Apr 12

It seems that everyone from the political left, right and center has had to overreact to the events in Syria from last week, including my co-writer. When it comes to Trump, it seems awfully tempting to veer into wild hyperbole. So before I respond to Eric C, I want you, the reader, to answer this question: How many countries did President Obama drop bombs on (via plane, drone, cruise missile or other) during his administration?

We’ll wait.

You made your guess? No seriously, don’t keep reading until you make a guess.

Eric C guessed 7. I (Michael C) guessed 8. I have a feeling most people--but not our readers--will think it is less.

Well, Eric C was right. In 2016 alone, according to Micah Zenko, the U.S. dropped bombs on at least 7 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan and Somalia. (Those are the countries we have been at war in/with during the Obama administration.)

The sheer number of strikes should make you gasp too. Again, according to Micah Zenko, who we trust and respect, the number was over 26,000 in 2016 alone. 26,000!

So President Trump fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Is that high or low? Given that Obama launched an average of 76 strikes per day in 2016, it is right on course for a contemporary US president. (For instance, we know the military under Trump launched strikes in Mosul last month.)

So before we use these strikes as evidence that Trump is now a warhawk, or impulsive, or somehow “presidential”, let’s understand the context. The introduction above is that context. So let’s debunk the other myths about this missile strike.

Myth 1: This is a huge escalation of the conflict in Syria.

It isn’t, not until troops put boots on the ground, which likely would have happened when the Pentagon presented Trump a plan to defeat ISIS (he signed an Executive Order demanding that, remember?). In our post on the likeliest countries for Trump to go to war, Syria was second. Second! We’ve also put more boots on the ground in Iraq under Obama to fight ISIS, which could lead into a war with/in Syria.

Again, this isn’t to say that these missile strikes don’t make getting involved less likely. It definitely makes it more likely. But we were trending toward intervention after Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric on defeating ISIS. (And yeah, we probably already have special operators on the ground in Syria anyways, but you know what I mean.)

Myth 2: No, it’s a huge escalation because it attacks Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

This is true. We have shifted enemies from “Just ISIS” to “Both ISIS and Assad.” But knowing Trump could reverse himself in a week means we can only read some much into this.

Also, it has to be noted that Obama considered this exact same strategy. And the night before Trump launched the attacks, Hillary Clinton said she would have done the exact same thing. That shows that Trump’s attacks were really a part of a policy that is really in the mainstream of current establishment thinking. And something generals have wanted for years. Really this isn’t a “huge” escalation in the Trump sense, but just a standard escalation by any US president.

Myth 3: This is Trump’s first military action.

How quickly we forget! In January, Trump authorized special operators to attack a compound in Yemen. We know civilians died. We know suspected terrorists died. We know a special operator died. So blood had already been shed by Trump, and if Yemen continues the way it is going, I could see an escalation there as well. In fact, the Trump administration has openly pondered expanding their Yemen operations.

Myth 4: Now we know Trump is reckless.

Wait, we needed evidence that Trump is reckless and foolhardy and flip-flops on everything he says and does? We already knew that. This is what we wrote before the election:

“Donald Trump is a complete liability if he were to take over the office of the President. Since he has no guiding principles in foreign policy, he could do anything, which makes him a complete liability with nuclear weapons and our military.”

Trump went through three campaign chairmen during the election. He breaks political and international norms on a weekly basis. Trump has irritated almost every US ally with the things he said. He even blamed American generals for losing a soldier in Yemen! Did we need him to impulsively attack a country to know he was impulsive?

No, we didn’t. I wrote about it here. And here. And here. This instead just confirms our Bayesian prior, to use the FiveThirtyEight language of it all. We suspected he would use military force flippantly, and he has. This doesn’t make it more or less likely than before, I would say it makes it exactly as likely.

Myth 5: This attack was illegal.

Not really. Under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed after 9/11, as long as a President links a military operation to fighting groups that are allied with Al Qaeda, he can use military force. I’m sure Trump has a lawyer who can make the same connection, even though this attack targeted a government base that “opposes” Al Qaeda. (Need a refresher on the AUMF? RadioLab has you covered here.)

