WaPo’s Ignatius gets “mugged by reality” on Iran

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius had a column in today’s paper that gave a muddled, fairly escalatory take on the continuing crisis in the Persian Gulf between the Iranian government and the forces lined up against it.

USS Mahan, in the Gulf (Wikimedia commons)

His lede (intro) is fairly straightforward:

It’s a good rule never to start a fight you’re not eager to finish. But the Trump administration and its Arab allies now seem caught in a version of that dilemma with Iran, which is proving to be a tougher adversary than Washington expected.

And this observation was pointed and astute:

For U.S. officials, one message is that the Iranians are much more militant and risk-tolerant than American analysts had believed.

As was the point he made a little later on, namely that,

Saudi Arabia… Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates…have made huge investments in U.S. military systems that, it turns out, leave them vulnerable.

However, elsewhere, his analysis is much more muddled, and in some places downright worrying. Especially here:

The United States has enormous military power in the Persian Gulf, enough to obliterate Iran many times over. But the unpleasant fact is that Iran hasn’t been deterred by this force. That’s a situation strategic planners dread, because it can drive a nation toward conflict simply to demonstrate its credibility and avoid a larger battle.

That paragraph needs reading closely. In the first sentence, what “enormous military power” is he talking about? Iran is a large, geographically diverse country. The only way to “obliterate Iran many times over” would be by using nuclear weapons, which could be launched from U.S. naval vessels inside the gulf — or from far away.

But then, which “nation” is he referring to in that last sentence? I believe it can only be the United States. So he seems to be arguing that the fact of Iran’s apparent current refusal to be “deterred” by the military force Washington has lined up against it makes the United States more likely to escalate against Iran “simply to demonstrate its credibility and avoid a larger battle”?

It is completely unclear how a U.S. escalation would achieve either of those goals. (By the way, one potent critique of the whole argument about strategic “credibility” says that this most often refers to the “credibility” of a political leadership or the strategic stance it adopts in the eyes of its own citizens, rather than in the eyes of any opponent, and that may well be the case here.)

Ignatius concludes his column with these two paragraphs:

The Iran confrontation converges on three painful realities: Iran is now a full-fledged menace to security and oil shipments in the region; any military action against Iran must include some Saudi forces for it to be politically acceptable in the United States; Saudis and Emiratis, seeing anew their vulnerability, are wary of open conflict.

This dangerous chain of events was predictable — and indeed, predicted. Now Trump must decide whether to fight a war he and the country don’t want, or to accommodate an Iran whose truculence he helped create. Welcome to the Middle East, Mr. President.

First let’s take those “three painful realities” one at a time:

Is Iran a “full-fledged menace to security and oil shipments in the region”? Given that Iran is part of “the region”, one could certainly argue that the embargo that Washington unilaterally imposed on Iranian oil shipments has proven a much greater menace to oil shipments in (or, actually, out of) the region than the various attacks that Tehran’s allies have made on oil-extraction/export facilities controlled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. One could also argue that the massive, aggressive-looking U.S. naval presence in the Gulf has done absolutely nothing to resolve the tensions in the region, but rather, has helped to stoke them.

Then, we have the argument that “any military action against Iran must include some Saudi forces for it to be politically acceptable in the United States.” This one is interesting. Right now, Saudi Arabia is pretty toxic within the U.S. political elite. We’re approaching the anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal killing. Saudi Arabia’s mega-lethal war in Yemen is well into its fifth year… I guess the argument Ignatius is making is that if the United States gets into an escalated conflict against Iran that imposes or risks imposing significant pain on the United States (human casualties, or big economic losses), then it cannot do so in circumstances in which this action is seen as having been taken on behalf of Saudi Arabia, as opposed to being taken in alliance with active Saudi armed forces.

Either way, as I noted, the Kingdom and its dreadful Crown Prince are still pretty toxic for Americans. But at least if the Kingdom were seen as facing (and actively facing up to) a clear and present danger, then acting in coalition with them — sort of, like what Pres. George H.W. Bush did with and on behalf of a Kuwaiti royal family that had ignominiously fled from its country back in 1990 — could be seen as acceptable.

So then, we come to the third “painful reality.” (Painful to whom, though, I wonder? Really, only the militarists and the folks who want to overthrow the government of Iran… ) That is, that the“Saudis and Emiratis, seeing anew their vulnerability, are wary of open conflict.”

That much has been clear since at least July — and I wrote about it here in mid-August. It really did not take the Abqaiq attacks of last weekend to make the point, though I suppose the Abqaiq attacks underlined it for members of the U.S. political elite such as Ignatius.

I suppose a good description of David Ignatius at this point is that he’s a reluctant peacenik on Iran: “Trump must decide whether to fight a war he and the country don’t want, or to accommodate an Iran whose truculence he helped create.” Or, you could perhaps describe him as a relative hawk who “got mugged by reality,” in Irving Kristol’s timeless phrase.

Welcome to the new Middle East, Mr. Ignatius. It is one in which massive, weapons-bristling American armadas count for almost nothing; U.S. weapons systems exported very profitably to Gulf Arab countries are proven almost useless in action (except when killing ill-defended Yemenis); Russia is strengthening its ties with Saudi Arabia in many fields; and China establishes a large, solid-looking oil-import tie to Iran.

The Carter Doctrine — which established that “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force” is definitely dead. It was, after all, announced back in January 1980 in response to fears that the Soviet Union (remember that?) might get access to the Gulf via Iran. It was announced in a situation, too, when a large portion of the oil exported by ship from Gulf countries went to Washington’s allies in Europe or elsewhere… and when the United States itself was still a large oil-importer.

Today, nearly 40 yeaers later, we live in a very different world. Now, we are probably on the cusp of seeing the countries of the Persian Gulf become a significant westward terminus of China’s “Belt and Road” system.

Written by

Veteran analyst of global affairs, with a focus on the Middle East. Senior Fellow, Ctr for International Policy. Fuller bio at my Wikipedia page.

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