Future histories will show, if they’re accurate, that at the time when we decided to simply give up and let Iran acquire nuclear weapons, what our brain trust was talking about was Ben Rhodes, and the journalists’ feelings that were hurt by what he said about them.
Now, of course, it has been a useful exercise, in the past week, for the top-echelon opinion establishment to face the truth that the Obama administration lied us into compliance with revolutionary Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We already knew that, but it didn’t hurt to have Mr. Rhodes lay it out for us. It’s a riveting tale: how he – in a mind-meld with Obama – concocted the Big Lie that a trend toward political moderation in Iran prompted the 2015 “deal”; and how he advanced it by “ventriloquizing” an ignorant, complaisant media to shout down the “deal’s” critics, and give cover to the White House’s political allies.
But the aftermath is becoming a bit wearisome. Now it’s time to babble and chase our tails for a while, focusing on absurdities like the Obama State Department’s apparent erasure of damning video evidence, from 2015, that it consciously lied in retailing the Big Lie. (State came out within a day and re-published the whole video, damning evidence and all.) Or on irrelevancies like the angry journalists’ complaint that they’re being unfairly smeared as collaborators – when nobody implied they were collaborators. Rhodes implied they were dupes. Yada yada yada.
Even a refreshingly pertinent discussion at the Atlantic Council blog misses the mark by more than a hair. Its author, Frederic Hof, tries to focus on the really, really important thing David Samuels told us in his NYT piece on Rhodes, which is that the whole Big-Lie-ventriloquizing mechanism had the goal of utterly gutting seven decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
But you’ll miss the import of that if you don’t stop and think about it. And Hof really doesn’t. He gives it some treatment, yes, but he frames it in a separately-focused discussion that is clearly his priority: about what “the Blob” is – Rhodes’s dismissive term for the U.S. foreign policy establishment – and whether its conventions or its recent personalities are to blame for Rhodes’s, and others’, obsessive animus against the 2003 Iraq war.
And you know what? It just ain’t about that now. Sure, Hof has brilliantly exposed the essential foolishness of Ben Rhodes’s vision. In concert with the Samuels article, we now have a pretty full understanding of how Rhodes’s foolishness, in mind-meld with Obama, has led America to destroy the precarious balance long held in tension by U.S. policy in the Middle East.
But, see, hold it right there. Back on that thing about utterly gutting seven decades of U.S. policy. Two questions.
1. What the hell were Obama and Rhodes doing that for? There’s nothing normal or even potentially justifiable about that. It’s worse than extremely bizarre. It’s appallingly destructive.
2. And where are the thinkers who understand that doing this stuff actually changes everything, and the talk of policy changes and “disengagement” and “radically reorienting” and “disentangling from alliances” isn’t just a set of bullet points from a senior seminar, but has concrete, material consequences? Like, bad things that are already happening?
I have four tasks here. One, to take you briefly through the most important foreign-policy information the Samuels article conveyed. Two, to show how the Obama-Rhodes mind-meld framed our security priorities exactly backward from what they actually are. Three, to briefly address some significant changes that have already occurred in the Middle East because of Obama-Rhodes. And four, to disabuse your stubborn mind of the notion that there is a U.S. “military option” left against the Iranian nuclear program now.
The “changing U.S. policy” theme you might have missed
All you have to do to see it clearly is pluck the right passages out of the personality-infested main narrative in the Samuels article. So here we go. I’ve left enough context around each nugget that you can mentally place the reference. All emphasis added.
[Rhodes] had also developed a healthy contempt for the American foreign-policy establishment, including editors and reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker and elsewhere, who at first applauded the Iraq war and then sought to pin all the blame on Bush and his merry band of neocons when it quickly turned sour. If anything, that anger has grown fiercer during Rhodes’s time in the White House. He referred to the American foreign-policy establishment as the Blob. According to Rhodes, the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.
Yeah: imagine whining about the collapse of a security order. Who needs those moronic security orders, after all?
Just think about what is being implied with that surreally-inflected clause.
Next (double emphasis on the one sentence because we’re going to talk about it later):
By obtaining broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the [Iranian] regime, and that the administration was reaching out to moderate-minded Iranians who wanted peaceful relations with their neighbors and with America, Obama was able to evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices that his administration was making. By eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.
