Rewriting the Rule Book

In the Wall Street Journal Walter Russell Mead has a lengthy analysis of President Trump’s strategy with respect to Iran. Here’s a generous slice of it:

America’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and relocation of its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem send an unmistakable signal about the emerging Trump foreign policy: The administration wants to enlarge American power rather than adjust to decline. For now at least, the Middle East is the centerpiece of this new assertiveness.

For President Obama, Iran’s rise was an unavoidable fact. Confronting Iran meant risking a war even bigger and uglier than the one in Iraq. Mr. Obama wasn’t only personally opposed to such a war, he believed that neither Congress nor public opinion would sustain it. The era in which the U.S. could dominate the Middle East was over; the wisest course was to negotiate an arrangement that would protect core U.S. interests and cover for an American withdrawal.

The Iran deal, President Obama and his supporters believe, accomplished all that and more. By taking the nuclear issue off the table, at least for the time being, the agreement averted the danger of a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation. Moreover, it weakened hard-liners inside Iran by undermining their core argument that Iran faced an external threat requiring permanent social mobilization even as it strengthened moderates by tying the country ever more closely to the world economy. If supported by the West, the Obama administration believed, moderates would gradually consign the Islamists to the political fringes.

From this perspective, the deal was a masterstroke of diplomacy. Its supporters now fear that Iranian and American hard-liners, energized by the failure of their more accommodating rivals, will steer the countries toward a policy of confrontation ending in war—and that the result of this war will be to accelerate rather than retard American decline in the Middle East and beyond.

President Trump’s approach is different. His instincts tell him that most Americans are anything but eager for a “post-American” world. Mr. Trump’s supporters don’t want long wars, but neither are they amenable to a stoic acceptance of national decline. As to the wisdom of accommodating Iran, Team Trump believes that empowering Iran is more likely to strengthen the hard-liners than the moderates. As Franklin Roosevelt once put it in a fireside chat, “No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it.”

I have a number of bones of contention with that analysis. First, can anyone provide a post-revolution example of Iran’s having attacked another country? Militarily I mean not rhetorically or covertly. More specifically, can anyone provide a post-revolution example of Iran’s having attacked the U. S.? I don’t think there are any. In that context how can Iran be deemed a threat to the U. S.? There’s a somewhat better argument that Iran is a threat to Israel or even to Saudi Arabia. Even that’s a stretch. Iran is a risk not a threat and wishing to live in a risk-free world is unrealistic. When backed up by military force it is malignant.

Second, isn’t it just barely possible that the perceived decline in U. S. power is associated with our trading soft power for hard? Judging by the number and size of our military interventions over the last 25 years, American power is at its zenith not its nadir. That we haven’t realized our strategic goals from these interventions isn’t because we haven’t employed enough force but because we’re trying to turn a screw with a hammer.

Third, let’s consider this a little more more closely:

Mr. Obama wasn’t only personally opposed to such a war, he believed that neither Congress nor public opinion would sustain it.

I see little evidence that the American people have become pacifists but I see lots of evidence that, confronted with no direct threat, the American people aren’t interested in deploying force to accomplish goals in which they have no particular stake. Costs with few benefits.

I realize it’s a revolutionary thought but what if, rather than pursuing German or Saudi interests, we considered pursuing our own? Ending sanctions against Iran is a German interest; beating the Iranians down a Saudi and an Israeli. They cannot be pursued simultaneously.

11 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    I think Iranian agents fomenting revolution in other countries is an attack, and Iran started shelling Iraqi border towns on September 7, 2000, which is when I think the Iran-Iraq war started. But I think the issue is whether given stated Iranian goals to dominate the region for the faithful, previously limited mostly to unconventional force, what the Iranians would do with the cover of a nuclear bomb. Iran, as a revolutionary Shi-ite regime, is not going to dominate the region through commercial or persuasive power.

    My question to Dave is: Whether he agrees with them or not, is either the Eisenhower doctrine (commitment to assist ME countries from armed aggression) or the Carter/Reagan doctrines (U.S. interest in stable Persian Gulf) descriptive of how we would expect U.S. Presidents to act in the future? If one starts with the notion that there is a series of potential events that would give rise to U.S. military action, then it gives rise to the need to interrupt those events from happening.

  • I think the issue is whether given stated Iranian goals to dominate the region for the faithful, previously limited mostly to unconventional force, what the Iranians would do with the cover of a nuclear bomb.

