War with Iran (7): It’s Not Over Yet

The conventional wisdom has it that “for now,” the war with Iran is over. According to this supposed wisdom, Iran followed up our assassination of Suleimani with a lot of rhetorical bluster but an oddly anti-climactic and hapless missile strike on US bases in Iraq. The strike caused no casualties, and did no “serious” damage. Meanwhile, Trump, in his magnanimity, seems not to want to “escalate.” And so, war has been averted, and we can all emit a collective sigh of relief over everything’s having ended so well. I don’t claim to be an expert on military affairs, but to state my verdict on the conventional wisdom in a word: bullshit. The war isn’t over. It’s just begun.

It’s conceded by almost everyone that Iran’s recent missile strike caused no serious damage, but that Iran has far more potent weapons at its disposal, weapons that if used, would have caused far more damage. Common sense would seem to dictate that they had a reason for engaging in such a limited first response to the Suleimani killing. The usual reason offered is that they tremble in fear at American military might. I highly doubt it. Consider a different hypothesis.

Consider the possibility that the Iranians launched their strike to send a very limited, specific, but poignant message, namely: “Even under the very best of conditions for you–a small missile barrage, no fog of war, no real element of surprise, no use of low-level drones, and mobility for your troops–we can still hit your bases.” These factors plus the Iranians’ intentions explain why the missiles did so little damage. But if you take away the favorable-to-American logistical factors, the missiles would have done a great deal more damage. Imagine a gigantic (surprise) missile/drone attack during the fog of war aimed at bases full of troops who were deprived of their capacity for mobility–who were boxed into their bases. That would be an Iranian turkey shoot. It would look like a scene out of Independence Day.

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It’s not at all hard for the Iranians to create the first few conditions: surprise, fog, and a large missile strike. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly not impossible, for them to create the last essential condition: restriction of American troop mobility.* What they’d have to do is pin the Americans firmly inside their bases and keep them there. How?

The American military presence is large enough to constitute a viable target, but not large enough to constitute a defensible force against a concerted, sustained series of attacks. This fact puts the United States in a quandary. If attacked, American ground forces have two options: they could either withdraw under fire, or double down and fight back. Retreating under fire would be costly, and would be a visible defeat. Doubling down and fighting back requires a large force-escalation. But there is no will in the US for a full-scale war against Iran, and there is no desire in Iraq to permit the Americans to wage one even if the American people ardently wanted one (the Iraqi parliament voted to induce the Americans to leave). Whereas there is a real desire in Iran to exact revenge and drive the Americans out of the region. So this has become a contest between gigantically over-confident American hubris and coldly fanatical Iranian vengefulness. It’s not going to end well. But it’s a huge mistake to think it has ended.

Far from “winning” anything, Trump has either not altered the basic dynamic of the strategic situation at all, or accelerated American defeat. Only two things can alter the basic dynamic: complete American withdrawal or all-out escalation. As far as I can tell, Trump is too stupid to take the first option, but too smart to take the second. But once the Iranians attack the US through their proxies (which is only a matter of time) the intermediate options will ultimately reduce to the extreme options. In other words, once the Iranians succeed at boxing the relatively small and light American force into their bases, and then hit them with ballistic missiles and drones, either American forces will really have to leave or really have to fight. But at that point, Americans will face the spectacle of Iranian missiles falling en masse on essentially defenseless American soldiers and creating real damage and real casualties–not a situation conducive to clear thinking.

That’s why now is the time for clear thinking. It won’t be possible then. The status quo seems calm and “de-escalatory,” but that’s an illusion. The status quo can’t be sustained. Once it becomes obviously unsustainable even to distracted Americans suffering amnesia, we will find ourselves “back” at escalation and treating its proximate cause as “the latest Iranian aggression.” But that’s because we already escalated ages ago and forgot that we did. Having done so, there’s no turning back. The only likely American “victory” here is Pyrrhic, if that: if the Iranians escalate and we withdraw, they will have helped us accelerate our withdrawal–at a huge cost in lives and other casualties.

So what should we do? To paraphrase Chris Christie before Hurricane Sandy: we should get the hell out of Iraq now, while there is time to do it in an orderly way, leaving no one and nothing behind that we value enough not to want to lose. Now is the time to retreat. Historians can later debate whether this is a “defeat” or a “victory,” or a “partial victory,” or whatever. But that’s a secondary concern. The primary issue is: we must leave in a complete, deliberate, expeditious way. We’re currently within the logistical window where a retreat is possible if we act on it. But the window will close at some point, and when it does, things will change for the worse. The problem is that while we’re in the logistical window for retreat, we’re not in the Overton Window for retreat. In other words, complacency has set in at precisely the wrong time.

Perhaps I am delusionally optimistic (I know I am), but some part of me really believes that Trump will see the light on this, live up to his campaign promises, and get us out.

Donald Trump has laid out a US military policy that would avoid interventions in foreign conflicts and instead focus heavily on defeating Islamic State militancy.

“We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with,” the president-elect said on Tuesday night in Fayetteville, near Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina.