The problem is with the AUMF. It is so short but so broad that a President can use it to go to war with almost any country he wants to. That’s how President Obama got his authorization for 26,000 plus strikes on seven countries.

But who is going to stop Trump? The Republicans? Will they demand he follow the AUMF more closely? They refuse to take a vote on anything that could be politically damaging. They also refuse to oppose Trump on any issue. So as long as he says he was allowed to do this strike on the AUMF, and Republicans don’t expressly oppose him, then this isn’t illegal.

(Should we repeal that AUMF? Of course. Will we? I doubt it.)

We don’t support this strike, but it doesn’t change anything.

Let’s be clear. I really don’t support striking Syria without a larger strategy. Or Congressional approval. And I don’t think this shows that President Trump is consistent or somehow good at foreign policy. Nothing has shown me that to date.

But I don’t want to over-react just because he is Trump.

Apr 10

(This is the first post in a series on Syria. Hopefully, we don’t have to write more after the next two weeks, but if we do here’s all our thoughts.)

A few weeks ago, we wrote a post titled, “Where Will Trump Go to War?”. In it, we wrote this:

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...

“...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.”

This wasn’t really a prediction, per se. We were just outlining the possible courses of action Trump could take. And yet we completely missed the version of history where Trump turns against Assad. We didn’t even see it coming. There’s a good reason for this:

Trump said as much. Repeatedly.

Trump made it clear--before, during and after the campaign--that he didn’t want to attack Assad. This would include a tweetstorm in 2013 warning Obama not to get involved in Syria. This included praising Assad, saying “he’s much tougher and much smarter than [Hillary] and Obama” during the final debate, as we tweeted earlier this week. And yet, one chemical attack (an attack extremely similar to the infamous chemical attack in 2013 that ignited the debate over intervention in the Syrian Civil War in the first place) caused Trump to completely reverse his position.

This terrifies me (Eric C). We’ve been writing, for months now, about where Trump will go to war, arguing that he could take America to war in multiple countries, based on his rhetoric, temperament and establishment support

In my mind, this attack on Syria represents something much worse: his unpredictability. He launched an attack, without Congressional approval, contradicting everything he said he believed, changing his mind in a matter of days. If Trump can flip the switch on Assad, what’s to stop him from attacking Iran or North Korea, countries that he has repeatedly promised to get tough on? Taking the long view, this attack makes me think it is much, much more likely America could go to war in the next few years, and possibly with multiple counties.

Michael C disagrees. At least, he thinks I may have over-reacted, as he’ll respond tomorrow.

Apr 03

Way back in the day, I mean WAY back, humans ran around by themselves, isolated as individuals. The earliest humans spent every waking moment fending off predators, hunting other animals, and foraging for food. The hardest part was always staying safe. From saber-tooth tigers or lions or dire wolves or snakes, you always had to watch for predators.

(Side note: this history is, to be fair, fake. If you believe in evolution/Evolution, humans evolved from other pack animals going back millions/billions of years. It wasn’t like we somehow “started” as individuals. But let me go with it for a moment.)

The first group was the family. A male human impregnated a female human, and they stayed together because it just made it safer. This human male was giving up quite a bit of freedom. Before they mated, he could run around doing whatever he wanted. Afterward he mated, he had to come back from hunting every day by sundown. But he also got some benefits. By having children, the family had others who could help keep watch for predators, go hunting, or forage for food. (And, yeah sex.) Of course, these younger children had to obey the rules of the parents or get kicked out of the family into the wilderness to fend for themselves.

Living as a family was better than living alone.

Eventually it made more sense for one family to join with another family living nearby. This way they could share the guard duties and pool resources for food they had scavenged. Eventually, you had to join a group of families or other groups of families could come steal your food. These groups of families became the first tribes. And the tribes set up rules that all the families had to follow. These families also gave up some freedom by joining the tribe. Say a family liked to eat shellfish, but the tribe forbid shellfish. Well, the family had to give up the freedom to enjoy shrimp and lobster to join the tribe.

Joining a tribe was better than just surviving as a family.

