Curiouser and curiouser. Iranian “students” sack the British embassy in Tehran. The Quds Force contracts with a Mexican “Zeta” cartel hit man to assassinate the Saudi ambassador whilst dining in Washington. Computers in Iran’s nuclear complex are struck by a “Stuxnet” cyber-weapon. A “mysterious explosion” at a military base near Tehran kills the “architect” of Iran’s missile program.
Probably God alone can connect these dots, but the number of dots is rising rapidly. It’s beginning to look like there’s a thinly veiled, increasingly violent, global cloak-and-dagger game afoot that New York Times columnist Roger Cohen describes – in mostly approving tones – as the “doctrine of silence.” Cohen does have legal reservations, but also wonders whether there won’t be “repayment in kind” for the attacks on Iran.
But the presumption that repayment will be “in kind,” that there won’t be larger consequences strikes me as both dangerously optimistic and questionable strategy. It almost certainly violates the fundamental Clausewitzian principle: understand the nature of the conflict. We’re fixated on the Iranian nuclear program while the Tehran regime has its eyes on the real prize: the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East.
In this larger contest, trends must look pretty good in Tehran. The regime has seen off the challenge of its domestic opposition in brutal, but effective, style. It’s been given a gift by the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq and only need wait for the accelerating bug-out from Afghanistan. Its proxy in Syria is in some trouble (though it’s unclear how much or for how long), but its formerly troubled proxy in Lebanon is solidly entrenched. Traditionally hostile Sunni Arab regimes are either in domestic disarray – Egypt – or disoriented by new levels of U.S. fecklessness – Saudi Arabia.
It may be that things look pretty good to the Obama White House, as well, and to too-clever-by-half pundits who get tingles from covert action – I await the inevitable David Ignatius column. When things look good to both sides, the pattern is likely to continue and to expand.
So this might be a last opportunity to formulate a larger strategy for dealing with Iran, and for defining what would really constitute success. Spooky operations are fine as far as they go, but rarely achieve significant strategic results. The United States is, indeed, in a low-level war with Iran, and no one particularly wants to see it get bigger. On the other hand, wars have a logic of their own, and the presumption that everything is under control – that all repayments will be “in kind” and somehow proportionate – in not the best basis for planning. What is now merely curious might easily become deeply compelling.
We are not well prepared for a larger war. We’re not prepared domestically, diplomatically, or militarily. Even a successful small-scale Iranian attack here would be a profound shock. The British and French may be with us (or in front of us, hence the attack on the British embassy) when it comes to sanctions, but they have little appetite or capability for any next step; China and Russia object to further sanctions. And we’re not only retreating from the region but in the process of a larger defense drawdown.
Cohen contrasts the Obama “silence doctrine” to the Bush post-9/11 doctrine of invasion and regime change. But the larger lessons of the Bush years are that you don’t always get to fight the war you want, that the enemy gets a vote, and – most of all – that there can be a very steep price if you misjudge that character of the conflict. Or, more simply, don’t start a war you don’t know how to end.