July 18, 2010

Why Obama Just Might Fight Iran

Walter Russell Mead argues in the American Interest that President Barack Obama is more likely to go to war with Iran than many conventional observers believe. “In my view,” he wrote, “Iran and this president are headed toward a confrontation in which President Obama will either have to give up all hope on the issues he cares most about, or risk the use of force to stop Iran.”

The president is not likely to go to war with Iran for Israel’s sake. He’s even less likely to go to war with Iran on behalf of the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs. He’s not even all that likely to go to war with Iran to protect American interests in the Levant and the Persian Gulf. He just might, though, as Mead says, go to war to protect what he values most and hopes to accomplish as president.

Obama is often described as a cold-blooded “realist,” but in some ways he’s a Wilsonian. He’s a different kind of Wilsonian from President George W. Bush, but he is one nonetheless. “In many ways a classic example of the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy,” Mead writes, “President Obama believes that American security can best be safeguarded by the construction of a liberal and orderly world,” like a loose and less centralized European Union on a planet-wide scale. And yet, as Mead points out, “Iran’s success means the complete, utter and historic destruction of everything President Obama wants to build.”

He’s right. If Iran emerges as a nuclear-armed terrorist-sponsoring hegemon over the world’s primary energy fields, Obama’s neo-Wilsonian project — which is already a long-shot, at best, as it is — will stand no chance at all for the duration of his tenure and most likely beyond. His domestic American agenda will go sideways, as well, if he loses a re-election bid in 2012 for sending the Middle East and the stability of the world’s energy economy into a tailspin.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 18, 2010 1:49 PM
Comments
There is one, and only one, reason why BO would go to war with Iran - if he thought it would help him get re-elected.
Posted by: Gary Rosen at July 18, 2010 2:53 pm
I second Gary.

Obama is currently perceived as weak leader here and probably abroad, which may provoke him into try to prove something. However, I doubt Obama has enough time to make case to American constituency for attacking Iran unless Iran does something really stupid, but possibility exists none the less.

For the record. I am against attack on Iran. Iran must be left to its own devices. I do not think Ayatollahs will survive passed next Iranian election the latest.
Posted by: leo at July 18, 2010 3:26 pm
If this is cold blooded realism, the "realism" part being the key word, then I need a new dictionary. The "cold blooded" part, however, fits him like a glove; take a glance under the bus.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 4:01 pm
If the US were to go to war with Iran within the next couple of years, on whose side would Iraq be?

Thoughts?

My guess is that a shia Iraq (and that is what it is - the shia are in control) would side with Iran, unless Iran did something especially provocative first.
Posted by: del at July 18, 2010 4:01 pm
Leo,

So, as I suggested elsewhere, "unacceptable" (others' term, not necessarily yours) = wait and see? Personally, I've seen more than enough to know what road this is on and what might be waiting around the bend---or over the cliff.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 4:06 pm
del: If the US were to go to war with Iran within the next couple of years, on whose side would Iraq be?

The American side.

Iran tried for years to destroy the Iraqi government with a massive campaign of terrorism, and there would be no point siding with a government in Tehran that's all but guaranteed to lose.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 18, 2010 4:07 pm
I'm reminded of Iraq's Martyr's Monument, commemorating the casualties from a ten year war.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 4:23 pm
MJT,

Iran is only guaranteed to lose if the conflict goes nuclear. That would only happen if Iran goes nuclear first. No way obama does any type of nuclear 1st strike, even limited to bunker busters.

I have doubts that obama would engage in a large scale conventional ground war, but even if he chose to do so, the conflict would be long and slow, with heavy casualties and would stale-mate. Russia and China would side with Iran. Europe would try to go both ways. And then what, assuming Iran's formal military is defeated in a conventional land war? It still wouldn't be over. "Occupayshun"? In an air war, the US would dominate the skies, but the Iranians would never surrender. That would be sacrilegious.

The result might be similar to Hezbollah's stand-off in Lebanon, with Israel. I think such a stand-off would also be the goal of the Iranian regime, as that would validate the regime to Iranians.

Iran has inserted operatives into Iraq and some of those have been directly involved in terroristic acts. However, more of the bombings in Iraq have been perpetrated by Sunnis against US and foreign troops and Iraqi Shia, or by Iraqi shia against US and foreign troops and Iraqi Sunnis.

The Iraqi shia political elite don't wish to be subservient to Iran, but have also shown an uncomfortable (to my taste) amount of friendliness to Iran.
Posted by: del at July 18, 2010 4:32 pm
If he truly was a Wilsonian, he would have strongly backed the Iraq war, the most Wilsonian war in US history.
Posted by: tg at July 18, 2010 4:36 pm
I suppose it depends on what kind of war whether Iran would be guaranteed to lose. The government would lose a war of regime-change. Counterinsurgency is hard, but demolishing a government isn't.

The strike against the nuclear sites exclusively would have an unpredictable outcome.

Punitive air strikes over a period of days would likely be ineffective and even disastrous for us.

