What if Iran kicked America’s Ass?

iranian poster

The war drums in Washington are beating the steady staccato they often do when the hint of conflict is teased to a conflict-hungry media and war-weary public. While I get the impression that Trump himself does not want a full-blown conflict here, he is easily impressionable both by America’s more unsavory allies as well as people in his administration. Right now, even if he is just being used as a public face of the stick in a carrot and stick approach, John Bolton is easily the most dangerous man in the world.

But I have made my views quite clear on dangerous and flawed U.S. policy towards Iran on multiple previous occasions. I want to examine a more interesting issue right now…what if the worst comes to pass and there is, in fact, a U.S.-Iran war in the near future? More specifically, what if Iran far outperforms expectations, or America far underperforms, or both?

It is not as much a position for provocation’s sake scenario as you might think. While its nearly impossible to see Iran winning a conventional conflict against America, they would obviously not be foolish enough to fight in such a way like, say, Iraq did in 1991. The First Gulf War was such an overwhelming American military victory that basically stopped everyone-for the time being-from seeking to directly challenge the US with vast formations of tanks and planes. In a strange way, that victory has unintentionally been bad for Washington, which is far less skilled outside of such conventional warfare.

While every strategist around the world must know that Iran would be a far tougher nut to crack than say Iraq or Libya, and private conversations are almost certainly filled with such concerns among military brass, the public face of the issue so far has been one of self-confidence. For all we know it may be warranted, but there is a stronger case to be made for Iran being able to do serious damage to the U.S., and possibly even come out winning more than losing in a direct confrontation. I feel there are military officers who know this and who could talk down the more ridiculous congressman into continuing our present low-level siege warfare. But with Bolton, Tom Cotton, the Saudis, and possibly the Israelis all pushing for a greater escalation, it is quite possible that a cascade of events could drag countries to places even against their own wishes a la summer of 1914.  Here is how that could happen in the very real possibility that Iran outperforms the expectations of our political elite:

Iran today has probably more raw potential military power than North Vietnam did in 1964, if a far smaller pool of battle hardened veterans. Its ability to strike throughout the region is greater, and its population’s strong desire-no matter their politics towards the present government-to avoid a return to being an American puppet could be forged into a type of total war mobilization that would never be able to be replicated in the U.S. The Forever War and the various mistakes of the United States policy leadership since 2003 and onwards have alienated the public from the Pentagon and the interventionist mindset far beyond repair. That already gives Iran a leg up on morale for a long haul battle.

Iran’s special forces have become as hardened in Syria as U.S. forces are through their constant deployments. They have built long term relationships with state and non-state actors alike in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq (and possibly to a much lesser extent, Yemen), all of whom know that while the United States will not always be in their near abroad, Iran always will be.  Meanwhile, Iranian ally Hezbollah showed in 2006 it can be called upon to tie many Israeli forces down if needed. Their performance in Syria more recently also is impressive.

Iran would most likely cede the air to the overwhelming superiority of American jets, but it’s land-based missiles could wreak havoc on the ships that launched them and their logistical support. They could bypass many American technological advantages by the use of physical and human communication and launch terrorist attacks against American allies-especially European ones who are far more reticent about U.S. hawkishness towards Iran. Meanwhile, oppressed Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia (which tend to live in the regions with the countries oil fields) could be mobilized as a fifth column to damage that notorious and unpopular government from the inside.

Even assuming that the initial stages of the conflict go quite well for Washington, Iran’s ability to damage American allies and dependents combined with its ability to hold out in a conflict longer means that in order to squeeze out a victory the U.S. might be forced to use ground troops in the region. This might work in Iraq where the terrain and local divides could provide an in, though the casualties would be immense as a civil war was touched off. Most likely, I think, Iraq tries to play the neutrality card between the two countries. Either way, to bring about some kind of victory at this point U.S. troops (and more and more naval and air resources) would have to be dispatched, possibly entering Iran proper. A country filled with mountains and large cities. If they even could. After all, a U.S. military exercise in 2002 (with estimated Iranian capabilities than being less than they are now, and American power stronger and more belligerent at that point than at present) showed they might not even be able to land.

As the current Syrian War shows us, cities play the role of castles and forts these days more than ever before. A great place to bog down an invader and give them lots of PR when it comes to the infliction of human misery on people. Around these cities is the difficult terrain of the Iranian plateau and who knows how many emergency cave complexes and hidden bunkers to back up the asymmetrical fight. All of these points, once again, towards Iran being able to last a long time.

