Friday, January 3, 2020

US-Iran: Allies and Proxies Be Damned

I have turned down a couple of radio hits to talk about this, because I don't want to be asked about the Iraqi and Iranian politics all of this stuff in the aftermath of the assassination of Qassem Suleiman.  The joy of blogging is that I can talk about what I want and not be asked about stuff outside my limited area of expertise.

So, let's just focus on the alliance politics of all of this.  American allies were not consulted or even alerted, apparently.  If the British weren't, then I doubt that the Canadians or Germans were.  Now we have reports of US planes carrying troops to the region being turned back from Turkey (will update if that is wrong).   Just raising these two examples indicates this is really a poor time for the US to ramp things up in the Mideast--the US alliance with Turkey is in tatters after the Syria shenanigans over the past several months AND the UK's ability to be both reliable ally and whisperer are both greatly diminished thanks to Brexit.  This attack and escalation with Iran put other troops in harm's way, such as the Canadians who are leading the NATO mission in Iraq.  Would have been nice to put them on alert, if one were a good ally.  One of the basics of war in the 21st (and 20th) century is to get one's allies in place ahead of time.  Scrambling mid-war to put an alliance or coalition together is a bad idea.   

As I tweeted last night and have discussed here repeatedly, one of the basic concepts in International Relations is the alliance dilemma (Glenn Snyder and Patricia Weitsman).  That allies fear two things: being abandoned by an ally when one is needed and being dragged into a war that one does not want.  Either an alliance is too loose or too tight.  Because Trump is an uncertainty engine, he has the amazing ability to make allies fear both at the same time.  South Korea gets pushed around for not giving the US enough dollars for defense at the same time that the US is engaged in a war of words and escalating symbolic measures that might risk war.  At this point in time, the best guarantee for South Korea is still the US troops in South Korea--but before, they were there to deter a North Korean attack.  Now, in more than a few South Korean eyes, they are there to prevent the US from unilaterally striking North Korea.  

A second core reality is that allies and proxies have their own domestic politics.  Yes, this attack will be complicated for the Democrats--how to salute the death of an adversary yet criticize a messed up process and potentially dangerous outcomes--but it is a bit simpler for most of the other relevant players:
  1. This is not going to lead to an uprising in Iran, contrary to Ari Fleisher and other "flowers in the streets" folks who appeared on Fox.  It will make it harder for folks to protest the Iranian government because, guess what, Iran is now at war.
  2. While Sunnis in Iraq might be thrilled, they are not in charge.  The Iraqi government has been receiving much aid from Iran, and this attack may have killed a key Iraqi government official.  So, expect to see much noise from the Iraqi parliament, including motions to eject the Americans from Iraq.  This attack is part of a series of escalations where the US was supposed to be coordinating with Iraq about attacks on Iraqi soil and was not.  
  3. Another unilateral effort by the US in the Mideast is going to make it harder for any European politician to stand with Trump.  2003 all over again?  Maybe not quite, but it has already gotten harder for politicians in Europe to work with the US since Trump is so reviled.  
  4. Israel?  Damned if I know--their domestic politics is so screwed up--a third election underway in about a year.
 Of course, these are all second/third order consequences.  Trump's team only focused on the immediate consequence--the US killed a bad guy.  Reminds me of Iraq 2003 where the Bush team also was focused on a singular outcome--getting Hussein--despite all of the potential (and realized ultimately) second/third order consequences--huge $ cost, serving as recruiting videos for terrorist organizations, empowering Iran, weakening the effort in Afghanistan, etc.  I opposed that war partly because I thought the team involved--Rummy and his band of ideologues--was incapable of running the war well.  This time, well, Trump's team makes Rummy's team appear thoughtful and humble.  


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