I admit it: if Tulsi had said that, I’d be swooning. Not so much Trump. Donald Trump is, as the Urdu saying has it, “poison to me,” but some part of me really believes that he really believed what he said up there. I almost believe–I want to believe– that for all his erratic behavior and psychopathic dishonesty, he just might deliver. It’s not impossible. Stranger things have happened.

By contrast, I’m pretty confident that the Democrats won’t deliver. (And I am a Democrat. I’m not proud of that, but I do believe in full disclosure.) They will delither, i.e., seem to deliver but dither. I make this prediction by judging their reactions to the few Democrats who have the most consistent, defensible views on the subject, paradigmatically Tulsi Gabbard. For reasons that lie beyond the scope of this post, Democrats seem to thrive on muddled, wishful thinking–the incorrigible-looking desire to have things all ways at once, as in:

Let’s fight, but not really. Let’s have a troop presence, but not a big one. Let’s be tough, but not antagonize anyone. Let’s criticize Trump, but continue his policies. Let’s be the party of peace, but let’s have signature drone strikes, and offer fulsome praise for the guy who expanded them and lied about it. Let’s attack Bush over Iraq, but not Obama over Libya. Let’s be in favor of human rights but OK with the Israeli occupation. By the way, Medicare for All.

How long can anyone continue with this dialectical clown show and keep a straight face?

And then there’s the American people. JFC. What’s trending with them? Well, Harry and Meghan are getting jobs. Lizzo quit Twitter. The Super Bowl is coming! And what about Brendon Clark’s future with Notre Dame football? The closest the American people can get to a serious discussion of warfare is Star Wars. If we really want to talk Spielberg films, how about “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”?

I know I’m getting tiresome on this subject, but I guess my response is that war is even more tiresome than I am. I long for a revival of some twenty-first century equivalent of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, but have no hope it will happen. In any case, if you’re anywhere near Princeton, New Jersey this Saturday at noon, meet me at Hinds Plaza on Witherspoon Street next to the public library (the demonstration is co-sponsored  New Jersey Peace Action and the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice).** I’ll be re-living my old glory days as an undergraduate, when I stood in Firestone Plaza, mega-phone in hand, trying to impress chicks with my speeches against the first Gulf War. I’ll be the sullen, squat brown guy in the Tulsi Gabbard 2020 shirt. You can’t miss me. And assuming your intentions are peaceful, I hope you won’t.


*I don’t exactly know how cyberwar figures in the above scenario, but I’m sure it somehow does, if only to create the war-time fog that facilitates Iranian strategic intentions.

**I believe New Jersey Veterans for Peace is also participating; I’ll have to double check.  I had mistakenly written that the event was co-sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace. It was advertised by JVP, but co-sponsored by the Coalition for Peace Action and Bayard Rustin Center, both of Princeton, New Jersey.

Thanks to Boris Karpa for helpful conversation on the topic of this post.

8 thoughts on “War with Iran (7): It’s Not Over Yet

  1. So I offer my brilliant insights to my wife, and what’s her reaction? She points at the trash can and says, “It applies to the garbage, too! Yes, the troops have to come out of Iraq, but the trash can’t stay in the kitchen, either!” Where are our priorities?

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  2. I long for a revival of some twenty-first century equivalent of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, but have no hope it will happen.

    I am more pessimistic than I probably should be and too prone to scapegoating on this point; and there’s a lot that was happening and would have happened anyway (from fatigue and the tide and drift of events, from generational changeover, from other, different inherent vices in the structure of the movement, etc.); but, all that said, I do still kind of directly blame MoveOn and the Obama campaign for this state of affairs.

    There was an active, large, relatively powerful anti-war movement from let’s say 2002-2008. The last decade plus of dissipation, decay and meandering have been in no small part due to the misdirection of a huge institutional and popular segment of that movement into the personal fortunes of a progressive professor-president-to-be and the long-term political employment of the apparat of Best And Brightest young men and women trailing behind him.

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      • That’s a fair question, and one that I don’t have much answer to that rises above the level of rank punditry and speculation — it’s something that I’d want more systematic investigation and at least some hard data on before I spent too much time venting my spleen at preferred blameworthies or general despair etc.

        Very tentatively, though, and everything under “I-suppose-it-might-be-the-case-that PHI” and “I-would-want-to-start-looking-into PHI as-a-possible-explanation” operators — I think that part of the blame probably rests on the erstwhile antiwar Progressive faction, both as it degenerated during the Obama epoch and also as it has reacted to the election of Donald Trump.

        It seems like there is this huge activist energy among American Progressives and among social justice movement types right now, but that energy is refracting through a very different political prism than the prism of the Bush years and the opinion-leaders have a different set of priorities. Some of the results of this have been good (e.g. a really dramatic realignment and radicalization of American liberal positions on immigration), while others have been useless or worse (e.g. the desire to fling absolutely any shit that might stick to the Trump administration has led to a really bizarre witches’ brew of obsessive anti-Russian paranoia, genuine but highly selective antiwar sentiments, nostalgia for foreign policy realism and liberal internationalism, frankly stupid appeals to the presence or absence of “adults in the room,” etc. I have an e-mail sitting in my inbox right now from MoveOn — which by now is more or less a single-issue, 24/7 Impeach-Trump organization — about how what we really need is for the Senate to make sure that America hears John Bolton venting about foreign policy work within the Trump White House). Where Trump has been relatively consistent and driven (for example, on immigration), even a muddled and meandering, too-partisan response to Trump does put people into a relatively consistent and driven opposition movement. Where Trump has been relatively muddle-headed, meandering and unpredictable, you need something more than dumb and/or outraged partisan opposition to put together a relatively consistent and driven movement; but unfortunately the powerful and active players, whether in the Progressive political establishment, or in social justice movement politics, or in the broader leftyish culture, have so far not been able or not been willing to put together any credible and consistent leadership on this front.

