Mar 20

The President and the executive branch wield enormous power that has become less and less checked by Congress over the years, giving the sitting President has the power to push America into conflict or avoid it altogether. Bill Clinton guided NATO air strikes in Kosovo. George W. Bush vigorously pursued war in Iraq. Obama avoided war in Syria, but launched air strikes in multiple countries.

Last week, I wrote about some potential countries Donald Trump could go to war with/in, but one country deserves it’s own post: Iran. The election of Donald Trump makes a potential war with Iran much more likely.

The (Yuge!) Potential Costs of a War with Iran

A lot of media coverage discusses “Will we go to war with Iran?”. But that’s framing the issue incorrectly, as we’ve bemoaned in our coverage of a war with Iran. The more important question is “How bad could this be?”, so we’ll start there.

We’ve done a ton of writing about a war with Iran. We wrote a whole paper at the Small Wars Journal based on our series of posts on the subject. And recently repeated our thoughts as Iran hit the news again last month. We bring this up because, even as the drums start to beat for war with Iran, cable news, broadcast news, and print media almost entirely fail/failed to mention that a war means dead American troops, dead Iranian troops and civilians, and possibly dead American civilians. And potentially dead civilians throughout the Middle East.   

One could counter: look at Afghanistan, Panama, Iraq (twice); didn’t we dominate those wars?

Iran is a different, more difficult country to wage war in than our previous two overseas military excursions. Iraq had a military, but Iran’s is vastly superior in almost every category. Afghanistan is large and rugged, but Iran is larger and rugged-er. Iran also has more people and land mass than both those two countries combined, not to mention a more stable political system.

I can’t see the future, and if past wars are any example, no one can. But I can look at the risks, and as a former intelligence officer—I’ll repeat this for emphasis: as a person who used to do this very work for the U.S. Army—the possibilities of a war with Iran are terrifying.

To start, Iran could use its unconventional navy to down aircraft carriers. They have an armada of speed boats armed with torpedoes, designed to overwhelm our large ship’s defenses.

Or Iran’s anti-aircraft weaponry could prove much more effective than anything we have seen, downing many more aircraft than we lost in Iraq. Iran has better anti-aircraft weaponry than either Afghanistan or Iraq possessed. We could eventually defeat these, but airmen could die in the process.

If our troops hit the ground, we’d deal with both conventional and unconventional attacks on multiple highways of death. Iran wouldn’t fight us straight up. Harassing attacks would be the order of the day. They’ll could take the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan as models, improving on techniques that hampered our counter-insurgency efforts and apply them to this conflict. (Many IRGC troops probably practiced these techniques from firsthand experience.) Our helicopters would have to deal with those same anti-aircraft weapons.

Which isn’t to say American air, naval and ground forces wouldn’t “win” a war with Iran. We would. Eventually. But the invasion could shatter casualty records not seen since the Korean war. And then we would have to conduct “stability operations” which at least three wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq) have shown the U.S. military doesn’t do very well. Especially since we’d be overthrowing a democratically elected government, which may come as a surprise to casual viewers of the news. Given that overthrowing a democratically elected leader in Iran started the entire conflict, winning hearts and minds will be much harder than Iraq or Afghanistan.

And that’s the “conventional” side of it. Iran could start flinging missiles around the Middle East. Or launch targeted terror campaigns, either individual assassinations or bombings in retaliation. Or it could have a way to block the Straits of Hormuz of the Persian/Arabian Gulf, which could send the global price of oil skyrocketing, with disastrous effects.

Those are the first order effects. Just the initial things we could see happening. A failed occupation could spawn new generations of terrorists. Or US intervention could send allies scrambling to create new counter-alliances to counter another American invasion of another sovereign country without broad international support. Why would our allies abandon us this time? Because we had a signed international deal that made this whole war unnecessary. (We loathe people invoking Munich, but it is useful to note that Hitler was the one who tore up agreements with his allies.)

Why The Trump Administration Makes War With Iran More Likely

First, Trump has advisors with an expressed anti-Iran leaning. CIA chief Mike Pompeo. Steve Bannon. (Formerly General Flynn in the NSA.) Even General Mattis, a moderate in his administration, is an ardent Iran opponent. Each has advocated for war with Iran at one time or another. If Congress will give Trump his war, these advisers will make it happen. It is unclear how the new National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster, feels, but also unclear how much influence he has. (The analogy here is the George W. Bush administration, which was filled with anti-Iraq voices and we saw what happened there.)

