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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”)

Assange Extradition

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is an unattractive character, and he also has very poor judgement. He should have gone to Sweden seven years ago and faced the rape charges brought against him by two Swedish women. Even if he had been found guilty, he would probably be free by now under Swedish sentencing rules, since no violence was alleged in either case.

His explanation for taking refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy instead was that he feared that once in Sweden, he would be extradited to the United States – and the US government wanted to try him on charges that could involve a life sentence or even the death penalty.

What had so angered official Washington was WikiLeaks’ spectacular 2010 dump of 725,000 classified cables from American embassies around the world. The most damaging revelation was an official video in which the crew of a US Apache helicopter over Baghdad machine-gunned innocent civilians while making remarks like “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards” and “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into battle.”

(Donald Trump, then completing his transition from Democrat to Republican, condemned Assange, as his new guise required. “I think it’s disgraceful,” he said. “I think it should be like death penalty or something.”)

In fact, Assange faced no immediate threat of extradition in 2012, because President Obama had not encouraged the relevant American officials to make such a request. Indeed, in 2017, just before leaving office, Obama pardoned Assange’s source for the leaked cables, former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, after she had served only four years of her 35-year prison sentence.

Maybe, when Assange sought diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012, he feared that there would be a different administration in Washington after the US election that November. He should still have gone to Sweden, because the Swedes would have been less likely to grant an extradition request than the British government under Conservative prime minister David Cameron. Poor judgement.

Fast forward four years, and there is another WikiLeaks dump, this time of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails that seriously embarrass Hilary Clinton on the eve of the Democratic presidential convention.

“WikiLeaks – I love WikiLeaks,” says Donald Trump at a rally in Pennsylvania. “This WikiLeaks is a treasure trove,” he says at another. In fact, he cites WikiLeaks 141 times at 56 different events during the campaign, according to a count by NBC News. This is known in the philosophy trade as ‘situational ethics’.

But by 2017 Trump is in the White House and the Mueller probe is investigating his campaign’s possible links with the Russians who hacked the DNC and passed the information to WikiLeaks. He did not “support” or “unsupport” the release of the hacked emails, he says. “I am not involved in that decision (to seek Assange’s extradition),” he says, “but if they want to do it, it’s OK with me.”

It isn’t really OK with him at all, because who knows what Assange might reveal if he were brought to trial? But what else could Trump say? The US intelligence community is known for its vindictiveness towards those who reveal its secrets, and a sealed request for Assange’s extradition was delivered to the British government a year ago.

It has now been seven years, and the Ecuadorian government has changed. The new president, Lenin Moreno, wants to mend relations with the United States (and he is quite cross about a picture WikiLeaks released of him eating lobster in bed in a luxury hotel). So he withdraws diplomatic protection from Assange, and invites the British police into the embassy to arrest him.

The sole charge currently laid against Assange is carefully written to avoid a British refusal to extradite him – no death penalty is involved – and to get around the guarantee of freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which says “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom… of the press.”

Instead, Assange is charged with conspiracy to commit a computer crime: helping Chelsea Manning crack a password to gain access to the classified documents she gave to WikiLeaks. The evidence for this is scanty, but Manning has been jailed as a ‘recalcitrant witness’ for refusing to answer questions about her conversations with Assange. She can be held for 18 months.

The maximum penalty for the charge Assange currently faces is five years in prison, but of course ‘new evidence’ can be discovered once he is in the United States, and other charges brought that would involve a far longer sentence.

In fact, we can safely predict that it will be discovered. And Donald Trump now says “I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It’s not my thing.”

Assange is not an honourable whistle-blower like Daniel Ellsberg of ‘Pentagon Papers’ fame, who released hugely embarrassing documents about the US war in Vietnam but stayed in the US and faced his accusers down. Neither is he like Edward Snowden, another honourable man (still in exile in Moscow), who alerted the world to the scale of the US global electronic surveillance operation.

