Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Pyrrhic Victory in Iraq

This month, in what was hardly a bump in the news cycle, our war in Iraq ended.  Originally supported by about three-quarters of the American public, three-quarters of the public now consider it a bad decision.  While I am among the one-quarter who always thought it was a bad decision, in the name of fairness, let me begin by examining some of the reasons why the United States and the Iraqi people are better off because of the invasion.

First, Iraq no longer represents a threat to regional security.  While many Americans were long fooled that Saddam Hussein was somehow connected to 9-11, he still represented an old-fashioned type of threat — namely, a dictator with regional ambitions of conquest.  Documents later found at the residence of one of his sons outlined Saddam Hussein’s ground ambitions of a “Greater Iraq” encompassing Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, part of Iran and Palestine.  After initiating wars against Iran and Kuwait, there was always a strong possibility of more Iraqi initiated conflicts in the years to come.

Second, the Iraqi people are and will be better off in the long-term without Saddam Hussein.  Excluding war-deaths, Hussein’s regime was likely responsible for murdering over a hundred thousand Kurds and Shiites during his 25 year reign, and would have likely continued doing so until he died and passed the reins of power off to his equally sociopathic sons.  Aside from the deaths and the hundreds of thousands of acts of  imprisonment and tortured, Iraq under Hussein was a pariah state with an economy that reflected that status.  Sanctions, war, mismanagement, and elite plundering of the economy left oil-rich Iraq as one of the poorer countries in the world.  Since the invasion, the average Iraqi earns about four times as much as he did during 2000.

Given these benefits, why can’t we say the Iraqi war was wise decision?  In short, it’s about the costs and tradeoffs of the war.  Without 9-11, there would have been no Iraq invasion in the context of the “war on terror.”  Yet, while terrorism claimed the lives of 2974 (mostly) Americans on 9-11, the war against terror in Iraq cost another 4485 American (and over 300 coalition troop) lives — not to mention thousands of permanent injuries.

This, of course, pales in comparison to the Iraq lives lost.  Most estimates range around one hundred thousand violent Iraq deaths since 2003.  To what degree these deaths could have been avoided had the Bush administration been better prepared for the aftermath of the invasion will always be a source of debate, but we Americans are, in part, responsible for these deaths even if they were the result of foolishness and overconfidence rather than intention.

Beyond the immediate human costs are the financial costs, which are estimated at almost one trillion American dollars, and like to exceed that in the future.  If the money had not been spent, the total U.S. debt, and the interest we incur from it, would be about ten percent smaller.  Had the money been invested in other priorities, one can only imagine the advances and innovations that could have been made in a range of scientific and medical fields (as an example that is close to home, more federal money was spent on an average day in Iraq than has been spent in the last five years on spinal research).  Had the money been spent on foreign aid, it would have approximated our projected total foreign aid budget for the next 25 years.  Imagine the goodwill that would have brought the United States?

Instead, neither the international community nor the American public will have the same level of trust in American government to lead military operations abroad for years to come.  While greater prudence in launching future “preventative wars” is likely a good thing, history may view the Iraq war as the beginning of the end of unquestioned American global predominance along with our country’s ability to effect the mostly positive changes it has in the world over the last century.

Despite this week’s political instability and bombings in Iraq, it is hard to see the country either slipping back into civil war or a leader as brutal as Saddam Hussein rising to power again.  In this sense we won.  But just as the Greek leader Pyrrhus reportedly said in 279 B.C. after suffering severe losses in a “successful’ battle against the Romans, “one more such victory, and we shall be undone.”

Bombing Iran: Israel can’t, America won’t

When I was Israel two years ago, my cousin, who had accompanied me, took a side trip  down to the Red Sea town of Eilat.  Our tour guide told him to look for the military planes that were taking off constantly from the town, as the Israeli Air Force was preparing for strikes on Iran.  Those planes are certainly still making their training flights, but why no attacks?

Early in November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that a variety of circumstantial evidence suggests that Iran’s nuclear program may be directed at eventually developing a nuclear weapon.  Despite the claims of Iranian leaders that their nuclear program is intended solely as a means of providing the country an additional source of power, it comes as no surprise to much of the rest of the world that the development of an atomic bomb is at least being explored as an option.

