Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Figuring out the war policies

It's hard to tell what's actually going on with the Cheney-Bush policy toward Iraq right now. We know they've adopted the McCain escalation idea, which they prefer to give a vaguely sexualized label, the Surge. Judging from the various statements from administration officials and their allies, they intend to intensify the fighting in Baghdad against both Sunni and Shi'a militias, though the level of seriousness about the latter is in some question. But even concentrating on Sunni militias with intense fighting in Baghdad seems likely to place US forces in direct conflict with Shi'a militias like the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades, both of which are heavily infiltrated into the Iraqi Army.

The biggest uncertainty seems to be to what extent the US is going to wage war directly against Iran and Syria. If the administration's public statements on attacking Iran in particular seem inconsistent, it's because they are. Gareth Porter gives a good rundown on the recent media strategy of the administration in this regard in
Bush's New Iran Policy - War Plan or Propaganda? Inter Press Service 01/15/07:

The contrast between the general impression of steely resolve toward Iran conveyed by Bush and the unusual clarity about the limited geographical scope of the response points to a sophisticated two-level communications strategy prepared by the White House. For those who get their news from television, the message conveyed by Rice was one of effective action against the Iranians supposedly causing harm to U.S. troops; for the Congress and the media, the message conveyed to reporters was much more cautious.
Whether or not Cheney and Bush have determined to attack Iran is still a guessing game. Where individuals come down on that seems to be mostly based on how large a role they expect the practical difficulties of widening the war to Iran will play in determining whether such an attack will occur. Maybe also on how optimistic one may be. Because there seems to be little reason to doubt that Cheney and Bush would love to expand the war to Iran and probably Syria, too.

Porter seems to be on the hopeful side for the moment:

The two-level communications strategy suggests, in turn, that the White House was acutely aware that a single message of menace toward Iran could have triggered a negative Congressional response that would have defeated the purpose of the tough rhetorical line.

Ironically, therefore, the net effect of the new tough line toward Iran may actually have been to force the administration to admit, if only tacitly, that it is not free under present circumstances even to threaten to go to war against Iran.
I hope he's right that the administration sees it that way.

William Polk, co-author with George McGovern of Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now (2006), has been pessimistic in recent months about the liklihood of war with Iraq. See the four papers from October available at
his Web site.

He also comments in his paper of 12/18/06 on the Baker-Hamilton report (
The Baker-Hamilton Study: Pluses and Minuses) about Iran's likely foreign policy calculations toward Iraq right now:

Iran, similarly, must see that a solution to America’s mistakes in Iraq is more likely to be detrimental than beneficial to its national and governmental interests. The Bush administration has repeatedly told Iran that it is an enemy, the third member of the Axis of Evil, a suitable candidate for preemptive attack. Those set out what the Bush administration wants. What has held back is that it could not carry out such an attack because it was bogged down in Iraq. Would a rational government wish to help America free up its military force which might then be used to attack it? Baker-Hamilton substantiates the Iranian belief that this is a possibility in its recommendation which points to “resources that might become available as combat forces are moved from Iraq.”
If the US wants a long-term diplomatic arrangement with Iran over outstanding issues - and I don't believe Cheney and Bush want that right now - we will have to be willing to negotiate a military security arrangement, i.e., give them some real assurance that the US won't military attack them without actual self-defense being at issue.

Polk is also very skeptical about how much Iran could do under the best of circumstances to help the US in Iraq:
... even if Iran wished to help the United States solve the Iraqi dilemma, could it do so? Baker-Hamilton not only does not address that question. The probable answer is that it has far less leverage in Iraq than Baker-Hamilton posit. During the Iraq-Iran war, the Iraqi Shiis fought determinedly against Iran. Moreover, the Iraqi Shiis are internally divided with many determined not to allow Iran to determine their agenda. Baker-Hamilton also fails to tell us what specifically it would want Iran to do. Presumably Baker-Hamilton wants the Iranians to tell the Iraqi Shiis to do what America wants them to do, but presumably the Iraqi Shiis do what they are doing from their estimate of what is fundamental to their interests or even to their survival. If this is so, it is unlikely that Iran can lead them to do otherwise. The idea that they are simply the puppets of Iran is based on an ignorance of history and current politics.
For other information on Iranian foreign policy of relevance to understanding the current situation, see also:

Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on "Terror" Middle East Policy Spring 2005, which includes a good bit about Iran's position toward Iraq and Afghanistan.

Flyntt Leverett among the more pessimistic:

In sum, the administration is laying the rhetorical and operational foundations for implementing a presidential decision to initiate military operations against Iran.
Iran and America: Is Rapprochement Finally Possible? by Mark Katz Middle East Policy Winter 2005. Reporting on a visit to Iran in 2005, Katz writes:

Although they were often critical of it, many Iranians I met expressed admiration for President Bush and key aspects of his foreign policy. They greatly appreciated the president's description of Islam as a religion of peace in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. They admired President Bush himself for his religiosity. They approved of how America ousted the Taliban, whom Iranian clerics regard as uneducated fanatics who know nothing about Islam. They also appreciated how America got rid of the brutal Saddam Hussein and held elections in Iraq that have given the majority Shia population there the chance to rule after being suppressed by Saddam Hussein and previous rulers of Iraq.

