Monday, January 16, 2006

Future History?

by Joe Miller

In yesterday's Daily Telegraph, Harvard historian and hawk Niall Ferguson offers a future historian's take on Iran's decision to move forward with its nuclear weapons program. Key paragraphs:

The devastating nuclear exchange of August 2007 represented not only the failure of diplomacy, it marked the end of the oil age. Some even said it marked the twilight of the West. Certainly, that was one way of interpreting the subsequent spread of the conflict as Iraq's Shi'ite population overran the remaining American bases in their country and the Chinese threatened to intervene on the side of Teheran.

Yet the historian is bound to ask whether or not the true significance of the 2007-2011 war was to vindicate the Bush administration's original principle of pre-emption. For, if that principle had been adhered to in 2006, Iran's nuclear bid might have been thwarted at minimal cost. And the Great Gulf War might never have happened.

Preemption is obviously a tricky issue, and we'll be saying lots more about it later in the semester. Let me just say that there is a better prima facie case for preemption in Iran than there ever was for preemption in Iraq. Of course, it's also important to keep in mind that preemption is supposed to have the effect of making a military engagement less bad than would waiting for a first strike. It's not at all clear to me, though, that a strike against Iran at this time would meet that condition.

Consider, first, that nuclear weapons typically require several years to move from development to implementation. A great deal can happen between now and some future time when Iran does have a nuclear bomb. More importantly, though, Iran would ordinarily have very little capability to retaliate against an American preemptive strike. But as you may recall, the bulk of the United States' ground forces are currently just across the border, pinned down in Iraq. We can't withdraw those troops (unless we are prepared to give up entirely on the idea of leaving Iraq better than we found it), nor can we ask them to keep order in Iraq while simultaneously repelling Iranian incursions. And let's not even think about a full-blown Shi'ite insurgency in southern Iraq that is openly supported by Iranian conventional forces.

Once again, I think that we are seeing a major limitation of the decision to commit our entire military strength to regime-change in a hostile region. In the face of genuine threats (and I'd say that a nuclear-armed, holocaust-denying fanatic counts as such), the U.S. now has no real credible military responses. America has a weak hand. What's worse, everyone knows it. What's worse than that, we dealt it ourselves.


Anonymous jimi said...

There isn't anything substantial that I can to this post. This has been precisely my argument all along, even before the 2003 U.S.-Coalition invasion.

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Jason B said...

Here's a possible alternative read on the U.S.-Iran power balance should Iran acquire nuclear-weapons capability.

First of all, substantial American deployment to the Middle East would normally require weeks or, more likely, months. The U.S. military is a mamoth machine, and (en masse) it's going nowhere fast.

Eventually, the U.S. could almost undoubtedly smash Iran. But if Iran had nuclear weapons, they could wreak serious havoc before America could get it done.

But with a huge chunk of the American military stationed next door in Iraq, the U.S. could mount a response to an Iranian nuclear threat very quickly.

Now, U.S. troops are to a large degree "mired" in Iraq, in the sense that they're not really a position to just jump up and leave. But specifically assaulting a nuclear-weapons program (which sounds pretty facility-centered) would probably be best accomplished by a relatively quick and short-term application of air power and strategic raids (prolonged conflict, aka ground invasion, would give Iran far too much time to rock the American's world with their big bad nuclear bombs).

An air assault would be far less hindered by the military being "mired" than would a ground invasion. Overall, it seems likely that the advantage of being 5 mins away (versus having weeks of deployment time, going through former Soviet states and requiring mid-air refuelings to get into the Middle East, crossing enemy territory all the time) would far outweigh the disadvantages of having to deal with Iraq at the same time (since that is, at this time, primarily a job for ground & intelligence forces).

In other words, being in Iraq might, all things considered, strengthen America's position vis a vis Iran's nuclear capability.

Now, a conflict outside of the Middle East - say with N. Korea or China - or a conventional conflict anywhere in the world, would be a totally different story. Then the U.S. would have some real problems to deal with.

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I thought that having a strong military presence in the Middle East was the real impetus behind going into Iraq in the first place. I'm not talking about the pre-war lies, I'm only speaking based on everything that Rummy & Co. have been spouting ever since the public got wise. Basically, they've been saying that they wanted to establish a 'beacon of Democracy' in the Middle East. Now, what they are trying to pass off as being a metaphor for Iraq's proposed Democratic government, I think, is more or less a ruse. Iraq is an excellent site for bases, especially of the kind Jason was just mentioning. We drop a few air bases within the borders of Iraq, and we suddenly have a serious advantage in the region that we here-to-fore lacked: time.

I'm not saying I like the idea of colonization, which is really what this amounts to, but I do like the idea of being able to respond to direct threats before those threats may reach fruition.

Oh, and lying is bad. I doubt I would have minded much if they would just come out and tell us what the hell they had intended from the start instead of forcing us to wade through tons of hay to find the golden needle they've hidden there.

9:08 AM  
Anonymous joe said...