Second, Trump doesn’t understand international diplomacy as opposed to deal making. Trump’s ego thinks he could make a better deal with Iran than Obama did. He can’t. Donald Trump comes from a world where he could pick and choose his deals and partners. Part of his success was making an awful deal, reneging on his promises, then moving on to another sap to make the next deal. The problem is Iran already has a deal with America and tearing it up has consequences. Donald Trump can’t just declare bankruptcy and move on to the next deal, though he believes he can.

Third, the war hawks in Congress have his ear. By this I mean the never-satisfied former neo-cons (and pseudo-realists) who always search for the next dragon to slay. When the Russians went away as enemies at the end of the Cold War, they looked to the “Axis of Evil” to fill the vacuum. Some war hawks in Congress just want to have enemies. For conservatives like Senator Tom Cotton or columnist Charles Krauthammer, Iran fills the void

Fourth, Trump’s campaign had strong backing from pro-Israeli groups. One of the biggest drivers of anti-Iran sentiment is a variety of pro-Israeli think tanks in Washington D.C. from the Heritage Foundation to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. (Which I should really do a post on. The FDD is allegedly about defending all democracies, but mainly publishes papers critical of Iran, which has as much claim to democracy as Israel. And way more than Saudi Arabia, who the FDD hasn’t ever mentioned as a threat to democracy.) This think tank works with SuperPACs to push both the ideology and the money backing pro-Israeli policies, which include a possible war with Iran.

Fifth, Donald Trump has a tendency to say and do rash things. My evidence? The campaign. Want more evidence? His first month in office, including putting Iran “on notice”. In the high stakes world of international diplomacy, this isn’t good. I fully believe if Iran had captured US sailors during the Trump administration, we would have gone to war. When air strikes can be launched in hours without Congressional approval (this isn’t 100% legal, but definitely true), a rash leader could cause huge problems.

Sixth, we’ve already seen the drums for war starting pounding. It took less than a week for him to insult Iran, and the escalation started. Just look at the CNN breakdown of relations between Iran and America since Trump started his administration.

Not one of those six reasons has to do with protecting America or its ally Israel. They are about forces who want to go to war or a personality that isn’t suited to international diplomacy. I just don’t see a world where Donald Trump rationally assesses threats and expectations about a war with Iran (or any country) and that’s what makes it so likely.

The sad part about writing this? It doesn’t have to be this way. The Iranian deal is diplomacy at its finest and it is already working. In an optimistic time, it would be a sign of a better world. But we don’t live in those times, and now we may have to pay a price.

Mar 13

Imagine a world. Like this one. Where everything is going as it has. Sure the media regularly bemoans how awful life is in America, but overall, Americans live their lives, free of violence.

Then in one weekend, this changes. Maybe an Iranian boat crashes into a U.S. warship. (Or Iran seizes another U.S. Navy vessel. Or vice versa.) Or ISIS attacks a Special Operations compound in Iraq. Or North Korea fires a missile at Japan. The next events happen in a blur.

American planes take off and bomb pre-determined targets. Cruise missiles fly from battleships. U.S. paratroopers drop from the sky and marines seize beachheads. Tanks load on trains destined for shipping containers destined for some continent half-way across the globe. The nation fighting the U.S. will likely lose hundreds of thousands of people. America could lose thousands as well.

If the war is poorly thought-out or executed, or Murphy’s law comes to the vagaries of war, the initial casualties aren’t the only problems. With some countries, nuclear weapons could come into play. And the casualties would skyrocket or worse. The global economy could freeze up. As a society, we’ve forgotten that, more often than not, wars are terrible for the economy and, more importantly, terrible for people. We’ve forgotten since we’ve gone for so long without a major interstate war.

We wrote last week that Donald Trump is a war hawk. More importantly, despite some sane voices in his administration (McMaster and Mattis), he’s surrounded by other war hawks (Bannon and Miller). So we at On Violence believe the election of Trump makes another U.S. war or “military intervention”, in euphemism speech, more likely. Today, we’re going to run down our completely unscientific ranking of which countries America is mostly likely to go to war in the next four years and why.

Tomorrow we crown the winner, but I’m sure you know who that is...

2. Syria or Iraq

The logic here is pretty straight-forward. Trump’s former National Security Advisor called ISIS an “existential threat” (it isn’t) and it stuck. So Trump has called for the elimination of ISIS, most recently at his address to Congress.

“As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS, a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians and men and women and children of all faiths and all beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”

The question is whether this conflict spirals into America’s third major occupation of the region. You cannot eliminate ISIS from the air. And if you have to rely on allies in the region, that may include vile dictatorships like Syria or even Iran, who Trump hates. As Fareed Zakaria reported last weekend, ISIS is on the ropes anyways due to sustained fighting in both Syria and Iraq. But if something goes wrong, especially a terror attack, I could see an easily escalation of military conflict.

