Monday, April 17, 2006
There also were substantive problems with Clarke's argument, the most glaring of which was that he was entirely unpersuasive in his claim that the United States would not be able to get "escalation dominance" against Iran. As I wrote in a footnote at the bottom of the earlier post, Clarke is only able to sustain this argument by defining success in terms that will be virtually impossible for airstrikes to accomplish:
No matter how Iran responded, the question that would face American planners would be, "What's our next move?" How do we achieve so-called escalation dominance, the condition in which the other side fears responding because they know that the next round of American attacks would be too lethal for the regime to survive?
I agree that if we have to drive Iran to the brink of regime death in order to achieve escalation dominance, we probably do not want to initiate an exchange. But that is an unrealistic objective. Shouldn't "escalation dominance" in this situation instead be "the condition in which the other side concludes that it is not worth retaining its nuclear weapons program because the next round of American attacks would exact too high a price, geopolitically or economically"?
There is a deeper problem with the Clarke/Simon concern that we should not take military action against Iran because Iran might retaliate. It makes no sense. Under the Clarke/Simon theory, Iran can do anything that it wants, under any circumstances, and there is literally nothing we can do about it short of total thermonuclear annihilation, because -- take a deep breath -- Iran might retaliate. In other words, Iran has achieved "escalation dominance" over the United States without doing a damned thing, just because Clarke and Simon -- both Clinton administration alumni -- say that we cannot bear the retaliation. This is easy for them, because they do not dare to remind their readers that the inevitable consequence of their policy is that Iran will build an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
The truth is, Richard Clarke has been thinking about this question for a long time. Clarke, along with the rest of the Clinton administration, had to decide whether to retaliate after Iran's proxy, Hezbollah, attacked the Khobar Towers in 1996. Here's how Kenneth Pollack (who also served on the Clinton National Security Council) described the debate over Iranian retaliation in The Persian Puzzle:
Nor should the potential for Iranian retaliation have been a determining factor. First, the Iranians' actual behavior after the Khobar attack, and the public calls for retaliation in the United States, indicate that they understood that they had overstepped themselves and so were unlikely to retaliate further if we did. Second, Iran had not retaliated for Praying Mantis, and most people do not believe that it retaliated for the destruction of Iran Air flight 655. This too suggests that given a clear demonstration of America's willingness to employ overwhelming power, Iran would back down. Third, although American officials often discussed how an escalating "tit-for-tat" of retaliations between the United States and Iran did not look good to them, it was also the case that the same hypothetical series of attacks and reactions looked even worse from Tehran's perspective. The Iranians could have blown up some buildings and doubtless killed several hundred people if they were determined and willing to sustain a protracted terror campaign, but the losses they would have suffered if the United States showed similar resolve would have been much worse from their perspective. This too would likely have given them pause before retaliating for our own retaliation.
Last, allowing for the possibility that Iran might have retaliated for our own retaliation to stop us should not have been a consideration because it would have nullified the core principles of containment and deterrence. It would have been effectively rewarding Iran for its willingness to kill civilians and its pathological hatred of the United States. It would have been a declaration that any country ruthless enough to mount terrorist attacks against the United States and possessed of enough fervor to withstand massive damage from American military strikes got a free pass and would never have to endure massive damage from American military strikes.
This logic is truly perverse: by being willing to conduct the Khobar Towers attack -- and thereby demonstrate that it would and could conduct additional such attacks -- Iran would be immunized from an American military response. Ultimately, this was precisely the argument of Iranian radicals, who claimed that the United States was too cowardly to respond to their challenges and so they could do as they liked without fear of U.S. retaliation. It is simply not responsible, logical, or prudent to argue that the United States should not be willing to use force to retaliate for terrorist acts committed against its nationals for fear that the same country would commit subsequent terrorist attacks. If a group or nation is determined to mount terrorist attacks, refraining from retaliation for fear of additional attacks will only encourage them.
