A Matter of Escalation Dominance

That was an odd weekend. But it settled quite a few things. Donald Trump came into his own and now Americans know just what they signed up for in 2016 – all the speculation about what he really might do, or wouldn’t dare do, was over. He’d change everything:

The consequences of the American killing of a top Iranian general rippled across the Middle East and beyond on Sunday, with Iran all but abandoning a landmark nuclear agreement and Iraqi lawmakers voting to expel American forces from their country.

Steeling for retaliation from Iran, an American-led coalition in Iraq and Syria suspended the campaign it has waged against the Islamic State for years, as hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the street to mourn the general, Qassim Suleimani.

This is new. US officials unanimously say we should expect retaliatory attacks on US assets. That was certain. And the Iranian nuclear program is back in business. They’ll create a nuclear arsenal as soon as possible. And the Iraqi parliament has voted to demand that US forces leave its territory. And the war on ISIS – which Trump said we won long ago – has been put on hold. Our few allies working with us on that have been told to take a break. We’ll get back to that later, if we can. We need to protect our people and our regional assets right now. Sorry, we’re a bit busy at the moment.

But the details are odd:

“Iran’s nuclear program will have no limitations in production, including enrichment capacity,” the Iranian government said in an announcement Sunday that seemed to signal the de facto collapse of the 2015 agreement.

Warning Iran not to attack, President Trump said the United States had pinpointed 52 targets in Iran – including cultural sites. The sites, he said, represented the 52 American hostages held at the United States Embassy in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Amid outrage in Iran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif declared that “targeting cultural sites is a war crime” and predicted that the “end of U.S. malign presence in West Asia has begun.”

Targeting cultural sites actually is a war crime, but the mention of it pisses off the Iranians, and that’s delicious. So Trump had to mention that, and there was this:

Mr. Trump also directed his anger at Iraq, warning it not to expel American forces, and pointing to an air base the United State built there. “We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he said.

He could sue them, you know, but it comes down to this:

Mr. Trump has said that the killing of General Suleimani on Friday was aimed at preventing war.

Irony is not dead, or this man is pathologically without even a hint of self-awareness. And that makes him easy to play:

On Sunday, the Iranian government said it was abandoning its “final limitations in the nuclear deal,” the international agreement intended to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. The decision leaves no restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, the statement said, including on uranium enrichment, production, research and expansion.

Iran will, however, continue its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and return to the nuclear limits if the economic sanctions imposed on it are removed and Iran’s interests guaranteed, the government said.

Trump has backed himself into a corner and now, because of his pride, and his base, can never agree to either, so the Iranians look like the good guys here, and there’s this:

Lawmakers in Iraq voted on Sunday to require the government to end the presence of American troops in the country after Mr. Trump ordered the killing on Iraqi soil.

The vote will not be final until it is signed by the prime minister, and it was unclear whether Iraq’s current caretaker government had the authority to end the relationship with the United States military.

Few doubted, however, that the country would take whatever legal actions were necessary to compel a United States departure over the coming months. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi drafted the language and submitted the bill approved by Parliament on Sunday, leaving little doubt about his support.

And that infuriated Trump:

Mr. Trump warned Iraq on Sunday that there would be dire consequences for expelling American forces.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there,” he said. “It cost billions of dollars to build, long before my time.”

“If they do ask us to leave,” he added, “if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

But he was working himself up over what might be nothing much:

Although the vote in Parliament was 170-0, lawmakers were more divided on the issue of ousting American troops than that tally may suggest. Many of the 328 members of Parliament, primarily those representing the country’s ethnic Kurdish and Sunni Muslim minorities, did not attend the session and did not vote. Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority dominates the Iraqi government.

While groups that grew out of Shiite militia organizations have pushed hard for the expulsion, Sunni Muslim factions and the Kurds have wanted the United States to stay.

Trump hadn’t read the resolution:

The legislation threads a fine needle: While using strong language demanding that the government “end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil and prevent the use of Iraqi airspace, soil and water for any reason” by foreign forces, it gives no timetable for doing so.

It was symbolic, but symbols matter:

Iran summoned the Swiss envoy representing American interests in Tehran on Sunday to protest Mr. Trump’s threat that Washington would target Iranian sites. And Mr. Trump’s tweet became a rallying cry among Iranians, many of whom shared it widely on social media with the message, “Attend the funeral for our cultural heritage.”

Iran’s information and telecommunications minister, Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, denounced Mr. Trump as “a terrorist in a suit.”