3. Yemen or Somalia

I’m lumping these two countries together because both suffer from failed state or near failed state status, and both have offshoots of extremist terrorist groups (AQAP in Yemen; Al-Shabaab in Somalia). In some ways, you could argue that we’re already at war there, if by war, you mean having troops on the ground fighting and launching drone strikes. JSOC is conducting active operations in both countries and indeed we all know the US lost a special operator in Yemen almost a month ago.

Going to war in one of these countries would probably be a slow escalation process, like Vietnam. We put more special operators on the ground to conduct more missions, using the previous failed missions as an excuse. Then we put more troops to support those troops. Then we need more troops to protect more troops and at some point we end up propping up the government. It’s Afghanistan redux.

4. North Korea

Unlike Yemen or Somalia, I see the North Korean situation igniting like a firecracker. North Korea remains intent on building a defensive/offensive military capability and it doesn’t matter how impoverished its people are in the meantime. Again, if Trump’s impulsiveness wins out, we could see a spark ignite this region.

North Korea also seems intent on taking advantage of U.S. dysfunction and poor relations with mainland China immediately. The amount of times North Korea has been in the news since the inauguration feels high. That said, we should caution that it often seems like war with North Korea is imminent every spring. We wrote about the “war that wasn’t” a few years back, based on On The Media’s excellent coverage of the issue. As we wrote about Iran, a war with North Korea could be awful, even without the nuclear weapons.

(As a side note, North Korea really is the argument for free market capitalism and democracy as opposed to agrarianism/trade protectionism and authoritarianism. It’s pretty clearly the least developed/poorest nation in the world, and it has the least amount of trade with the outside world. This is what happens when you try to control an economy completely through the state and your awful leaders can’t be voted out of office.)

5. Eastern Europe

Everything in Eastern Europe/Ukraine points to an unlikely-to-happen, but still possible conflict or escalation. Trump could believe he needs to stand up to Putin, and draws the line in the sand in Ukraine. Putin wants to continue to expand his sphere of influence and his insistent meddling in European elections causes the EU/NATO to stand up against him as well. So a war breaks out.

The gigantic stockpiles of nuclear weapons on each side make this scenario unlikely. As crazy as each side is, I just can’t see a war starting because of that. (Though I would feel safer if neither side had those weapons, actively armed or at all.)

Wild card: Small East Asian nation

I’m thinking Myanmar, Philippines or Thailand, nations with a small Muslim minority population that could draw in America as an excuse. Violence recently flared up in Myanmar, though that country has become more democratic. For a war hawk, the enticing thing about small East Asian nations (Myanmar or Thailand) is they seem small and easy to conquer, er invade, er conduct military operations in...until you get there. The Philippines is large and unwieldy, but we’ve had troops on the ground there throughout the war on terror.

Wild card: Latin America

In the 1980s, we used to adventure down south for military interventions pretty frequently (Panama, Grenada, some stuff in Nicaragua/Costa Rica, UK in Falklands). Venezuela, a popular villain in right-wing media for years, is a the pretty obvious place the United State could intervene, but even countries like Ecuador have tried to stand up to the US in diplomatic terms. The flare up here could be trade, could be immigration or could be drugs.

Mar 07

Before we rehit the potential costs of a war with Iran (coming next week), it is important to remember that a year ago, in January 2016, America could have gone to war with Iran but did not. And understanding why we didn’t go to war explains the threat Donald Trump poses to our security.

It would have gone down something like this: an American Navy vessel is in Iranian waters. The U.S. says it is lost or off-course. Iran seizes the vessel. Americans demand the sailors back with threats. Iran refuses. The President launches a rescue mission that encounters “resistance”, i.e. Iranian soldiers. Shooting starts. Suddenly, the U.S. or Israel or Iran is launching missiles or dropping bombs.

War has broken out.

This didn’t happen. Instead, American Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif worked out a peaceful solution. Iran released the sailors.

I have a simple theory for why this happened: former President Obama didn’t blame Iranians or the leader of Iran for seizing the U.S. warship. Because he didn’t do that--because his default position wasn’t blame--we averted this crisis. I want to drill down into that word “blame” because I think it explains how crises like this one are either averted or erupt into war.

You could start by blaming the largest group possible, as Neil Cavuto did at the Republican debate shortly after the incident. Cavuto opened a question to Jeb Bush saying:

“Governor Bush...the Iranians have provoked us, detaining us, as we've been discussing, with these 10 Navy sailors Tehran had said strayed into their waters..”