I suppose there are people who imagine it’s just kind of an interesting experiment, to say “Whatever, dude” one day and cavalierly disentangle yourself from the system of “alliances” (technically, partnerships, and that does matter) that it took you 70 years to establish.
In fact, Rhodes’s passion seems to derive not from any investment in the technical specifics of sanctions or centrifuge arrays, or any particular optimism about the future course of Iranian politics and society. Those are matters for the negotiators and area specialists. Rather, it derived from his own sense of the urgency of radically reorienting American policy in the Middle East in order to make the prospect of American involvement in the region’s future wars a lot less likely. … “I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he said, shrugging. “But that’s impossible.”
Uh-huh. America’s steady policy course is the single most important factor that has kept the Middle East’s most basic conditions – rarely breached borders; a safe, open Persian Gulf; a safe, reliable Suez Canal; a lid on local insurgencies – relatively stable since the watershed year 1979. So we should definitely reorient American policy away from that, in the hope of less involvement in future wars. And we should most definitely do it on the sly, lying to Congress, the people, and our allies about our intentions. Makes all kinds of sense.
There’s more, but those three excerpts tell the tale. There’s a lot about how Rhodes’s perspective on Iraq colors all his thinking – quote: “Iraq is his one-word answer to any and all criticism” – but that focus of today’s foreign-policy thinkers is so narrow and rearward-looking that it’s like a psychosis now. Future psycho-historians can have it to analyze. We have much more urgent business in the present. Which leads to point two.
Obama-Rhodes have it bass-ackwards
Let’s look at that double-emphasis sentence again.
By eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey.
So: the purpose of desperately hanging on until Iran agrees to let us pretend there’s a “deal” of some kind is so that we’ll have breathing room to break the entire Middle East.
Just let that sink in. The American people and Congress have thought for some years now that a radical, terror-sponsoring, nuclear-armed Iran is number one, two, or at most three, among our top security concerns. This thinking is a manifestation of realism and common sense. Some of our most precious assets, in the quest to keep radical Iran non-nuclearized, and as non-destabilizing as possible, are our partnerships in the region. Those partnerships have value across the spectrum of U.S. national interests, in fact – very much including the praiseworthy goals of preventing wars and staying out of them.
But instead of bolstering those partnerships, as a means of – among other things – keeping Iran reined in, the Obama-Rhodes approach has the goal of writing a fictional, abstract narrative about Iran, so that we can, in very sooth and for real, bust up the partnerships.
In other words: make up a fake narrative so we can drive off our friends and not have them anymore.
This is quite possibly the most bizarre, least sensible goal a supposedly sane government has ever had. It’s no wonder Ben Rhodes calls the foreign policy establishment “the Blob.” It’s because he doesn’t have the slightest understanding what U.S. national security policy in the post-1945 era has been, or its deep, traceable integration with desirable, favorable conditions in the rest of the world.
Things that have already changed
A lot of Obama-Rhodes’s work is already done. Congratulations, dogs: those annoying Middle East partnerships may very well not be harshing our mellow much longer.
The trend of U.S. “disengagement” under Obama has been remarked on for several years now, although it has mostly had to be detected and divined, rather than being announced and explained. An article from the Wall Street Journal last fall is typical: it quotes the Obama administration as insisting that we aren’t disengaging from the region, even while it’s obvious, based on our behavior and the expectations it fosters, that we are.
The disengagement has been going on longer than most U.S. observers have recognized it, however. It was evident enough to the Saudis in early 2009, for example, that they were deeply concerned about Obama’s apparent overall strategy (shed existing commitments, make reckless overtures to Iran), and were already seeking to significantly expand their defense-cooperation partnerships beyond their relationship with the United States (not just to France but to Russia and China).
Between January 2009 and late 2010, expectations in the Middle East had already changed enough that most of the Arab Persian Gulf nations were in some stage of formally prohibiting the U.S. from using bases on their soil to conduct operations against other nations – mainly Iran. Their alarm about Iran had not subsided; rather the reverse. What had changed was their trust in American intentions. They feared that Obama would use their bases to do too little, and leave them exposed to retaliation.