An occupation of Iran is a terrible idea, but I think the chances of that happening on any president's watch are vanishingly close to zero.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 18, 2010 4:37 pm
Paul S.,

That was Saddam Hussein's war. Iraqi Sunnis would tend to oppose Iran and therefore support the US. The Kurds would too. But Iraq is a majority shia country, now ruled by shia. Absent an especial provocation from Iran, the US would be blamed as the aggressor.
Posted by: del at July 18, 2010 4:37 pm
And, maybe like Saddam, would "someone left standing" = "victory"?
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 4:38 pm
Del: The result might be similar to Hezbollah's stand-off in Lebanon, with Israel.

I find that unlikely. Hezbollah is a guerrilla army. Guerrillas can fight assymetric wars, but standing armies and governments can't.

Hezbollah also has civilian support in the areas it controls. The Iranian government doesn't to nearly the same extent.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 18, 2010 4:40 pm
"That was Saddam Hussein's war."

True. I guess I'm thinking about every Iraqi casualty that wasn't a result of Hussein's military savagery being at the hands of Iranians.

The daunting, and maybe impossible challenge for all Iraqis is thinking of themselves as that.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 4:59 pm
Regarding the stance of Iraq in a conflict between the US and Iran, it may not be an either-or proposition. I can envision a scenario where Iraq pays lip service to Iran in the name of Shiite solidarity but gives no substantive support.
Posted by: Gary Rosen at July 18, 2010 5:39 pm
How exactly would we do regime change without collapsing the country and making it turn into Iraq.
Posted by: Ali at July 18, 2010 5:50 pm
I think Mead makes a good point. But bombing Iran "because he wants to" doesn't seem like quite a good enough reason... especially in an election year.

Perhaps the truth is that a nuclear armed Iran isn't that big a deal. Dr. Walt wrote a very good piece a while ago, saying in short, that Iran is deterrable. And the good news is that the Tehran regime is in bad shape, and probably the only way for them to secure the next generation of rule would be to figure something out with the West.

But this is the Middle East guys... anything could happen.
Posted by: Abu Guerrilla at July 18, 2010 6:43 pm
"Perhaps...a nuclear armed Iran isn't that big a deal."

Arabs? Israelis? Your thoughts?
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 7:07 pm
Add: Venezuelans? Colombians?
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 7:08 pm
I don't think Obama has any Middle East aspirations beyond shackling Israel down. Obama's focus is all about improving the US despite what its citizens think.
Posted by: jd at July 18, 2010 7:13 pm
The majority of the commenters over at Mead's site (including me in this case) are not buying this thesis, which isn't really about whether a war would work or how terrible it would be, but about Obama's motivation for fighting it. Mead, you'll recall, is famous for his thesis about how Americans can be divided into 4 different camps re foreign policy, each tied to a past American president or statesman (one is tied to A. Hamilton). This idea shoehorns Obama into that scheme.

It's original, I'll give him that, but it rests partly on Mead's assessment of Obama the man, which is quite a bit more favorable than mine.
Posted by: Gene at July 18, 2010 7:14 pm
Uh everyone, I have news for you! We can't afford another war. We're going broke paying for Granny's social security and your aunt Millie's hip replacement. And we can't issue more debt, there are no takers.
Posted by: Joe at July 18, 2010 7:33 pm
"paying for"

Actually, the big stuff is all debt, currently around 90% of America's GDP and heading north. Find a senior Medicare recipient and look over "CMS Medicare Summary Notice: Amount Charged vs. Amount Approved." The difference? It's called a "credit", or even a "discount!" Now, WHERE does Doc take all his "credit" slips to receive real cash?

Is that gorilla in the corner rising off of his haunches? Pay him no mind; that's what the curtain is for.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 7:57 pm
And taking every dollar from every American executive, and shutting down the Defense Dept. too wouldn't make a tiny dent in it.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 8:10 pm
"it" also including, Medicaid, SS (see: Ponzi scheme), and debt owed our "friend" China.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 8:18 pm
Pure nonsense. Obama is much more likely to order a full withdrawal from Afghanistan (or Iraq, or both) than he is to start a war with Iran. Where does that fit into Mead's argument?
Posted by: A.S. at July 18, 2010 8:21 pm
del: "US would dominate the skies, but the Iranians would never surrender"

When push come to shove I would've never concerned myself with Iran's surrender. Goal would've been to destroy what has to be destroyed and then move on. Iran can rant an rave all it wants. One can always turn around and make another pass if need be.
Posted by: leo at July 18, 2010 8:25 pm
Some things overlooked, sorta.
1) A strike against Iran would not have to destroy its nuclear capacities, just delay the development of a nuke again and again, until, hopefully the regimes collapses or the US elects an adult president.

2) As Mr. Totten wrote, the choice is between bad and worse, bad being war with the Mullahs and worse a nuclear Iran (in which there is a good possibility that Ahmenajid will wake up and decide that g-d told him in a dream to sail a nuke into NYC).