The killing of General Suleimani was aimed at preventing war, right? Well, don’t tell these folks:

The attack on the Iranian general left America’s European allies scrambling to address the safety of their troops in the Middle East and complaining that they had been given no warning about the strike. European leaders called for a de-escalation of the tensions between Iran and the United States.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, invited Mr. Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, to Brussels for talks. Mr. Borrell said that he had spoken with Mr. Zarif, urging “Iran to exercise restraint and carefully consider any reaction to avoid further escalation, which harms the entire region and its people.”

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said he would seek direct talks with Iran. Europe wants to continue the fight against the Islamic State, Mr. Maas said, and Germany is anxious about the safety of its troops training Iraqi forces.

Germany’s defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said in a statement: “Iraq cannot be allowed to sink into chaos, and certainly not under the control of extremists. Therefore, it is important not to let up now in the fight against Islamic State.”

But they were making a distinction that Trump doesn’t make:

In general, the Europeans did not specifically criticize Mr. Trump for his decision, and share the American view that Iran has been a destabilizing force in the Middle East and a supporter of terrorism. At the same time, no European government praised the killing of General Suleimani, emphasizing instead the increased risks to their citizens, troops and interests.

Trump never considers any increased risks. The guy had to go. Trump had him killed. The rest isn’t Trump’s problem. But our allies are worried:

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain was reported to be angry with Mr. Trump for not informing him or other allies with troops in Iraq about the decision to kill General Suleimani. While carried out by the Americans, the killing is seen as having put all European citizens and troops in Iraq and the wider region at heightened risk.

Mr. Johnson, who was said to be returning early from a vacation in the Caribbean, is expected to discuss the issues with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Mr. Trump in the next few days, a Downing Street spokeswoman said.

That called for an official sneer:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complained that the response by European allies had not been “helpful.”

He seemed to imply that the French, in particular, know nothing and they’re quite stupid. Pompeo may have just assured Trump’s reelection in a landslide. At least Trump will now win the votes of American women who are increasingly finding him repulsive. French women are infuriatingly thin and elegantly chic and cool. Frumpy and frustrated American women can now vote for Trump and show them a thing or two. No comments about the damned French are ever wasted. Politicians know that. Mike Pompeo knows that.

It seems that strange forces have now been unleashed. How did this happen? The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman offers this:

Beneath wind-swept palm trees and gilded chandeliers, President Trump dined with Rush Limbaugh and congratulated Keith Hernandez, the Mets announcer and former first baseman, on his wedding. He consulted with his national security and campaign advisers while basking in 80-degree weather, and, as always, he tweeted.

He also authorized a military strike that has roiled the Middle East and is likely to endure as one of the most consequential acts of his presidency.

For three years, Mr. Trump’s winter visits to Mar-a-Lago, his private club, have allowed him time to combine his personal and presidential business, often in the midst of the club’s wealthy members and his adoring friends.

But the jarring juxtapositions this year seemed to highlight some central elements in the way Mr. Trump has governed: the little interest he has in planning beyond the day in front of him, his need for positive feedback and an unwillingness to modulate his behavior, whatever the circumstance.

In short, this was a casual and reactionary thing:

The days were generally marked by casual-wear trips to his nearby golf club, where he would talk with members and meet with White House advisers. The evenings were marked by elaborate dinners at Mar-a-Lago that included his family members, his campaign advisers and his national security aides.

But Mr. Trump’s vacation was more than the usual refuge from negative news coverage and official Washington. He was agitated by uncertainty about what comes next in the impeachment process, and expressed gnawing concerns about how much the billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg is spending on his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in the election that Mr. Trump hopes to win.

Throughout Christmas week, the president watched the news coverage on impeachment and tweeted his frustrations with Speaker Nancy Pelosi for slowing down the process by refusing to send to the Senate the articles charging him with high crimes and misdemeanors. He spoke with advisers about what the Senate trial might look like.

And he also phoned various people he thought had betrayed him on this topic or that, and screamed at them, but once that made him feel better it was back to business:

Then it was time to get back to White House work, and Mr. Trump huddled with advisers offering him a range of options on how to respond to the death of an American civilian contractor killed on Dec. 27 in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base. The menu of choices included the most extreme one – killing Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander.

He liked that one but moved on:

On New Year’s Eve, Mr. Trump hosted his annual party at Mar-a-Lago, arriving in a tuxedo with the first lady, Melania Trump, and playing M.C. to a crowd that included his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.

