The Big Showdown

Monday, March 19 – it was the day before the big make-or-break showdown to settle things one way or another, for good – at least between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, as if anyone even cares. Yes, the Illinois primary – but after all the other critical primaries, that proved very little, and all the odd candidates that came and went, and the twenty or more stultifying debates, even the Republicans are exhausted. Let it be the inevitable Mitt Romney, that wooden man without much to say, other than he should be president and not anyone else – or let it be the other guy, Rick Santorum, who wants the government to regulate your sex life, because America is too full of nasty sluts using birth control and seedy perverts watching pornography. But let it be over. It’s like watching some old second rate western from the late forties, where you don’t recognize the obscure actors, portraying vague characters you can’t really care about, where you can’t even keep the plot straight – somebody just shoot somebody else and be done with it. Whoever’s left standing can run against Obama.

Of course that’s not the attitude on the cable news shows or among the pundits and the political junkies who follow such things. But they’re a strange breed. They love this stuff. But it’s easy to imagine the rest of the nation now just sullen and bored. Americans don’t like endless showdowns that aren’t really showdowns, where nothing is quite resolved, yet. We want resolution. There’s that quote from the cartoon character Marge Simpson – “We can stand here like the French, or we can do something about it.” That sums up the American attitude. Do something. Maybe the Republicans are really French.

And of course some showdowns are overrated. The Republicans will choose their candidate, one way or another, and things will proceed much as everyone expects. We know who will say what, and the voters will decide whether they want a government that does things or virtually no government at all – the predetermined choice offered. We’ve known that for years now. The rest is static.

But some showdowns are not overrated. War is coming – with Iran, started and waged by Israel, or by us, or both. We say Iran cannot have nuclear weapons, but Israel says Iran cannot have the capability to develop nuclear weapons, and must not have the intent to develop them. That’s where we disagree with Israel. But either way it looks like war, although Obama keeps saying diplomacy and sanctions might work here. Israel doubts that, but is holding back on bombing Iran to smithereens, for now. But we are headed for a showdown, of more consequence than the Illinois primary.

Dennis Ross, the former State Department and National Security Council guy, who was a special assistant to Obama for the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia from 2009 to 2011, recently took to the op-ed page of the New York Times and suggested that this may not mean war:

Speculation about an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities is rife, but there is little discussion about whether diplomacy can still succeed, precluding the need for military action.

Many experts doubt that Tehran would ever accept a deal that uses intrusive inspections and denies or limits uranium enrichment to halt any advances toward a nuclear weapons capability, while still permitting the development of civilian nuclear power. But before we assume that diplomacy can’t work, it is worth considering that Iranians are now facing crippling pressure and that their leaders have in the past altered their behavior in response to such pressure. Notwithstanding all their bluster, there are signs that Tehran is now looking for a way out.

Ross carefully lists those signs, but also knows that Israel and its American senators and congressmen don’t believe him. Still he persists:

The Obama administration has now created a situation in which diplomacy has a chance to succeed. It remains an open question whether it will.

Israel worries that it could lose its military option and it may be reluctant to wait for diplomacy to bear fruit. That said, Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have consistently called for “crippling sanctions,” reflecting a belief that Iran’s behavior could be changed with sufficient pressure. The fact that crippling sanctions have finally been applied means that Israel is more likely to give these sanctions and the related diplomatic offensive a chance to work. And it should.

But no one tells Israel what to do. They have already said that if they suddenly decide to wipe out Iran’s nuclear stuff, and more, or when they decide to do that, they will not give the United States a heads-up. They owe us nothing, not even a phone call.

Still Ross hopes for the best:

It is unclear whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose regime depends so heavily on hostility to America, is willing to make a deal on the nuclear issue. Nonetheless, Iran is now signaling that it is interested in diplomacy. …

Iran can have civilian nuclear power, but it must not have nuclear weapons. Ultimately, Ayatollah Khamenei will have to decide what poses a greater threat to his rule: ending his quest for nuclear weapons or stubbornly pursuing them as crippling economic pressures mount.

With Iran reeling from sanctions, the proper environment now exists for diplomacy to work.

But everyone knows this is the big showdown – the gunfight where someone is not left standing.

But it is absurd to think of it that way. In Slate, Ron Rosenbaum argues that it’s hard to see how a war with Iran could ever be won:

I thought of the term “Cuba Syndrome” when I read an otherwise unsurprising op-ed in the Times by Dennis Ross in which the veteran Mideast diplomat, among other things, declared Iran “must not have nuclear weapons.” There was something in his imperious tone that made me feel that if I were an Iranian person on the street – not some apocalyptic-minded mullah, perhaps even a participant in the Green Revolution – hearing this, I would feel my sense of dignity denigrated. It made me think of Cuba, whose people have endured a half century of privations and immiseration because of US sanctions and yet have clung to an oppressive police state regime. Why? Because of emotion, the emotion of dignity. Because they didn’t want to be told who should rule them by the United States and be forced to act subserviently.