Assange is an unpleasant narcissist, but the world needs more whistle-blowers, not fewer. He still deserves protection under the US First Amendment, but it’s doubtful that he will get it.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 10. (“Donald…something”; and “But by…ago”)

Trump and Erdogan: Bringers of Chaos

16 January 2019

“Where America retreats, chaos follows,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Cairo last week. It’s not the sort of remark you’d expect from an American diplomat only three weeks after President Donald Trump declared that US troops were pulling out of Syria. Is it possible that behind Pompeo’s severe and even pompous exterior there lurks a secret ironist?

Probably not. Pompeo truly believes (like many American evangelical Christians) that the United States is engaged in a struggle of good against evil in the Middle East. “It is a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture,” he said three years ago. He may just be angry at Trump, in a passive-aggressive way, for abandoning Syria to the (evil) Iranian and Russian forces that back Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator.

At any rate, Pompeo is right about the chaos that will follow, but it would be wrong to blame it all on Trump. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is much better informed than the American president and probably a lot smarter too, but he is just as impulsive, just as ruthless, just as much a bringer of chaos.

It was Erdogan, in a telephone conversation in mid-December, who persuaded Trump that pulling all the US troops out of Syria would be a good idea. Turkey would be happy to take the strain instead.

Trump has always opposed America’s endless Middle Eastern wars, so he swallowed Erdogan’s suggestion hook, line and sinker – and tweeted his decision to pull the US troops out without discussing it with anybody. Only later did the remaining grown-ups in the White House explain to him that Erdogan planned to subjugate or kill America’s main allies in Syria, the Kurds.

To his credit, Trump hated the idea of betraying the Syrian Kurds, whose militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), suffered thousands of deaths while helping US forces to defeat the fanatical jihadis of Islamic State.

Trump still wanted to bring the US troops home, but now he had one condition. The Turks must promise not to invade north-eastern Syria and crush the YPG as soon as the US troops leave.

Erdogan replied that nothing Trump said or did could stop him from destroying these Kurdish ‘terrorists’ (who have never attacked Turkey). At which point, on Monday past, Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

All clear so far? Good.

You’d never guess, from the story thus far, that the United States and Turkey have been close allies for the past half-century, but the alliance is fading fast. Erdogan has been playing his own hand in the Middle East, and playing it quite badly.

The ‘Sultan’, as his admirers call him, wants to secure his own one-man rule and re-Islamise Turkey, which had evolved into a secular and democratic republic over the past eighty years. He also wants to promote Sunni Islam throughout the region. The two goals are not fully compatible, so he shifts position a lot.

When the revolt in Syria broke out in 2011 during the Arab spring, Erdogan supported it because Bashar al-Assad’s regime is dominated by Alawites, a Shia Muslim sect. He kept the border open and let supplies and recruits flow into the rebels, including even the Islamic State extremists.

When Russia intervened militarily to save Assad in 2015, Erdogan was so angry that he even had the Turkish air force ambush and shoot down a Russian bomber. But he was almost equally angry with the United States, which had made a an alliance with the Kurds of northern Syria to fight against Islamic State.

The Kurds gradually choked off the aid coming in to Islamic State from Turkey, and IS (aka ‘Isis’) has now lost almost all its territory. So Erdogan told Trump he could bring the US troops home now, and Trump believed him. But what Erdogan actually wants to do is crush the Syrian Kurds, which he can do once the US troops leave.

Erdogan thinks the Syrian Kurds are allied with the Turkish Kurds, who make up one-fifth of Turkey’s population, live just across the border from Syria, and are currently at war with Erdogan’s regime. (That’s why he calls them ‘terrorists’.)

The weird thing is that four years ago Erdogan was on the brink of making peace with the Kurds. There was a ceasefire, the Turkish Kurds were no longer demanding independence, and he was negotiating a compromise settlement that enhanced Kurdish rights within Turkey.

But then he lost a parliamentary election in 2015, mainly because the Kurds stopped voting for him. So he re-opened the war against the Kurds, wrapped himself in the Turkish flag, and won the next election on an ultra-nationalist platform. All Kurds are now the enemy, they are all terrorists, and they must be crushed.

Given Erdogan’s ruthlessness and Trump’s volatility, I have no idea how all this works out. Badly, I suspect. But I actually admire Trump’s refusal to betray his allies, once he realised what Erdogan was up to. You don’t see that much in the Middle East.

