Iran, America, Poor Leadership, and the Thucydides Trap

Rather than fear, terrible decisions made in arrogance and without reflection may have made war inevitable

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) January 5, 2020

Here is the unedited version of an article published today by Al Bawaba where major edits drastically changing the focus of the piece were made without consultation or my approval. The editorial line felt discussing Trump’s unfitness for office and the Cuban Missile Crisis were “asides” that were “highly subjective” (Game of Thrones? Maybe, but the points are well-accented by that reference, too), but since such considerations are objectively important and specifically central to this article I felt the need to publish in full here.
Trump Soleimani
NY Post/AFP via Getty Images/AP

“The truest cause (alêthestatê prophasis) I consider to be the one that was least evident in public discussion (logos). I believe that the Athenians, because they had grown in power and terrified the Spartans, made war inevitable (anankasai).” Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.23

WASHINGTON—The past week has been a week of incredibly dramatic and historic escalations between Iran and the U.S. in the Middle East—specifically in Iraq—that have put both countries dramatically closer to war than at any time in years, possibly decades.

Climate of Escalation in an Increasingly Unstable Arena

After some relatively banal but escalating tit-for-tat, first came what were dramatic attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, involving pro-Iranian militias and almost certainly orchestrated by Iran.  This was a very bold move on the part of Iran, to say the least.  They may or may not have been inspired in part by Trump being under siege from the U.S. House of Representatives and its impeachment of him, and with Trump, we know domestic concerns are rarely far from his foreign policy moves (hell, that’s exactly why Trump has been impeached).

Just as dramatic an escalation, perhaps even more so, was American President Donald Trump’s ordering a strike to kill one of Iran’s top generals and almost certainly a man involved in orchestrating the attacks against the U.S. Embassy: Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force and the mastermind behind Iran’s military adventures abroad, especially in Iraq and Syria.  Over many years, he at times targeted American military personnel (killing hundreds and injuring thousands), other times he targeted ISIS.

Make no mistake about it: not only is the entire region from Yemen and Saudi Arabia through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Iran, and Afghanistan all ripe like tinder before a conflagration, that conflagration may have already started and there may be little to no chance of putting it out before it spreads and consumes much.  In fact, it is hard to see how things do not erupt.

Before these latest developments, things were already terrible in the region:

A Horrible Game of Chicken

In the context of the above Iraq situation, Iran was clearly hoping to drum up anti-American sentiment to counter anti-Iranian sentiment that had been boiling over.  Whatever Iranian leaders thought America might do in response, they probably figured that a senior government official like Soleimani was off limits; they are probably as surprised as anyone else.

Soleimani has been pretty much the only Iranian military official you would see with any regularity in news reports: in other words, Iran has no replacement of his stature, ability, and experience, and his death is a devastating blow to Iran’s senior leadership and its political, intelligence, and military objectives as Soleimani was perhaps the most effective operator in the Middle East.

We are in that Great Events of History realm where things tend to take on momentum and will of their own, where managing what happens becomes more difficult and far messier.  During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, we had serious minds with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev exercising leadership and guiding events, each acting against pressure for further escalation from their own hardliners, a situation that still nearly plunged the world into nuclear war.  Before the dust on this current crisis settles, we must be prepared to be forced to watch as helpless bystanders watching powerful people make bad decision after bad decision (even a good decision taken in a vacuum often becomes a bad one).

The current U.S. Commander in Chief is facing his greatest test by far right now, and there is little in his acts as president prior to now that should reassure anyone in this moment: his public statements and the corroborated reporting that comes from sources within his own Administration (many of whom have parted ways with that Administration) speak for themselves and demolish the idea that the perception of the President of the United States as unfit for office has anything to do with partisanship.  The man whom his own top chosen advisors have repeatedly called him unfit for office is now in charge of managing a dangerous crisis he knows little about that may already be a war.

