Monday, January 29, 2007

Into the Great Unknown Unknowns we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.

Donald Rumsfeld, February 12, 2002

In the run-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration's civilian leadership in the Pentagon, as well as their innumerable supporters in the commentariat, ridiculed any pundit, politician or four star general (in the case of Eric Shinseki) who dared to cast doubt on the ease with which our military could invade, pacify and exert effective control over the nation of Iraq and its expansive territory.

Those that doubted the war plan were denigrated as naive, ignorant, defeatist and, to quote Paul Wolfowitz, "wildly off the mark" in their overly cautious assessments. These Cassandras just didn't grasp the situation with the same acuity as the Vulcans, headed by the grand vizier, and sagacious balance to Bush's inexperience in foreign affairs, Dick Cheney. Yet without the slightest bit of self consciousness or chagrin, many of these same people chastised those that later went on to accurately describe the difficulties we were facing from multiple insurgencies and ever-increasing sectarian bloodshed post-invasion as...get this: naive, ignorant and defeatist.

These "naysayers" were now being criticized for stating the obvious, and in so doing, failing to grasp an elementary feature of warfare: that, to paraphrase Clausewitz (as many took to doing), "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy." You see, it was unrealistic to expect things to go as well as advertised. Wars never work out as planned - remember World War II, Normandy, etc. Silly malcontents, there are known unknowns. Everybody knows that.

More recently (back in early August for some), war supporters have sought refuge in the argument that war opponents failed to predict, with exacting specificity, the precise ways in which the campaign would unravel. It wasn't enough to argue in general terms about the weakness of the overall strategy, because absent 20/20 foresight, such admonitions were worthless. Future "Deciders" should pay no heed. Opponents to subsequent wars should not be considered prescient when suggesting that there are unknown unknowns, that unintended consequences and hardships are inevitable, and that these should be factored into the decision making progress. Clausewitz who?

I describe the meandering contradictions punctuating this evolving narrative in order to suggest a more rigorous, measured approach to analyzing some recent wildly optimistic predictions about what might ensue should we opt to militarily confront Iran in the near future. Arthur Herman's op-ed in the New York Post offers a useful instructive:

The conventional wisdom is that there are "no good [military] options" in dealing with Iran. Most commentators see one of two scenarios, both nightmares: a large, bloody and expensive ground invasion and occupation that would cause oil to spike through the roof or a months long aerial bombardment of Iran's estimated 1,500 nuclear-related targets that would trigger a worldwide terrorist backlash. (Alternately, the Israelis could do it for us and set the Middle East ablaze.)

Yet there is a third option, of which our show of force with two carrier groups could be the opening move: a naval and air campaign to topple the ayatollahs without a single U.S. soldier's setting foot on Iranian soil.

This is not unprecedented. Although the public never noticed, the U.S. Navy accomplished much the same thing during the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran tried to fire on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in 1987-8. The Navy managed both to destroy the Iranian navy and to protect shipping in the Gulf to keep the world economy stable. This time, we can finish the job we started during the so-called Tanker War.
Ah yes, when Iran was embroiled in the final year an immensely destructive and draining war that lasted almost a decade (a conflict that cost Iran over half a million people) we were able to neutralize Iran's naval aggression. So, therefore, we should be able to repeat that feat now - actually, build on it in order to "finish the job." The context and prevailing dynamic aren't any different are they?

Along those lines, there is no mention from Herman of the vulnerability of our long, overexposed supply lines stretching through southern, Iran-friendly Iraq that over 150,000 US troops now rely upon for their well being. No regard for the proximity of US forces in Iraq and the attractiveness such a target provides - especially in a country in which Iran has many allies and militia elements sworn to retaliate on behalf of any attack on their Shiite "brethren." And that's just counting members of the current Iraqi government. In fact, the full panoply of Iran's retaliatory capacity is breezily dismissed with little more than a shrug, wink and a little pollyanish bravado. Reminds me of the type of pre-Iraq war-gaming that so confounded Marine General Paul Van Riper: a mixture of best case scenario planning and disregard of the enemy's ability to strike back.

Herman goes on to describe some specific military actions that would form part of a carefully orchestrated operation that culminates in a rather audacious crescendo:

The second step would be what military analysts call an "Effects-Based Operation," as Air Force and Navy planes target Iran's extremely vulnerable military and economic infrastructure, including electrical grid, transportation links, gasoline refineries, port facilities and suspected nuclear sites.

Next would come Special Ops and airborne attacks to seize Iran's main oil-pumping station at Kargh Island and capture or neutralize its offshore oil facilities. This would be an enhanced version of what Navy Seal teams pulled off in the 1988 Tanker War with no more than an airborne and a Marine brigade - fewer troops than in the surge planned for Iraq.

In a matter of days or weeks, the key components of the Iranian oil industry could be in American hands as Iran ground to a halt.

This would not only keep Iranian crude oil flowing to the world's economy. It would also safeguard Russia's and China's investments in Iran's energy industry, which would help line them up in our corner.

Is such a plan farfetched? Would it cause a Middle East meltdown?

No, Iran is uniquely vulnerable to this kind of campaign, as Iraq was during the first Gulf War...

Here we see that Herman's "battle plan" didn't even survive contact with the seventh paragraph of a brief op-ed. His claim that success would be attainable "without a single U.S. soldier's setting foot on Iranian soil" is refuted by Herman himself urging, instead, the deployment of "an airborne and Marine brigade." That was fast. And unrealistic. Keep in mind, in Herman's rose tinted world, we could seize and hold the vital assets of Iran's oil industry with little more than two brigades. Until, of course, we need a surge to guarantee victory. Sound familiar?

To his credit, Herman doesn't equate the ruling Iranian regime to Hitler's Germany as many urging war with Iran are wont to do. Unfortunately, we get the considerably less emotionally charged, though still regrettable, comparison to Mussolini's Italy. As in the case of its more venomous cousin on the Godwin side of the family tree, this analogy is enlisted to support rather fantastical conclusions:

Their regime is often compared to Hitler's Germany, but a more accurate comparison is to Mussolini's Italy. Beneath the bluster and bravado, the goose-stepping Revolutionary Guards, the threats of apocalypse and the coming of the Twelfth Imam, Iran is a weak and deeply divided regime. [...]

The mullahs know their collapse means opportunity for their Iranian democratic opponents - who, unlike Iraqis, are not divided along ethnic or religious lines. When the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, instead of rallying around Mussolini, Italians took the first opportunity to topple him. Iranians may well do the same. [emphasis mine throughout]

Despite the weakness and division in Iranian political and cultural spheres, documented recently in Laura Secor's must read article, an attack is somehow the best means to deal with an...ascendant Iran, intent on acting the part of regional hegemon? Not exactly a consistent forecast. Further, regardless of the overwhelming tendency of people to rally around the flag when attacked by outsiders, and despite Herman's call to essentially starve Iranians of their economic lifeblood and target civilian infrastructure such as the electrical grid, the people will somehow rise up and depose the ruling regime. Candies and flowers to follow, no doubt.

Nothing like a ravaged infrastructure to endear you to the people. Forget Italy circa World War II, how did that type of magical thinking serve Israel in its confrontation with Hezbollah this past summer? For those keeping score, that is now a known known.

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