LOOK BEFORE LEAPING
Cassandra and Yogi Berra are an unlikely pair, but I hear both of their voices today. Cassandra, like some of us, was cursed to be always disbelieved as she correctly predicted the future while baseballer Yogi Berra will be remembered for his penetrating insight into the flow of history, "This is like deja vu all over again."
It is through the unlikely medium of U.S. News and World Report that Cassandra speaks. The March 12 issue gives us "6 signs the U.S. may be headed for war in Iran." The first tip the magazine highlights is the firing of Admiral William Fallon. While Fallon is hardly a "dove," he apparently – to judge by hints he gave in an interview with Thomas Barnett published in the March issue of Esquire – had argued that an attack on Iran made no military sense. If this really was his judgment, he obviously was not the man to be "CINC [Commander-in-chief] Centcom." That is, if the Bush administration really is intent on an attack.
Among other straws U.S. News and World Report found in the wind blowing out of Washington was the projected trip by Vice President Dick Cheney to what the magazine correctly described as a "logistics hub for military operations in the Persian Gulf," Oman, where the Strait of Hormuz constitutes "the vulnerable oil transit chokepoint into and out of the Persian Gulf that Iran threatens to blockade in the event of war."
Here is where Yogi Berra begins to come into the picture. As the U.S. News and World Report notes, "Back in March 2002, Cheney made a high-profile Mideast trip to Saudi Arabia and other nations that officials said at the time was about diplomacy toward Iraq and not war…" It was, as we now know, one of the concerted moves in the build-up to the already-decided-upon plan to attack Iraq. Is Cheney's 2008 trip "like deja vu all over again?" That certainly is the inference drawn by U.S. News and World Report.
Then, U.S. News and World Report introduces the Israeli card. It reports the widely held belief that the Israeli air attack on Syria, analyzed by Sy Hersh in one of his insightful pieces of investigative reporting on February 11, 2008 in The New Yorker, was not what it was proclaimed to be, an attack on a presumed nuclear site, but a means to force the Syrians to activate their anti-aircraft electronics – as America used to do with the Russians – to detect gaps along what might be a flight path from Israel toward Iran.
Why a flight path across Syria? Both because Turkey might not allow the use of its airspace and because using Jordan's airspace, as Israel did in its June 7, 1981 strike on the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osiriq, might seriously weaken the Jordanian regime which Israel would like to keep in place, at least for the time being.
Is a flight across Syria and Iraq to attack Iranian targets feasible? The short answer is yes: the aircraft the United States has supplied to Israel have the range and presumably could be refueled on their return at a remote base among the 14 or so bases the U.S. has built and maintains in Iraq.
U.S. News and World Report also drew attention to the stationing of a guided missile destroyer off the Lebanese coast as another indication of preparations for war. The article does not explain why but points out that the destroyer has an anti-aircraft capability; so, the inference is that it would shoot down any Syrian aircraft attempting to hit Israel.
The article curiously passes over in silence the much more impressive build-up of naval power in the Persian Gulf. As of the last report I have seen, a major part of the U.S. Navy is deployed in and around the Persian Gulf. The numbers are stunning and include not only a vast array of weapons, including nuclear weapons, cruise and other missiles and hundreds of aircraft but also "insertion" (invasion) forces and equipment. Even then, these already deployed forces amount to only a fraction of the total that could be brought to bear on Iran because aircraft, both bombers and troop and equipment transports, stationed far away in Central Asia, the Indian Ocean, Europe and even in America can be quickly employed .
Of course, deploying forces along Iran's frontier does not necessarily mean using them. At least that is what the Administration says. However, as a historian and former participant in government, I believe that having troops and weapons on the spot makes their use more likely than not. Why is that?
It is because a massive build-up of forces inevitably creates the "climate" of war. Troops and the public, on both sides, come to accept its inevitability. Standing down is difficult and can entail loss of "face." Consequently, political leaders usually are carried forward by the flow of events. Having taken steps 1, 2 and 3, they find taking step number 4 logical, even necessary. In short, momentum rather than policy begins to control action. As Barbara Tuchman showed in her study of the origins of the First World War, The Guns of August, even though none of the parties really wanted to go to war, none could stop the process. It was the fact that President Kennedy had been reading Tuchman's book just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, I believe, that made him so intent on not being "hijacked by events." His restraint was unusual. More common is a surrender to "sequence" as was shown by the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It would have taken a major reversal of policy – and considerable political bravery -- to halt either invasion once the massive build-up was in place. No such effort was made then. Will it be now? I think the odds are against it.
In fact, moves are being made, decisions are being taken and rationale has been set out that point in the opposite direction. Consider just a few of these in addition to what U.S. News and World Report highlighted:
· the strategic rational for preëmptive military action was set forth in the 2005 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. It proclaimed that "America is a nation at war…[and] will defeat adversaries at the time, place, and in the manner of our choosing…[rather than employing] A reactive or defensive approach…Therefore, we must confront challenges earlier and more comprehensively, before they are allowed to mature…In all cases, we will seek to seize the initiative and dictate the tempo, timing, and direction of military operations." In short, as Henry Kissinger pointed out in The International Herald Tribune, April 14, 2006, it is an assertion of the intention to engage in preëmptive or "first strike" warfare. So, the process that began in Afghanistan and was then carried to Iraq and (on a smaller scale) to Somalia points toward action against Iran.