Here's my concern about your alternate read. First, the U.S. has already had airbases in the region since 1990. That's how we've been maintaining a no-fly zone over Iraq for the 13 years prior to the 2003 invasion. More significantly, though, the B-1 has a range of about 10,000 miles. With but a single refueling, a B-1 could leave from the midwest, bomb Tehran, and return to the midwest. No airbases in Iraq are necessary for U.S. strategic bombing.

My worry about ground troops had less to do with their availablity to fight in Iran (since as you point out, a strike against Iranian nuclear capabilities would likely involve the Air Force and not the Army or Marines). Rather, my worry is that, with most of the ground forces in Iraq, they pose a very tempting target for retailiation.

An Iran stripped of nuclear capability presents absolutely zero threat to the United States. Indeed, Iraq with nuclear capability presents no threat to the U.S. directly, as Iran possesses no missles capable of delivering a warhead to the U.S. Nuclear-armed Iran is a huge threat to Israel, though as Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, a strike on Israel brings on MAD.

Iran does, however, have the capacity to strike at Iraq, or more specifically, to strike at American soldiers currently in Iraq. So the concern is that a preemptive strike against Iran provokes full-blown Iranian entry into Iraq, at which point American ground forces have to try to fight off an insurgency while at the same time repelling a conventional invasion.

I seem to recall another instance of American troops attempting to fight conventional forces being supplied by a foreign power while at the same time dealing with an insurgency also supported by a foreign power. The details are a bit fuzzy, but it seems to me that I remember that episode not working out all that well.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Jamie said...

WOW, not even second class yet, and we have begun the Bush Bashing! Started by..Mitch!

I know its insanely popular and trendy to Bash Bush (its all the rage in Europe, too), but could we _attempt_ to have a dicussion without doing such?

Or perhaps I ask to much...

4:32 PM  
Anonymous joe said...

Oh, man, are you in the wrong class, Jamie. This isn't even serious Bush-bashing. And with Rick gone for the semester, you may be on your own. Sorry.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I'm sorry Jamie. I'll try to keep the facts to a minimum and the rhetoric high. You'll feel right at home.

I think what I said was actually quite mild. Plus, if you re-read the post, you'll find that I'm just fine with protecting the country.

And yes, you will find that from time to time, the borderline pathological lying that goes on in DC will draw the ire of those of us in the world that do still care.

8:58 PM  
Anonymous Jamie said...

Wow, when we said we were going to get into insult matches on the board, I didn’t in my wildest dreams believe it would really happen! I thought the sarcasm would be evident (and evidently Dr. Miller "got it"), however, as you wish...

But I will try to keep my response limited on the “bitch fest” side of things, Mitch…and we can end at any time…

However, for now…let the fun begin...

"I'm sorry Jamie. I'll try to keep the facts to a minimum and the rhetoric high. You'll feel right at home."

Actually I believe you'll feel right at home on that account. If all else fails, after all, ATTACK PEOPLE PERSONALLY! If not Bush, then me! I am responsible for all things. Just like Bush.

"I think what I said was actually quite mild. Plus, if you re-read the post, you'll find that I'm just fine with protecting the country."

For you, you’re correct, it was indeed on the mild side. This is why my reply was pure sarcasm. But now you’re letting everything else out, I suppose...

"And yes, you will find that from time to time, the borderline pathological lying that goes on in DC will draw the ire of those of us in the world that do still care. "

I agree, I think bombing a country in order to cover up political scandal at home is wrong. Oh wait, that was Clinton too! But wait? Where are the screams of scandal about Clinton? We still have troops in Bosnia; don’t we care about them too? But that wouldn’t be very politically attractive, would it.

I am an equal-opportunity President basher. I am far from a Bush supporter; however, I also realize that political charades like this have been played (to a varying degree of scale) by every other president, democrats and republicans.

But, getting back to the topic on hand, since (gasp) joking around on here obviously cant be handled (my apologies, wont try that again)...

It is certainly true that the current military situation basically has us backed against a wall. If Iran were to seriously provide evidence that they are up to making nuclear devices, we really can’t do much without an extensive political backlash on a domestic and international level because we would have to back out of Iraq in very short order.

It would be interesting to see how much our non-Iraqi troops are available which are now dispersed elsewhere While I doubt it would be enough to launch a strike against Iran should the need arise, it would at least promote the façade of security.

12:18 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Really Jamie. You and I have discussed the ineptitude of the Executive branch on several occasions. And I am talking about past holders of the position as well as the present. However, given that we are no longer actively burdened with any of the former Presidents' idiocy, I feel it only right to start looking to the people that are responsible for what is going on _right_now_.

Now, I haven't attacked anyone directly, I have not called anyone stupid, etc. Hell, I haven't even said that Bush looks a little like Alfred E. Newman. As a matter of fact, I left pretty much everything open for "both sides of the isle" to be guilty of... with the exception of Donald Rumsfeld... he is the Sec. of Defense, you know.


9:27 AM  
Anonymous Jamie said...

Awww. I feel the love Mitch, cant you?

12:35 PM  

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