We Don't Have Good Options With Turkey and Iran—We'll Have to Work Hard to Get Them
Why did President Trump throw America's Kurdish allies under the bus and give Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan the green light to invade northern Syria? Sen. Lindsey Graham, a consistent Trump ally, tweeted, "This decision to abandon our Kurdish allies and turn Syria over to Russia, Iran and Turkey will put every radical Islamist on steroids. Shot in the arm to the bad guys. Devastating for the good guys." Kurdish militias conducted most of the on-the-ground fight against ISIS.
In an evident response to criticism from inside his own camp, President Trump tweeted: "As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)."
Sadly, the president is flailing. The optics are terrible. Why would he agree to allow the Turkish army to invade Syria's Kurdish zone, risking a Turkish slaughter of the Kurds? Turkey has conducted a dirty civil war against its Kurdish minority since 1980 that has left tens of thousands dead.
Part of the answer is that Trump simply doesn't want to risk American soldiers to solve other people's problems. But a more compelling answer lies in the panic of the U.S. foreign policy establishment at Turkey's moves toward Russia and China. I wrote in Asia Times Aug. 22:
I have warned of Turkey’s descent into near-bankruptcy since 2014, and reiterated this warning on several occasions prior to the collapse of Turkey’s lira this summer. On August 10, when the crisis struck with full force, I argued in this newspaper that China would buy up Turkey on the cheap. On August 21 the Chinese financial news outlet The Asset wrote: “Economic crisis in Turkey is forcing the embattled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reach out for financial support, leaving the door open for China to grasp a not-to-be-missed opportunity to accelerate its Belt & Road ambitions in the region.”
Meanwhile, Turkey has purchased Russia's S-400 air defense system rather than the American Patriot system. Russia's system is much better than our obsolete and limited Patriot. By an unfortunate coincidence, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was a lobbyist for the Patriot's manufacturer, Raytheon. The U.S. canceled sales of the F-35 to Turkey in retaliation, and Turkey is now considering buying Russian fighter planes.
"Don't let Turkey defect to Russia," wrote Wall Street Journal foreign policy columnist Walter Russell Mead earlier this year. Mead's colleague at the Hudson Institute, Michael Doran, has urged the U.S. to "salvage its strategic alliance with Turkey." They have a point, although the S-400 is the least of our problems. China will absorb Turkey into its technocratic empire and turn the Turkish economy into a branch of China's. Turkey is broke and China has money, and China has the technology that Turkey needs to recover.
Mead and Doran have a point, but not a solution. Doran and I were on the same foreign policy panel at a Washington conference in July, where he argued that we needed Turkey as a counterweight to Iran. In my view, that will do no good at all. Not only do we have no good options for Turkey, but we have no good options for Iran.
President Trump fired former National Security Adviser John Bolton for a number of reasons. One was Bolton's predilection for military action. No competent military authority I know thinks that the United States has any effective military options against Iran at the moment, short of an all-out aerial attack. That's the result of two decades of neglect of military technology, as well as our complacency with respect to Iran's "asymmetric warfare" capability.
Our Patriot and Hawk air defense systems can't hit anything under 150 meters, and Iranian drones and cruise missiles can hug the ground to find their targets -- as they did in the September attack on Saudi oil installations. Our ship-based Aegis defensive system can be swamped by large numbers of Iranian short-range cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and (most of all) ordinary artillery at distances of a few dozen miles from the Iranian coast. Iran now has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, including state-of-the-art Chinese weapons as well as its homemade knockoffs. It has artillery dug in on the coast of the Persian Gulf.
The Saudis don't want a war with Iran, because they never would find out who won. The U.S. Navy doesn't want to blockade Iran because it might lose some ships. A regional war would push the oil price up to levels that would trigger a world recession and hurt an already-slowing U.S. economy.
How did we get into this mess? The George W. Bush administration wasted trillions of dollars on a wild goose chase after Middle East democracy, following neo-conservative advice to export democracy. Instead of updating our weapons systems, we wasted blood and treasure on an illusion. Obama responded by strangling the military budget and degrading our mission. The big defense contractors didn't mind; they got to sell the same outdated systems to the Pentagon at premium prices.