· Why Iran? Iran is not the only target. American "Special Ops" forces are engaged in a number of countries, at last count about twenty. A "training" force (an echo of Vietnam) is being deployed in Pakistan to help fight the Pathan hosts of the Taliban and Usama bin Ladin along the frontier with Afghanistan and another is in India to help the action against the Naxalite insurgents, but Iran is the major target.
· Among the reasons that the Bush administration has proclaimed are that Iran is supporting terrorism by supplying arms, training and encouragement both to anti-American insurgents in Iraq and to anti-Israeli Hizbullah militants in Lebanon and that it is moving toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Doubts have been expressed on both of these contentions. Iran played a positive role in against the Taliban (and against the drug trade) in Afghanistan and evidence on Iraq is, at best, sketchy. On the nuclear issue, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) reported in November 2007 the consensus of all the American intelligence agencies "with high confidence" that Iran is not actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
· Additionally, there is a psychological or political motivation. President Bush proclaimed on January 29, 2002 that Iran was part of the "Axis of Evil." He and others have conjured the memory of the seizure of the American embassy and taking of our officers hostage and have condemned the lamentable Iranian government record on civil liberties and particularly on the treatment of women. With Iraq under occupation and presumably incapable of mounting a credible threat outside its own territory and with North Korea immune to attack (as it already has nuclear weapons), Iran is the major perceived adversary capable of doing what National Defense Strategy of the United States of America termed "adopting threatening capabilities, methods, and ambitions…[to] 1) limit our global freedom to act, 2) dominate key regions, or 3) attempt to make prohibitive the costs of meeting various U.S. international commitments."
Decoded and applied to Iran, the Strategy paper defines Iranian actions as disrupting American objectives in the Middle East and has the potential to dominate what is believed to be the largest still-only-partially-developed pool of oil and gas in the world.
Thus, as defined by the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, Iran is an obvious target.
Apparently, President Bush's firing of Admiral Fallon was meant to signal to the Iranians that "all options remain on the table." This is the publically proclaimed policy of the Bush administration and has also been adopted by the Democratic Party aspirants to the White House, notably even by Barack Obama who recently said, "all options, and I mean all options, are on the table."
Leaving aside the issue of international law – which defines the conditions under which military action is defense (and so is legal) rather than aggression (and so is illegal) and which, having been adopted by the United States government, is American law also -- is a preëmptive military strike against Iran feasible? Allegedly, Admiral Fallon did not think so. I certainly do not either. The reasons are both evident and unambiguous. They include the following:
· However they may feel about their government, Iranians are a proud and nationalistic people who have suffered for generations from meddling, espionage and invasions by the Russians, the British and the Americans. They are even less likely than the Cubans (as the organizer of the CIA Bay of Pigs task force, Richard Bissell, predicted) or the Iraqis (as the Neoconservatives fantasized in 2003) to welcome foreign intrusion. If attacked, they undoubtedly would fight.
· While the United States could almost certainly quickly destroy the Iranian regular army, as it did the Iraqi regular army, the Iranians are better prepared for a guerrilla war than were the Iraqis. They have in being a force of at least 150 thousand dedicated and appropriately armed members of the Pasdaran-i Inqilab (Revolutionary National Guard) on land and at sea a numerous assortment of small, maneuverable and lethal speedboats stationed all along the Persian Gulf coast. Use of the boats would probably be suicidal but it would be a miracle if they failed to inflict heavy casualties among the American fleet. They almost certainly could interdict oil tankers.
· War is always unpredictable – except that it is always worse than expected. No one thought that the First World War would last more than a few months. The cost is also always unestimated. Before the American invasion of Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld thought it would cost only about $50 billion; his deputy (and later president of the world bank) Paul Wolfowitz thought it would cost nothing because the Iraqis would pay for it; and when Larry Lindsay, the White House economic adviser, predicted it might cost $200 billion, President Bush fired him. Estimates now run between $2 and $6 trillion. To shield this reality from the public, the Bush administration resorted to massive borrowing abroad – U.S. Treasury obligations amounted to $2.7 trillion as of early this year and are now higher – and to a massive increase -- up 70% during this Administration -- in national debt.
Almost no casualties were expected in Iraq; now American dead number about 4,000 and a realistic figure for various categories of "wounded" – officially put at about 20,000 – actually runs in the hundreds of thousands. Just coping with the American wounded is expected to cost half a trillion dollars.
But, Iraq is a small country while Iran is large, diverse and populated by about three times as many people as Iraq. The costs, human, material and monetary would certainly be a multiple of those suffered in Iraq. It is not unlikely that war with Iran would effectively "break" the American volunteer army and bankrupt America.
· Given this unattractive scenario, military planners have reportedly emphasized their intent to use mainly or even solely "surgical" air strikes. But the fact that CENTCOM has positioned ships to "insert" troops may be taken as a tacit admission by military planners that air strikes alone would be unable to destroy either Iran's nuclear facilities (which are believed to be widely scattered, often located in heavily populated urban areas and/or in protected underground locations) or to crush the nation's will to resist. Almost certainly, military commanders would demand permission to follow up air strikes with some form of "boots on the ground." Presumably and at least initially these would likely be Special Forces, but, inevitably (I would assert from my observation and study of past military adventures) some of these forces, even if intended only for limited action and quick withdrawal, will get caught and have to be rescued. Thus, what is planned and begun as restricted action is extremely unlikely to be containable.