Of course, it probably won’t last.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 16 and 17. (“The weird…crushed”)

Trump and MbS: Shared Delusions

“It’s a suffering tape, it’s a terrible tape,” the Snowflake-in-Chief told Fox News on Sunday, defending his refusal to listen to the recording of journalist Jamal Khashoggi being murdered and sawn into pieces in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. “I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it. It was very violent, very vicious and terrible.”

At least five weeks after the Turks made the recording available to American intelligence, Donald Trump has finally admitted that it exists. (It only exists because the Saudi hit team who did the murder were so amateurish that they didn’t even sweep the consulate for bugs.)

But Trump’s purpose in going on Fox was to say that the man who almost certainly ordered the hit, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), is still his friend and ally. “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” said Trump, but “the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia.”

Fair enough. We all have to consort with murderers and torturers occasionally as we go about our business. But this relationship between Trump and MbS, genuinely warm and yet deeply cynical, does offer us an entry-point into the weird pseudo-strategies that bind the White House and the Saudi leadership together.

The focus of the US-Saudi relationship for the past four decades has been shared enmity towards Iran. This is perfectly natural for Saudi Arabia, which faces a far more populous and powerful Iran across the Persian Gulf. The sheer disparity of power, combined with the fact that Iran has a revolutionary regime and Saudi Arabia a deeply conservative one, guarantees that the latter will see the former as a threat.

It’s harder to explain the US obsession with Iran. The mullahs engage in lots of anti-American and anti-Israeli sloganeering, but they are much too sane to act on it. Iran’s ability to project hard military power abroad is so limited that it couldn’t possibly invade Saudi Arabia. It poses no threat whatever to the United States. And yet….

The depth and duration of the American obsession with Iran is best explained not by strategy but by psychology. Iran, like Cuba, overthrew an American puppet ruler long ago (the Shah in Iran, Batista in Cuba) and successfully defied subsequent US attempts to snuff out the revolution. For that, neither country has ever been forgiven.

It is that long-cherished American grudge, not some subtle strategic calculation about potential Iranian nuclear weapons, that drives Trump’s current trade embargo against the country. If he were really worried about nukes, he would be concentrating on North Korea, not Iran.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel feed Trump’s obsession with Iran, because they would love to entangle the US in a war with that country. Much better to get the Americans to do the fighting, if war is inevitable.

But war is actually far from inevitable, and even Trump’s close advisers (with the possible exception of John Bolton) know that attacking Iran would be a very bad idea. It is, for a start, much bigger than Vietnam.

However, Trump himself seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid. He prefaced his statement about sticking with Saudi Arabia despite the Khashoggi murder with a rant about the evil Iranians who are allegedly waging “a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.”

Despite constant claims that the Houthi rebels in Yemen are just a front for Iran (for the most part swallowed uncritically by the Western media), there are no Iranians in Yemen, and no Iranian weapons either. On one side there are Houthi fighters and the home-made, hopelessly inaccurate missiles that they occasionally fire at Saudi cities in retaliation for the huge, relentless bombing campaign by the Saudi-led ‘coalition’.

On the other side is the aforesaid coalition, the military wing of Arab Military Dictators and Absolute Monarchs Inc., plus some mercenaries that the United Arab Emirates has hired to stiffen the local pro-government forces. And MbS waded into Yemen almost three years ago to put that ‘government’, installed by the Saudis in 2012 without an election, back into power.

There’s not an Iranian in sight anywhere. The geography alone makes the claim utterly implausible. How could this farrago of shameless lies and distortions be repackaged into a casus belli for an American attack on Iran?

Alleged North Vietnamese attacks on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, subsequently disproved, gave US President Lyndon Johnson an excuse to start bombing North Vietnam in 1964. Saddam Hussein’s non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were President George W. Bush’s pretext for invading Iraq in 2003.

So yes, the Yemen war, creatively reinterpreted, could indeed be used by MbS and Trump to justify an American attack on Iran. It is said that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but the wars always come first.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 8. (“At…bugs”; and “It…Iran”)