Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, August 27, 2004
So I got into a discussion with Randall Parker at Parapundit about the Iraq war and Iran, and I wound up writing so much that I thought I'd adapt my comments into a post here.

Randall posted about the continued war in Iraq, and asked when the level of attacks will drop significantly? By way of response, one of his readers said: only when we topple the government of Iran. That, I think, must be counted a pessimistic answer, because the Iranian government is stronger than Michael Ledeen and friends think.

At this point, if there were a significant popular revolt, I think China circa 1989 is a more likely outcome than Russia circa 1991. Those neo-cons who take the fall of the Soviets as emblematic of how tyrannies collapse are missing several key points.

First, the Soviet Empire in Europe was held together almost entirely by force. And once the Berlin Wall fell and the Poles had their revolution, the Soviet state was revealed as a paper tiger. This, in turn, dramatically emboldened domestic opponents of the Soviet regime. There's no clear analogy to Iran; they have no empire of captive nations whose liberation could create a crisis of confidence in the metropole. The only remote analogy that I can think of is to the terrorist groups like Hezbollah that Iran sponsors. If the U.S. were to attack the terror camps in Lebanon, the Iranian regime would have to respond somehow, which *might* create a minor crisis. But, while I used to tout this idea, the more I think about it the more it seems like an unlikely bank-shot. If we try to take out Hezbollah, it should be because we're worried about Hezbollah or because Hezbollah is helping al-Qaeda, not because we think it'll have some kind of trigger effect elsewhere.

Second, Gorbachev was too civilized to do what was necessary to keep the Soviet Union intact. How do you think Yuri Andropov would have dealt with Boris Yeltsin? For that matter, how do you think Putin would have dealt with him? The denuement of the Cold War could have worked out rather differently with different leadership at the top - the Soviets would still have had to abandon the Cold War, which was bankrupting them, but they might have held on to power in Russia, and held on to non-Russian territories like Ukraine, for a lot longer. In any event, I think the mullahs are fully ruthless enough to do what is necessary to retain power. The only thing that could change the equation that I can think of is the reaction of the Iranian army to a true uprising (in China in 1989, there were rumors at one point that different Chinese armies were shooting at each other; had any significant faction in the military sided with the students, the outcome in China might have been rather different).

Third, the leadership of the Soviet Union by Brezhnev's day no longer believed in the revolution in any meaningful sense. It wasn't just that the people were fed up with the system (and that had been true for a very long time by 1991) and viewed it cynically, but that the leadership was sclerotic and lacked faith itself. Gorbachev was chosen as a new type of Soviet leader precisely because he looked like he could restore faith in a transparently dying system by reforming it. Precisely because there was so little faith left in the Soviet Union, reactionary elements that might have acted to preserve it did not act decisively early enough or vigorously enough when they did act (remember the coup against Gorbachev?). So what's the situation in Iran? The leadership quite clearly still believes in the system and in the revolution. There is no charismatic anti-regime leader like Yeltsin or Walesa around which opposition can coalesce and which the regime would be leery of confronting directly. Moreover, the regime - rightly - views the United States as having plans to topple them from power. Given the patriotism of the Iranian people, that makes it very hard for us to separate them from the people by any forceful action, and if we take all military options off the table then what stops the regime from crushing the people by force the way Saddam did to his people in 1991, the way the Chinese regime did to the students in 1989, etc. etc.?

Iran is a very difficult challenge. We can't let them get nukes. But military action to prevent that would almost certainly drive the Iranian people to *support* the regime, against America. And, as noted above, I'm unconvinced that "encouragement" of domestic opponents of the regime will have any meaningful effect until the regime leadership itself loses confidence. Anyhow there were more signs of strong opposition two years ago than there are today.

Sp: how long will the attacks go on? Until someone wins. This is a civil war as well as a war against the occupying power. Allawi is trying to consolidate his power in the Sunni heartland versus rival clans. Part of the way he's doing this is by crushing the Shiite opposition in the south. The Shiites in the south generally are fighting not to be crushed by the historically-dominant Sunnis. But they are also engaged in their own mini civil war. Al-Sadr needs to provoke a crisis that unites the Shiites behind him. So his interests are kind of the same as Allawi's in that both of them want a fight (albeit, of course, each needs the other to lose). Sistani is, I think, playing a longer-term game. He's old enough to know that the Shiites usually lose these power struggles. He probably understands that keeping the world invested in Iraq is good for the Shiites long-term, because it limits how repressive the Sunnis can be and makes it at least conceivable that Iraq becomes either more democratic or more federal in character, either of which means more power and independence for the Shiites. But he (understandably) doesn't trust the Americans and knows that siding with us openly is a one-way ticket to irrelevance in Iraqi politics. So he's the one player with an interest in averting open conflict, but his ability to prevent it is acutely limited. In any event, I don't know how this multi-sided civil war ends until it reaches some kind of stable solution. Even if Iran stepped out of the picture, the internal dynamics would remain (albeit if one power with an interest in continued instability in the country were removed from the game, the chances of reaching a stable solution would of course go up).

