Friday, January 12, 2007

It's One Thing to Flirt With Madness, but When Madness Starts Flirting Back?

"I call it the madman theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I've reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that, 'for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry -- and he has his hand on the nuclear button' -- and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

Richard Nixon to H.R. Haldeman, 1969 (via TCR)

It's long been my contention that the vast majority of the Iran/Syria related bellicosity emanating from the White House over the past three years has been hollow saber rattling of one form or another. Roughly a year into the invasion of Iraq it became apparent to most observers (even in the White House) that our military options vis-a-vis Iran (and Syria to a lesser extent) were severely limited.

For one, our sizable and enduring military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan have limited our ability to take similar action against Iran/Syria. Not to mention the fact that Iran has a wide range of retaliatory options available - a menu made broader by the convenient proximity of so many American personnel right next door in Iraq (as well as a largely sympathetic Shiite faction in a hegemonic position in Iraq). Taking action against Syria, though perhaps less problematic than with respect to Iran, would nevertheless open a pandora's box of potential regional destabilizations that we might not be able to contain (the usurpers of Assad, for example, would be far more hostile to our interests).

With those limitations in mind, the repeated threats (both veiled and overt), and consistent maintenance of a generally hostile posture, can mostly be interpreted in two ways (with various power nodes within the administration probably pursuing varying strategies in this regard):

First, the bluster can be seen as an attempt to augment the perception in Iranian/Syrian eyes that we still have a military capability to be reckoned with. This would be useful in order to compel Iran/Syria to offer better terms and concessions at the negotiating table. The problem with this reading is that those in favor of opening talks with Iran/Syria have thus far been unable to convince the President of the wisdom of this course. So to the extent that some Bush administration officials have been seeking to bolster our hand in negotiations by assuming a - somewhat hollow - threatening posture, the next step in this two-part strategy remains elusive. This renders phase one utterly counterproductive.

Second, there are elements (prominent ones, supported by forces like Cheney) that actually want military confrontation with Iran/Syria. So some of the heated rhetoric and associated provocations are indicative of a legitimate strategy to spark a war. Still, despite these belligerent intentions, Bush has thus far resisted commencing the final countdown, so to speak. At the end of the day, most high ranking military officials (including new Defense Secretary Gates) counseling Bush are most likely reminding him, repeatedly, that such an widening of the conflict could lead to an unprecedented catastrophe.

Due to the simultaneous pursuit of these diverging strategies, all we have been left with is an incoherent and muddled policy that juts out in various directions in fits and spurts: full of hostile rhetoric and provocation, yet without any discernible means or will to follow either course to fruition or productive resolution. All bad cop, no good cop. All preparation, no realization.

That being said, the flirtation with madness has taken on some truly ominous shades as of late. This is either the result of masterful subterfuge undertaken as a prelude to negotiations (now, from a position of perceived strength), the actual build up to war or, in the alternative, still more outward manifestations of the near-paralytic internal divisions in the White House's policy making apparatus.

Steve Clemons yesterday offered a chilling bit of information:

Washington intelligence, military and foreign policy circles are abuzz today with speculation that the President, yesterday or in recent days, sent a secret Executive Order to the Secretary of Defense and to the Director of the CIA to launch military operations against Syria and Iran.

The President may have started a new secret, informal war against Syria and Iran without the consent of Congress or any broad discussion with the country.
That rather bold prediction comes in the context of several other actions, warnings and rhetorical escalations that seem to lend support to the most dire reading of events. There was the seizure of Iranian officials in Southern Iraq weeks ago, the storming of the Iranian consulate (lesser diplomatic outpost?) and capture of five Iranian citizens in Kurdistan, an inflammatory speech by President Bush on Wednesday, the appointment of a Navy man (well versed in the use of air power) to head CENTCOM, and some other military moves that would normally complement the preparation for war. Steve Clemons, again, this time quoting Flynt Leverett:

The deployment of a second carrier strike group to the theater -- confirmed in the speech -- is clearly directed against Iran. Since, in contrast to previous U.S. air campaigns in the Gulf, military planners developing contingencies for striking target sets in Iran must assume that the United States would not be able to use land-based air assets in theater (because of political opposition in the region), they are surely positing a force posture of at least two, and possible three carrier strike groups to provide the necessary numbers and variety of tactical aircraft.

Similarly, the President's announcement that additional Patriot batteries would go to the Gulf is clearly directed against Iran. We have previously deployed Patriot batteries to the region to deal with the Iraqi SCUD threat. Today, the only missile threat in the region for the Patriot to address is posed, at least theoretically, by Iran's Shihab-3.
On top of that, Garanace Franke-Ruta passes along some unsettling rumors that argue that the extra troops in Iraq resulting from the surge will be tasked with the mission of protecting the vulnerable military supply lines that stretch through southern Iraq that would be targeted pursuant an eventual strike on Iran. More preparations for war?

I readily admit that at least part of my assessment of the situation, and conclusion that confrontation with Iran/Syria is not in the cards, is born out of hope and necessity: the results from such a widening of the conflict could be near-cataclysmic. As such, I have put faith in the notion that even President Bush must appreciate this fact and thus avoid launching such attacks - even if, at times, his state of indecisiveness and desire to confront Syria and Iran lead to a schizophrenic translation into policy.

Still, I am growing increasingly worried that Bush might just be foolish and desperate enough to do the unthinkable. There are certainly enough committed zealots in his inner circle that would counsel him to act so rashly. Or at the very least, blunder his way into a regional war.

Doing so under any circumstances, however, would truly signify the all out madness of King George.

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