Notice Neil Cavuto used the term “The Iranians”. That’s a pretty big group. You have to wonder how the entire country of 77 million people agreed to kidnap the sailors?

Of course, they didn’t all agree with it. And it says a lot about your foreign policy positions, whether you hold the people of the country morally responsible for the actions of an Iranian officer in a patrol boat off your coast or whether you hold that officer alone responsible. Terrorists routinely blame “Americans” for drone attacks. Have you personally launched a drone attack? Probably not, so it seems unfair to get blamed for it. (Especially if you don’t think our country should be using them in the first place.)

The next level down on the blame scale is the leaders of Iran. Some Republicans don’t blame all Iranians, merely the Mullahs. Like Chris Christie:

“We need to rebuild our military, and this president has let it diminish to a point where tinpot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships.”

In this case, there are two explanations for the Mullahs being responsible for kidnapping the sailors. In the first, they ordered a patrol boat to kidnap the sailors. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, considering they decided to release the sailors 15 hours later.

So the only other explanation for why Christie blamed the Mullahs is that he blames them for everything their Navy does under their watch. Complete responsibility. This would mean if Chris Christie ever had any underlings who, say, shut a bridge down for political revenge, he is as equally responsible as the underlings. Obviously, he doesn’t believe that.

We could extend this “blaming the leaders” analogy to Obama. Was he the one responsible for the U.S. sailors being in Iranian waters? Of course not. He didn’t order them there and can’t be held responsible for them getting lost. Those two American analogies (Christie and Obama) show why we can’t blame the Mullahs. Or Prime Minister Rouhani.

Instead, it is much better to look down to the individual unit commanders involved.

The Iranian boat commander and his superiors could have been doing one of two things. Either they were honestly trying to do their job and protect their territorial integrity--something the American military absolutely would do--or they were trying to provoke a regional war. Now the latter explanation is totally feasible. A rogue commander is upset at the Iran nuclear deal and--perhaps goaded/ordered by other hard-liners in the Quds force--tries to force a war by kidnapping U.S. sailors.

But then Iran returned the sailors. So even if rogue forces were trying to upset the nuclear deal, other more powerful forces overrode them. Either it was an accident that the U.S. boat was in the wrong place and the Iranians were simply doing their duty, or the moderates in power in Iran were able to avert a power play by the hard-liners. That’s great news.

Of course, there were two actors in the sea that day, the Iranians and the U.S. sailors. The U.S. sailors had two possible explanations for their actions as well. Either they were in Iranian waters by accident (negligence), at which point the situation was resolved appropriately. Or they were in Iranian waters deliberately, at which point the U.S. still wants to save face and get them back. (As isn’t unusual, the U.S. narrative of what happened changed after the initial news cycle.) We should hope Iran assumes the best (accident) as opposed to worst (deliberate).

To sum up: the situation with the Iranian sailors was really an interaction by the lowest levels of the military of both Iran and the United States. And instead of assuming the worst, each side assumed the other side was acting in good faith, and the situation was resolved without violence. The best possible outcome.

Do we think with Donald Trump (and Steve Bannon) the same thing will occur? Will they assign blame to the lowest possible levels? Or will they blame the Mullahs and the IRGC for future interactions like this? Instead of de-escalating, could they use it as pretense to start a war?

So much has changed in a year.

Mar 01

I recently reread, or more accurately re-skimmed, Waltz’ Man, The State, and War to refresh myself on his three “images” for foreign policy theory. The three images all try to explain the cause of war, but from different perspectives. Somehow, Donald Trump manages to make war more likely across all three.

His distaste for international organizations makes the world more dangerous through his actions from the perspective of the third image (the international order image) and if he turns America into an illiberal democracy and encourages autocracies around the globe, he makes the world more dangerous from the perspective of the second image (the domestic politics image).

But we neglected the most important way Trump makes the world dangerous:

Donald Trump is a war hawk.

Waltz started with the “first image”, the personalities of leaders around the globe, because when most people try to answer, “Why does war happen?” they usually respond, “Well, people of course.” This is part of a grand historical tradition of the “great men of history” who, usually, in these tellings, through exceptional charisma or character or ineptitude, make things happen in history.

Take World War II. Another great power war would probably have happened at some point. Without the constraints of the liberal world order and the threat of nukes, what would have stopped it? But when it happened specifically in the late 1930s, well, Adolf Hitler deserves the blame. Hitler wrote about the glory and power of Germany, talked about restoring an empire, and believed in the idea of “Anschluss”, or the uniting of the German homeland. He talked like a war hawk and delivered on that promise. More concretely, he alone gave the orders to invade Austria, Poland, Russia and France.

