Wednesday, August 24, 2005

No military solution

Last week, in a scene strikingly reminiscent of the lead-up to America's current foreign policy disaster in Iraq, we saw President Bush blustering against Iran, threatening to use force unless that country ended its nuclear program. Ignoring the ethical question of whether the US can consistently try and deny to another country a right it insists upon for itself, is this even possible? James Fallows considered this question in an article titles Will Iran Be Next? in Atlantic Monthly last year - and the answer is not encouraging for the hawks.

In an effort to get at the issues underlying an attack on Iran, Fallows got together with a group of foreign policy experts and a simulations expert from the US Army's National War College. They conducted an exercise based on a "principals meeting", with experts cast in the roles of CIA director, Secretaries of State and Defence, and White House Chief of Staff, and the simulation controller representing variously the National Security Advisor and top-ranking military staff. In other words, they ran a LARP - but one played by experts, who knew what they were doing, and with the aim of illustrating issues rather than having fun. The issues chosen were the level of threat posed by Iran, and what specifically military options should be presented to the President, rather than whether they should consider going to war at all. The material presented was

as accurate, realistic, and true to standard national-security practice as possible. None of it was classified, but all of it reflected the most plausible current nonclassified information he could obtain. The detailed plans for an assault on Iran had also been carefully devised. They reflected the present state of Pentagon thinking about the importance of technology, information networks, and Special Forces operations. Afterward participants who had sat through real briefings of this sort said that Gardiner's version was authentic.

I'll skip past the discussion on uncertainty and whether Israel should be discouraged from making a pre-emptive strike to the meat of the discussion: what could America actually do? Here, they were presented with three options: puntive airstrikes against Iranian military units, pre-emptive air-strikes on suspected nuclear facilities, and "regime change". The participants were asked to recommend that the preparatory steps to make all three possible be authorised.

As mentioned above, the options were based as closely as possible on contemporary military thinking. The regime-change options relied on using bases in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Iraq, which had to be expanded, as well pre-positioned equipment. They also

minimized "stability" efforts-everything that would happen after the capital fell. "We want to take out of this operation what has caused us problems in Iraq," Gardiner of CentCom said, referring to the postwar morass. "The idea is to give the President an option that he can execute that will involve about twenty days of buildup that will probably not be seen by the world. Thirty days of operation to regime change and taking down the nuclear system, and little or no stability operations. Our objective is to be on the outskirts of Tehran in about two weeks. The notion is we will not have a Battle of Tehran; we don't want to do that. We want to have a battle around the city. We want to bring our combat power to the vicinity of Tehran and use Special Operations to take the targets inside the capital. We have no intention of getting bogged down in stability operations in Iran afterwards. Go in quickly, change the regime, find a replacement, and get out quickly after having destroyed-rendered inoperative-the nuclear facilities." How could the military dare suggest such a plan, after the disastrous consequences of ignoring "stability" responsibilities in Iraq? Even now, Gardiner said after the war game, the military sees post-conflict operations as peripheral to its duties. If these jobs need to be done, someone else must take responsibility for them.

The reaction to this was unanimously negative. The US military may not have learned from Iraq, but foreign policy experts have. They went through the obvious glaring flaws; the preparations could not be kept secret, and would almost certainly provoke a response (such as an oil embargo, provoking unrest in Iraq and Afghanistan, assisting al-Qaeda, or even a pre-emptive strike) from the Iranian regime; the lack of planning for a postwar government or US exit would lead to mess like Iraq (unmentioned was the wholesale leakage of nuclear material and expertise); any moves in this direction would rule out attempts to resolve the issue diplomatically if they became public. In the words of one participant,

"One, it will leak. Two, it will be politically and diplomatically disastrous when it leaks ... I think your invasion plan is a dangerous plan even to have on the table in the position of being leaked ... I would throw it in Tampa Bay and hope the sharks would eat it."

