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Why We Think Donald Trump Will Go To War with Iran (and It Won't Go Well)

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.