Of course, some tribes banded together to make clans. These clans allowed for trade and inter-marriage among the tribes. They also guarded against the bad actions of other clans who might sweep in to steal food and women and, later, land.

Clans living was better than tribe living.

You see where this is going. Clans became cities, or city-states, or states, or nations, or nation states. After the Peace of Westphalia, some of these nations created alliances and today we have international treaties. In each case, working together in larger and larger groups made life better. This is a narrative version of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent history of the world, inspired by Yuval Harari’s Sapiens:

“History is the story of how we've learned to come together in ever greater numbers from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn't on our own.”

The above history is a Hobbesian-turned-idealistic view of the world, showing humanity as truly having its origins in a state of anarchy, where life is nasty, brutish and short. But it gets better as we come together. The way I like to describe this is we have been in a perpetual trade off of sovereignty for security and prosperity.

And I want to focus on one word in that last sentence in particular: sovereignty. Because it could stop the final step.

In the deeper cuts of the conservative blogosphere, the concept of sovereignty is hot. Every few years you find a conservative railing against some treaty or UN commitment that would crush US sovereignty. And not even super conservatives, as Richard Haass most recent Foreign Affairs article was about redefining sovereignty.

The most ideal form of this thinking was the book The Sovereignty Solution. A while back one of the authors sent me a copy of the book. He loved our blog, but I had casually mentioned I wasn’t onboard with their theory yet. (It went military-blog viral, admittedly a small viral, a few years back.) So he sent me a copy to change my mind. In short, the book didn’t change my mind or convince me of their theory, but it did convince me of the appeal of their theory.

Basically, any time you join the larger group, you give up some power/freedom/sovereignty. Giving up of power (freedom/sovereignty) is scary. But it is worth it, as every example above proves.

We’ve now taken the process global. 
International treaties by definition force states to give up sovereignty for the larger benefit. A bunch of countries get together and decide to cooperate on a given issue. To do so, they usually set up an enforcement agency or body. This group than regulates the issue. Sometimes, this larger international body will trump domestic law. Even in the US. (Because of the Constitution!)

You can see the benefits for international cooperation, but see US pushback because of perceived loss of sovereignty across a wide range of issues.

- Take landmines. Or chemical weapons. They are nasty weapons and we shouldn’t have them. So certain nations got together and made a deal to stop building those weapons and agreed to fine countries who don’t stop building them. The US won’t join the landmine treaty because we like having landmines.

- Take global trade. Some conservatives hate institutions like the World Trade Organization because it can restrict the actions of certain American companies. Overall, though, it makes the global trade system profitable and benefits America far more than it hurts it. But sovereignty.

(We would bring up global warming and the Paris Accords, but we know that is a hot button issue.)

When Trump rails against global elites and China and ISIS/Muslims, he’s arguing that foreigners sap our sovereignty. Trump doesn’t believe in allies because he doesn’t believe in ever sacrificing your own freedom for the larger gain. What do Brexit-eers criticize most about the EU? Those damn bureaucrats in Brussels telling them how to regulate the internet. Oh, and those same bureaucrats telling them how to run their immigration laws. How is Putin trying to destroy NATO and the EU? By encouraging countries to take back their own power from global institutions.

That’s all code for taking back sovereignty from global institutions.

So life was getting better and better in larger groups, and now we’ve stopped it in the name of sovereignty. Even though interstate nuclear war could end life as we know it, some conservative thinkers and politicians (Trump, Putin, Bannon) want to stop global integration. For conservatives, the power of groups to make the world better magically stops at the international level. 

In the end, life will be better as a global society, not as nation states. We should remember that.

Mar 30

Apparently, authoritarians love Donald Trump. That was the conclusion last year, during the Republican primaries, in this heavily retweeted Vox article. But that wasn’t my take away. Instead, what stuck out to me was how much authoritarians feared Iran.

Yes, Iran.