And the longer it lasts, much like say the United States in the 1770s, the more likely foreign support for Iran increases. This support could be direct (Russian jets from Syria over Iraq and Iran) to indirect, with an increasingly distracted America coming under pressure in the Taiwan Strait, Ukraine, the Baltic, or Afghanistan from coordinated Chinese and Russian action. If so, the cost of even a hard-won victory and the fall of Tehran would fatally undermine the U.S. global position not just in the Gulf but around the world. This means the Pentagon will be reluctant to commit the full and decisive forces it would need to truly beat Iran, and thus Iran’s chances of outlasting, embarrassing, and undermining America increase. Meanwhile, the hard anti-American left and right alike are driven to win in Europe as a new flood of refugees pours out of the region, radicalizing the internal politics of American allies and moving these countries from seeing Washington as a guarantor of peace into the primary underminer of it. As it becomes more and more obvious that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the most gain from the belligerence-and are most likely working directly with Al Qaeda type organizations to fight a fully sectarian war, people around the world-perhaps especially American troops will start to wonder why anyone would die for the Gulf Arab leadership and their jihadist friends.

For the most dramatic outcome, you just might have Iran being the spark to create a truly global anti-American balancing act. An event which for many powers in the world probably feels far overdue. America’s ability to act unilaterally outside of the Western Hemisphere will be effectively gone for good, and the embarrassment would probably set off a political bloodbath at home. I believe this analysis holds true even if the war is a technical victory for Washington. Considering that this would have resulted from a war of choice, it would go down in history as one of the biggest great power self-owns in history. Upon the level of Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia in 1914, The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, or the numerous Carthaginian attacks on the city-state of Syracuse-that latter example being the very one I am currently reading about which inspired this post. No one would have predicted that little Syracuse could have drawn with and even occasionally defeated the western Mediterranean’s then-greatest power, but with terrain, audacity, and a greater appetite for sacrifice than their opponents, they did. Considering that present day Iran lives under such existential threat by American power that their military and strategic apparatus is likely far less complacent in terms of promotion, doctrine, and self-confidence, it was easy for me to think of this connection. Especially when reading about Carthage’s vast sums of money not being able to offset their extreme adversity to casualties when fighting abroad.

Of course, considering the regional and international coalition that Iran would face, it is also true that even an Iranian victory would be incredibly costly and thus they would wish to avoid all-out conflict in the first place. Let us hope Washington’s notoriously bumbling elites can be convinced to see present events in the same light.

There we are. I guess its time to be labeled an Iranian shill now.

‘The Hell of Good Intentions’, A Review

hell of good intentions

Stephen Walt was one of the most influential contemporary international relations theorists to me when I first entered the field of IR as a Master’s student over a decade ago. Of the currently active crop of IR thinkers he remains my favorite, so it should be no surprise that the coming of his newest book, ‘The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy’ was an instant acquisition for my massive nonfiction library. Though Walt and I have diverged on some issues in the past few years, our overall diagnoses of both what ails the US foreign policy mainstream as well as what to do about it remains extremely similar.

I am not going to go over the details of the book as many of its themes have been covered on this blog multiple times already. From the incestuous navel gazing of the Court Eunuchs of the Beltway ghoul class to the virtues of America’s fortuitous geography in its rise and options towards grand strategy, to the virtues of offshore balancing to those lucky enough to be able to practice it, all can be found here in various posts. If you know many of my bugbears you can guess what are Walt’s, and vice-versa.

What I will do, however, is review how good a case Walt makes for covering this topic as a single book meant for a large audience. Unsurprisingly, this book is meant for a similar audience as the very one it rightly criticizes. This means Walt takes a very different tactic than I do. Whereas I tend to go after people outside-of-the Beltway and show how the fables of liberal hegemony are directly counter to someone’s interests, Walt wants to convince those who are a bit more integrated into these elite circles. This is not a criticism of mine, as its important to be firing on all cylinders here. I am merely acknowledging that if he is the Martin Luther King Jr of foreign policy realism than I am more the Huey Newton-to use a somewhat tortured and tongue in cheek analogy. I try to convince people who are non-centrist independents, the few sane paleocons, and leftists and he goes more for the liberals and centrists.

Keeping this in mind, Walt does an excellent job. Not only does he wage a thorough and quite multi-topical demolition of both the record of our very own Late Ming court eunuch equivalents whose lanyards are the modern version of the old quill said eunuchs once used to hold in their piss (analogy once again mine), but also the long term effects of these luxury wars we have found ourselves in. For someone who is sometimes (unjustly) criticized in academic circles for ignoring domestic factors and how they shape foreign policy, it is worth pointing out that, so far, this book seems to have little in the way of big newspaper reviews. Quite possibly because it also criticizes the general neoconservative/liberal bias of major legacy papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times’ op-ed section. Had this book come out in the twilight of the cursed Bush II presidency I have no doubt it would have been given more media attention, but in a world where both parties now identify openly with unthinking hawkishness-from Trump embracing Pompeo and Bolton to the Democrats rallying around the flag of the national security state and even bizarrely ex-Bush Junior officials-there is little mainstream attention paid to this work so far despite the fact that Walt is a distinguished and well known scholar in the field.