A tenth of the money we wasted on the Quixotesque quest for Middle East democracy would have given us the weapons to foil Iran, intimidate Turkey, and keep Russia and China out of the region.
Last month I consulted (once again) with the ghost of Cardinal Richelieu, and published the interview in Asia Times. It's re-posted below for convenience.
What should Trump do? Get rid of the Raytheon lobbyist in the top slot at Pentagon and hand the job to the undersecretary for research and engineering, Michael Griffin. Drastically reconfigure the defense budget to address the next generation of threats--everything from Iranian drones to Chinese hypervelocity cruise missiles. Stop building aircraft carriers (they're sitting ducks for Chinese missiles and submarines). Shut down the CYA (they spell it wrong at Langley) and build a new intelligence service from scratch. Give the Turks an ultimatum that keeps them away from the Kurds. There are a few other things I could suggest, but only in private in a room swept for bugs and recording devices. Just ask yourself: "What would Richelieu do?"
The problem isn't that the emperor has no clothes, but that the empire has no tailors.
The secret ossuary of the Cartusian monks deep below the Paris sewers no longer was accessible. “Stick around long enough, and you’ll turn into a theme park,” I mumbled; Spengler’s Universal Law #14. Seven years ago I had descended into the primeval muck many levels below the Pont d’Alma – the Bridge of Souls – at the entrance to the sewers of Paris, and there I first spoke with the spirit of Cardinal Richelieu. In the meantime tour groups had taken over the premises and crowds of schoolchildren gawked where the specters of the French past once haunted. The way was shut.
But I refused to admit defeat. I needed to consult the Cardinal. I left messages on the Dark Web, and at length arranged a rendezvous with a wizened old monk at an absinthe bar on the Faubourg St Denis. He sold me a virtual reality visor and showed me how to download the corresponding app on my smartphone. He told me to come at the stroke of midnight to 21 Place des Vosges, on the oldest square in Paris, where the Cardinal had resided for a dozen years.
The square was empty when I donned the visor and activated the app. Instantly the space was thick with spirits. Marie Antoinette bore her severed head like a jack-o-lantern, while Danton and Robespierre held their respective heads up in a lively debate. A spectral chorus line from the Folies Bérgere shadowed a dark figure with reverence. As the shade approached me, I discerned in its faint purple glow the features of Richelieu.
“Zut!,” said the ghost. “It’s you again. What do you want this time?” He looked like Charlton Heston in The Three Musketeers, but he sounded like Maurice Chevalier. The chorus girls giggled.
“Please, Eminence – grant me a few moments from your eternal sojourn,” I implored.
“Be quick about it,” Richelieu said. “As you can see, I have company.” The chorus girls giggled again.
I got right to the point. “What should we do about Iran?,” I asked. “We can’t allow them to attack the oil facilities of Saudi Arabia unpunished.”
“Why don’t you bomb them?,” the Cardinal grimaced maliciously.
“Your Eminence knows as well as I do that Iran would respond by firing its medium-range missiles at its neighbors’ oil installations, and stop the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf. Of course, we could destroy Iran, but the outcome would be a disaster for the world economy.”
“Then why not blockade them?”
“As Your Eminence surely is aware, Iran has shore batteries dug into the coast of the Persian Gulf, and might be able to sink an American ship or two, not to mention some other nasty surprises.”
“Perhaps you should employ covert operations to overthrow the regime.”
I was becoming exasperated. “Your Eminence doubtless is informed that in 2011 Iran’s counterintelligence broke up an American spy network, by detecting CIA communications via public websites. Iran showed the system to China, and the Chinese rounded up dozens of American spies,” I replied.
“Then at very least you might reinforce Saudi Arabia’s defenses against the drones and cruise missiles that Iran used to attack the Abqaiq refinery,” the ghost taunted.
“Our Patriot anti-missile system is useless against low-flying drones directed by operators on the ground, as Your Eminence well knows. The only air defense system designed for this kind of threat is the Israeli Iron Dome, but it is a delicate matter for the Saudis to buy arms from Israel.”
