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The Iranian War, or, the immortality of bad strategy

July 15, 2010

From Time’s Joe Klein comes some rather unfortunate news – war with Iran is “back on the table.” Despite the fact that Gates had repeatedly said that war will not work, the administration’s unwillingness resign itself to containment and inability to deny the futility of sanctions has begun to paint policymakers into a corner: when our objective is beyond reach and our alternatives are beyond what is electable, our leaders turn to the military. This is what happens when you do not have a coherent Iran strategy.

But if Gates and Mullen are perfectly aware of how hard it would be to achieve military victory against Iran, what is changing their minds? Klein cites the failure of negotiations to achieve satisfactory results to the US, and then the inability of Obama to meaningfully restrain the Netanyahu administration from acting however it sees fit:

“There really wasn’t a military option a year ago,” an Israeli military source told me. “But they’ve gotten serious about the planning, and the option is real now.” Israel has been brought into the planning process, I’m told, because U.S. officials are frightened by the possibility that the right-wing Netanyahu government might go rogue and try to whack the Iranians on its own.

Why would we be afraid of the Israelis attacking on their own? Because in addition to kicking the beehive and unleashing hell from the Persian Gulf to Southern Lebanon, Israel’s strike would fail to do meaningful damage to the Iranian nuclear program, or anything else. This isn’t 1981, or even 2007, and Iran is not Iraq or Syria. Iran has learned from its neighbors’ mistakes, and built a distributed network of hardened nuclear reactors that are simply beyond any reasonable technical capability of the IDF to stop. Particularly since Israel and the US, each for their own reasons, have put themselves on rather bad terms with the Turkish governments, and so made using the flight path from Syria through Turkey too hot to attempt. Even if Saudi Arabia did agree to permit the attack, it would not change the fact that, without strategic bombers and the ability to launch weeks of sustained strikes, Israel lacks the conventional capability to destroy or even significantly delay Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

So this is where the US comes in. With a couple of weeks and a sustained application of US air and naval power, we could put a significant dent in Iran’s nuclear program, and take out the attendant anti-air defense and command infrastructure necessary to make that possible. What we would not be able to do, however, is prevent Iranian retaliation. Lebanon is already on the brink of war, and Iran and Syria have worked to harden the Levant for a potential conflict with Israel, and Iran retains more than enough irregular warfare capabilities to make the Persian Gulf potentially miserable for the US (If Van Riper can do it, the Iranians can too), and shake up Iraq’s already fragile political situation, to say the least. A lot of people will die. There will be a lot more Iranian terrorist attacks. Ultimately, without a ground presence that exists only in the worst case scenarios of depressed Pentagon planners, the enemy will still have a vote – one that will certainly go towards counterattacks, and one that will probably seek a nuclear bomb ASAP with its extant capabilities. Obama made the right choice by picking James Mattis for CENTCOM, a man who understands there is no way around “the immutable nature of war,” no trick that will let us easily accomplish our objectives in Iran without great risk and strategic setbacks. Hopefully he and other distinguished officers will remind the President that while they will plan for the worst, war is not a realistic choice.

Klein also points out that Arab countries want the attack, too – and that’s true. As the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg points out, despite the UAE’s walking back of its US Ambassador’s statements, there’s no denying the sentiments he shares:

“I think we are at risk of an Iranian nuclear program far more than you are at risk. At 7,000 miles away, and with two oceans bordering you, an Iranian nuclear threat does not threaten the continental United States. It may threaten your assets in the region, it will threaten the peace process, it will threaten balance of power, it will threaten everything else, but it will not threaten you.”

So while he supports an American bombing, he is quite honest about why… The US has the best chance of doing it successfully, and the UAE wants it more because America is simply not as at much risk. Containment may sound like a bad policy to the UAE or Israel, but it is a perfectly worthwhile possibility for the US, which, if it is wrong, will lose much less than either its allies or Iran. What I do not understand is why some think that Israeli desires for a strike or Sunni Arab support for one is a reason for the US to intervene. A current Pentagon official once remarked that Israel, were it truly Machiavellian, could launch a strike simply to drag the US into the war since America would be implicated anyway, and in this manner it could bloody Iran before inevitable retaliation.

But with our option of containment, this is a terrible reason for Americans to go to war! If anything, we should be working hard to prevent our allies from making such a decision, or giving them the confidence we will follow after them. As in the case of Georgia, ill-formed perceptions of US support can enable reckless behavior. This isn’t about appeasement, this is about power politics. America, Israel, the UAE and other allies need to remember the words of the ancients:

“You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust, and that what we want in power will be made up by the alliance of the Lacedaemonians, who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational.”

“When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practise among themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can… But when we come to your notion about the Lacedaemonians, which leads you to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless your simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Lacedaemonians… they are most conspicuous in considering what is agreeable honourable, and what is expedient just. Such a way of thinking does not promise much for the safety which you now unreasonably count upon.”

Military decisions are ultimately decisions of power politics – and in the realm of power politics, it is a terrible idea to let your smaller allies lead you into a war of choice when you are already in two and have bigger problems on the horizon. On questions of war, we should think more like Sparta and less like Athens – the Spartans let the peace of Nicias hold despite the fall of the Melians, and waited for Athenian hubris to carry them to the disaster at Syracuse. And in this case, we would not be so unjust – offering a nuclear umbrella and maintaining a massive military presence in the Persian Gulf means today’s Melians are hardly facing the prospect of certain annihilation.

Of course, Israel is more than a neutral, but an ally, but Melos was still a Spartan colony, and the alliance with Israel since the end of the Cold War has been more about historic ties and common culture than strategic value. The UAE, though it has oil and is a useful example of a “better way” for the Middle East, is not worth starting a war over. Just because both Israelis and Arabs agree on something does not make it a good idea, particularly if it’s sending us to war with the Persians. It is flattering, but not compelling, that these small states retain confidence in our arms. If they are so confident in them, however, they should be confident in their ability to deter. In a world where the “strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” living with American carrier groups off Iranian shores and nuclear missiles poised to respond to its attacks is not so tragic a fate.

Klein reminds us that the White House is skeptical. I can only hope it remains so. A second term and the confidence of some Middle Eastern states are not worth another poorly conceived war.

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