962 there was an actual Soviet medium-range ballistic missile site being constructed in Cuba. The latest American deployment is a response to unspecified threats allegedly posed by Iran to US forces in the region, what an Iranian official described as “fake intelligence.” 

This term unfortunately eerily echoes the incredulity of fake intelligence that led the US into the 2003 Iraq War, a war which John Bolton supported and is unrepentant of.  

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