Now, the hypothetical use of military force against Iran in the present crisis would not be to retaliate for a terrorist attack, but it would be equally in the service of "the core principles of containment and deterrence." Just as the threat of Iranian retaliation was not the reason why we did not retaliate for Khobar Towers, so it should not stay us from an attack to interdict Iran's nuclear program. If Iran is going to use terrorism against us without fear of our further escalation, their possession of a nuclear strike capability is not going to increase their inhibitions.
By the way, why didn't the United States retaliate for Khobar Towers? Clarke is coy about it in his op-ed:
In June 1996, the Qods Force, the covert-action arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, arranged the bombing of an apartment building used by our Air Force in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans.
At that point, the Clinton administration and the Pentagon considered a bombing campaign. But after long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favorably for the United States.
While the full scope of what America did do remains classified, published reports suggest that the United States responded with a chilling threat to the Tehran government and conducted a global operation that immobilized Iran's intelligence service. Iranian terrorism against the United States ceased.
In essence, both sides looked down the road of conflict and chose to avoid further hostilities. And then the election of the reformist Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran in 1997 gave Washington and Tehran the cover they needed to walk back from the precipice.
This reasoning is rather at odds with Pollack's account, which says that the Clinton Administration stayed its hand because it lacked confidence in Iran's culpability:
As it so often does in the post-Cold War world, the question of retaliating for the Khobar Towers attack comes down to the question "How good was the intelligence?" And the problem was, that before Khatami's election, it was not great. Most of the CIA and other intelligence community analysts believed that Iran was behind Khobar, but they believed that to be the case based on intuition and circumstantial evidence. Ultimately, they were proven right, but there have certainly been cases (Iraqi WMD in 2003 comes to mind) when the intuition of the intelligence analysts coupled with even great masses of circumstantial evidence has turned out to be wrong. Prior to 1999, when the Saudis finally turned over their evidence regarding the Khobar attack to the FBI, the intelligence community refused to say with any degree of confidence that Iran had been behind the attack. (p. 301)
So between Kenneth Pollack and Richard Clarke we have dueling National Security Council alumni, both of whom were working on Persian Gulf matters in 1996. In Clarke's account, Clinton did not retaliate for Khobar because he was worried about Iran's response, reasoning that conveniently operates to constrain the Bush administration in 2006. In Pollack's, it was because the CIA wouldn't step to the plate and finger Iran with sufficient certainty, and in May 1997, before we were able to extract the definitive evidence from our friends the Saudis, "much to everyone's surprise ... a previously rather minor figure in Iranian politics, Hojjat-ol Islam Mohammad Khatami, won a landslide victory in Iran's presidential election, and he did so on a platform of radical, liberal change."
Who do you believe?
I have to confess that this talk of military conflict with Iran puzzles me. The understanding I have is that Iran's status as one of the top oil producing nations gives them the trumpsuit ace. Kind of like in "Blazing Saddles" when Clevon Little is facing a hostile group closing in on him, he pulls his gun and points it at his head and says "stop! or I'll shoot the black guy".
Given the tightness of the world oil supplies and the USA's over reliance on it, Iran would need to make very little mischief to drive the price of oil to a ruinously high level. I haven't heard any discussion of that aspect of US/Iran relations. From that perspective it would appear that an Iranian dagger is already at our throat and a military strike on our part would simply be us committing economic suicide !
Anyone knowledgeable about petro-politics care to shed some light on this facet of US/Iran tensions ?
PatD: you're making the mistake of believing that the world oil market is America's primary strategic interest in the area. I suspect a higher goal may be keeping our cities and those of our allies free of nuclear fallout, and thwarting those who might wish for such a thing.
It did, and that's another flaw in Clarke's argument. It is well known that we rolled up Iranian intelligence assets around the world -- my sense is that we dropped a dime on Iranian agents where we knew of them, all at once, and the result was mass expulsions of Iranian spies. In his op-ed, he hints at other responses that remain classified. The one thing we do know is that the response to Khobar Towers was covert, so we got no "credit" for it except from the government itself (i.e., not from the Iranian population, or from third party dirtbags who might have learned an object lesson).