According to Vox’s poll, over 55% of high and very high “authoritarians” thought Iran poses a “high risk” to Americans. (Of course, they fear terrorism even more, though they shouldn’t.) They feel this way partly because Republican candidates during the campaign competed to argue who would fight Iran the hardest. While Trump never promised to rip up the deal on day one, he did promise to renegotiate it as soon as possible. Ted Cruz’ over-exaggeration in The American Thinker probably captures this best:

“[Iran’s] intention is to murder both of us. We face an enemy that hates us and has been very explicit that they intend to do everything they can to kill Israelis and us. These enemies are driven by a radical theological view that glorifies death and suicide. This deal harkens back to the Munich Deal of 1938, allowing homicidal maniacs to acquire weapons of mass murder.”

This is utter nonsense, and I’m trying to be polite.

Since the Donald Trump administration started, we have only seen more of this rhetoric, putting Iran “on notice” for its ballistic missile test. And worse than rhetoric, The New York Times reported that General Mattis wanted to seize an Iranian ship.

Far from being a tyrannical religious state, Iran is a theocratic-democracy. Far from being a threat, Iran is a regional power with no military capability to hurt the United States (unless we try to invade). Far from being motivated simply by radical ideology, Iran’s grievances with America are political and historic. Most importantly, far from being a disaster, the Iran nuclear deal has been an unqualified success.

If you’ve been following the news since we signed the Iranian Nuclear deal with five other countries, you would have seen a growing, beneficial relationship, not a looming threat.

Good News Story 1: Sanctions were lifted after Iran complied with the nuclear deal.

To sum up in overly-broad terms, Iran dismantled its nuclear facilities that were enriching uranium and transferred the enriched uranium to Russia. America and other countries then lifted sanctions and freed previously frozen assets. Even the most cynical Iran watchers had to admit this moves the Iranian time table for nuclear weapons back years.

Good News Story 2: Iranians elected moderates.

On February 26th, 2016 Iran held a legislative election for seats for their Islamic Consultative Assembly. And while Iran is still far from a leader of democratic freedom--the Economist has a fairly critical take here--moderate politicians gained seats. This means President Rouhani can continue to uphold the terms of the nuclear deal.

Now, comparing the Iranian elections to the recent elections in Saudi Arabia....Wait, Saudi Arabia didn’t hold elections? Of course not. Saudi Arabia has only held 3 elections in its history.

Good News Story 3: Sailor swap avoids military crisis.

Without a nuclear deal and renewed diplomatic relationships, the sailor crisis could have exploded, as we wrote about here. Arms control agreements don’t just limit the number of weapons each side has; they facilitate and convince historic enemies to engage in dialogue. This dialogue will help prevent future conflict. As we’ve written before, the most historic and revolutionary thing a President could do would be to become allies with Iran.

It’s pretty easy to imagine a very lethal scenario where the sailor crisis (or one like it) erupts into a regional war. In that scenario, thousands (or tens of thousands) die. Resolving the sailor incident peacefully was the best outcome.

Good News Story 4: America and Iran exchanged prisoners

Days after ratifying the agreement between the P5+1 countries and Iran, America and Iran exchanged prisoners (seven Iranians released by America; five Americans released by Iran). Secretary John Kerry and Foreign Secretary Javad Zarif had been negotiating on this issue in parallel to the nuclear discussion for months, It also couldn’t have happened without the start of communication by each country’s head of foreign affairs through the nuclear discussions.

Good News Story 5: Iran renewed trading with countries around the globe

Free trade makes war less likely. Much less likely. (Remember, America and Japan stopped trading right before Pearl Harbor.) Since the Iranian deal, Boeing made a $16 billion deal to sell 80 planes to Iran, which means jobs in the US. Other countries have followed suit, exploring deals with Iran or planning to open branches/offices in Tehran. This free trade makes war much less likely.

(Of course, the US still has other sanctions in place so we may not be able to take advantage the way China and the EU will.)

Good News Story 6: A year on, sanctions continue to work

Read this article by Federica Mogherini, the chief EU negotiator in the Iran talks, about how the Iran deal one year on has been a win for both sides. The IAEA has the ability to do inspections it never had before and Iran is experiencing real GDP growth. More importantly, trade has jumped between Iran and the EU, which is sparking greater diplomatic cooperation. In all, the deal has been a win for all sides.

Donald Trump, of course, could upset and reverse all these gains. We have to hope he doesn’t.

