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Iran: An Unwinnable War

“After a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States,” said Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations. That was back in 2007, and he was talking about the Pentagon’s attempts to come up with a winning strategy for a US war with Iran. No matter how they gamed it, the US lost.

Two years later, in 2009, US Marine General Tony Zinni warned that any attack on Iran would lead inexorably to ‘boots on the ground’. “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added drily, “ you’ll love Iran.” And in 2011 Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, said that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.

This was all back in the days when various people in the West were talking far too loosely about war with Iran, because the Iranian president at the time was a loud-mouthed extremist named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then he lost the 2013 election and was replaced by a moderate reformer, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani stopped all the aggressive talk, and in 2015 he cut a deal with most of the world’s major powers to put Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, if any, on ice for at least fifteen years. Everything then went quiet until another loud-mouthed extremist, Donald Trump, tore up the 2015 agreement and began talking about war with Iran again.

He doesn’t necessarily mean it. What Trump says on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he often recants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (To make matters even more inscrutable, his threat to bring about “the end of Iran” was made last Sunday, and there are no rules for Sundays.) But he is surrounded by people who sound like they really are looking for a fight with Iran.

To be fair, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are probably telling themselves that plausibly terrifying US threats will suffice to make Iran crumble. Only National Security Adviser John Bolton understands that the threats will cause Iranian reactions that can then be used as an excuse for an actual attack (and he’s just fine with that).

So is the scenario of a US attack on Iran, with or without Saudi Arabian and Israeli help, still as hopeless a project as it was ten years ago?

It’s not hopeless at all if you just drop nuclear weapons on the twenty biggest Iranian cities. That’s not enough to cause a nuclear winter, but quite enough to kill between a quarter and a half of Iran’s 80 million people. If you do that (and either the United States or Israel could do it single-handed), the Iranians will never come back for a re-match.

But neither the United States or Israel is going to do that. It would make them literally the enemies of all mankind. And short of doing that, there are no good options for winning a war against Iran, because (as in all ‘asymmetric’ conflicts) the Iranians don’t need a winning strategy. All they have to do is not lose.

The United States could certainly bomb all of Iran’s military and industrial facilities to rubble. But this would not force the Iranians to surrender, nor would it prevent Iran’s sea-skimming missiles, fired from mobile launchers anywhere along 3,000 km of coastline, from stopping all the tankers going into and out of the Persian Gulf. (They carry about 20 percent of the world’s oil.)

So in the end it would have to be ‘boots on the ground’, just as Zinni said – but the ground war is unwinnable too. Iran’s army is about the same size as that of the United States, but it could quickly expand to ten times that size with volunteers, just as it did during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88.

The Iranian volunteers would be poorly armed and they would die in droves, but if only one American soldier died for every ten Iranians, the US public would quickly reach its maximum tolerance level for American casualties. It would be a high-speed replay of the Vietnam war, and the US would lose again.

On Tuesday they wheeled out Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan to say it’s OK. Don’t panic. The grown-ups are still in charge. Our timely threats have deterred the Iranians from doing the evil things they were planning to do (or rather that we said they were planning to do), and so there’s no danger of a war.

I’d really like to believe him. But actually, nobody’s in charge.
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In the course of revising this article, I seem to have shortened it to 775 words. If you still need it shorter, you could omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It’s not…lose”)

Great Powers, Endless Wars

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” said Donald Trump in his State of the Union speech last February, but he was wrong. That’s exactly what they do. Great powers fight MORE wars than anybody else, even if, like the United States today, they have no hostile neighbours.

The original observations were made half a century ago by Quincy Wright, an American political scientist at the University of Chicago. During the entire history of ‘modern’ Europe from 1480 to 1940, he calculated, there have been about 2,600 important battles.

France, a leading military power for the whole period and the greatest power for most of it, participated in 47 percent of those battles – more than a thousand major battles. Russia, Britain and Germany (in the form of Prussia), which were all great European powers by 1700, fought in between 22 and 25 percent of them. And then the rate of participation falls off very steeply.

Spain was a great military power until the mid-1700s, but then dropped out of contention and can offer only a 12 percent attendance record for battles over the whole four-and-a-half centuries. The Netherlands and Sweden, which were great military powers only for brief periods, were present at only 8 and 4 percent of Europe’s battles respectively. Indeed, Sweden has not used its army in war for 190 years now.

By any other yardstick – the amount of time a given European country has spent at war, the number of wars it has taken part in, the proportion of its population that has been killed in wars – the result is the same.

There is a steep and consistent gradient of suffering, in which the most powerful nations fight most often and lose most heavily in lives and wealth. How can this be? Why doesn’t great power deter other countries from fighting you?

Well, it actually does, to some extent. However, great power also enables the country possessing it to acquire ‘interests’ everywhere, and tempts it to use its military power to protect or advance those interests. Only great powers fight ‘wars of choice’.