On Jan. 2, the president began his day at his golf club. But mindful of not appearing weak in the face the rocket attack and concerned that an assault on the American Embassy in Baghdad that United States officials said was orchestrated by Iran could have ended in devastation, Mr. Trump had already settled on a course of action.

In the middle of a meeting with campaign advisers, he left the table to give the final authorization to kill General Suleimani.

And that was that and it was back to the usual stuff:

Next up was Miami, and there, at the King Jesus International Ministry, he excoriated the “fake news,” declared from the dais that two progressive congresswomen “hate” Jewish people, taunted the Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for his faith, and said God was “on our side.”

The president’s final day of vacation, Saturday, was spent at the golf club, and was punctuated by a handful of tweets.

That night, Mr. Trump strolled through Mar-a-Lago, a phalanx of aides in tow, as Mr. Hernandez got married in an adjacent room, according to attendees. The president did not attend the wedding, but did offer congratulations.

But it wasn’t that simple, as the New York Times reports here:

In the chaotic days leading to the death of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, top American military officials put the option of killing him – which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq – on the menu they presented to President Donald Trump.

They didn’t think he would take it. In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable.

That was a mistake:

After initially rejecting the Soleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group instead, a few days later Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials.

By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.

That wasn’t supposed to happen:

Trump made the decision, senior officials said Saturday, despite disputes in the administration about the significance of what some officials said was a new stream of intelligence that warned of threats to U.S. embassies, consulates and military personnel in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon…

Some officials voiced private skepticism about the rationale for a strike on Soleimani, who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops over the years. According to one U.S. official, the new intelligence indicated “a normal Monday in the Middle East” – Dec. 30 – and Soleimani’s travels amounted to “business as usual.”

That official described the intelligence as thin and said that Soleimani’s attack was not imminent because of communications the U.S. had between Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Soleimani showing that the ayatollah had not yet approved any plans by the general for an attack. The ayatollah, according to the communications, had asked Soleimani to come to Tehran for further discussions at least a week before his death.

Trump wasn’t listening and the rest was inevitable:

In Iran, the ayatollah vowed “forceful revenge” as the country mourned the death of Soleimani.

In Palm Beach, Florida, Trump lashed back, promising to strike 52 sites across Iran – representing the number of American hostages taken by Iran in 1979 – if Iran attacked Americans or American interests. On Saturday night, Trump warned on Twitter that some sites were “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

The president issued those warnings after U.S. spy agencies Saturday detected that Iranian ballistic missile units across the country had gone to a heightened state of readiness, a U.S. official said Saturday night.

That was dire, unless that wasn’t dire:

Other officials said it was unclear whether Iran was dispersing its ballistic missile units – the heart of the Iranian military – to avoid an American attack or was mobilizing the units for a major strike against U.S. targets or allies in the region in retaliation for Soleimani’s death.

No one knew, but some people knew this:

Two senior US officials on Sunday described widespread opposition within the administration to targeting cultural sites in Iran should the United States launch retaliatory strikes against Tehran, despite President Donald Trump saying a day before that such sites are among dozens the US has identified as potential targets.

“Nothing rallies people like the deliberate destruction of beloved cultural sites. Whether ISIS’s destruction of religious monuments or the burning of the Leuven Library in WWI, history shows targeting locations giving civilization meaning is not only immoral but self-defeating,” one of the officials told CNN.

“The Persian people hold a deeply influential and beautiful history of poetry, logic, art and science. Iran’s leaders do not live up to that history. But America would be better served by leaders who embrace Persian culture, not threaten to destroy it,” they added.

“Consistent with laws and norms of armed conflict, we would respect Iranian culture,” the second senior US official said.

Another official who formerly worked in both the Trump and Obama administrations told CNN: “As a matter of principle, we as a nation and as a military do not attack the culture sites of any adversary.”

Trump may have to fire those people:

President Trump on Sunday evening doubled down on his claim that he would target Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliated for the targeted killing of one of its top generals, and threatened “very big sanctions” on Iraq if American troops are forced to leave the country.

Aboard Air Force One on his way back from his holiday trip to Florida, Mr. Trump reiterated to reporters the spirit of a Twitter post on Saturday, when he said the United States government had identified 52 sites for retaliation against Iran if there were a response to Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani’s death. Some, he tweeted, were of “cultural” significance.

Such a move could be considered a war crime under international laws, but Mr. Trump said Sunday that he was undeterred.

