Small Wars

Persian Poker

The stakes couldn't be higher as Israel's prime minister comes to Washington. But is Obama ready to go all in?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

On March 5, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House. The Iranian nuclear program will undoubtedly be the prime subject of the meeting, the outcome of which could decide for the Israeli leader whether to send Israel’s air force to bomb Iran.

In a recent column, I discussed the time pressure weighing on Netanyahu and his military advisers, and why the sanctions effort organized by Obama and European leaders is not working fast enough for Israel. At next week’s meeting, Netanyahu may ask that Obama publicly issue an ultimatum threatening U.S. military action unless Iran lays itself bare to international nuclear inspectors. Without such a dramatic escalation, Netanyahu and his colleagues may conclude that Israel will have to attack Iran alone, and soon.

Obama will be loath to commit the United States to such a drastic step to resolve a problem it sees as having much less urgency. With an Israeli strike imminent, Obama must select between two courses of action. First, he can attempt to forestall war by joining and reinforcing the Israeli military threat against Iran, in the hope that such a strong commitment will convince Iranian leaders to open their nuclear program to full inspections, or risk losing it to bombing. A March 1 Bloomberg article hinted at 11th-hour support from some officials inside the Obama administration for this course of action. And recent suggestions by unnamed Pentagon officials that Iran’s Fordow mountain uranium enrichment site might not be impregnable after all, as previously suggested, could be a late-arriving signal of U.S. resolve.

However, such a late conversion to a hawkish stance would be a great gamble for Obama. Although the president has declared his opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon and noted that he is considering "all options," he and administration officials have refrained from publicly committing to "red lines" that would convince Iran to open its program or reassure Israel that Iran will not become a nuclear threat. Opposition to a U.S. military strike on Iran seems to be the overwhelming majority view inside Washington, a view affirmed at a recent presentation by retired Adm. William Fallon — former commander of both the Central and Pacific Commands — and retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, recently vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Iranian leaders would thus likely view a sudden U.S. ultimatum as a bluff. And given the paramount importance of the nuclear program to the Iranian regime, it would likely be a bluff they see as worth calling.

For Obama, that leaves the alternative of accepting an Israeli strike on Iran and minimizing the consequences to the United States. Obama will want the Strait of Hormuz to remain open, for oil markets to remain calm, and for U.S. allies in the region to feel secure. He will attempt to accomplish this goal by having U.S. air and naval forces around the Persian Gulf make an ostentatious display, by sending reinforcements to the region, by calling on Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production, and by releasing crude oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Obama will also seek to avoid Iranian retaliation against the United States by disavowing the Israeli strike, but also threatening severe retaliation against Iran should it attempt terror attacks against U.S. targets.

Obama will thus hope to keep the United States out of the conflict and minimize damage to the U.S. economy. But subsequent events may complicate this aspiration. For example, it is highly likely that Israeli strike aircraft would fly through undefended Iraqi airspace en route to their targets in Iran. Israeli pilots may even conduct aerial refueling over Iraq in order to maximize their range and time over Iran. Indeed, the Israeli air force may need several nights over Iran to complete mission objectives and respond to Iranian retaliation against Israel.

White House officials will need to plan for a request from Baghdad for assistance defending Iraqi air space. Obama will naturally be highly reluctant to send U.S. forces back into Iraq or set up a confrontation with Israeli jets. Then there’s the possibility that Iran might volunteer or be invited to defend Iraq against Israeli encroachment. Should the United States still decline to get involved, Saudi or Turkish intervention into Iraq, in response to an Iranian move, would then seem possible. At that point, the likelihood of regional conflict would increase, with unpredictable consequences for U.S. interests.

As I discussed in my Feb. 10 column, Israel can only delay Iran’s nuclear progress. Israel will have to plan for the certainty that after an attack, Iran’s leaders will restart the program and move toward nuclear weapons capability as rapidly as possible. Israel will then have to sporadically re-strike Iran and expand its targeting to include Iran’s electrical grid, telecommunications system, oil industry, and over time the wider Iranian economy. Iran will naturally attempt to defend itself in every way it can.

Such an open-ended conflict would represent a failure of the international security system. Statesmen will have to ponder why modern international security institutions were not able to prevent a conflict that has long been foreseen.

Small Wars Journal launches its Latin America research center

This week, Small Wars Journal launched El Centro, a new website dedicated to researching small wars in the Americas. El Centro begins its work with 17 fellows, researchers and contributors, an introductory reading list, and will later add a Spanish-language version of the site.

El Centro will publish scholarship and essays on the hemisphere’s criminal, cartel, and gang threats, as well as the drug market, migration, and the challenges these forces present to societies and governments on both continents.

Do the struggles between the region’s legitimate security forces and the gangs and cartels they are fighting constitute an insurgency, like those U.S. policymakers have become familiar with over the past decade? And if so, are counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics and principles a wise response?

Two recent essays at El Centro argue both sides of this debate. Michael Burgoyne, a major in the U.S. Army and a foreign area officer assigned to U.S. Southern Command, asserts that some of the principles found in the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency field manual were effective against Colombia’s Medellin and Cali drug cartels. According to Burgoyne, the Brazilian government’s fight against Rio de Janeiro’s favela gangs provided an even better test for the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine. With these examples, Burgoyne asserts that U.S. COIN doctrine may be useful against criminal insurgencies elsewhere in the region, including in Mexico.

Burgoyne first establishes that the Colombian and Brazilian cases were in fact insurgencies by explaining how these criminal enterprises grew to become true national security threats in the eyes of local legitimate authorities. According to Burgoyne, the Colombian case showed that when security forces applied U.S. COIN principles such as intelligence-driven targeted operations, small unit empowerment, and support for host nation forces, they could make progress against the cartels. However, the paramount COIN principle of protecting the civilian population in order to win it over to the government’s side did not apply in Colombia. Financial targeting of the cartels’ assets and direct action operations against cartel leaders were more useful.

In Rio, by contrast, Burgoyne finds that broad U.S. COIN principles such as population security, improved services, economic development, and better governance were tools Brazilian authorities effectively employed against the favela gangs. He infers that with a few adjustments, policymakers should consider applying U.S. COIN doctrine to other criminal insurgencies in the region, including Mexico’s drug war.

Brad Freden, a veteran U.S. Foreign Service Officer with experience in Mexico, dissents from Burgoyne’s conclusions. Freden does not agree that Mexico faces an insurgency, and instead asserts that Mexico’s cartels are simply criminal organizations with no interest in political control or public support — they just want to be left alone to run their enterprises. Nor is Mexico a failed state; according to Freden, its security forces are capable of quickly asserting their power anywhere within Mexico on short notice. Freden concludes that since Mexico’s cartels are apolitical and don’t threaten the state, there is no insurgency.

While rejecting the COIN model, Freden does allow for the possibility of applying some COIN principles in Mexico on an a la carte basis. In fact, the Mexican government has applied COIN a la carte for some time. For example, it has used military forces for policing, while corrupt local police forces have been disbanded and rebuilt. With U.S. assistance, Mexico has established intelligence fusion centers, a technique the U.S. military learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to improve collaboration across agencies and to speed up decision-making among security forces. Finally, Mexico is increasingly employing a "whole of government" approach to improve security and intelligence-gathering against the cartels.

It’s an ongoing debate, and one that that will continue at El Centro.

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