Prior to and in the wake of the report, politicians and pundits alike have weighed in on their thoughts about the use of military strikes to avert the potential of an Iranian bomb. Last week, Republican candidates Romney, Gingrich, and Cain all expressed their support for bombing Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon.  Three weeks ago, posted three op-eds on one day that either supported military action against Iran or suggested it was imminent.

Predictions of an attack on Iran have been going on for years.  For over half a decade, pundits have been trying to make a name for themselves by being the ones who correctly predicted an upcoming attack on Iran.  But it’s not happened, not yet, anyway.  Why?

One reason is that Iran’s nuclear program has continually progressed more slowly than expected, continually beguiling experts who have suggested that Iran’s bomb-making capability is right-around-the-corner.  Partially this is due to successful efforts to stymie Iran’s program through sanctions and the highly successful Stuxnet worm that apparently set back Iranian efforts to enrich uranium by months, if not years.  Partially it’s also due to the fact that enriching weapons grade uranium is a time consuming, capital intensive task under the most favorable circumstances.

However, Iran will likely be able to develop a bomb in the coming decade if it so chooses.  Does this mean that, if Iran presses forward with its nuclear program that Israel or the United States will use force to stop it?

Probably not, because Israel can not and the United States will not.  Let’s start with the matter of Israel.  Despite the public bluster coming from Israeli politicians, it is unlikely that Israel would be capable of launching the sustained air campaign required to convincingly end Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In the past, Israel has successfully launched air raids that have destroyed nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.  However, those were limited, centralized nuclear power plants with little resemblance to Iran’s nuclear facilities, which have been buried, hardened, and dispersed throughout the country.  It would take weeks or months of a sustained bombing campaign to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, not an overnight raid.

On top of the length of the campaign, Israel would have to contend with one of the more sophisticated air defense systems in the world.  Destroying Iran’s air defense system would, in itself, likely be a major and costly undertaking.

Finally, there is the issue of how to get there.  Iran lies over a thousand miles from Israel.  To reach it would require flying across either Syria and Iraq, Jordan and Iraq, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia (or an extremely long, and unlikely, flight path around the Arabian Peninsula).  Flying across Syria week after week would require engaging another country’s air force and air defenses.  Turkey would never give its consent, and has a more formidable military than Iran.  While it’s possible that Saudi Arabia might turn a blind eye (and protest publicly) if Israeli flew a raid over its territory in order to attack its Iranian rival, the Kingdom’s leaders could never politically assent to the sustained use of Saudi airspace.

That leaves flying across Jordan and Iraq.  While Jordan could conceivably (although unlikely) consent to such overflights, flying across Iraq would either require U.S. consent in the near future, or destruction of an infant Iraqi Air force several years down the road once the U.S. ceases to provide a surrogate air force to the country.

If the U.S. were willing to provide the go-ahead to Israel while still patrolling the skies of Iraq, it is likely we would simply take care of business on our own.  However, despite the capabilities of the U.S. to launch such an attack, the diplomatic consequences would be severe.  The recovery of America’s leadership standing in the world would be severely damaged as we bombed yet another Muslim country.  Despite its philosophical opposition to Iranian Shi’ism, Al Qaeda would witness a new resurgence as their West versus Islam narrative gained new traction.  Western countries would themselves be divided, and relations with Russia, China, Pakistan, and much of the lesser developed world would be strained even further.

Lastly, extremist, nationalist elements in Iran would be emboldened further, to the detriment of pro-democracy groups, cementing autocratic theocracy for years to come.  Iran’s leaders would let the country’s murderous intelligence forces off-the-leash and allow operatives to conduct terrorist-type attacks against the U.S. and its allies around the world.

Given the miscalculations involving Iraq’s WMD program a decade ago and the negative implications for the U.S. standing and security around the world, any U.S. leader, even a Republican one, will shy away from simply launching attacks without compelling proof that Iran was just about to test a nuclear bomb.  Since such compelling proof is unlikely to exist until Iran actually detonates a weapon, the world might have to get use to the idea of a nuclear Iran just like it has had to accept a nuclear North Korea.  Like the case with North Korea, accepting that the Iranians might choose to build a bomb might be an undesirable scenario, but sometimes the choices made in international relations are about the best worst options.