DKNY has pointed me to two articles (1, 2) at Whiskey Bar that provide a plausible analysis of what’s happening between the US and Iran, arguing that both sides are stumbling forward in a game of brinksmanship that neither can afford to back out of.
According to the first piece, “What we are witnessing … may be an example of what the Germans call the flucht nach vorne – the ‘flight forward.’ This refers to a situation in which an individual or institution seeks a way out of a crisis by becoming ever more daring and aggressive … Classic historical examples of the flucht nach vornes include Napoleon’s attempt to break the long stalemate with Britain by invading Russia, the decision of the Deep South slaveholding states to secede from the Union after Lincoln’s election, and Milosevic’s bid to create a ‘greater Serbia’ after Yugoslavia fell apart.”
I would agree that this may be what is happening, but I think there’s a selection bias when one tries to think of historical flucht nach vornes situations, because those that spill over the brink become wars that make their mark on history, while that don’t are usually forgotten. One unusually memorable case of an aborted flucht nach vornes is the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the parties involved ultimately stepped back from the brink. The Berlin Blockade is another such situation, and indeed, the Cold War was full of these kinds of crises. India and Pakistan have similarly come to the brink of war repeatedly, but stepped back. The Great Game, another simmering conflict between major powers, nearly erupted into full-fledged war between Britain and Russia in 1884 as a result of the Panjdeh Incident.
For obvious reasons, the Panjdeh Incident and the Berlin Blockade are less familiar than the Crimean War (the largest Great Game-related conflict by far) or World War I, which is pretty much the granddaddy of flucht nach vornes disasters. I remember a comedian making fun of the BBC back in its staid, state-controlled days: “In the Mediterranean today,” he soothingly intoned, “two ships nearly collided. No one was injured.” The point, of course, is that near misses are dead boring and hardly qualify as news. Thus we forget them in the onrush of history, focusing on those moments when disaster was not averted and thousands or millions died.
None of this tells us which way America and Iran are going at the moment. We are charging toward the brink of a horrific war of aggression, while the Iranians seem to be doing everything they can to appear as unacceptably dangerous as possible. Will we step back, or will we tumble into disaster? History can’t tell us the answer, but it can tell us that running toward the brink is not the same as falling over the edge.