The disengagement trend signaled by Obama’s lack of interest in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the “Green Revolution” in Iran was punctuated sharply by one of the least-heralded but most important (non-)events in that trend: the U.S. passivity in January 2011 when Hezbollah mounted a coup against the Hariri coalition government in Lebanon. Obama left Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to try to broker a reconciliation – against an insurgent push with Hezbollah’s sponsor Iran behind it – but made no attempt to visibly convey a meaningful American interest in the outcome.
The signal sent by that passivity can’t be overemphasized. Hezbollah’s unanswered coup in Lebanon was the aperture of opportunity that the Arab Spring punched through. Once it was clear the U.S. would put no weight behind the conventional Sunni leaders’ efforts in Lebanon, the dam broke across the region.
The grievances of various Arab Spring factions, both real and manufactured, were not created by the Obama administration; of course not. But the condition of passivity and impotence behind the status quo very much was.
Obama’s utter ineffectiveness since 2011 in fostering a restoration of order is one of the top three reasons why the entire Eastern hemisphere now looks different. (The other two are Sunni radicalism and Iran.)
Just in and around the Middle East, to all intents and purposes, the pre-2009 Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Ukraine no longer exist. Turkey has gone from mostly a Europe-oriented secular democracy to mostly a proto-caliphate being forcibly Islamized by its autocratic leadership. An astounding, unprecedented flow of millions of Muslim migrants is permanently transforming Europe. And Russia, which had little influence in most of the Middle East between 1991 and 2011, is now embedded militarily in Iraq as well as Syria, and is on speed-dial for the deeply worried status quo regimes of the region: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, even Israel – all close partners of Washington only five years ago.
These things aren’t waiting to be changed conditions. They already are. We don’t live in the world we lived in five years ago. And that means America’s options have already changed. Conditions Obama decided not to influence in the traditional way have shifted against us.
For few policy concerns does that matter as much as it does for the problem of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. And so we get to point four.
There is no “military option” for the U.S. against Iran now
As recently as August 2015, Obama still claimed that he is keeping the “military option available.” But the emptiness of that claim cannot be overstated.
Military options aren’t about relative military spending levels among the nations. Spending levels can be useful, if rough, indices of overall strategic posture. But military options against specific problems are about whether the tools necessary to address the problem can be brought to bear on a timeframe relevant to that problem.
With respect to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the condition Obama’s policies have transformed out from under us is, precisely, that one. Although it’s still possible to scope out an effective form of military action to prevent Iran from sprinting across the nuclear finish line – a project that would yield only temporary results, but would still be worth doing, to buy time for a more comprehensive strategy – it’s not possible under today’s conditions to execute it.
This doesn’t mean no nation could do it. Israel could do enough to inflict a temporary setback. But the United States, acting alone, could not.
The reason is that our force readiness is badly depleted, while Iran’s hardening against air attack is improving, along with her ability to take out our most operationally agile asset: the aircraft carrier. Iran will never need to sink a carrier to thwart a military attack; she just needs to immobilize the carrier. That, she is capable of doing. Under today’s conditions, the absolute maximum number of carriers we could get to the Persian Gulf at the same time is two (see 2016 readiness links below) – with a minimum of seven weeks’ lead time – and we would need that many just to mount the main attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons-related facilities. If one carrier were out of action, the operation would be unexecutable.
That calculation itself assumes the Air Force is bringing the preponderance of the combat power. Yet Air Force readiness is as compromised as the Navy’s, and the Air Force – except for the global strategic bombers – has to fly from nearby airfields, in the Gulf nations that now deny us authorization to mount attacks on Iran from their soil. Even the strategic bombers, which can use Diego Garcia, need nearby options for emergency recovery if they experience problems in flight. So do intelligence planes and air refueling tankers. So do carrier-based aircraft, for that matter. And there’s a real possibility that we won’t have such options.
Our readiness was compromised enough back in 2013 to make the military option unrealistic then (see here and here). The American public has little concept of how thin is the razor’s edge on which our overall force posture hangs. In 2013, generals and admirals were already telling Congress that they were “consuming readiness”: using it up, like running down a gas tank, rather than being able to keep a readiness horizon pushed out in front of them.
In 2016, they are still saying that, but the problem has gotten three years worse (see here and here). That means three more years of unaddressed wear and tear on airframes and ship systems; three more years of using up bombs without replacing them; three more years of insufficient training levels; and hence even fewer weapon systems that can be assembled in a ready state to deploy all at the same time.
