A Unique Take on Obama's Dual Crisis

George Friedman of STRATFOR has offered a unique take on what he refers to as a “dual crisis” – Afghanistan and Iran – awaiting action from the President.  To cut to the chase, his prescription for the President is as follows:

On pure logic, history or politics aside, the best course is to strike Iran and withdraw from Afghanistan. That would demonstrate will in the face of a significant challenge while perhaps reshaping Iran and certainly avoiding a drawn-out war in Afghanistan.

To reach this conclusion – more a strategic determination than a prediction or even a recommendation- Friedman systematically analyzes each problem in its broad political and military dimensions, and then takes apart the “four permutations” (fight/fight, flee/flee, fight/flee, flee/fight) of the major decisions that, in his opinion, Obama cannot delay any longer, since in each case delay itself will increasingly amount to having made the choice in effect to flee (withdraw, retreat, surrender, acquiesce, etc.).

Up until recently, the betting has been in the opposite direction:  Obama policy has seemed to consist of “fight” in Afghanistan combined with the equivalent of “flight” from any confrontation with Iran.  The former was Obama’s express commitment going back to the presidential campaign and resting on years of Democratic criticism, as re-affirmed repeatedly since the inauguration.  As for Iran, Obama has seemed willing or even determined to temporize to the point of giving in on a nuclear Iran unless Israeli action or some other event substantially alters the situation.

More could be said about Friedman’s assumptions and analysis, but for now I’ll just point to a paragraph that touches directly on a point discussed under the last CotD.  Here’s Friedman’s encapsulation of Iran’s strategic position and main objectives vis-a-vis the U.S.:

In Iran, Ahmadinejad clearly perceives that challenging Obama is low-risk and high reward. If he can finally demonstrate that the United States is unwilling to take military action regardless of provocations, his own domestic situation improves dramatically, his relationship with the Russians deepens, and most important, his regional influence — and menace — surges. If Obama accepts Iranian nukes without serious sanctions or military actions, the American position in the Islamic world will decline dramatically. The Arab states in the region rely on the United States to protect them from Iran, so U.S. acquiescence in the face of Iranian nuclear weapons would reshape U.S. relations in the region far more than a hundred Cairo speeches.

I find the above to be a nicely stated summary that gets at the shape of the threat instead of fixating on arbitrary or unlikely scenarios.

h/t:  Powerline Blog


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40 comments on “A Unique Take on Obama's Dual Crisis

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  1. Can we be so sure that an attack on Iran would be commitment free? The neocon premise that Iran is in fact a prison house of ethnicities abutting not only each other but a covetous Russian quasi-empire as well as various Sunni Muslim entities implies that even a successful bombing plus regime change would leave us with a basket of obligations toward a basket case of a region.

    I wonder if even John Bolton, much as I sympathize with him, has thought this through.

  2. Given O-Slash’s sagging base and contentious domestic issues, and, given his hope and change personality which will always excuse inaction with lofty and boring rhetoric, I doubt our Mister Peanut of a President will do much of anything.

  3. Yes, it is a nicely stated summary. Ahmadinejad and the mullahs have been pushing for years and gotten little resistance from the US. Military intervention was never really an option, but I think Bush did less than he could have.

    We have a military presence in two countries that neighbor Iran, but no will to deter. Just stacking up the vulnerabilities, the Afghan strategy is critical, but politics and the Olympics must come first.

  4. Iran has a stew of ethnicities, and some are highly loyal to the Ayatollah. However, as in Iraq rather than Afghanistan, there is at least a strong minority of well-educated citizens.

    As Seth notes, it would be enormously difficult to undertake now in Iran what we did in Iraq. However, this is not a task that will get easier if we wait to do it. We have already waited past the “easy” point, and we are close to the tipping point at which a tyranny becomes not only dangerous to its own subjects but also a threat to others. A nuclear Iran with missiles that reach Israel and Europe fits the bill. In that case, postponing attack simply means increasing their advantage and decreasing ours.

    By removing the missile defense from Poland and the Czech Republic, Obama has signalled to Iran and its friend Russia his lack of concern with future developments.

    Of course, as Barbara notes, Obama is tackling the really important things–going to Copenhagen. Although if no differences divide us, why should he champion Chicago above Rio?