North Vietnam did not choose to fight the United States. Neither did Cuba, or Grenada, or Libya, or Panama, or Serbia, or Iraq. Nor, for that matter, did Canada (then British North America) in 1812, or Mexico in 1846, or Spain in 1898. Those were all ‘wars of choice’ for the United States, but not for the other side.

This is not to say that they were all wars of aggression. The first Gulf War was not, for example, nor was the Kosovo War. But they were all wars that the United States could have chosen NOT to fight without suffering grave harm to its own legitimate interests. It chose to fight them, often for relatively minor stakes, because it could.

The great-power mania infects everybody. Donald Trump, despite his well-founded conviction that America should bring its troops home from the Middle East, has now vetoed a bipartisan Congressional resolution that tried to force an end to American participation in the war in Yemen.

Never mind the lies that are told about the Houthi rebels who control most of Yemen being simply pawns of Iran, and about Iran being the reason the Middle East is so ‘unstable’.

Why would Trump, like several generations of American ‘statesmen’ before him, fall for the bizarre notion that deciding who rules in Lebanon or Egypt or Yemen is a ‘vital national interest’ of the United States?

The webs of spurious logic that support such nonsense are familiar. ‘Oil is our vital national interest, so Saudi Arabia is our indispensable ally.’ Why? Wouldn’t Arabia want to sell its oil to the US under any imaginable regime? And hasn’t fracking made the US virtually self-sufficient in oil anyway?

‘Since Saudi Arabia is our ally, we must support its war in Yemen, and support it against Iran too.’ Why? You managed to be closely allied with both Israel and Saudi Arabia back in the days when the Saudis still saw Israel as a mortal enemy. You don’t have to back either of them in everything they do.

‘Our credibility is at stake.’ This is the last-resort falsehood that can justify almost any otherwise indefensible military commitment. Don’t let them see you back down, no matter how stupid your position is. They won’t respect you if you bail out.

Or as Trump put it when he was still just a candidate for the Republican nomination: “Our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.” Power purely for the sake of power. Any country that remains a great power for long enough eventually becomes insane.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“By…same”; and “Never…unstable”)

War in the Gulf?

Donald Trump is well known for his desire to cut American military commitments overseas. Indeed, it is one of his most attractive characteristics. But his attention span is short, he plays a lot of golf, and he does not have the knack of choosing good advisers.

His main domestic advisers on the Middle East are Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser John Bolton, all hawks on Iran. His closest allies in the region itself are Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, both of whom can wrap him around their little fingers. And they both want the United States to attack Iran for them.

Donald Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran. He has an extra-strength version of the usual Washington obsession with Iran, as irrational and ineradicable as the parallel obsession with Cuba – the United States will forgive and forget anything except humiliation – but he imagines Iran can be bullied and bluffed into submission. His ‘advisers’ are not that naive.

This is not to say that Pence, Pompeo or even Bolton prefers war to any other outcome of the current confrontation. They would rather see the sanctions they have imposed on Iran, which are strangling the economy and causing great hardship, lead to a popular uprising and regime change. Fat chance.

It’s the ever-popular moral mistake. WE would never yield to such blackmail, because our cause is just and our will is strong. THEY will crumble before the same threats because they are weak and they must secretly know they are in the wrong.

But if the Iranians perversely refuse to overthrow their government, then PP&B would accept war as the next-best outcome. Bolton might actually welcome it, and may already be involved in manipulating the intelligence to justify such a war in the same way he did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (He called a rather peculiar early-morning meeting at CIA headquarters last week.)

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, some players in Iran now appear to be pushing back against the American pressure. They are probably hard-liners associated with the not-so-loyal opposition to President Hassan Rouhani’s ‘moderate’ government (moderate in the sense that he doesn’t want nukes and does want trade with the West), and they may just have given the American warhawks something to work with.

If push came to shove, Iran’s one available counter-weight to overwhelming US military strength would be to threaten the tanker traffic that carries 20 percent of the world’s crude oil and LNG out of the Gulf. The ‘choke point’ is the Strait of Hormuz, between Iran’s south coast and the United Arab Emirates, where the navigation channels narrow to three nautical miles wide in each direction.

On Sunday, there was a ‘sabotage attack’ on four merchant ships at anchor off the UAE port of Fujairah, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, where tankers often wait to be refuelled. Two at least were Saudi tankers.

Something holed all four ships at the waterline, and the instant suspicion was that some Iranian group is reminding everybody that Iran can close down the Strait if it is attacked. Or at least that it could do enough damage to drive insurance rates on cargoes transiting the Strait into the stratosphere.

But it might not be an Iranian group at all. It could be an American or Israeli or Saudi intelligence operation seeking to create a pretext for a US attack on Iran (like the ‘Gulf of Tonkin incident’ created a pretext for the US to start bombing North Vietnam in 1964). You have to keep an open mind on these things, unless you believe that intelligence agencies never lie.