    The consensus of U. S. intelligence is that the Iranians haven’t engaged in developing a nuclear weapon since 2003. The Iranians have repeatedly said they weren’t developing nuclear weapons and had no intention of doing so. The international inspectors say that the Iranians aren’t developing nuclear weapons now. In other words you need some evidence that the Iranians are lying and everybody is wrong.

    If everybody is wrong about all of this we’ve got a lot to worry about. If not we’re just spinning our wheels.

    Saddam Hussein invaded Iran for the same reason he invaded Kuwait: the oil.

    I see no signs that the Iranians have attacked anything over the period of the last 30 years other than by covert means.

  • PD Shaw

    I consider Iran shelling Iraqi towns an act of war.

  • Andy

    The Iranians were developing a bomb because the Iraqi’s were. It’s not a coincidence that Iran ended its program in 2003. Iran currently has no strategic need for nuclear weapons.

    Iran’s foreign policy aggression has been fairly limited to assisting confessional allies and, in early times, murdering dissidents and occasionally Jews. This isn’t to say they don’t have ambitions as there are long-standing border disputes with Iraq and with the Gulf States over Islands in Persian-Arabian Gulf.

    It’s also important to note that Iran, even after all these years, still doesn’t trust it’s military. That makes it very hard to wage conventional military campaigns or orient their foreign policy around territorial conquest. The Iranians have long chosen to use it’s more trustworthy irregular and IRGC forces to built grassroots allies that depend on Iran for support.

  • The Iranians were responding to Iraqi shelling and incursions into Iranian border towns. I don’t believe there’s really a close call or shared responsibility here. Saddam Hussein started the Iran-Iraq War.

  • CStanley

    I see no signs that the Iranians have attacked anything over the period of the last 30 years other than by covert means.

    Why doesn’t it matter that they do so by covert means? It seems that an awful lot of the region’s instability is instigated by those actions.

  • Because I think it reflects their strategy. They aren’t invading or attacking other countries head-on. Suitcase bombs are basically a myth.

    I’m also not sure I agree with the assessment that the Iranians are creating most of the instability in the region. I think what we’ve done over the last 25 years dwarfs anything the Iranians have done. Admittedly, that’s no excuse for Iranian adventurism. I think we’re being pushed into a war with Iran to serve foreign policy interests other than our own. The Saudis’ complaints about Iranian sponsorship of the Houthis in Yemen are basically horse hockey. The Houthis were mostly responding to our drone attacks against them which were in turn being fomented by the Yemeni government as a way of dealing with its political opponents. In other words we’ve destabilized Yemen, none too stable to begin with.

  • Andy

    The US policy from the revolution (and even before) until 2003 was to balance Iran and Iraq. We frequently played both sides. That balance was wrecked when we toppled Iraq. We’re now trying to do the same thing, only using Saudi Arabia as the counterweight – that won’t work.

    We aren’t completely responsible for instability in the Middle East, but we are more responsible than any other country outside the region.

  • The US policy from the revolution (and even before) until 2003 was to balance Iran and Iraq.

    Prior to the revolution we cultivated both KSA and Iran in a futile attempt at producing stability in the region. It even had a name: “the Twin Pillars strategy”.

    When national governments contradict a tenet of your religion, teetering national governments or authoritarian ones are baked into the system. The Middle East is always going to be unstable for internal reasons. We just aggravate its inherent problems.

  • CStanley

    I’m also not sure I agree with the assessment that the Iranians are creating most of the instability in the region.

    I said “an awful lot”, not most (it’s a crowded field vying for that title.)

    And I was thinking more of their support for Hezbollah, not the Houtthis. Haven’t followed closely but I think in Yemen Iran was not an instigator though they have been drawn in.

    I agree our interference isn’t moral or helpful to our interests, but I don’t understand the alternative. Power vacuums tend to have devastating consequences even if the initial use of power wasn’t justified or moral.

  • I agree our interference isn’t moral or helpful to our interests, but I don’t understand the alternative.

    There are no good interventionist alternatives that’s for sure. I think our best policy is brinksmanship. We should maintain friendly relations with Israel but not support the Israelis unconditionally; we shouldn’t antagonize the Saudis but we shouldn’t support them, either. We have no friends in the Middle East, maybe not anywhere at this point. The best we can claim in the Middle East is clients.

    We never should have invaded either Afghanistan or Iraq. Responding forcefully after 9/11 was a political and possibly a strategic necessity. Why did it have to be with multiple invasions?

    Iraq will never be a dependable client let alone friendly. If the Iranians actually decide to develop a nuclear weapon we can deal with them. Acting as though they had when the available evidence suggests they haven’t doesn’t help us.

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