Randall asked: hasn't the war with Iraq made it harder to deal with Iran? I think the record is mixed, but on the whole not positive. On the one hand, the clearer it is that we're sticking it out in Iraq, the more serious anyone has to take our threats. Our current election is crucial in that regard; Kerry will be tested shortly after he's elected, because our enemies will want to know whether he will stand behind his predecessor's commitments. But there's a lot on the other side of the ledger as well. Not finding WMD makes it much, much harder. How much you want to blame Bush for that failure is really a function of (a) whether you think he deliberately sexed-up intelligence to make a case for a war he'd already decided on, or (b) consistently read ambiguous intelligence in the most alarming way because of a post-9-11 syndrome that says "better safe than sorry." If the former, it's all his fault. If the latter, I cut him some slack. There were, after all, some smart people outside the Team B gang who thought Saddam had an active nuclear weapons program, Ken Pollack, most prominently.

The current situation - a consequence of really atrocious pre-war planning for the post-war (which boils down, to a great extent, to over-reliance on Ahmad Chalabi as the source of all intelligence) - does make it tougher to take on Iran, 'cause we've got our hands full. But, we now have over 100,000 troops in Iraq, and we're building more bases in neighboring countries. And I think it would have been very difficult to take on Iran while leaving Saddam in place; assuming we needed to fight a full-scale war with Iran, we would have wound up fighting a rear-guard action against Iraq at the same time. I understand why Bush wanted to avoid that contingency, and take care of unfinished business first before thinking beyond that.

I think this is actually a big reason why Bush *did* focus on Iraq - not because it was the most important target but because it was the easiest one to take down. Kind of how Churchill talked about attacking Italy as the "soft underbelly" of the Axis. Historians still debate whether the Italian campaign was, in fact, a key part of the victory strategy or a massive diversion from the main event. Iraq, having no meaningful connection to al-Qaeda, no cooperation with Iran (the major terrorism sponsor in the region), no ties to any terrorist group that America really worried about (Abu Nidal does not count, sorry), and no WMD, was certainly not part of any "axis" of evil or otherwise. He was just unfinished business that Bush decided to deal with before moving on. Takin him out would show we meant business. This is John Derbyshire's take on the Iraq war, and I think it's a lot of Bush's, Cheney's and Rumsfeld's take. The whole Chalabi/democracy/cake-walk business just made the idea of taking down Saddam look a lot easier and to have a lot of potential collateral benefits. Turns out finishing that unfinished business created a whole bunch of new headaches instead.

Anyhow, all the reasons why it's hard to tackle Iran now would have been true then as well. The regime would have put up a tough fight then as now. They'd get more popular support after an American invasion then as now. Drumming up international support for such a war would have been extraordinarily difficult before the Iraq war, at least as hard as it was to drum up support for war with Iraq. And the post-war in Iran would have been difficult for different reasons than Iraq (Iran has a very different culture, a relatively unified ethnic base, a strong national identity, etc.) but it wouldn't have been a cakewalk. Iran is much bigger than Iraq, and much more populous. And who wants to go to war with them? I'm just skeptical that non-military solutions to the Iranian proliferation problem would have worked. Whether surgical air attacks could have set them back the way Israel set back Iraq ten years with their 1981 strike, I don't know. What the political effect of such a strike would have been in the pre-Iraq-war context, after (presumably) lots of diplomatic maneuvering to try to get them to disarm voluntarily, I don't know, but I doubt it would have toppled the regime and I doubt it would have gotten support internationally. This stuff is tough, much tougher than, I think, most of us thought before Iraq.

By the way, the same thing is true of North Korea, though for different reasons. North Korea would probably collapse quickly under military assault, unlike Iran. But they'd kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans in the process, and shred our system of collective security in Asia. Preemptive war against North Korea would definitely end the alliance with South Korea, and would make every other country in the region very scared of us. Which would push them into the arms of China. That's not exactly the outcome we want, which is why our hands are somewhat tied militarily over there. And this situation obtains with or without the Iraq war. I wrote a bunch of stuff on this back in late 2002, when I started to panic over Korea and wonder what on earth we were doing tackling Iraq when North Korea already *had* nukes, and was surely ready to sell to the highest bidder. But the more I thought about it, the harder it was to figure out what to do.

I wish I knew what to do about Iran or North Korea. Heck, I wish I knew what to do about Pakistan, which is a bigger threat than Iran and North Korea put together. Iran is actually a relatively rational enemy. I don't trust them. I don't want them getting nukes. I think it's worth risking war to prevent them from going nuclear. But in the end, they are relatively unlikely to give nukes to terrorists; they're more likely going to use nukes to deter us from fighting them as they wage proxy wars across the region to become the regional hegemon. Kind of like the Soviets did, on a smaller scale, but in a very important neighborhood. Nukes are the ultimate insurance policy against winding up like Saddam; once they have them, they'll harrass us and our allies in the region with impunity, and make us look like putzes. (Of course, the prospect of nuclear war with Israel goes up, but the Israelis do have a substantial nuclear deterrent of their own, and hopefully will get a real missile defense within a few years courtesy of us.) North Korea is a basket case; it just *might* be possible to keep them behaving well and not selling their nuclear technology by paying them a huge bribe, while putting a missile defense around Japan, interdicting and inspecting their shipping, and putting enough firepower offshore to wipe out their army in hours if they try anything. I'm not saying I like that solution, mind you, nor am I confident we could quarantine North Korea successfully. But it's better than the options we have with respect to Pakistan. Pakistan is already a nuclear power; has an intelligence service rife with al-Qaeda sympathizers; actually harbors a whole bunch of big-wig al-Qaeda types; is massively unstable, with a history of violent coups; and has sold nuclear technology to at least one other rogue state (North Korea). But it's a major non-NATO ally. Go figure. Anyone want to invade Pakistan? Not me. Anyone know what else to do about them? Not me.