  5. Just to be clear, Friedman isn’t arguing for an invasion of Iran, but rather for a strike (actually a short campaign) and whatever mop-up, aimed at eliminating its nuclear potential for the foreseeable future and containing any retaliation. Regime change, if any, might well follow, but would be up to the Iranians. As to whether it would really be “commitment-free,” a US effort to influence the shape of subsequent events wouldn’t have to require an invasion.

    A successful campaign against Iran also wouldn’t necessarily require withdrawal from Afghanistan, but Friedman is obviously very pessimistic about the prospects there.

  6. Margo, the missile bases in Poland really don’t have a dang thing to do with an in Iran that’s a problem for right now, does it?
    If, as you say, where at crisis point because of all the past activity, what good would building for ten years later be?
    isn’t the situation so urgent that Obama hasn’t time to take a nap (WWRRD) let alone take a day trip for other business?

  7. Chicago can deliver The Presidency in ’12 just as it did for JFK. Acorn learned how to rock the vote with dead people and moved people in Chicago.

  8. @fuster – the main form of retaliation that concerns Friedman would be in the Persian Gulf. You don’t need to invade Iran to deal with the threat to shipping. As for other forms of retaliation, a US that was willing to bust up the place would also have a much more credible deterrent against more ambitious mischief-making – more Dirty Harry, less

    .

  9. @CK MacLeod – You should be more careful about putting up hilariously bad music unless you’re trying to please that Texas gal. If you are, maybe you should find Barry White and the Berlin Philharmonic’s version of this ditty.

    I think that, as much as I would like to bomb the blather out of the theocrats, it would hurt us more than help at this point.
    Down the road a little there might be more room for the boom-boom.

  10. If Iran can build nuclear weapons and IRBMs it can build naval mines that will deny use of the Straits of Hormuz for a long time and that will require a major naval effort to clear.

    If Iran has put any serious effort into mine warfare (as they apparently have by the looks of what I found with a quick google search) any intervention will be damaging to the world economy on a scale that will make Iraq look like a day in the park.

  11. Sully, the main check on such action would or should be prospects for the regime’s own survival.

    Every time I read somebody discussing the possible fallout out of a strike on Iran, I see the price of oil upped another $100/barrel. A couple of weeks ago, it was $300/barrel. A few days ago, it was $400. Today I just read someone predicting $500. All of that presumes that Iran’s reaction to being struck is to cut off its nose to spite its face.

    All of this is theoretical – assuming a bizarro world in which American generals and politicians are willing to take risks and fear escalation less than their adversaries – so let me put it fancifully: If Julius Caesar was president, Iran wouldn’t dare mine the Strait of Hormuz, even if it wanted to, because Julius Caesar would say “if you drive the price of oil to $500/barrel, I’m going to annihilate your country, and plow radioactive salt in the fields.”

    Even without President other-JC on the other side, the Iranians in the aftermath of a serious strike would have to worry about regime survival, including threats from within as well as from outside, and over the medium and long term as well as the short term. They’d have to engage in some kind of retaliation, and they’re nutty enough to do all sorts of nose-cuttings, but, if they go too far, the odds greatly increase that there won’t be very much of the “Revolutionary Islamic Republic” left over after everything’s shaken out.

    In the end, I think that’s where this is heading sooner or later – at least by the odds. The main question is when and at how much cost.

  12. @fuster – I think there’s a wide range of possibilities, including the one outlined by Amir Taheri (no softy on Iran) that Iran, in line with fatwas including ones by Khamenei against nuclear weapons, would take the program all the way up to pre-weaponization, all the while milking Western cowardice for all its worth. As I’ve stated several times, in many ways they’re getting everything they could want from having nukes without actually building them.

    It’s not in their method or part of their identity to appear to cave in, though they did, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war under Khomeini, show a willingness to accept realism as the better part of insane commitment to martyrdom. As others have pointed out, the legitimacy crisis appears to have hardened their position, given them less “wiggle room.”

    The Yom Kippur launches and A-jad’s intensifying antisemitic irascibility seem to suggest that they’re still banking credibility at our expense. Unless faced with a truly dire threat, or with what the late Les Aspin used to call “compellance,” why shouldn’t they play things out? Put to the test, for instance, the unwieldy coalition that would be needed to enforce “severe, crippling” sanctions? If the sanctions regime broke down, then they could have their regional hegemony and eat it, too.

