In the past I have outraged some of my conservative friends by insisting that nation-building in Iraq was a dreadful idea, for two reasons. The first is that it wasted American lives, treasure, and political capital (it certainly helped elect the odious Barack Obama) on a Quixotic commitment to social engineering; the second (and more important) is that it made American forces de facto hostages of Iran, and blocked us from confronting our most urgent enemy. Unpopular as this view was in some parts of the conservative spectrum, it was shared by many senior American officers.
Now Iran feels emboldened to make its move in Iraq. We hear today from AP:
WASHINGTON (AP) — Iranian-backed militias present the most dangerous security threat for Iraq, outpacing al-Qaida-linked terrorists who have been blamed for the spike in violence there, a senior U.S. military officer said Tuesday.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the Shiite militias — together they have several thousand insurgents — are working to keep the Baghdad government weak and isolated. Decisions on the number of types of attacks launched by the three main militia groups, he said, are made inside Iran, including through their ties with the powerful Quds force.
The escalating threat underscores the dangers as the U.S. prepares to pull its troops out by the end of the year. Iraqi officials are discussing whether they want to have some American forces stay in the country past that deadline.
What are we to do about Iran? Our dithering has made the problem much more difficult.
What I understand from well-informed US military sources is that after years of digging its nuclear program into mountainsides, Iran has little fear from surgical strikes, either from Israel or the US. The hardware of its nuclear weapons program is buried too deep, and too dispersed, to be knocked out from the air. To stop the Iranian nuclear program now would require a broader program of destroying Iranian command and control, which means in effect knocking out the Iranian government. My view is that we should have done this yesterday. But it is hard to imagine the Obama administration taking preemptive action against any Muslim country. That means the worst is yet to come.
As America reduces its troop presence in Iran, I am told, American troops still will be hostage to Iranian-backed terrorism, and all the more vulnerable, because they remain deployed where they can be attacked in ever smaller numbers.
I alleged last year that America was paralyzed before the growing Iranian threat by the risk of retaliation against our military personnel:
The chairman of President Barack Obama’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, admitted as much in a March 16, 2009, interview with Charlie Rose: “What I worry about in terms of an attack on Iran is, in addition to the immediate effect, the effect of the attack, it’s the unintended consequences. It’s the further destabilization in the region. It’s how they would respond. We have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat envelope right now [because of the] capability that Iran has across the Gulf. So, I worry about their responses and I worry about it escalating in ways that we couldn’t predict.”
The matter may be out of American hands. The so-called Arab Spring has brought the Sitzkrieg with Iran to a point of crisis. If the Syrian crisis drags on indefinitely and the low-intensity civil war between Saudi-backed Sunnis and Iranian-backed Alawites continues, regional confrontation may be the result. Despite its earlier pretension of engaging all sides, Turkey has had to choose the Sunni side, in part for confessional reasons, and in part because it needs the Saudis urgently to finance its enormous current account deficit (as bad as that of Portugal or Greece).
My old mentor, Norman A. Bailey, a Special Assistant to President Reagan for national security during his first administration, points out that intervening in a Sunni-Shi’ite conflict is nothing new to the United States. One of the “untold stories” of the Reagan administration, he reports, is that America used its influence to prolong the Iran-Iraq war until exhaustion forced both sides to an armistice. If Reagan were president, we would know how to manage this. Of course, if Reagan were president, we never would have gotten into this mess in the first place.
After all our blunders in the Persian Gulf, the best we might expect from the next several years is a low-level standoff between a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia and Iran, with manageable levels of violence in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen (the venue for a Saudi-Iranian proxy war during the last several years). But there is no guarantee that violence will remain at a low level. Iraq may have a full-dress civil war, Turkey might intervene in Syria, and a dozen other things may go wrong.
If the US wants to exert leadership, it will have to deliver a preemptive blow to Iran. Given the utter fecklessness of the Obama administration in its posture towards Libya and Syria, this is unimaginable for the next year and a half. So we are in for a bumpy right. And the security of oil supplies will be at risk and along with it the fragile health of Western economies.