These things are often more important to people than new American cars. The connection: Iran would likely continue its bomb program even if a raid left its current facilities in smoking ruins. If only because of the Cuba Syndrome. Even if it took another half century, they would get one nuclear weapon built, or buy one from North Korea or Pakistan. And Israel – which has been called a “one-bomb state,” in the sense that a one-megaton bomb airburst over Tel Aviv would annihilate the country – will never escape that shadow.

That’s what makes this absurd, as there are always complications, and Rosenbaum did write a book about it, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III:

The president loses control of fifty nukes for nearly an hour. Russian nuclear bombers almost bump wingtips with American fighter jets over the Pacific coast. North Korea detonates nuclear weapons underground. Iran’s nuclear shroud is penetrated by a computer worm. Al-Qaeda goes on the hunt for Pakistan’s bomb, and Israelis debate the merit of a preemptive nuclear strike. Treaties are signed, but thousands of nuclear weapons are still on hair-trigger alert. This is how the end begins.

That’s not very cheery, and then there is the issue of whether President Obama would ever take military action against Iran and its nuclear facilities:

Recently I was at a dinner with a writer who had just interviewed Obama. And when I asked him this question, he said he was absolutely convinced that Obama would be willing to order a strike. But not because of Israel. Or the Israel lobby. Rather, because of his longtime grounding in the thinking of the anti-nuclear proliferation movement.

It sounds unlikely at first, but it makes a certain kind of sense: Obama wrote a seminar paper at Columbia about the nuclear freeze movement, after all. He probably won the Nobel Prize because of his speech calling for the abolition of all nuclear weapons (remember that?) and, this reporter suspects, he believes that Iranian possession of a nuclear weapon will mean a Middle East arms race. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Sudan, Egypt, even the Emirates will want them, while Israel already has a couple hundred nuclear warheads, and Pakistan around a hundred. Sooner or later, this proliferating arms race will lead to regional (or even global) nuclear war.

It’s a matter of making sure things don’t get out of control, a sort of preemptive showdown perhaps, but it still puzzles Rosenbaum:

I still can’t decide if I can visualize Obama ordering a reluctant military to start another war for the sake of nonproliferation. It sounds counterintuitive, does it not, but it now seems that Iranian nuclear capability to build a bomb – not even the actual “breakout” race to assemble it – is a “red line” for the president. Maybe the attack he’s alluding to with his “all options are on the table” rhetoric will start and end such a war.

I’ve come to the tragic conclusion that the world will not really move to ban nuclear weapons until it gets another taste of their sinister sting, another preview of the Armageddon they promise in the form of a “small” nuclear war. Obama has said he doesn’t want a “temporary” solution – but more likely it would be a war that would never end, in terms of consequences.

But Jason Kuznicki argues here that many young people in America now have a new idea of what war is:

In the old wars, there were clear-cut enemies, legal declarations, and expectations on both sides regarding surrender and the return to normalcy. It worked sort of like this: Two sides, each consisting of nation-states or groups thereof, declared war on each other. The side that got the most badly beat up eventually surrendered, and the winner dictated the terms of the peace.

It was a proper showdown, but now quaint:

In new wars, no one ever declares anything. We just beat up on a country that did not and cannot attack us. Then we stay there, playing havoc with its domestic politics, spurring nationalist resentment, and getting blown up by IED’s – until the poll numbers drop and we decide it’s time to go home.

And this:

I can hardly believe, after all this country has been through, that we are seriously considering another war. Sold to us, I’d add, by the very same people who sold us the Iraq War. And on the very same terms.

And as for what war with Iran would look like, Kuznicki compares Iran to Iraq:

At the start of the second Iraq War, Iraq had an army of 375,000. Iran has 545,000, with the possibility of mobilizing many more. Iraq had been crippled by years of sanctions, no-fly zones, and the previous Gulf War, from which it never fully rebuilt. Iran is geographically almost four times as large as Iraq. Iran has 78 million people; Iraq, 30 million.

Which is not to say that we would lose the war. We wouldn’t, for the very simple reason that the terms “win” and “lose” are obsolete. Both were rituals of old war, and we aren’t fighting old wars anymore.

In new wars, the United States never loses. It’s just a question of how much we feel like exhausting and embarrassing ourselves. Iran presents an excellent opportunity in both regards. More and more, it looks like we’re going to jump at the chance.

So here we go again. We like showdowns, although this item in the New York Times is troubling:

A classified war simulation held this month to assess the repercussions of an Israeli attack on Iran forecasts that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials.

The officials said the so-called war game was not designed as a rehearsal for American military action – and they emphasized that the exercise’s results were not the only possible outcome of a real-world conflict.

But the game has raised fears among top American planners that it may be impossible to preclude American involvement in any escalating confrontation with Iran, the officials said. In the debate among policy makers over the consequences of any Israeli attack, that reaction may give stronger voice to those in the White House, Pentagon and intelligence community who have warned that a strike could prove perilous for the United States.

Israel attacks, we get drawn in, and all hell breaks loose. And that worries the top brass:

The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, according to officials who either participated in the Central Command exercise or who were briefed on the results and spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature. When the exercise had concluded earlier this month, according to the officials, General Mattis told aides that an Israeli first strike would be likely to have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.