As for the other options, there was little objection to keeping the option of random bombing of military units open. But most participants did not consider pre-emptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities feasible:

The United States simply knew too little about which nuclear projects were under way and where they could be destroyed with confidence. If it launched an attack and removed some unknown proportion of the facilities, the United States might retard Iran's progress by an unknown number of months or years-at the cost of inviting all-out Iranian retaliation. "Pre-emption is only a tactic that puts off the nuclear development," Gardiner said after the exercise. "It cannot make it go away. Since our intelligence is so limited, we won't even know what we achieved after an attack. If we set it back a year, what do we do a year later? A pre-emptive strike would carry low military risk but high strategic risk."

The long and the short of it is that there is no military solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear programme. The only effective tool the US has at its disposal is persuasion.


A number of things have changed since this simulation was run, BTW. The estimate of how long it would take Iran to build a bomb has been increased from three to ten years. And the IAEA has determined that there were no signs of clandestine activity, and that traces of enriched Uranium found in Iranian facilities came from contaminated equipment imported from Pakistan. Both make the threat less pressing - or should, if the US was remotely rational rather than being run by paranoid loons. But neither affects the conclusions drawn, which is that even if Iran is judged to be a serious threat, there's nothing that can be done about it without provoking a total regional war.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/24/2005 03:43:00 PM

BTW, There's a lot more in the article, and I suggest reading the whole thing. It's the sort of good crunchy piece I read the Atlantic for.

Fallows has also done a similar exercise on North Korea, which is if anything even more depressing - but I'm saving that for another post.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/24/2005 03:45:00 PM

While I'm not sure you can characterise Bush's comments as amounting to threatening force, I agree with your conclusion.

There may not be not much anyone can do to influence Iran on this issue. Carrots from the Europeans haven't worked. If Iran were a democracy then having nukes would not be so much of a problem - not ideal but better than a dictatorship having them.

The latest intellignce suggests they are still some time away from going nuclear so maybe in the meantime a gradual liberalisation will make the issue less problematic.

A resolution mostly rests on whether Iran is using the issue just as a bargining chip to extract concessions from the Europeans and Anericans or actually wants nukes. But of course they would never want others to know their true intentions since they would lose their advantage.

Posted by Sock Thief : 8/24/2005 03:48:00 PM

One of the interesting points Fallows makes is that Bush-style attempts at military intervention may not just be ineffective; they may also be counterproductive in the long-term. Yes, the US doesn't want Iran to get the bomb. But if it does, they want it to not be hostile, to have bought in to the international system, to see itself as India does: as a nuclear-armed regional power, with a stake in the status quo.

Careful persuasion can put Iran on this path. But there's no better way to turn them into a real "rogue state" (as opposed to merely a country with a shitty government which American has a longstanding grudge against) than diplomatic isolation and threatening or using military force.

In other words, this is a problem the Europeans would be best at. Unlike the Bush administration, they at least know what a carrot looks like.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/24/2005 04:27:00 PM

In other words, this is a problem the Europeans would be best at. Unlike the Bush administration, they at least know what a carrot looks like.

Bwa ha ha. Europeans best at??? Because they have no option you mean. Oh you ate our carrot and are still building nuclear weapons? Well, we'll see about that... um... has anyone got any more carrots? No? Maybe a parsnip then?

Posted by Anonymous : 8/24/2005 05:10:00 PM

Anon: you can sneer about Europe's military weakness all you like - but the fact is that you can achieve a great deal through soft power. And in this case, it is the only tool to hand. The current US administration doesn't operate that way - they prefer snarling threats at people - but in this case, threats will not work, because they cannot be effectively carried out. If you support the US's goals towards Iran, that ought to give pause for some thought about alternative means of achieving your goals.

Sock Thief points out that it would be less of a problem if Iran was more democratic. Things were actually going fairly well on this front, until Bush put Iran in the "Axis of evil" - then the Iranian electorate backed the Mullahs. Which suggests that an alternative strategy is for the US to be a lot quieter, and let demography take its course. Meanwhile, the Europeans can do their best to promote political reform and work on tying Iran into the status quo so it won't want to rock the boat.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/24/2005 05:44:00 PM

Your faith in European diplomacy is touching. Obviously you don't live here.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/24/2005 06:27:00 PM

Extreme hawks often talk about turning Iran into glass and so forth but really it is all nonsense - there were a specific set of circumstances that lead up to the Iraq wars things that are not in place in the case of Iran.