On the other hand, those I spoke with expressed much bitterness over President Bush's inclusion of Iran along with Iraq and North Korea in the "axis of evil." They very much agreed with Bush that Saddam Hussein was evil, as his brutal treatment of Iraqi Shias and his invasions of Iran and Kuwait demonstrated. They also agreed with Bush that Kim Jong Il is a horrible despot and a danger to neighboring countries. One analyst expressed the fear that North Korean nuclear weapons might be targeted against Iran. But they insisted that, whatever its faults, Iran is a "civilized" country and that the Islamic Republic is not at all like these two other regimes. They could not believe that the Bush administration does not recognize this. Indeed, they believed it actually does recognize this, and so its designation of Iran as part of the axis of evil demonstrates an intention to bring about "regime change" in Tehran.

Some Iranians professed to see the Bush administration as a revolutionary regime actively seeking to export its brand of revolution to other countries. They expected that the Bush administration will discover, as Iran did, that exporting revolution to others is fraught with difficulty, and that Bush or his successor will eventually stop trying to do this. Iranians also feel powerless to influence the Bush administration's foreign policy.
A Win-Win U.S. Strategy for Dealing with Iran Washington Quarterly by Michael McFaul, Abbas Milani, and Larry Diamond Winter 2006-7.

The costs and uncertainties of a military strike [against Iran] are enormous. Air strikes are unlikely to succeed in destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities, as experts have estimated the number of nuclear sites to be far more than the 18 the regime claims, with many buried deep underground. Others may not yet have been discovered. In addition, even if the military operation were successful in slowing down the nuclear program, it would only induce Tehran to redouble its efforts at building a bomb and to withdraw from the NPT altogether.

Moreover, because Iran’s facilities are spread out and located in urban areas, a preventive military strike could kill hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Iranians and destroy ancient buildings of historical and religious importance. Isfahan is the central headquarters of Iran’s nuclear program, but it is also Iran’s most beautiful city and home to many precious civilizational landmarks. Widespread air attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities and other military assets—they would have to be massive and widespread to have any chance of success - would rally the Iranian people around the mullahs, strengthen the regime, and undermine the considerable admiration and goodwill Iranians now feel for the United States. Whatever time such strikes purchased in setting back Iran’s nuclear program would be more than offset by the extended lease on life they would give to the regime. Needless to say, a unilateral strike against Iran would only further damage the United States’ standing in the world at a time when U.S. prestige internationally is at an all-time low. Finally, such a strike would provide ammunition to the arsenal of fanatics in the Muslim world, including some in the Tehran regime, who see an ongoing “crusade” by the Judeo-Christian West against the Muslim East. The Iranian government has often threatened that, in the case of an attack, it would mobilize its militia and terrorist proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, and the rest of the Middle East to attack U.S. forces and interests around the world, including Iraq. No doubt this would include Afghanistan, where there are already signs of escalating Iranian mischief.
A Shia Crescent: What Fallout for the U.S.? Middle East Policy Winter 2005

Contemplating the Ifs by Pat Lang and Larry Johnson The National Interest Spring 2006. They mention a risk we don't often hear arising from a US attack on Iran, the possibility of China dumping dollars:

Finally, Iran can play the global terror card. Unlike Al-Qaeda, groups tied directly to Iran continue to have robust capabilities and could cause a lot of trouble over the short term. Hizballah in particular has a significant presence in South America. U.S. commercial and transportation assets there would certainly be targeted, further inflicting damage to the U.S. economy.

The latter point raises an even more intriguing question - what would the Chinese do? They hold a substantial amount of U.S. debt. What happens if they decide to find some other currency to hold instead of the dollar? [This would presumably have to be the euro. - Bruce] This could add an entirely new and dangerous dimension to an attack on Iran. Put simply, the United States spends too much and saves too little, and Asia saves too much and spends too little. The Chinese would view a disruption in the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf as a damaging blow to the U.S. economy. Although the dollar traditionally has been the currency people seek during a crisis, the growing imbalance with China creates new dynamics that could convince the Chinese that holding dollars no longer made economic sense. Under such a scenario, dumping dollars on the international market would trigger an inflationary spiral in the United States.

The scenario of an inflationary spike triggered by China’s dumping of dollars may strike some as fanciful. The point for U.S. planners and policymakers, though, is to recognize that war brings unintended consequences that go well beyond the tactical realities on the ground where the fighting occurs.
Nuclear Iran: Perils and Prospects by Jahangir Amuzegar Middle East Policy Summer 2006

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