Mar 27

If I thought super cynically about the world, I’d wonder if US defense contractors secretly paid the leaders of North Korea to keep causing provocations. Doesn’t it just seem so funny that right when Donald Trump releases his “skinny budget” with calls for huge defense increases North Korea starts launching missile tests?

That’s why defense contractors must love North Korea; if Democrats ever felt the world were safe enough to decrease defense spending, Kim Jong Un would step in to make everyone scared. And hence, the U.S. will continue to spend tons of money on defense.

In the last few weeks, Kim Jong Un and his generals have obliged this narrative. In recent weeks, they have assassinated rival brothers with nerve gas, test fired missiles, and engaged in a war of words with the United States. Of course, we have some thoughts...

Thought 1: War is NOT a foregone conclusion

Before we get to the ramifications of a potential war with North Korea--it isn’t pretty--we need to keep in mind that war is not a foregone conclusion. When we (Americans, the west, the media, conservative war hawks) assume we HAVE to go to war, we end up going to war.

Thought 2: Don’t Overreact. Don’t Overreact. Don’t Overreact.

We mentioned this in another post a few weeks back, but a potential war with North Korea always comes up in the spring almost every year. On The Media did a story on this a few years ago, appropriately titled “The Annual North Korea Missile Crisis”, and whenever North Korea hits the news we remind ourselves of this. North Korea finds provocations very useful in extorting China/the US and it is still under devastating sanctions, so it doesn’t have a lot of reason not to cause these problems. Most of the time, they don’t go anywhere.

We even wrote an entire week of posts on “A Week on the War that Wasn’t”. We could probably do the same thing this time.

Thought 3: We need to view this conflict from both sides.

If you get most of your news from US-based sources--and if you’re an American you probably do--North Korea is very dangerous, provocative and unhinged. So we turn to On The Media again, this time citing last week’s podcast, where host Bob Garfield and guest David Kang break down all the myths that interfere with our understanding of North Korea. The most notable part for me was how North Korean provocations are heavily covered in the U.S. but what could be perceived as U.S. aggression is not, echoing the U.S media’s one-sided coverage of Iran.

Thought 4: War with North Korea/Iran Won’t Look Like Iraq

The common thread between North Korea and the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps is that both countries studied the United States war with Iraq, and came away knowing they couldn’t win a straight up fight. They both also saw how unprepared the United States was for irregular warfare. As a result, both Iran and North Korea have increased their spending on special operations troops designed to fight in unconventional/irregular/non-traditional ways.

So I don’t see a war with North Korea looking like the “thunder run” of the last war in Iraq. The territory is different (flat deserts versus huge mountains), the troops will be different (regular army versus conventional/irregular as described above) and North Korea has nuclear weapons. (We’ve written about this before a few years ago.)

The old saw goes that armies fight the last war. As a country, we have the mistaken belief that overwhelming air power gives us the edge in any conventional conflict. We couldn’t be more wrong. Be very worried about this.

Thought 5: And a TON of people could die

Let’s start with the North Koreans. The U.S. military would start by directly target the North Korean military. That could mean the death of thousands of North Korean soldiers. A sustained/dedicated U.S. air campaign would devastate the already feeble economy leading to devastation and mass starvation. Those would be the North Korean civilian deaths.

Don’t forget that South Korea and North Korea share a border. This means that if North Korea wants to, it can take out its anger on South Korea in the form of artillery and rocket fire. It has inter-continental missiles, but also smaller guided missiles. All South Korean population centers would be under threat. (Joapa could be threatened as well under this scenario.)

Most Americans don’t care about the other two groups, if we are being honest. They care about the deaths of Americans. As I said above, a war with North Korea wouldn’t look like past wars. If we have to put soldiers on the ground, or in the sea, or in the sky, they are at risk. And that could mean lots of deaths of American soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Mar 23

President Trump had announced a few weeks back that he planned to dramatically increase the Department of Defense's budget while slashing the State department’s budget. At the time, we didn’t do quick thoughts because we knew it would come up later. And last week Trump released his “skinny budget” (skinny because of content not because of low BMI), so now we’re going to release our thoughts.