Now, suppose we did retaliate in some secret way back in 1996-97. Why didn't Iran escalate with terrorism, as Clarke argues it would in the case of strikes today? If terrorism is such an easy card for Iran to play, what held them back then? The fear of full blown American military reprisals, that's what.
Now, you can argue that a lot has changed since then in Iran's favor, including our need for stability in Iraq. I'm not so sure. I think Iran has a fairly keep interest in stability in Iraq, too, and knows that if it degrades we will keep more troops there longer, notwithstanding the fatigue of the American public.
"Almost everybody agrees that the use of military force against Iran is a bad option."
From a previous comment thread: "At the risk of seeming barbaric or simple minded, I suspect strongly that the only course of action that we can take that is reasonably likely to prevent Iran from accomplishing something truly appalling with nuclear weapons sometime in the relatively near future is to do something fairly appalling to them - something rather verging on genocide, with a fair bit of Iran rendered uninhabitable for a good long time to come."
This commenter's opinion is what happens when militarism dominates foreign policy scenarios. This commenter would commit genocide to secure freedom, and I suspect that you'll find a lot of people on the side of "shoot first, ask questions later" would agree with him.
I understand that you're working hard to have an honest discussion about military options in Iran. You assert that Richard Clarke's thesis is wrongheaded, that thinking about Iran through a worried lens is ignoring history. O.K., so now ought we get to the bombin'?
You say that war is a "bad option". What alternatives do you offer? I haven't seen you mention them.
So here is an argument for deferring military confrontation and allowing Iran to continue its nuclear development, wherever it may lead. If you think about it, we put up with a lot of overseas terrorism nonsense directed at our military/diplomatic assets. We tolerated the seizure of the Iranian Embassy, the destruction of 2 of our African embassies, and numerous attacks on our facilities overseas, including Khobar, Beirut, the Cole, and numerous overseas hijackings. The message we've sent is that we will show restraint (some may read "cowardice") when our overseas assets are hit.
Alternatively, the instant we were attacked domestically with severity, we mobilized in Afghanistan and Iraq. We conquered both nations and their ruling regimes, deposing them. Some argue that we overstepped our bounds with Iraq, though I for one disagree. The evidence is clear that Saddam was a supporter of terrorism and an avowed enemy of the US with an appetite for WMD. There is emerging documentation as of March 2001 from Iraqi intelligence authorizing attacking US interests. We were hit by Sunni Arabs here in the US, and we have mobilized against those Sunni Arabs who have demonstrated an appetite to hurt America. For what it's worth, after 9/11 the Iraqi embassy was the ONLY one which did not fly its flag at half mast here in NY. In any event, subsequent to 9/11, Al Qaeda has shown a marked decline in operational effectiveness. Certainly on 9/12/01, nobody would have predicted that we would not suffer another significant domestic terrorist attack in the subsequent 4+ years.
Iran has not, for the moment, violated the same etiquette which Al Qaeda violated. We have not suffered a monumental domestic US assault for which Iran is culpable, even remotely.
In my mind, this is what makes the diplomatic challenge of Iran so difficult. Their regime is a disaster for us and its people. They seem destined to acquire nuclear capability. They certainly act irrationally and make proclamations which incite to war. They support global terrorism. They have put Hezbollah in business around the world, including in the US.
But thus far they have not violated the etiquette which the Sunni Arab radicals violated -- which was to hit us on our turf. The Shiite Persians have been in this regard very smart -- big talk, but no action. Same thing in terms of Israel. Big talk, no action. And Iran didn't mobilize to jump us in Iraq, which they could have done. Have they and the Syrians made our life more difficult there? Yes. But only in a small way, not in the big way in which they could have done.
