April 7, 2020

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Trump, Obama, Iran and "unintended consequences" @stavridisj


James Stavridis, the retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, wrote an op-ed that was published in various newspapers over this past week:

This tactical success is not matched by an articulated strategic approach from the administration of President Donald Trump. Think of chess, a game the Persians refined: Trump has taken one of the opponent’s most powerful pieces off the board. Good. Yet there’s no reason to think he has a plan to ultimately defeat a clever opponent who still has many capable moves available.

And perhaps most concerningly, there are an increasing number of unintended consequences beginning to emerge — several of which could have a disproportionate impact on global events. The effects of Soleimani’s death will ripple from Baghdad to Tel Aviv to Nairobi to South America.

I agree that there should be a strategy and that there are always unintended consequences for any action. I disagree that the unintended consequences only happen when there is not a sound strategy – they happen all the time.

Stavridis’ examples, though, seem a bit half-baked themselves.

Let’s start with Venezuela. Over the past couple of days, there has been an apparent inflection point as the corrupt regime of Nicolas Maduro has attempted to unseat the legally elected leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido. Maduro has used the typical heavy-handed techniques, including physically blocking Guaido and other anti-regime elected officials from the assembly, while supporting a regime puppet to lead it. Why is Maduro suddenly emboldened? In part, no doubt, because he knows the U.S. administration is focused on Iran, not watching events in Latin America closely. Unintended consequence.

Are the US foreign and defense establishments really so incompetent that they are “focused” on only one area of the world and helpless in all others? If that is the case, this isn’t a case of unintended consequences – it is a case of the US being unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. Whether this was part of Maduro’s calculus has nothing to do with whether the US can handle it.

Also, some analysts think that Latin America should thank the US for taking out Soleimani.

How about East Africa? On Sunday morning, three Americans were killed in Kenya, the latest of a string of attacks against U.S. interests by the terrorist group al-Shabab. Members of the group, which is associated with al-Qaeda, stormed an air base shared by U.S. troops and Kenyan forces and damaged American aircraft in addition to killing one U.S. service member and two civilian contractors. Al-Shabab watches CNN like every other terrorist group, and is well aware that the “unblinking eye” of U.S. intelligence collection has shifted its gaze to Iran. Unintended consequence.

Interesting theory. Here’s another: On December 29,  the US struck at Al Shabab terrorists, killing 4, in retaliation for a deadly attack that killed 79 shortly beforehand.

Why does Stavridis assume that this attack had more to do with Soleimani than revenge for the US attack in Somalia? His theory seems like a stretch, to put it mildly.

Then there is Israel, which faces an enormous threat from Iran’s Lebanese proxy force, Hezbollah, which has tens of thousands of surface-to-surface missiles directed against America’s closest friend in the region. While most Israelis are happy to see Soleimani dead, there is understandable concern about whether Iran will energize the Hezbollah missile force against Israel. The Israelis have many tools at their disposal to degrade that threat, but a massive rocket attack on Israel would change the strategic calculus of the Middle East significantly. Unintended consequence.

If anything, this was an assumed consequence – the very reason why Trump gave Netanyahu a heads up about the strike. Yet this consequence hasn’t happened yet, and Lebanese turmoil makes it seem unlikely at this point. Why is something that hasn’t happened considered an unintended consequence?

New drama unfolding in the Iraqi parliament will probably lead to the departure of the last 5,000 American troops from that very divided nation. At one time, of course, the U.S. had more than 180,000 troops in Iraq. The final tranche of military ground power is there primarily to destroy the Islamic State, but its secondary purpose is to be helpful in countering the strong Iranian influence in Iraq. One of the principal goals of Iran — and of Soleimani himself — was to ensure that the U.S. left the region generally, and especially that it depart Iraq. It will be ironic in the extreme if Soleimani’s death ends up ensuring his key goal: the U.S. finally exiting Iraq after so many years and so much blood and treasure lost, squandering its ability to shape events across the Middle East. Unintended consequence.

Again, this does not seem nearly as likely a consequence as Stavridis assumes.

On Iraq’s western border, important operations against the Islamic State have been “paused.” Why? Because U.S. forces are taking defensive measures to keep people and assets safe against the inevitable Iranian response. This is prudent on the part of the Defense Department, of course, but it gives the terrorists a breather. And make no mistake, the embers of ISIS are still quite capable of flaring back up in both Iraq and Syria. Unintended consequence.

If the hit on Someimani had been part of a brilliant strategic plan, wouldn’t this have happened anyway? And, again, nothing has actually happened.

A consequence is something that actually happens as a result of another action, and Stavridis has not shown a single one.

Then the article becomes a bit bizarre:

Based on what information has been made public and my own experience, I support the administration’s decision to take out Soleimani.
But the consequences, especially the unintended ones, are going to set back U.S. efforts in the Middle East and around the world. You can’t escape the law of history.

If he supports killing Soleimani, then the consequences are by his own definition not as consequential. If he thinks that it is going to set back US interests, then why support the hit?

Beyond that, there is a problem with his basic assumptions. The Obama administration did have a strategy for Iran – a strategy that was terrible, based on wishful thinking and inaccurate assumptions, a strategy that had a direct line to allow Iran to build nuclear weapons, albeit delayed for a few years.

Which means that not all strategies are good.

I have no idea if Trump has a real strategy for Iran, but my guess is that he has the outline of one: pushing for regime change. Soleimani’s death fits nicely with that strategy. But no matter how good one’s strategy is, you can’t guarantee the results you want.

The irony is that the supposed unintended consequences of Trump’s moves have not come to fruition. How many times can we say that about well-developed strategies?

This is a truly bizarre op-ed, all the more so because Stavridis always seemed to be a level headed person.

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