        A big chunk of the antiwar Right, meanwhile, sided with the Trump campaign in the 2016 primaries in an explicit attempt to revive the paleoconservative strategy and drive the neoconservatives out of party leadership; and they have mostly been unwilling to stop defending the camp since then, especially in the context of such an intensely hyperpartisan, election-focused landscape, and especially when they can accurately say that their efforts, taken on their own terms, haven’t been entirely unsuccessful. (The current situation is awful and needs to be opposed, but it’s hard to deny that the situation was worse in the days of Cheney and Rumsfeld.)

        I’d like it to be the case that people could lift themselves up out of the swirling cesspool vortex of partisan politics, and try to get together a movement that has some thoughts of its own, is able to act relatively independently of political parties, etc. But while there are definitely examples of that happening, it’s hard to do, and harder to pull off consistently, and the more that political activity gets channeled into hyper-partisan electioneering, the harder it is to resist the gravitational pull.

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  3. Your prescription (and optimistic prediction) sounds about right to me, though I had not thought through the logistical plausibility of the Iranians inflicting significant loss of life on our troops. I don’t think the Iranians are stupid enough to do this, but I agree that, the longer we stay, the more likely that something will happen to our troops that would justify, to our esteemed commander-in-chief, an enormous pounding/killiing of Iranian military and industrial targets and political leadership.

    It also occurs to me that a confused-seeming, opposing-mandates-balancing, muddle-through strategy (and justification or rationalization) fits police action (at any scale), but not war against an enemy. And I think the foreign policy establishment views U.S. international military presence and action in this way, as a form of international policing action (that no one else can or will do). Since this can’t be justified as it should be (on international-public grounds), it is obscured/justified by various semi-bogus points (patriotic, humanitarian) regarding the necessity of action, protecting the troops, self-defense, enemies, moral clarity, etc. In my experience, anti-war ideologies and movements reject this police-action framing (hence virtually all of our military actions are termed actions of preemptive war or aggression and we are presently at initiated-by-us war all over the place — and hence in essence awful imperialists). It would be tremendously clarifying to have some open, rational debate about this.

    (I’m pretty firmly on the establishment side when it comes to the nature of most post-WW-II military strategies and actions of the U.S. (i.e., not imperialism or aggression, just imperfect, often ill-advised and tragic, unilateral exercises of international policing power to more or less keep the peace among major powers and prevent really bad actors from doing truly awful things). However, I would have us — or us and as many others as possible and in as public-justificatory way as possible — do this very differently, less aggressively and with a clearer rationale that did not mix up this intention with our parochial national interests. I love the peaceniks because they are a useful corrective to genuinely militaristic and imperialistic tendencies — but, happily for everyone, they will never get their assumptions to predominate or get more than a half of the loaf that they are after.)

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    • I reject the police-action framing. A national military is not a global police department. We definitely need to have debate about our military involvement abroad, and one place to start might be that very analogy.

      What militaries and police departments have in common is a commitment to defending rights against aggression. So the (very) general norms that apply to the defense of rights against aggression apply to both.

      But there are at least as many differences here as similarities. In principle, at least, a police department has a limited jurisdiction over a known set of infractions laid out in the criminal code. In properly functioning republics, they’re also constrained by determinate procedures, they’re supposed to limit collateral damage, and they’re answerable to judicial authority. Most importantly, in principle at least (and often in practice), the population governed by a given police department wants the police department to be there and wants them to do their job: criminals aside, everyone has a stake in the police’s responding to crime. Dysfunctional cases aside, the police are not, and are not viewed as, an armed occupation force.

      None of that applies to military action. There is no limited jurisdiction. They more or less make up their equivalent of a criminal code as they go along. There are few procedures, and though they give lip service to avoiding collateral damage, they don’t really care. There are no judicial authorities to answer to. The people they govern don’t want them there. And they regard it as beneath their dignity to have to engage in ordinary police functions, so that when they occupy a territory, the predictable result is lawlessness.

      So far, no coherent rationale has emerged for assassinating Suleimani. But at a deeper level, no coherent rationale has emerged for our having exited the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran (and then imposing sanctions on Iran). We had signed the agreement. Iran was by all accounts in compliance with it. To unilaterally withdraw from the agreement without evidence of non-compliance (or even a claim of non-compliance) and then impose sanctions on Iran strikes me as a clear case of aggression by the United States. If there were such a thing as a World Police, it’s the United States that ought to be arrested.

      At this point, I think the peaceniks are right. I’m one of them.

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