  13. CK – “If Julius Caesar was president, Iran wouldn’t dare mine the Strait of Hormuz”

    The whole argument about Iran getting nukes is premised on the possibility that the mullahs will at worst attack Israel (certain result – national suicide – at least in my opinion) or at best use that capability to overawe their nearby neighbors and thus substantially control all of the mideast oil for a time even as they set off a nuke building spree by everybody in the region that will make the world interesting indeed. Neither of those actions would be the work of folks not willing to risk big.

    Plus, I don’t think there is any leader currently on the scene who would threaten to annihilate Iran in retaliation for a merely economic catastrophe. And I think gaining credibility for that threat would be unlikely in any event. People just don’t think in a way likely to attach much credence to such a threat, especially mullahs who walk to the mosque.

    As to the varying oil price predictions they’re probably generated by the fact that no one can predict with any certainty how the world economy would react to a big and likely long oil price rise and the speed with which alternatives could be developed.

    A point I didn’t make in the previous comment is that all other Iranian mischief making capabilities are trivial next to the ability to block that strait.

  14. Watch for it. It will be the North Korean tunnels all over again. Iran will kick and scratch and then let UN inspectors in to eyeball the undergound chamber(s) at Qom, and they will be found to be…empty.

    There are no WMD in Iran.

  15. Mining the SOH is an act of war by international convention. Doing it is a decision to declare war and invite retaliation. Until the US Navy and Air Force pack up and leave the Gulf, Iran will think more than twice about such a decision.

  16. @Sully – Iran as we know it is locked into an expansionist mode. It can’t change course any easier than Adolf Hitler could have decided to bank his gains ca. May 1941 and call it a splendid career, just to give one famous road not taken. I’ve stated that Obama lacks a regime change stance, but in a broad sense that’s not accurate: He’s pursuing a policy that implies regime change in the sense of a fundamental change in the character of the regime from revolutionary Islamist to world citizen in good standing. Iran can’t change course without changing itself fundamentally.

    I don’t agree, incidentally, that the argument for pre-emption by any means necessary is contingent on a security for Israel argument, though Israel’s concerns are certainly a major part of any realistic calculation.

    I think Iran will keep on going until it discovers that it’s gone too far – where that point is is very hard to predict – and then it will be beaten up, badly.

    I also think that if Iran does obtain a real nuclear arsenal, there is a good chance that it will find itself constrained – and changed – in ways that the radicals will not enjoy.

  17. I also think that if Iran does obtain a real nuclear arsenal, there is a good chance that it will find itself constrained – and changed – in ways that the radicals will not enjoy.

    Can you expand on that, CKM? The thing is, I don’t see a nuclear-armed Iran as being any more constrained by the deterrent power of others than the current, non-nuclear-armed Iran.

    Certainly the USSR never was. Becoming a nuclear power did not make the Soviet Union stop fomenting Marxist insurrection elsewhere, or make it stop seeking to subjugate the Third World periphery in avowed geopolitical opposition to the West. I don’t see any area of Iran’s actual aspirations in which she would be constrained by having nuclear weapons, as opposed to emboldened.

  18. JED – “Mining the SOH is an act of war by international convention. ”

    What a quaint notion in an era when our president just gave a speech pretty much making the NATO and SEATO treaties dead letters.

    I’m trying to visualize how the New York Times will describe that convention without calling it “a scrap of paper;” assuming that there is an adult in charge of editorial when the story is ready to be cleared for publication.

    The Iranians have apparently been sending explosively formed projectile weapons to be used against our troops in Iraq, and they have been sending aid to Hezbollah to foment the death of Israelis, not to mention the unpleasantness back in Carter’s day. I’m not sure I see how violating an arcane scrap of paper will necessarily qualify as a more stark act of war. Then too there is the question of whether, absent a president very determined and international minded like HW Bush, who probably traded away his electability in promising the give up of his no new taxes pledge, it will be possible to muster a majority vote in congress.

    A third or more of Obama’s party would view the closing of the strait and a resultant long global recession as a healthy thing on the CO2 emissions/alternative energy development front, for one thing. And the constituents of a lot of farming state senators would find themselves in an interesting conflict of interest position as ethanol and thus grain prices shot through the roof. ‘Tis true that all would have to tsk, tsk mightily about starving third world masses on the way to the Starbucks and the bank respectively; but some things must simply be borne.

  19. Sully — your point is well taken, but as the discussion has already outlined, more of the world would be galvanized by an Iranian act of war in the SOH, than gives a flying you-know-what about Iranian proxy armament in Iraq or Afghanistan (or Lebanon or Israel, for that matter).