“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people,” the president said. “And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”

The killing of General Suleimani was aimed at preventing war, right? Well, maybe not:

The remarks came just hours after the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, walked back Mr. Trump’s tweets and said that whatever was done in any military engagement with Iran would be within the bounds of the law.

Mr. Trump also sounded fatalistic about the possibility of an Iranian escalation.

“If it happens, it happens,” he said. “If they do anything, there will be major retaliation”

It seems we’re at war now, and Ryan Crocker, our former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, and a diplomat in residence at Princeton, does confirm that:

That war goes back to Lebanon in the early 1980s, where General Suleimani’s predecessors created what became Hezbollah. Iran, with Syria, helped stage the 1983 bombings of the American Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans involved in a peacekeeping mission. As a young Foreign Service officer who survived those bombings, I saw how Iran succeeded in forcing the United States to withdraw its forces from Lebanon through terrorism.

Later, as ambassador in Lebanon, I helped load the remains of two Americans killed by Hezbollah – the Beirut CIA station chief, William Buckley, and Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins – on a helicopter just before Christmas 1991. In Syria, as ambassador from 1998 to 2001, I witnessed the coordination between Syria and Iran in support of Hezbollah and the close embrace of Hezbollah’s leader by President Bashar al-Assad. As ambassador to Iraq years later, I stood at ramp ceremonies honoring our service members killed by Shiite militias supported by General Suleimani.

So when his death was confirmed, it was a moment of quiet satisfaction for me: A formidable enemy of the United States was gone, and he will not be easily replaced. That is some vindication for the hundreds of American lives he had taken over the years.

But that has little to do with the problem now:

The United States is engaged in something I call escalation dominance. This means we need to calculate how an adversary is likely to respond to a given action of ours. What are the United States’ vulnerabilities? What are theirs? Depending on the adversary’s reactions, what is our range of follow up moves? In short, how does the United States increase pain for the Iranians while denying them the opportunity to counter escalate?

In the complex context of Iran, this becomes multidimensional chess. We have forces in Iraq and Syria, as well as a military presence throughout the Gulf: in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman. These are assets, but they are also potential targets, as are the countries where they are located. We will also have to consult very closely with Israel.

And thus one cannot simply rant and rage:

Escalation dominance is not a simple measure of raw power. It is about which party is more likely to dominate in a given context, something that is a function of abilities but also determination, prioritization and patience.

If so, we’re in trouble:

The United States will have military options that it did not exercise in 1983, including direct, large scale attacks on Iran. How far are we prepared to go in an escalatory spiral? I hope the administration worked through that before the Suleimani strike.

The Trump administration will have to understand the full complexity of the conflict it just escalated, assemble and utilize a large cadre of area specialists, work closely with allies and above all, commit to seeing through to an end of what already has been a very long war. These are not attributes that have characterized the Trump presidency thus far.

Crocker put that diplomatically, perhaps out of habit, but Peter Baker reports this:

For three years, President Trump’s critics have expressed concern over how he would handle a genuine international crisis, warning that a commander in chief known for impulsive action might overreach with dangerous consequences.

In the angry and frenzied aftermath of the American drone strike that killed Iran’s top general, with vows of revenge hanging in the air, Mr. Trump confronts a decisive moment that will test whether those critics were right or whether they misjudged him.

“The moment we all feared is likely upon us,” Senator Christopher Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and vocal critic of Mr. Trump, wrote on Twitter over the weekend. “An unstable President in way over his head, panicking, with all his experienced advisers having quit, and only the sycophantic amateurs remaining. Assassinating foreign leaders, announcing plans to bomb civilians. A nightmare.”

Ah, but maybe that’s the point:

Some experts on the region suggested that Mr. Trump’s very unpredictability was a deterrent in itself, arguing that the killing of General Suleimani may have been so brazen and shocking to Iranian leaders that they will be wary of provoking an American president evidently willing to escalate in ways his predecessors were not.

“Trump actually has a very strong hand vis-à-vis the clerical regime,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA specialist on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an organization that has rallied opposition to Iran’s government. “Whether he chooses to play it, I don’t know. He’s not a strategist. But his tactical game hasn’t been bad. The hit on Suleimani was genius – totally flummoxed his opponent.”

He might nuke Tehran tomorrow, or he might not – but he probably will – or he won’t – so he wins this game. At least that’s the theory. That’s brilliantly played escalation dominance. Or that’s simply a total lack of impulse control and we’re all gonna die!

At least now Americans know just what they signed up for a few years ago. Everyone should have expected this. The man is who he is.

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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