Thought 1: This Skinny Budget is the Anti-Liberalism Budget

A lot of media coverage has described this budget has a radical departure, focused on the “hard power” it represents. Which it is. But we want to really put it into the context of our philosophy of international relations.

As regular readers know, international relations liberals believe that, by supporting and promoting free trade, democracy, international institutions, and international development, the world has become incredibly safe and prosperous. But when you use passive language like “promoting and supporting” you obscure the fact that an ideology can’t promote those things. Even a nation really can’t promote those things. At the end of the day, people on the ground promote those things. In the United States, that means a State Department promoting international institutions. It means legions of workers at USAID and Voice of America promoting democracy and international development. The State Department also supports and promotes the international institutions that ensure free trade across the globe. The United Nations does all this as well, which again is a relationship owned by our State department.

You also need money to help promote all those things. You need a budget to provide international aid. You need budgets to hire democracy watchdogs and to donate to the UN. You need money to project soft power and reinforce the international order that has made the world so great. Donald Trump’s budget won’t do any of this. In fact, it will hurt all those efforts, causing potentially decades of harm.

Thought 2: Trump Disses the Greatest Generation

Another way to put the “anti-liberal” budget in context is that Trump (with Bannon doing a lot of the philosophical work here) is saying to America, “The Greatest Generation didn’t know what they were doing.”

We haven’t hit this point yet--and it may be a logical fallacy (just because the Greatest Generation was great does not make them perfect)--but it may become my new go-to defense of liberalism. The Greatest Generation saw the destruction wrought by World War I and World War II. The solutions after World War I (punishment, fines, weak international institutions, trade wars) didn’t work. So they developed the entire liberal world order in response (and also to fight the Cold War). Donald Trump wants to roll back all their work.

Though 3: Trump is an Untutored Realist

Let’s settle one thing about international relations realism. Sure I disagree with it as a larger philosophy, but smart realists provide good analysis. Going back in time, Thucydides created the discipline of international relations. Hans Morgenthau helped create modern realism. John Mearshimer and Stephen Walt are must read thinkers. (And Walt is super critical of Trump.)

Trump thinks of the world in realist terms, but he does so poorly and without any true conception of real power, soft or hard. That’s why the best description of Trump is as an “untutored realist”. (With a side helping of Steve Bannon’s Clash of Civilizations attitude.) He’s not informed on realism as it relates to foreign policy, and it could be a disaster. Unfortunately for the realists.

Thought 4: This Budget Gives More Alcohol to an Alcoholic

Since Republicans love to talk about business (and the free market), imagine you run a business whose costs are too high. Say a lot of these costs are from one specific, unprofitable division. So the company desperately needs that division to get more efficient, to cut costs. So the leader of the company would ask that division to cut costs.

You know what that leader wouldn’t do? She wouldn’t give them more fricking money,

If you told a division to become more efficient, why would you also tell them they are getting a 10% budget increase? Where is the motivation to drive for more efficiencies? Giving the Pentagon billions more each year, while insisting on nothing, is a recipe for inefficiency. Unlike the ruining of the State department, it probably won’t end in disaster, just huge amounts of money wasted.

Thought 4: The Pentagon is Just Plane [sic] Inefficient

Just need to send that reminder. We did a host of links a few weeks back and will probably keep repeating it every so often as reminders. (Send us good links we have missed.)

Link 1: The Pentagon Doesn’t Have an Auditable Budget

Link 2: McKinsey Found $125B in Waste in the Pentagon

Link 3: The Army Found Trillions in Accounting Errors

Link 4: Pentagon Wasting Billions in Multiple Places.

Link 5: Countless articles on terribly managed new weapon systems (F-22, F-35, Comanche Scout Helicopter, Littoral Combat Ships, and more) while failing to buy weapons that work (A-10 Warthogs, AC-130)

We’ve also written a few posts on the budget. We wrote an open letter to our congresspersons and did a guest post at ForeignPolicy in Tom Ricks’ blog on “Running the Pentagon Like Bain Capital”. The number of posts we’ve written on waste in the military and its huge budget are legion.

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.