Fascinating that. I’m sure its just a coincidence.

Needless to say, this is *the* work to get your foreign policy orthodoxy questioning people to engage with series realist critiques of both the present system and what to do about it. The book even helpfully closes out a useful list of talking points and arguments that could be deployed to make the case for a more restrained offshore balancing strategy. Worth keeping around to push the needle especially as a reckoning with the establishment must be only one or two more of their failures away.

My only real critiques of the text as follows:

While Walt does mention how the Lanyard Ghoul (once again, my phraseology) class has an intrinsic reason to back mindlessly hawkish policies due to them making money and status off of such policies, he only barely mentions the privatization and for profit militarization of much of the DoD in the past few decades. This is not something that could be easily reversed without major structural reform not only of The Pentagon, but also our entire political-economic system as it presently stands. This, along with environmental issues, are some of the reasons being a realist actually made me evolve more structurally left wing positions over time. Also, when living in DC, as I currently do, one sees how this recession-proof city really functions as more and more ‘Beltway Bandits’ move in with the attached monstrous apartment complexes clearly designed for pod people in tow. In DC the policy is made, and DC itself is increasingly economically reliant on what Eisenhower once called ‘the military-industrial complex’….except that now said complex has a profit motive above all, and thus far less reasons to uphold the national interest first. This entails not only many jobs that rely directly on the perpetuation of bad policies to exist, but also an army of lobbyists to see that their voices are disproportionately heard in government.

My second criticism is just a minor oversight but one worth mentioning. Walt rightly bemoans the lack of foreign policy focused elected leadership in office currently. While I agree with the argument overall, and also with his complaint that the cause suffers when certain people from a family with the last name of ‘Paul’ do much of the public speaking on its behalf, he is missing one very persistent and vocal figure in congress: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. The entire reason she has managed to restore realist and restraint positions to the discourse is because she is charismatic and is a rare figure focused on foreign affairs. Personally, I would love to see Walt support her mission in congress as congruent to his own.

 

The Grand Alliance Future Predicted by Geotrickster is Here

On posts too numerous to mention (or bother going through to link directly to) on this blog I have often talked about the importance of the Eurasian landmass and the traditional fear of naval powers of grand land-power alliances locking up most of it. In contemporary terms this often means a China-Russia alliance of the sort from the early Cold War returning. I recommended to American strategists that this be avoided and that overly antagonizing Russia on all fronts would increase the likelihood of it happening. In the end great power rivalry was always more important than tiny peripheral gains (and over-expansion) at Russia’s expense.

Well, it has happened. Or more accurately, it now is definitely in the process of happening. This doesn’t mean that the numerous tensions in the relationship-especially over influence in Central Asia-won’t flare up or reverse the process, but its clearly time to start thinking about the US position of being sidelined in much of Eurasia actually is.

A true realist does not pine for the past (one the reasons I find the large presence of paleocon realists so baffling) but constantly adapts to changing circumstances. Rather than scream about how dumb American strategists are which I do enough anyway, here are some recommendations for them assuming present trends of the Moscow-Beijing bromance hold true:

  1. Neither Russia nor China could challenge America on its own yet. Together they actually do provide a challenge large enough to get America back on spending government dime on science, technology, the space race, infrastructure, and competing in green energy. The Cold War was one of the best things to ever happen to the United States, internally speaking, and its end with hindsight was one of the worst. We cut spending on so many of the things that made us great and competitive so we could pursue the phantom chimera of endless tax cuts, deregulation, voodoo economics, and yelling about social issues while both major parties gobble from the Wall Street trough.
  2. A mega-power blob of Russia and China will both attract new allies and alienate new enemies. In the re-alignment that occurs the US could in fact increase its influence in many new countries who fear a new Eurasian power bloc. I have said before that I see North America, not Eurasia, as the true ‘world-island’ in geopolitics, the ability to maintain and expand relationships with powerful nations like France, India, and the like in the long run counts more than losing much of the Middle East to Iran (which will no doubt go for Russia-China if present policies continue).
  3. Finally, a way to responsibly end Afghanistan. Being bogged down in Afghanistan is a drain on American grand strategy (if a boon for defense contractors, funny how that often happens), and can be jettisoned if Afghanistan is de facto ceded to a Eurasian bloc as a security concern. China’s close relationships with Pakistan increases the odds of more effective policies being adopted, and the inevitability of Islamabad-DC fallout and growing New Delhi-DC ties make this a natural development which should be accelerated rather than delayed.
  4. Potential access to resources, the real core of power politics, will be cut for US and allied nations, but what is lost in one place can be gained elsewhere, outside of conflict zones even, especially considering the most under-reported and extremely important news of centuries worth of rare earth materials being found in Japanese exclusive territory. This further stresses that the US-Japan Alliance is the most important in the world and should be the top priority of US diplomats.