In September 2002, United States President George W Bush began a speech in Nashville with some typically eloquent charm: "There's an old saying in Tennessee—I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can't get fooled again."
This was exactly six months before the launch of the war on Iraq in all of its carnage, which the US endeavoured to fool the world into thinking was justified by Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaeda. In reality, there were no weapons, and al-Qaeda only came to flourish in Iraq as a result of—what else?—the US invasion.
Fast forward nearly two decades, and the current US administration appears determined to debunk Bush's dictum that "you can't get fooled again."
Now, of course, the target is Iran—but the argument is exactly the same.
While we've already spent the past four years of the Donald Trump presidency hearing about Iran's diabolical nuclear ambitions, Trump & Co have, on the eve of their departure from power, decided to gift us one last hallucination—which they undoubtedly hope will swiftly contaminate the public mind and thereby convert itself into accepted fact.
Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented this final hallucination in a speech on Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, DC: "Al-Qaeda has a new home base. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Never mind that al-Qaeda and Iran are, you know, mortal enemies. The truth matters not in matters of national security.
Indeed, Pompeo asserted, al-Qaeda has found an even "safer haven" than Afghanistan: "Unlike in Afghanistan, when al-Qaeda was hiding in the mountains, al-Qaeda today is operating underneath the hard shell of the Iranian regime's protection."
Thanks to the cushy arrangement, he claimed, al-Qaeda now have access to plenty of money and "new tools for terror," and are able to kick back their feet in Tehran and plot global attacks. Iran "permits Al-Qaeda to communicate freely with exponents of hatred abroad," he added.
Naturally, Pompeo did not provide any evidence in support of his grand vision—but that did not stop the Secretary of State from calling on "every country [to] recognise that this unholy collusion is dramatically increasing the risk of terror attacks against their people."
Anyone missing the old Axis of Evil rhetoric will meanwhile be heartened to hear that there is now officially an "Iran-al-Qaeda Axis" that is a "massive force for evil all across the world."
Of particular concern to Pompeo is that this axis "threatens the progress" of the peace accords Israel is busily signing with opportunistic Arab nations, and that al-Qaeda could use regional terror attacks to "blackmail" the remaining nations into refraining from jumping on the bandwagon.
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Israel, for its part, is free to continue terrorising the Palestinians and other regional inhabitants, without the risk of finding itself on any "axis."
To conclude his speech, Pompeo took a little trip down memory lane—back to 1983, when he was in his sophomore year at the US Military Academy at West Point, and picked up the newspaper one day to read that an explosives-laden vehicle had careened into the US Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 "American warriors."
Explaining that his life "wouldn't be the same after that", Pompeo went on to remind his audience that the Marine barracks terrorists were part of an "early incarnation of Hezbollah."
And the smoking gun, delivered with self-satisfied gusto: "It had the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Were history and context considered to be of import—rather than a hindrance to the dissemination of propaganda—Pompeo might have recalled that Hezbollah itself is a result of none other than the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that killed some 20,000 Lebanese citizens and Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians.
Perhaps picking up the paper to read that Israel has massacred thousands of people just is not that life-changing. Nor, presumably, is learning that the USS Vincennes, a guided-missile cruiser, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988, ending 290 lives.
And the US continues to this day to end Iranian lives, whether by illegal military attack—as in the assassination of general Qassem Soleimani last year—or by effectively sanctioning them to death.
To be sure, projecting the "terrorist" label onto the so called "Iran-al-Qaeda Axis" is a helpful distraction from the fact that the US has spent recent history bombing, mutilating, irradiating, and otherwise tormenting populations from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria and beyond. But populations on the receiving end of torment do not easily forget their victimisers.
It remains to be seen whether Pompeo's sensational revelations are the prelude to some calamitous Trumpian military undertaking—a parting shot, as it were—or are simply meant to force the discourse in a certain direction and potentially tie the hands of the incoming administration.
Near the end of his performance, the Secretary pointedly wondered whether the terror plots allegedly being hatched by the "Iran-al-Qaeda Axis" did not constitute the "next form of blackmail to pressure countries back into a nuclear deal."
And as the US takes blackmail to impressive new levels, there's no time like the present to recall that old saying from Tennessee… or Texas.