So Iran is a dilemma. There are excellent reasons to act forcefully to change the regime and its direction. And there are good reasons to wait. If one day we are attacked domestically and horribly by Iran, one could make the case that this could have been prevented, much like one could make the same case viz. Al Qaeda and Saddam.
For the moment, words are trumping action. The Clarke/Simon case is not very compelling -- wihcih is to say if we strike, they'll retaliate. Maybe, maybe not...not if we hit them sufficiently hard and effectively. On the other hand, have we been given sufficient grounds to launch an assault against them? Some would say yes, some no. In my view, the grounds to launch regime change in Iran are not today as compelling as the grounds to attack Saddam. We had already fought an incomplete war with Saddam. Not even close. I think this is why Rice and Khalizad and the curretn administration have shown restraint and even made overtures to Iran, not to mention allowing the completely comatose EU 3 a shot at dealing with them.
A very difficult dilemma. Even for a cuckoobana militarist like me.
CP, I think you make a good point in that we do have a trump card of sorts with respect to the ruling elites in Iran, that being our ability to 'take them out' should they do anything truly stupid. It would seem they already know this, given the relative restraint they have shown, but I would hope we still every now and again remind them of that fact, against the day they start believing their own rhetoric.
So let's hold the threat of regime change as leverage to encourage rationality. We needn't be bellicose about it, just quietly--but insistently--confident on that score.
Broadcasting the opposite message, or adopting as policy Clarke's assertion we can do nothing against Iran for fear of what may come next, would have the opposite effect. And if we are afraid to counter or call Iranian bluffs now, what will our reaction be once they actually do have the bomb?
Does anyone really think taking that path would lead us to safety?
Excuse me! Retaliate???? Iran is actively attacking America and its interests through terrorist support/activity in Iraq and elsewhere right now. Aren't we the ones considering retaliating? And stopping the Iran nuclear program is clearly a move of self-defense.
Apparently many of us have different ways of incorporating Iran's nuclear ambitions into a threat assessment matrix. I, for one point to the economically lethal (to us) capability Iran possess's by virtue of their oil production. Everyone else, it seems, feels that their main threat is that they will eventually fashion nuclear weapons and strike us with them.
As one (of many) who experienced "apocolyptic nightmares of the nuclear armageddeon variety" during the 60's, I am aware of the fear factor nukes hold over people. One thing I haven't experienced is "the great depression". The people who have that experience would be at least in their 80's now. The stories of that time were passed on to me by my parents and it did not sound like fun. In fact, given the hugely expanded nature of, not only the USA's, but the world's economy how can the threat of economic destruction not be of primary importance AT THIS TIME ?
This is not an idle threat. They can toss our economy into the dust bin faster than you imagine. and once they start that ball rolling we can all kiss our "American way of life" goodbye. So what is it that we need more peace or prosperity. We do not have peace at the moment ( well maybe it seems like it here in the USA) but we do have prosperity for the time being. SO it seems to me like we've doused Iraq with the "bathwater" , would it be wise to toss the "baby" out as well ??
If ever a stage was set for a Pyrhhic victory Iran is it.
One clarification to my prior post and regime change. I don't really distinguish between bombing and regime change. If the US embarks on a bombing campaign, it better change the regime as well. If the sense is that only a bombing campaign should be launched to debilitate nuclear development, my frank hope would be that Israel would do it.
I would have thought or hoped that we had learned that half assedness only creates more problems than it solves -- 2 examples would be leaving Saddam in power, and a couple of cruise missiles into Afghanistan. another one might be the Treaty of Versailles.
If the decision is taken to launch an assault on Iran, it better be for all the marbles. Anything less will merely endanger my children, rather than reduce the danger. on this subject, by the way, the History Channel just did a nice bit on the Civil War and McClellan/Burnside failure to follow up victory at Antietam vs. Grant's approach to war (unconditional surrender).