The ghostly Cardinal grinned contemptuously. “Since you know the answers to all of your questions, why are you wasting my time?”
“Are you saying that we should do nothing at all?,” I remonstrated.
“Do not ask stupid questions, and do not put even stupider words into my mouth. You have painted yourself into a corner, mon ami. First, you destroyed the only Sunni government that Iran feared, namely that of Saddam Hussein. Second, you stood godfather to an Iraqi Shiite regime in the name of majority rule, and thus turned Iran’s mortal enemy into an Iranian ally, where Iranian Revolutionary Guards direct Shiite militias who are more powerful than the regular army. Third, you armed Sunni rebels in Syria, which brought Russia into the theater as an ally of Iran. Fourth, you relied on the same Shiite militias to degrade ISIS, and gave legitimacy to Iran’s de facto occupation of Iraq. For 15 years you have done everything possible to enhance Iran’s power, except for the economic sanctions, which immiserated the Iranians without constraining the Revolutionary Guards. Do not imagine that you can undo this in a day.”
Richelieu continued: “Your military is beholden to defense contractors who have saddled you with an outdated air defense, and your intelligence services are the playpen of bumbling bureaucrats. You do not even have the technical means to ameliorate the situation on the ground.”
“Your military is beholden to defense contractors who have saddled you with an outdated air defense, and your intelligence services are the playpen of bumbling bureaucrats”
“Then what should we do about Iran?,” I implored the shade.
“First, ask the right question, you silly American,” said the shade of Richelieu.
“Please, Eminence: What is the right question?” The cardinal raised a spectral hand as if to dismiss me.
The spectral chorus of the Folies Bergère broke in with a hellish parody of Cole Porter: “You do something to us that nobody else can do. Do, Richelieu, do, what you do so well!” they sang, their ectoplasmic legs high-kicking in chorus.
“Well, ladies, since you ask so nicely,” the Cardinal said, “the right question is, ‘What should we do about the world’?”
“What does that mean?” As soon as the question popped out of my mouth I felt like an imbecile.
“It means simply to look at the world map and consider your position. Ten years ago you could have bombed Iran with impunity, and justified it as retaliation for the deaths of American soldiers at the hands of Iran’s minions in Iraq. But now your stupidity has brought other players to the party whom you cannot ignore. China is Iran’s largest trading partner, and most importantly its supplier of missiles and missile technology. Russia has parlayed modest resources into a major power role. Turkey has turned Iran’s misery into an important source of revenue, helping it to circumvent your sanctions.”
“But we are not on the best of terms with Russia, China or Turkey just now.”
“Your weakness,” gurgled Richelieu, “is of your own making. You cannot tell China that you can do without its trade, and expect it to forfeit its lucrative trade with Iran – let alone to help you out of a cul-de-sac. You cannot place sanctions on Russia and expect Russia to help you sanction Iran. All three countries are rubbing your nose into your problem by conducting joint naval exercises.”
“Are you saying that we have to strike a deal with China and Russia to keep Iran under control?”
“Do I have to draw you a picture?,” the Cardinal retorted, as a trickle of ectoplasmic drool appeared on his chin. “Fifteen years ago America could have anything it wanted within the realm of possibility, but it chose something outside the realm of possibility, namely to remake the world in its own image. As a result you have squandered your substance and dissipated your morale. Now you must choose carefully what you want. You cannot incite the enmity of China and Russia, for example, and at the same time constrain Iran. Do whatever you like. Except as a source of amusement it is of no concern to me.”
I wanted to ask another question, but the virtual reality program had gone haywire. A chasm began to open across the Place des Vosges, leaving an endless void beneath. The crowd of Gallic ghosts fled. I tried to run but my feet seemed rooted to the ground. I tried to rip off the visor but it stuck to my head, and the ground vanished beneath my feet. I plunged into the abyss, tumbling and falling until I lost consciousness.
I awoke next to an empty bottle of absinthe and a copy of the China Daily.