    Mining the SOH is still a scenario in which unassailable pretext and unified will are likely to come together and produce useful action by the international community.

    As much as it entails, moreover, it’s still too small and simple a task for the US Navy (not any other) to force open the SOH and keep it that way, for the prospect to scare off OSlash. It can be done without him having to display a lot of “will.” Couple that with the fact that doing it would keep our pesky allies off his back, and that NOT doing it would really frost the American people — even Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd — and you have the perfect Heroic Scenario for The One.

  20. @J.E. Dyer – read it, highly informative as usual – but not very optimistic! If we were determined to maintain or re-gain our strategic footing, we’d go either the Friedman route of fight/flee or the hawk route of fight/fight, but your analysis seems to suggest that we’re better than halfway to flee/flee anyway.

  21. CKM — What I’d say is we have to evaluate the options, including Friedman’s, in light of reality. Which is that we don’t have a free hand in Asia, nor do we have automatic fealty to our strategic lead from even Japan, much less India, Pakistan, China, or Russia.

    I’m not suggesting you (or Friedman) thought we did. He’s generally looking at things pretty comprehensively. But I think even Friedman has not taken into account the latitude Russia and China both derive from a Japan looking to consolidate Asian ties, and increasingly wary of going out on a limb with the US.

    Friedman’s is a strategic proposal that stands or falls on its execution, and the reality of our situation in Asia complicates that as well as making it more critical. What he proposes is feasible, in the abstract — but not with OSlash in charge. It’s something another president might pull off. But we haven’t got the one who could in office.

    That said, do I think we should cut and run from Afghanistan and strike Iran? Certainly I’ve thought of it. The situation in Afghanistan, in my estimation, requires more resources than Americans are willing to put into it. This is NOT because our troops can’t defeat the Taliban, it’s because the whole effort is so vulnerable to interdiction.

    Russia does not want us to consolidate an integral, independent, Western-oriented Afghanistan that is not beholden to Russia. Russia will let us fight the Taliban for her, but Russia won’t let us achieve a truly liberal-democratic Afghanistan with genuine independence of Central Asian oligarchic patterns. That is a fact that we cannot change, period.

    So Russia will sabotage the effort to do that through being Karzai’s best buddy, through continuously advancing the “alternative” of a Russian-brokered, SCO/Asian power-approved solution for Afghanistan, and through getting herself in the middle of our alliance, and convincing the allies (who function as the boundaries of what we can do) that Russia is the the “key” to the whole thing.

    Honestly, I think some of the advice OSlash is probably getting right now runs along exactly these lines. There are plenty of people who can see this. The new slogan about Karzai’s corruption, and how that’s making us rethink our priorities, is way too simplistic for, at the very least, Richard Holbrooke. There are other factors at work, and people who recognize them.

    My guess is that OSlash is looking for the way to disengage from Afghanistan, and promise her by implication to Russia, or at least hold that as a bargaining chip. There are different ways to approach this same thought without the “realism” emerging as quite so simplistic and cynical — and the idea is not wholly without merit. I would expect OSlash to botch the execution completely, however.

    Afghanistan was never “the” war we needed to fight. That’s the basic truth. After years of insisting that it was, however, OSlash is owed no apologies by anyone else for being left to figure out how to exit gracefully.

  22. BTW – since I see Japan coming up a lot more lately, here’s a link to an analysis of the economic challenges that the the new government there is facing. Despite the dateline, it was originally published a week or so ago. I was thinking of including an excerpt in a CotD – it was one of those bearish articles I was reading when I instead put up that “bull of bulls” call.

    http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2009/09/andy-xie-what-we-can-learn-as-japans-economy-sinks/

    Aside from the intrinsic interest, the article brings up the “best-laid plans” aspect of the machinations of Russia, China, Japan, and others. We’re hardly the only ones who’ve been dealt an imperfect hand, or with difficult adjustments to be concerned about.

    I persuaded myself over the course of a few weeks that politically as well as strategically, there was no choice but to support full implementation of the McChrystal plan – even if you were skeptical about it. As for Iran, if you accept that Iran going nuclear would be a significant and possibly irretrievable strategic setback, and that it’s approaching some point of no return on effective military action, then maybe you have to support action to prevent that from occurring, including a military strike, even one handled less than optimally by the Obami.