CP, I'm not going to argue against your assessment, except to ask: If and when we decide that regime change is the next necessary step, why not just forget the nuclear facilities for the time being and go for the jugular? Concentrate on what really matters and make the mission a decapitation strike.
The nuclear facilities can then be left to rot, destroyed at our leisure, or made the responsibility of the new democratic government in Iran.
Sirius sir -- I think you take out the Persian nukes in addition to changing the regime because the Arabs throughout the Middle East plus the Jews will finally agree on something -- their gratitude to the US for taking the nuclear card away from Iran. Seriously, I think the nuclear issue is the proximate cause of the decision to change the regime, you might as well take them out. ALternatively, you take the risk that a new regime will agree to non-proliferation...also possible, but easier to agree if the nuclear program is a smoldeering ruin.
Who do you believe?
Pollack. I've read his "The Threatening Storm," and he comes across as a very well-informed and reasonable analyst. Clarke, on the other hand, has never seemed like anything but self-serving since he first entered the public's perception. His account of what the Clinton administration may have done to Iranian Intelligence just happens to make him and his boss look good. How convenient.
"I, for one point to the economically lethal (to us) capability Iran possess's by virtue of their oil production."
Rubbish. What percentage of our petrol imports come from the Middle East? 15%? And how much of that comes from the Gulf States? Virtually all of it? Iran can use oil as a weapon, but not against us.
What they could *try* is to close the Gulf and Arabian Sea to commercial shipping, and they've boasted of that before. I can promise that such efforts, unless carried out by operatives cloaked as civilians or other third parties, are doomed to failure, courtesy of the US, Bahrain, Saudi, British, Kuwaiti, et cetera, Navies/Air Forces.
The only ones actually sweating about Iran's oil threats are the Europeans and (I think) Chinese.
I suggest that you do a little independent research into the nature of the global petroleum market, Dawnfire82. You will soon learn that oil is a fungible commodity and what one pays for raw crude is very marginally connected to where it comes from. An example would be "light sweet west texas" crude vs the "heavy sour" variety Venezuela produces. One costs a little more due to it's sulphur content and subsequent ease of refining. Remove any source of supply and the price of all of it goes up.
More to the point is the degree to which the world's economy is dependent upon a plentiful & cheap supply of the stuff. In the event that Iran were to withhold a significant portion of their supply from the market, financial panic would ensue. It matters not one iota where it is produced, the price for any and all of it would skyrocket, immediately. Perhaps you have noticed the futres price for crude oil pierced the $70/bbl level today. It was at that level when Katrina/Rita took a significant share of our Gulf production facilities offline. Tell me what was the significant event behind today's oil price level ? The reason is market jitters mainly caused by tight supply and the mere suspicion that something bad may happen as a result of US/Iran tensions.
As a matter of fact all Iran would need to do to cause serious economic disruptions to G8 countries is cut their output by as little as 10-15%. Don't believe me doo the math yourself. Iran accounts for aprox 10% or global oil production. With demand almost equal to supply and all producers already at max production a 1%+ reduction in supply would be the straw that broke the camel's back !
Who needs 40k suicide bombers when you can just give a thousand oil-field workers a couple weeks off.
All of you tactical military strategizing is just so much discussion of how many angels can dance on a pin. Absolutely no relevance to the real world.
Of course, you could turn that around completely.
Iran depends on their oil export cash flow to keep their economy going.
If the US were unlaterally STOP the export of Iranian oil (and the revenues Iran receives from that) while simultaneously opening up the Strategic Oil Reserve to sale to domestic oil comapnies, that "fungible" nature of oil comes into play, and we could keep the world oil price stabiliized for many weeks, and let our Iranian adversaries stew in their own juices, so to speak. Who knows, there might even be a revolution if things get bad enough.
Too bad we aren't already drilling in ANWR, eh?
Yes, we could turn it around ... in our minds. Not saying this to be snarky but just trying to keep the dialogue anchored in reality.