All of the services are cannibalizing their weapon systems to meet deployment schedules – but even that doesn’t enable them to meet the requirements levied by the warfighting commanders under routine conditions.
To execute a special requirement like a “military option” against Iran would entail deploying a package of forces we literally do not have in a deployable state, and can’t make deployable on a short timeline (i.e., weeks).
One aspect of that is the mechanical weapon systems themselves.* But it is tremendously important that another aspect is the increasing air defense capabilities of Iran.
Five years ago, Iran was still a long way off from having a truly integrated, responsive air defense system, with capable surveillance and command/control, and intimidating missile ranges. In 2016, Iran has already made improvements, and is within a year, at most, of fielding a more effective theater-wide air defense system than most of our pilots have even trained against. One of the most serious shortfalls for both the Air Force and the Navy is in pilot training against anti-air threats. Yet Iran’s will only grow, with the initial delivery at last of the S-300 system, and the recently announced purchase of modern air combat fighters from Russia.
A future without advantages
The “military option” is a total package of conditions and capabilities, and every one of them has shifted in the wrong direction since 2009. The “system of alliances” Obama-Rhodes has been so eager to “disentangle” from was ultimately what made the military option feasible. Ready forces are indispensable too, but without willing regional partners, they are insufficient.
The other thing they’re insufficient without is good intelligence and a common understanding of where Iran’s nuclear program is. Obama’s JCPOA has made sure that we will not have the latter. It is useless to babble about what’s supposed to be happening with Iran’s stock of uranium, and her plutonium reactor at Arak, when the terms under which Iran is monitored have now changed – because of the shift to the JCPOA – and we now actually know less about what’s happening than we did before.
Verification is a key component of consensus, both within the United States and among our partners, if the U.S. is to contemplate military action. There is now no mechanism for a verification-to-consensus process. IAEA isn’t obliged to tell the world what they know, and because their teams won’t be gathering all the information first-hand anyway, the reliability of the IAEA reporting will be unverified.
But at least we have Ben Rhodes and his excellent adventure to talk about, while we wait for Iran to mate a warhead to a missile – or for God to save us with a miracle.
* I don’t have time, if I’m going to get this posted today, to write up a whole model of a strike campaign. I would prefer, as a first proposition, to not even execute it, but to accomplish a series of meaningful, interim deterrence goals by threatening it.
But in brief, to have it as a credible option, I would want to reduce all of Parchin to a smoking ruin; get penetrating weapons into a handful of underground facilities; attack Iran’s ability to mill and refine uranium, which is a significant (and hard to reconstitute) bottleneck; and take out her air defense upgrades and her missile R&D and manufacturing capabilities. Doing this would require getting enough air over a fair-sized target set to do the job, which would mean punching into Iranian air space, owning it for the several days it would take (call it 5-7), and containing Iranian attempts at retaliation at sea and across the Gulf.
For forces, I’d want B-2s, a squadron of F-22s (ideally two, but that’s not possible), a squadron of F-15Cs, two squadrons of F-15E Strike Eagles, the two carriers and their air wings, with the naval escorts necessary to make their operations possible, an arsenal of probably 100 Tomahawks at a minimum, and the requisite support aircraft: air combat direction, electronic warfare, refueling, and ISR (mostly from the Air Force, except for EW).
Out of all these forces, the only ones that are literally ready to hand in sufficient numbers, on short notice, are the B-2s and the Tomahawks. And the replacements for the expended Tomahawks won’t be in the fleet for years.
Note: Israel lacks the B-2, the F-22, and the mightiest penetrators, but in terms of the other assets has more than we do that are combat-ready and available. In the crudest terms, we could say Israel was able to accomplish about 60-70% of the strike I’m envisioning here. That would be partly due to the likely political limitations on how long the campaign could go on, and how many revisits she could get over the targets.
Israel would presumably make use of special forces capabilities as well. If she prioritized properly, she could do enough with 60-70% accomplishment to make the campaign worth the cost.
(I posted better discussions of a potential strike campaign a few times in the last seven years, starting in early 2009. You can look for them at the Optimistic Conservative blog’s Iran page. I don’t link to them here because the conditions of the Iranian program have changed since then, and my assessments and campaign concept have changed too. They’re mainly useful now for generic discussion of campaign design and targeting factors.)