    After all, even if Obama couldn’t be expected to handle all of the details as well as President Julius, the main operation would be handled by others.

  23. JED,
    I’m reassured that you’re confident the Navy can handle mining in the strait. I never doubted that given time it can. The key question is how long the tankers would be held up. By a quick check 20%+ of the world’s oil comes out through that strait. I suspect that even a few weeks, and certainly a few months, of no oil from the gulf would throw the world economy for a real loop even putting aside prices, by reason of scarcity and likely rationing which would be clumsy at best as all hasty governmental actions are.

    Operation Endsweep in Haiphong Harbor apparently wasn’t continuous so perhaps it could have been quicker; but it lasted five months. And there we were sweeping our own well understood mines.

    Re enemy planted mines, I understand that an amphib operation in Kuwait was in part ruled out due to the difficulty expected in clearing an Iraqi laid field. And, I believe we had a ship disabled by one of those mines.

  24. @CK MacLeod
    Dear Tsar: The 0bami were planning to delegate these things (Iran & Afghanistan) to The Acornicks, now under investigation, so, now, they are at a loss what to do.

    He considered sending a delegation of Chicago Aldermen over there, but they demanded so much in bribes that the plan had to be scrapped.

  25. Sully — the SOH waters are international, as opposed to being a harbor or territorial waters. If you’ve ever transited the SOH you’ll understand the extreme difficulty any mining force would encounter, of laying a comprehensive minefield undetected. Actually, let me rephrase that. The impossibility of laying a comprehensive minefield undetected.

    What Iran can do undetected is put out floating mines with dhows and small boats, and perhaps get a tethered influence mine or two into a traffic channel. To think Iran can do more than that, we must assume absolute quiescence on the part of everyone else. The US Navy would have to know it was happening (and we would) and not do anything about it.

    You won’t be surprised, I imagine, to learn that there are plans ready to implement for dealing with the mining of the SOH. The US doesn’t keep our premier mine-countermeasure forces in the Gulf, but the Gulf Cooperation Council navies have all improved their anti-mine forces significantly in the last 15 years, and between them, our own deployed forces’ capabilities, and the rotating mine warfare forces of our European allies (primarily the Brits and Dutch), there is a good coalition capability in-theater.

    Escorting merchants through cleared channels is the immediate measure to keep traffic going, and that, again, is an effort for which there is a coalition plan. The Saudis, Emiratis, Omanis, etc would provide escorts along with the Western navies.

    The real issue — the potential hard spot — would be taking action against Iran to prevent further mining. Operation Praying Mantis filled that role in 1988, but the question would be what OSlash was willing to authorize, and whether his idea of counterattack would make Iran sit down and shut up.

    But if he were willing to take effective action, the forces are on-station, and the plans in place, to do that. Iran could achieve only a brief interruption of commercial traffic through the SOH, if we took prompt and decisive action. It’s only if we turned a blind eye to obvious preparatory activity, or let a vulnerable situation for commercial traffic drag on and on, that Iran could do more. It all depends on us.

  26. JE,
    Perhaps I’m more imaginative than the Iranians on the subject of mines. I hope so, or else the Navy would have to be prepared on an instant to destroy every small boat or semi-submersible capable of a 56 mile range that puts out to sea along a very long stretch of coast.

    And, perhaps I’m too pessimistic about the willingness of civilian crews to transit a possible minefield.

  27. That’s the thing, Sully: the US just has to be prepared to destroy other things the Iranians can’t tolerate losing. We don’t have to look for every little boat straying into the SOH. You never fight symmetrically if you can help it.

    This is a case where if they send one of ours to the hospital, we send ten of theirs to the morgue. One mine strike should prompt a major strike on Iran’s navy, air force, and military infrastructure in the south. Blind ’em and knock all their teeth out, so to speak. They’ll stop laying mines.

    What you’re envisioning is an environment in which we don’t ratchet up the pain on Iran, but just go into a defensive crouch. If that does happen, shipping will be stymied in the SOH. But that’s a political decision, not anything dictated by our military capabilities. One carrier airwing and two Tomahawk-equipped destroyers could sink 90% of Iran’s navy at the pier, kill most of their southern-deployed tactical aircraft and disable their airbases, blow up most of their ammo and take out their early warning radars and their anti-air missile sites — in 24 to 36 hours.

    Never, ever, ever fight a mine war symmetrically. Words to live by.

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