Belmont Club

The Trump Doctrine

The Trump Doctrine
An oil tanker is on fire in the sea of Oman, Thursday, June 13, 2019. Two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked on Thursday, an assault that left one ablaze and adrift as sailors were evacuated from both vessels and the U.S. Navy rushed to assist amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran. (AP Photo/ISNA)

When the U.S. launched cyberstrikes at Iran’s missile control systems in response to an Iranian shoot-down of a U.S. drone near the Gulf of Oman, it surprised pundits. Donald Trump was widely expected by the press to bomb something in return.

The political left was unprepared for the possibility that Trump would not run true to their stereotype. The Gulf of Oman was already being compared to the Gulf of Tonkin. “From the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898 to the U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, maritime incidents, shrouded in the fog of uncertainty, have lured the United States into wars on foreign shoals.” Members of Congress had already geared up in anticipation to block the war that was sure to come. “As the prospect of a confrontation with Iran continues to rise, an increasing number of members of Congress have a new objective: ensuring President Trump does not launch a war without their approval.”

But he didn’t bomb anything biological.

Even though the Washington Post sources called the strike “a long-in-the-making cyberattack that took down Iranian missile control computers,” it still caught conventional wisdom by surprise. Just as the Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval engagement conducted beyond the visual range of opposing fleets, the recent exchange of strikes marks the first public battle between two nations in which only automata died. Pundits just didn’t know what to make of it. However, matters are unlikely to end there. The New York Times speculated it would eventually stray into more intuitive territory which could:

[I]nclude a wide range of activities such as additional cyberattacks, clandestine operations aimed at disabling boats used by Iranians to conduct shipping attacks, and covert operations inside Iran aimed at fomenting more unrest. The United States might also look for ways to divide or undermine the effectiveness of Iranian proxy groups….

One former American military commander said there was a range of options that the Pentagon and the C.I.A. could pursue that could keep Iran off balance but that would not have “crystal-clear attribution” to the United States. An American operation that was not publicly announced could still deter further action by Tehran, if Iran understood what United States operatives had done, the former officer said. The types of responses the United States could undertake are broad if the United States was willing to use the same tactics that Iran has mastered, said Sean McFate, a professor at the National Defense University and the author of “The New Rules of War.”

“If we want to fight back, do it in the shadows,” he said.

Mr. McFate said the United States could put a bounty on Iran’s paramilitary and proxy forces. That would create an incentive for mercenary forces to take on Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies.

It will not be a game. That only robotic agents have perished so far does not mean the end of war, only a change of its forms. The effects of virtual conflict are real, the economic cost stupendous. A successful cyberattack inflicts considerable financial damage on the target, rendering vital equipment inoperable. It costs money to diagnose the damage, patch it and test the fix. Before the system can be restored it would be necessary to ensure there was no residual malware. Although Iran has denied any damage to its missiles, the unbridled fury of their public response indirectly confirms they are hurt. Reuters reports: “Trump signed an executive order imposing … sanctions, which U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said would lock billions of dollars more in Iranian assets.”

Standard responses have been disoriented by this unfamiliar nonkinetic type of conflict. For example, “Trump was asked by a reporter what, if any, exit strategy he may have if he decides to attack Iran in response to any action that may warrant it from the U.S. military. Trump responded that he wasn’t thinking about any exit strategy because he didn’t believe he needed one.”

“You’re not going to need an exit strategy,” Trump answered, with at least one person laughing in response. “I don’t need exit strategies.”

Users on the social media site Twitter, upon hearing Trump’s answer to the question, expressed bewilderment and outrage.

Some disbelieved that Trump understood what the term meant in the first place

Yet in fairness, what can “exit strategy” mean when there are no troops to withdraw, none having been committed in the first place?  The great thing about WW2-style warfare was that everybody knew where they stood. You were a civilian or you wore a uniform. Wars began when they were declared. They ended when enemies surrendered when one political system prevailed over another.

After the War in Iraq proved too inconvenient, politicians have sought ways to invisibly fight it at the edges, with people we don’t want to talk about using solutions we’d rather not discuss. The familiar tropes of Hollywood war movies have therefore been replaced by a strategy that views the destruction of billions of dollars in economic value as more effective than sinking a dozen Iran patrol boats and drowning a few hundred sailors.

The problem is that in contrast to the straightforward brutalities of old-school war, this approach may result in a stalemate. Indeed the real weakness of the new Trump Strategy is not that it lacks an exit but that it lacks an entry. As Tanya Goudsouzian pointed out in Le Monde, it has proved extremely difficult to effect regime change using “war by other means” alone. “Over the years, the preferred US weapon has been economic and financial sanctions. When used against North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and others, they succeeded only in punishing economies and people.”

So far hybrid warfare has proved capable of devastating their countries but not toppling their leaders. Despite ration lines in Cuba, a Venezuelan economy so bad even Russian arms dealers are wary of selling to them, a North Korea heading for another starvation winter, the brutal regimes in these countries rule in perfect safety, willing if necessary to stay in power to the death of their last wretched citizen. Reuters paints the haunting picture of towns in a socialist Venezuela reduced to a “primitive isolation” that may well be the eventual fate of Iran.

From the peaks of the Andes to Venezuela’s sweltering southern savannahs, the collapse of basic services including power, telephone and internet has left many towns struggling to survive. … Residents rarely travel to nearby cities, due to a lack of public transportation, growing fuel shortages and the prohibitive cost of consumer goods. … The United Nations says 4 million citizens have fled Venezuela, 3.3 million of them since 2015.

And still Maduro remains, sustained by the unlimited repression of a country now too weak to even free itself. If the past is any guide, there will no more Gulf of Tonkins nor toppling of Saddam statues. Instead of regime change and occupation, there will be a system of isolation and perpetual quarantine, where countries like Iran and Cuba are contained in a kind of limbo, confirmed in their malice but relatively impotent save for the unfortunate who stray into their grasp. Their hulks may still be there in 50 years.

Welcome to the world where open warfare has been abolished and secret warfare never ends.

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