Interesting Times: Abizaid's recipe for defeat

See the seedlings of democracy and moderation in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere driven deep underground.

September 28, 2007 19:44
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saul singer 88. (photo credit: )


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General John Abizaid, the general with regional command over the war in Iraq before the currently promising strategic overhaul led by General David Petraeus, recently shared some thoughts reminding us why he is not missed. "I believe that we have the power to deter Iran, should it become nuclear... Let's face it, we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China, and we're living with [other] nuclear powers as well." Rarely has the adage that generals always fight the last war been so blazingly confirmed. The idea that Iran can be deterred, just like the Soviet Union was, is so soothing and natural that there is good reason to believe that Abizaid reflects thinking common in Western security spheres. Such thinking arose not only in Robert Gates's writings before he was tapped to be defense secretary, but even in his Senate confirmation hearing. When asked about Iran's threats to "wipe Israel off the map," the senators probably expected him to explain why a nuclear Iran was unacceptable. Instead, Gates launched into a defense of Iranian nukes worthy of Teheran's own propaganda machine: "[Iran is] certainly pressing, in my opinion, for a nuclear capability, [but] I think that they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent. They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons - Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west, and us in the Persian Gulf." Apres Gates, the US and Iran are on one big happy deterrence merry-go-round. Like Abizaid, he seems to see Iranian nukes as an unfortunate development, but little more than a return to a manageable status quo ante, that of the Cold War. This is the normal state of the world, goes such thinking, not the post-Cold War hiatus from history. Grow up and get used to it, this school seems to be saying. IN REALITY, however, there is nothing normal about such thinking, unless you think it is normal for generals to assume their own defeat. As I have argued ("A war too long," Sept. 12), deterrence was a flawed strategy even in the Cold War context. In the current struggle with Islamofascism, it is even more of a mismatch, so much so that aiming for deterrence alone courts defeat. The reason for this is not just what many might expect, namely the possibility that Iran has a martyrdom complex. Abizaid directly discounts this, claiming that "Iran is not a suicide nation." To hardbitten soldiers like him, when Iranian mullahs call Israel a "one-bomb" country and openly say that Iran, by contrast, can absorb a nuclear attack, that's just rhetoric. The glorification of martyrdom, the apocalyptic ideology of the "last mahdi," all this is meaningless mumbo-jumbo not to be taken seriously. Again, this is somewhat odd thinking for a general, whose job it is to think about the unthinkable, such as worst-case scenarios. Would Abizaid have imagined that terrorists would fly airplanes full of people into buildings full of people before 9/11? Evidently, our imaginations do not always match those of our enemies, so it is perhaps foolhardy to dismiss strange ideologies (such as the Nazi "master race" concept) as mere rhetoric. In any event, military men are normally taught to pay attention to capabilities, rather than mirror-imaged projections of what seems rational to us. Even Abizaid tacitly admits that deterrence is no answer to a suicide nation. But we should not get caught up in such a scenario as the only, or even the most likely one. Why, after all, should they kill themselves when they can "fight" using others as human detonators? While Iran has fought conventional wars as well (albeit by sending waves of children as human minesweepers), the regime's favorite tactic is proxy warfare, through terrorist groups. Yet "realists" like Abizaid don't believe that the mullahs would hand over nukes to terrorists either. Too much loss of control, they say. But what is to stop Iran from disguising its own agents as an "independent" terrorist group? Hizbullah is such an Iranian cut-out, and Iran can easily create new organizations that are less obviously traceable to Teheran as it sees fit. BUT LET US, for the moment, rule out both the suicide nation and nuke handover scenarios, as Abizaid would evidently recommend. Let us imagine that we can be completely confident that nuclear weapons would remain safely in the rational hands of the mullahs for the indefinite future, never used and never shared. Wouldn't that mean deterrence was working? Actually, yes, this scenario would be a victory for deterrence. What Abizaid seems to forget is the success of deterrence is determined by a single measure: whether Iran ever fires a nuclear-tipped missile. At most, this measure of success might be implausibly stretched to include the nuke transfer scenario as well. What deterrence does not even pretend to address, however, is the most likely scenario of all: that Teheran neither fires nor transfers a nuke, but uses its nuclear umbrella to protect its regime and ramp up its projection of influence though terrorist proxies. There is no mystery here. We see how Teheran operates in Iraq, through Syria, in Lebanon, and in Gaza. Imagine such activity squared and safeguarded. Watch as the Sunni Arab regimes, all allied with the US, run for cover and their lives. Forget about the peace process and the two-state solution. See the seedlings of democracy and moderation in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere driven deep underground. Note new nuclear programs throughout the Arab world sprout up in their stead. What the Abizaid school does not seem to get is that, according to the rational model he is applying, no Iranian nuke needs to detonate for Iran to win. All that has to happen is for the jihadi camp to become progressively stronger, and the West progressively more intimidated. If the West deters, Iran will "surge." The barely hidden contention of the Abizaid school is that the cost of preventing a nuclear Iran, particularly through military action, is higher than living with a nuclear Iran. Such thinking not only fails to learn the lesson of the last global war, namely the limits of deterrence, but of the one before that. World War II taught us that thinking you can live with an aggressive power with unlimited ambitions leads to exactly the war you are trying to avoid - but at a much higher cost. Following Abizaid's counsel, the most likely scenario begins with deterrence succeeding on its own terms, while simultaneously losing the war. But as that war is lost, and Islamofascism becomes more powerful, it is likely that deterrence would fail as well. In this war, deterrence is a recipe for defeat - and war.

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