I don’t think taking action in Iran would be very smart particularly from the USA's point of view (maybe a closer state might see it differently if they were militarily stronger)

The EU and the USA's approach to politics are not really comparable because the EU does not play the role of an influential state. It tries to gain allies by having less power than the USA.

1) If the EU was the most influential country it would almost by definition NOT be using that strategy.
2) A country that has low influence can have a strategy that is entirely non functional (the EU may or may not fall into that category) and never be "found out" - rather like how a party like lets say the libertarians could propose all sorts of policies that have some popularity and never be proven wrong because stronger parties will never let them put those policies into practice.
There is a sort of free rider effect in politics.

Posted by Genius : 8/24/2005 07:45:00 PM

Anon: I don't necessarily expect it to succeed - but as I said, there's not really any other option available.

Genius: The EU works through soft power, rather than trying to swing its dick around. The success or otherwise of this strategy is left as an exercise for those who care to examine the leadup to the Iraq invasion.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/24/2005 11:38:00 PM

I'd like to think more of the EU than I do, but, given that they can't even raise finger to prevent genocide on their doorstep, and given (France, esp) their flagrant profiteering through the Iraqi sanctions, I'm a touch cynical. I also struggle to think of any single EU foreign policy success since Adam was a cowgirl. Whilst this does not excuse the criminal incompetence of the Bushofascists, it hardly suggests a brave new alternative to dealing with appalling regimes like Iran or N. Korea. The EU can't even agree on how to govern itself, and Iran will just keep quietly marching towards having a bomb.

The best thing that could happen viz a viz Iran, is for the West to aggressively pursue alternative energy strategies as a matter of national/regional security. Less demand for oil means less money for Iran and Saudi Arabia, and as has often been pointed out in the left wing press here, such regimes are strengthened by having extra billions to through around. Change will only really come in the Middle East, IMHO, when oil stops padding the rulers who govern there.

Posted by Adrian : 8/25/2005 02:42:00 AM

Though you made it as a slight aside, I would beg to differ on the American military's Iraqi lesson plan. I think a lot of junior and mid-level officers have learned a great deal about the limits of "regime change". The general staff, often motivated by appeasing the Secretary and playing the Washington game, may not be willing to say what they have learned -- but they've learned something. There are some nutso neocons that haven't, but they are a dwindling bunch: Thank God.

As for your topic, it is excellent and the Atlantic's war game (as well as the Korean counterpart) was telling.

The best use of a military is often not using it. If you read Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris, you will note how TR dissolved a potential crisis with Germany (and to a lesser extent Britain) over Venezuela through prudent negotiations, kept quiet to save face, and a resolution that force would be used to uphold the Monroe Doctrine, but only as a last resort.

Over the past 2.5 years, we can see that such prudent thinking was not within this administration. Unfortunately, this appears to be continuing to this day.

You have an excellent blog, I welcome you to visit mine. I am going to write something on Iraq tonight, digging through old Foreign Affairs issues and such... Fun stuff ;-)

Posted by copy editor : 8/25/2005 04:29:00 AM

> The success or otherwise of this strategy is left as an exercise for those who care to examine the leadup to the Iraq invasion.

My point is you cant tell anything from that because
A) any strategy must be viewed wholistically (ie what is its wider effect not jsut its specific effect)
B) we havent seen the effect of the EU policies so I dont think your iraq example p[roves anything. The EU generally have been able to leave action so late that someone else will have to step in.

Still...In some ways they may be playing a game of good cop bad cop....

Posted by Genius : 8/25/2005 07:25:00 AM

Genius: I think "good cop, bad cop" is exactly the right metaphor. but in order for it to work, the bad cop will have to shut the hell up and let the good cop do what they can - because opening their mouth and waving their stick will only make things worse.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/25/2005 11:46:00 AM