Embargoing Iran's oil exports would send the price too high, too fast for the US to "stabilize" prices. Precisely how we would manage such a feat is pretty murky as well. If you are thinking of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, well you can forget about it. The US has aprox 700k/bbl in it and it is all heavy sour crude at that. that equals about two months supply at current demand levels. As big a player as the US is, there is no way it could prop up the market for anywhere near that amount of time. The true facts of the matter are that both supplier and consumer nations are hostage to the status quo although there is one salient difference. Iran is not an industrialized nation, we are. Therefore we need their oil much, much more than they need our dollars. That and the fundamentalist nature of their Islamic govenment indicates that they have the advantage were our two countries to "go to the mattresses" as they say in mob-speak.
So far as ANWR goes that is just pie-in-the-sky. Were it green-lighted today no one would see a drop for ten years and even then it would only make a very slight contribution to our overall demand. If we were actually pumping it today, market forces would have it all going where our logs, scrap steel and concrete is going, China.
Just a few facts I gleaned from modest seraching of the web.
First from the DOE website:
Size of US Strategic Oil reserve:
~ 727 million barrels of crude (quality unstated)
Amount of imported oil to US (Daily)(Nov. 2005): 12.2 million barrels/day
Iranian Production, as of November 2005: 4.2 million barrels per day, worth about 59 billion dollars to Iran (annually).
Size of Iranian GDP (2004): ~ $178 billion (from CIA factbook)
Financial Reserves(2004): ~ $40 Billion dollars
So maybe, we could open the Strategic Reserve for ~ 100 days, choke off Iran's exports, and prevent WWIII by fomenting revolution in Iran and deposing the Ayatollahs, and Ahmadinejad,... or not and wait for the kettle to come to a full boil.
Victory without war? Play hardball?
Thank you, David, for taking the trouble to confirm the numbers I have tossed out in this thread, although the Iranian poduction figure needs to be explained(4.2mil bbl/day is their OPEC quota of which no member adheres to, they all pump more than their quotas).
Iran had one revolution so who knows what another would accomplish and the Islamic revolution has been consolidated there, whether we like it or not. The only real option left to us is diplomacy.
The only real option left to us is diplomacy.
And yet diplomacy only works if two or more sides want an agreement. What do the Iranian elites want? It seems they want to pursue a nuclear agenda despite what anyone else wants. And you've already stated the case that we have no economic leverage against them. So, where is the incentive for them to sit down and talk and resolve things peaceably?
Please, explain to me how this works from the Iranian perspective.
PatD - your last comment is categorically untrue. Our only option is not "diplomacy" by which I make the assumption you mean we cannot use military means. That makes for a dishonest and sheltered discussion. There are arguments for no military confrontation and arguments for it. There is a very small likelihood of achieving a diplomatic "breakthrough," though the rhetoric would certainly not suggest it.
But to suggest that our "only option" is diplomacy is simply incorrect. The United States could initiate a successful war to change the current regime in Iran and/or inflict damage on its nuclear development capability. That is a fact. The costs, the adversity, the challenges, the human toll -- these are all important considerations in the decision; as are one's assumptions about the Mullahcracy's intentions, its expansionist ideology, the threat it poses to the US, its citizens and its interests.
It is an important -- perhaps the most important - debate and decision we face as a nation. Let's have it openly and honestly.
A small point on the question of diplomacy and international negotiation. (unlike the global petrol industry, I know this subject!)
Diplomacy without the inherent threat of military force is worthless. The whole point of diplomacy is to come to some kind of agreement without having to resort to violence to sort it all out. If violence is straight up not an option, there is no incentive to engage in diplomacy.
With the current political culture of "no war at all costs," all Iran has to do is find what the world will not accept, and take/demand 1 iota less, like a small neighbor. Czechoslovakia perhaps.
N.B.: Today is the 18th anniversary of Operation Praying Mantis, the U.S. retaliation for the mining of the USS Samuel B. Roberts. I've posted photos and video of the U.S. action at nohigherhonor.com.