Or take the Iraq War. Can you imagine Al Gore pursuing war with Iraq as revenge for 9/11 given that Iraq wasn’t related to Al Qaeda, had actually fought Al Qaeda, and didn’t have WMDs? So yeah, probably not. On the counter side, would Gore have invaded Afghanistan? Probably.

America faced a clear choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. America chose the President who will likely turn out to be a war hawk and no one can realistically argue otherwise. From the things Trump has said to the recklessly aggressive posture of many fellow Republicans, you can assume Trump is inclined to send America to war. And today we’re going to lay out that case.

(Would Hillary Clinton have started wars? Probably, but the flavor of war would have been “responsibility to protect”, to stop war crimes or genocide, or to prevent tragedy, than in the pursuit of the always vague “protecting America’s interest” which will now be known as “America First”.)

First, the Republican party is a war hawk party.

Sorry, but it is, and we’re tired of pretending that it isn’t. The Republican convention was filled with invective against ISIS. And the Republican party has been opposing the Iran Deal since Obama signed it. Together, ISIS and Iran represent the evils of the world, for some reason. (Along with helping doses of insulting Barack Obama.)

As an example, take Senator Tom Cotton. Cotton fascinates me (Michael C) because we were both in the U.S. Army, both led platoons, and both are clearly interested in politics. From there we both went completely different directions. Take the time Cotton recommended punishing innocent civilians over Iran sanctions:

”Once in the House, Cotton’s anti-Iran advocacy showed a mean streak. When, in 2013, a new Iran sanctions bill came before the lower chamber, Cotton introduced an amendment that would “automatically” punish family members of sanctions violators. “There would be no investigation,” Cotton explained during the mark-up. “It’d be very hard to demonstrate and investigate to conclusive proof.” Cotton wanted to punish innocent people; he called it “corruption of blood,” and extended the category to include “parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids.”   

Tom Cotton is just one example of hawkish-ness in the Republican party. They have many vocal leaders  in Congress who want an enemy for America to fight, from Iran to ISIS to Russia to North Korea to new countries we haven’t even thought of yet. Our posts from the Republican primary started on this topic and it’s one we’ll return keep hitting.

Second, Donald Trump is expanding the military.

Why not “rebuild?” our military as Donald Trump says? Because you can’t fix what isn’t broken and you  can’t rebuild something that is already built. The U.S. military is the greatest fighting force on the planet, and that’s that.

But he can make it even greater-er. Lats night, he proposed a budget increase of $18 billion (that he is misleading spinning as a $54 billion upgrade). He can increase the number of jets (and people flying them). He can increase the number of brigades (even though he should increase the number of battalions per brigade first, but the former is sexier). He can increase the number of boats in the sea. And our elite special operations units of uber-elite hyper-special forces of elite SOCOM? He can just give them tons of money they can stack in piles and burn. (Though if we gave stacks of money to SOCOM under orders to burn it, some of those elite special operators would totally steal it.)

If all you have is a giant military, every global problem looks like a war. Forward positioning so many troops so close to so many hot spots just increases the odds we send them to a war zone. And a huge upgraded military will beg to be used. Before World War I, each side started building up troops and navies. Before Germany started World War II, it had to build up its military. A huge Cold War military got America drawn into Vietnam and Russia drawn into Afghanistan. This is just what happens.

Third, Donald Trump has said he will use force to solve problems.

Repeatedly, in debates and during his RNC acceptance speech, Donald Trump vowed he would wipe ISIS off the face of the Earth. That will require force. He’s also said he’d bomb women and children if needed. He vowed to tear up the Iran deal, and the likely consequence will be war.

We should take him at his word. Trump sees force as a solution to his problems.

Fourth, Donald Trump is temperamentally suited to be a war-hawk.

We’ve seen him lose his temper via Twitter and news reports say he also lost his temper on a diplomatic phone call to Australia, a staunch ally.  He will get drawn into potential conflicts with countries like Iran or, God forbid, China because he values his own personal reputation more than our country. We saw this after the election when Trump spent more time concerned with the size of his inauguration crowds than appointing cabinet officials. Or when he delivers speeches railing on the media rather than make an Affordable Care Act replacement plan. 

Hillary Clinton easily got under his skin during three debates. It didn’t work, but she poked the bear and he roared. Unlike Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush or Obama, all men who could calmly assess threats and makes the right strategic decisions, Trump responds to every perceived slight. Why would we think he won’t do this on the global stage?

What can we say from all the evidence? Donald Trump is temperamentally suited to be a war hawk president. Whether he uses his power to start wars--or whether his administration is competent enough to pull it off--remains to be seen.