At any rate, an actual war against Iran now seems much closer than it did last week. The long-planned transfer of another American aircraft carrier into the Gulf is now being re-framed as an emergency response to a new (but unspecified) Iranian threat. B-52 bombers that could easily reach Iran from their current bases are being ostentatiously flown into the Gulf. Mike Pompeo makes an unscheduled four-hour visit to Iraq.

If the United States does attack, nobody will help Iran, even though every other signatory to the no-nukes treaty that Trump trashed knows (and says) that Iran has complied with its terms. And the US would only bomb Iran, not invade it on the ground, so the only people who got hurt in the initial round would be Iranians.

But then it would spread: mines in the Strait of Hormuz, missile attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, maybe an uprising by the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. Lots of death and destruction, and no possibility of a happy outcome.

I really don’t think this is what Donald Trump wants. Maybe somebody should tell him.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“It’s…wrong”; and “But…lie”)

Venezuela: ‘Let Trump Be Trump’

The decision to promote Juan Guaidó as a rival president to Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela was clearly made in Washington, not in Caracas. The speed with which US allies in the Americas and western Europe recognised Guaidó’s claim on 23 January to be the legitimate president of Venezuela would not have been possible without a lot of prior coordination – and a lot of pressure by the Trump administration.

It’s no surprise that right-wing governments in Latin American countries like Colombia and Brazil are going along with a US attempt to overthrow a left-wing regime. (The support of Brazil’s new neo-fascist president, Jair Bolsonaro, was a foregone conclusion.) But it’s shocking when Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain also back this sort of intervention in another country’s internal affairs.

Maduro’s government does not deserve to survive. It has run the country’s economy into the ground, its ‘re-election’ last year was the product of a ruthlessly rigged vote, and three million Venezuelans (10% of the population) have fled abroad. But this is a problem for Venezuelans to solve, not foreigners, and least of all Americans.

There is a long, bad history of American attempts to overthrow left-wing governments in Latin America. Some of them, like Cuba (1960), Nicaragua (1981) and Venezuela (2002), were against regimes born in revolutions; others, like Brazil (1964), Chile (1973) and Argentina (1976), were against democratically elected governments. It made no difference to Washington.

It used to make a difference to Washington’s allies in Europe and North America, however. They were all in favour of democracy, but not ‘democracy’ delivered by American guns. They also fretted that these US interventions were all made in defiance of international law as embodied in the charter of the United Nations. It was American exceptionalism run wild: Maduro is historically quite right to talk of the “gringo empire”.

Now the Europeans and the Canadians are willing to back an intervention of the same sort in Venezuela, which is very hard to explain. Recognising a rival president as legitimate (on very flimsy grounds) opens the way to supplying his alternative regime with money and weapons, and thence to civil war in Venezuela.

It also creates the preconditions for direct US military intervention in Venezuela, and sure enough US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was soon saying that “all options are on the table.” As everybody knows, that’s US government diplomatic-speak for “we may invade you.” So will they?

You’d think that senior American military officers and government officials would have figured out by now that this is not a great option. Overthrowing governments they disliked by military force didn’t work out so well in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, so why would they think that doing it in Venezuela would work out any better? Even invasions undertaken with good intentions generally end in tears.

But hang on. Almost all the ‘adults in the room’ in the Trump administration have quit or been fired by now, and the second-raters and nonentities who replaced them have no feel for how these things work. Would any competent and well-informed US administration be toying publicly with the notion of attacking Iran? (“Options on the table” again.)

Invading Venezuela would not be as stupid as attacking Iran, but there would certainly be an armed resistance, and even Venezuelan patriots who despise Maduro would be tempted to become part of it: foreign armies of occupation almost always end up being hated. Cuba, Russia and perhaps even China would help the resistance with money, and perhaps with arms (although there are quite enough of those in Venezuela already).

This is a dangerous game, and it is hard to believe that sensible governments like those in France, Spain and Canada really think encouraging Juan Guaidó to claim that he is president of Venezuela on the grounds that he is president of the legislature is a good idea.

Maybe they are so frightened of Donald Trump that they feel compelled to go along with his hare-brained scheme, but that seems unlikely.

Trump is not that frightening once you have worked out that he will settle for even the slightest symbolic concession and claim it as an historic victory. The Mexicans and the Canadians both exploited that fact in the NAFTA renegotiation, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is about to do it again in his second ‘summit’ with Trump, and in due course China will do it over the alleged China-US ‘trade war’ too.

The darker possibility is that America’s NATO allies are afraid that he is going to drag them into a war with Iran, and are willing to contemplate the risk that he may stumble into a war in Venezuela instead. After all, it would do less damage – except to the Venezuelans, of course.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Maybe…too”)