3) A war with Iran would not be a war with a Iran but with the 10% of the population who support the Mullahs. The best they could do is wage a half assed terrorist war against the US and then against the army of a new democratic government. If war comes I do not see it being some sort of mega horror (accept of course for the families of the men involved).

4) There is a better change of Obama performing oral sex on the Revolutionary Guard in exchange a kind word than there is of him ordering an airstrike that could secure the lives and freedom of millions.
Posted by: Bob From Virginia at July 18, 2010 10:35 pm
I read that this White House returned to Britain either a bust or a portrait of Winston Churchill. Anyone know what new art is displayed there now? A man's (temporary) home being his castle, as they say.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 11:05 pm
I don't understand why everyone is itching so badly for a direct military attack when that might be counterproductive. I would think that if Obama really saw Iran as a risk to his legacy, he would be more openly supportive of the internal unrest in Iran. It might be more effective and less bloody from our standpoint to see Iran implode from within.

If Obama seriously saw Iran as a threat to his world vision, I would think he would be more vocal in his support for the Iranian resistance.

Something about that article just seems like wishful thinking to me.
Posted by: crosspatch at July 18, 2010 11:13 pm
Crosspatch: I don't understand why everyone is itching so badly for a direct military attack

I'm not. I'm agnostic about it. In some ways I think it might be necessary. But I'm aware, at the same time, that it could be a disaster if it's not done right and might have bad unintended consequences even if it is.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 18, 2010 11:16 pm
I thinks there's zero chance that the Green movement is going to bring down government no matter how large it gets. There has to be an external push or an Iranian Gorbachev and there is neither.
Posted by: Ali at July 18, 2010 11:23 pm
"less bloody from our standpoint to see Iran implode from within."

Of course. But, while we're waiting, whose adventurism is emboldened, there, here, everywhere? Plus, if a power vacuum results, who/what fills it? History has had a lot to say about revolutions' victims.

No answers here, just too many troubling questions.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 11:26 pm
"Mead, you'll recall, is famous for his thesis about how Americans can be divided into 4 different camps re foreign policy, each tied to a past American president or statesman"

Gene, do you have a link for this? One of my all-time favorite pieces on foreign policy was by Charles Krauthammer who also posited 4 policy camps thought without the specific tie to a historical figure. I'm curious if one (Mead or Krauthammer) influenced or even sorta plagiarized the other. Krauthammer's piece was published in 2004.
Posted by: Gary Rosen at July 18, 2010 11:29 pm
In my last post "thought" should have been "though"
Posted by: Gary Rosen at July 18, 2010 11:31 pm
Ali, maybe you are right that by itself the Green movement won't, in a single-handed manner, take down the regime, but it sure can keep it occupied with other things. Even offering moral support, words can be powerful things if they resonate in people's hearts, can be a significant force. Reagan always held out the beacon of hope to those behind the Iron Curtain and those people had hearts full of good will toward America for that when their regimes finally fell. No regime on the planet stands but at the pleasure of its population. When the people finally decide they have had enough, the regime will end. The regime can not kill them all.

Obama seems to be suffering from the paralysis of analysis. He seems afraid to be too confrontational to the regime, and he seems to be too timid to actively support the Green movement and wants to find passive-aggressive measures that make it appear as if he is doing something by not doing something.

Fish or cut bait, Mr. President. Standing there with both a fishing pole and a bait knife doing nothing with either of them isn't helping.

Iran right now has the global initiative. There is too much going on right for me to rest easy. The timing of Turkey getting cosy with Iran, Mookie's recent trip to Syria, the recent ratcheting up of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran appears to be making all the moves. The violence of the drug cartels in Mexico is starting to take on a Middle Eastern look (beheadings, car bombings) as if maybe ME terrorist organizations are aligning with certain drug cartels to eliminate competition.

Iran looks like it is making all the moves and I see nothing, not a word, not a sound, not a peep out of the White House. It does, indeed, look like the return of the Carter administration.
Posted by: crosspatch at July 18, 2010 11:41 pm
Gary,

Mead's book about the four schools of American foreign policy is Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World.

Highly recommended.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 18, 2010 11:54 pm
Ronald Reagan's resonant message was one of individuals with freedom to choose, not government to impose, a message I think makes the current American administration uneasy.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 18, 2010 11:57 pm
I see an extraordinarily, dangerously weak American "leader", hoping things sort themselves out, after which he can take credit for "patient prudence", or whatever cliches he and supporters come up with.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 19, 2010 12:13 am
"as if maybe ME terrorist organizations are aligning with certain drug cartels"

I'm surprised Mexican car bombs haven't been in the news previously; intimidation doesn't require massive firepower. But terror overlays culture; a kamikaze mindset had no roots in Nazi Germany.
Posted by: Paul S. at July 19, 2010 12:35 am
Mike,

I just noticed your new site came up.

Congratulations.

It looks like we have two sets of comments for the piece above.
Posted by: leo at July 19, 2010 9:58 am
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