The two-week war game, called Internal Look, played out a narrative in which the United States found it was pulled into the conflict after Iranian missiles struck a Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans, according to officials with knowledge of the exercise. The United States then retaliated by carrying out its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

The initial Israeli attack sets back the Iranian nuclear program by a year, and our subsequent strikes do not slow the Iranian nuclear program much – maybe two more years. And we get a decades-long regional war. That’s not much of a decisive showdown, to resolve matters:

In the end, the war game reinforced to military officials the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of a strike by Israel, and a counterstrike by Iran, the officials said. …

Officials said that, under the chain of events in the war game, Iran believed that Israel and the United States were partners in any strike against Iranian nuclear sites and therefore considered American military forces in the Persian Gulf as complicit in the attack. Iranian jets chased Israeli warplanes after the attack, and Iranians launched missiles at an American warship in the Persian Gulf, viewed as an act of war that allowed an American retaliation.

Or maybe not:

Many experts have predicted that Iran would try to carefully manage the escalation after an Israeli first strike in order to avoid giving the United States a rationale for attacking with its far superior forces. Thus, it might use proxies to set off car bombs in world capitals or funnel high explosives to insurgents in Afghanistan to attack American and NATO troops.

While using surrogates might, in the end, not be enough to hide Iran’s instigation of these attacks, the government in Tehran could at least publicly deny all responsibility.

Well, that’s comforting, as is this:

Some military specialists in the United States and in Israel who have assessed the potential ramifications of an Israeli attack believe that the last thing Iran would want is a full-scale war on its territory. Thus, they argue that Iran would not directly strike American military targets, whether warships in the Persian Gulf or bases in the region.

But then they admit that no one knows the slightest thing about the internal thinking of the senior Iranian leadership, so it’s all a crapshoot. But Israel says it’s no big deal:

Israeli intelligence estimates, backed by academic studies, have cast doubt on the widespread assumption that a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would set off a catastrophic set of events like a regional conflagration, widespread acts of terrorism and sky-high oil prices.

“A war is no picnic,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio in November. But if Israel feels itself forced into action, the retaliation would be bearable, he said. “There will not be 100,000 dead or 10,000 dead or 1,000 dead. The state of Israel will not be destroyed.”

They want this showdown, the gunfight at the OK Corral. Wyatt Earp would win. The retaliation would be bearable. And there’s Carl at the site Israel Matzav with this:

In the Obama administration’s latest effort to scare Israel out of attacking Iran, the New York Times reports that a top-secret Pentagon war game simulation of an Israeli strike on Iran shows that such a strike would lead to a wider war and many American casualties. …

Sorry guys, but we’re not going to be the ones to take a massive nuclear hit because the fool in the White House has managed to waste three and a half years. We’re going to try to save ourselves, and if we can’t, God forbid, we will at least take as many Iranians as possible with us.

What could go wrong?

That seems to be bitter irony, but Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway offers a bit of history:

It seems pretty clear that our intelligence regarding the internal operations of the Islamic Republic is pretty thin. At least during the Cold War we had agents in place that were supported to be providing us with intelligence about what the Soviet leadership was thinking and doing, although even in that case it was clear that we didn’t really quite understand how the men in Moscow viewed the world.

For example, in 1983 NATO undertook a ten day military exercise called Able Archer that was designed to play out a war game scenario that envisioned escalating tensions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, ground war, and eventual nuclear exchanges. What nobody what was participating in the exercise seemed to realize, though, was how the game was being interpreted in Moscow. According to some versions of the events published later, the Soviet leadership was taking the increased communications between military officials in Europe and the United States as signs that a first strike was being planned, despite continued assurances from their own agents on the ground that there were absolutely no signs of increased military activity in Europe. According to some versions of this event… preparations were being made for a possible pre-emptive strike before assurances were finally received and believed. Whatever actually happened, though, the point is that even in a situation where we thought we knew our enemy we really didn’t know how they were reacting to our actions. What makes us think we have any real idea how the Iranians are going to react in the event of an Israeli (or American) attack?

Be he sees the showdown too:

With every new development, we seem to be finding ourselves pushed closer and closer to military conflict with Iran. Given the ongoing civil war in Syria and the presence of about 100,000 of our own troops in neighboring Afghanistan, it strikes me that we’re taking quite a risk without fully thinking through the consequences of what we’re doing. The last time we did that, we ended up fighting two wars for ten years.

As for Able Archer, see this:

The realistic nature of the 1983 exercise, coupled with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and the anticipated arrival of Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, led some members of the Soviet Politburo and Soviet military to believe that Able Archer 83 was a ruse of war, obscuring preparations for a genuine nuclear first strike. In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces and placed air units in East Germany and Poland on alert. This relatively obscure incident is considered by many historians to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Maybe this time we’ll get there, not just come close. On the other hand, the Associated Press also just reported this – Israel Sends Iran Greeting for Persian New Year.

The world is a confusing place. But at least one must not confuse the Romney-Santorum showdown with the real thing.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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