At the same time, the Iranian leadership has shown its willingness to gamble irresponsibly and increasingly so, behavior the nuclear deal Trump had abandoned was designed to mitigate.  After scrapping the deal, Trump and his Administration only offered threats to Iran, and Iran responded with its own increasing hostility, increasing its aggressiveness in Yemen and against U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia (who knows where we would be if there had been sustained, robust engagement after that deal had been implemented, not to say necessarily crises would have been avoided, but better to try to avoid them than instigate them).

Thus, both American and Iranian leadership have shown predilections that shun de-escalation and opt for escalation and surprise.  But in the geopolitical situation just described, surprise is the last thing those hoping for peace and stability should want, and such sudden, dramatic escalations ring of the series of unfortunate events that escalated into World War I.  A year ago, I wrote for West Point’s Modern War Institute of the urgent lessons of WWI precisely with scenarios like our current one in mind, and I fear that the lessons I noted as urgent are going unheeded by leadership on both sides of this unfolding struggle.

Clear Acts, Unclear Consequences

The collateral damage will be severe and not geographically contained.

Like never before, Iraq is about to become (even more so) a battlefield between the U.S. and Iran, threatening to undermine everything that the U.S. has tried to build there since 2003.  There are places in Iraq where U.S. troops are vulnerable, and this is also true in the few places where U.S. troops remain in Syria.

Let us also not forget that Russia and Iran are allies, even if uneasy ones: Soleimani had briefed Russia’s leadership in Moscow before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to militarily intervene in Syria, the Iranian becoming an important factor in convincing the Russians to intervene and in planning their military support of the Assad regime, a close ally of both Iran and Russia; Soleimani even met personally with Putin and continued to coordinate with Russian military leaders after Russian forces began fighting in Syria.  Those Russian military forces are deployed throughout Syria, sometimes between spots where Iranian and Iranian-supported forces may try to take on U.S. forces and their remaining allies.  Russia—which is itself engaged in clearly hostile actions against the United States—could accidentally and/or deliberately be drawn into this fight explicitly and/or covertly, adding yet another perilous dimension to all this.

If this is good news for anyone, it’s ISIS.  The main fighters against ISIS were the U.S., the Kurds, and Iran.  The U.S. and Iran will now focus their attention on each other, and Trump’s sad withdrawal from northern Syria means the Kurds are reeling and trying to defend themselves from the Turks now more than ISIS.  The terrorist group will most certainly exploit this situation to further its comeback, a dimension that only makes this mess even messier.

Consider, too, that U.S., Israeli, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Iranian leaders are all facing domestic political crises even (mostly) without war within their borders, and that, especially in the cases of President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a conflict with Iran would be desirable politically as each are facing concerted threats to remove them from office through extraelectoral means and they would be eager to rally their publics to focus on external threats, diverting attention from their own misconduct.

Iran, likewise, would love to quell its domestic unrest by focusing on a conflict with the U.S.

Conversely, the hapless leaders of Lebanon and Iraq are at this moment terrified of their countries being torn asunder as proxy battlegrounds and will very much be at the mercy of the decisions of Washington and Tehran.  Conflicts in Yemen and Afghanistan (the latter on Iran’s border and with plenty of vulnerable U.S. troops) would also see further escalation and intervention as Iran and the U.S. will seek to harm each other wherever they can, and we have not even gotten to the global reach of Hezbollah.

After such a move as the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, it would be politically impossible for Iran not to respond massively.  And it will be politically impossible for the U.S. to not respond to that.  I have written of the general pressures of the anarchic interstate system before, and we have here a moment where pressure classically reduces the options of the belligerents.  We really may be in a Thucydides trap, where war is almost inevitable and takes on a mind and momentum of its own, a reference to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’s opinion that the fear of one power (Sparta) concerning the rise in power of another (Athens) made war inevitable (1.23).

Another piece I wrote for the Modern War Institute at West Point looked at the chaos of the final season of Game of Thrones as instructive for reality, and we are certainly staring at chaos now even as we help to unleash it.  The question is, will leaders look at chaos as a “ladder,” as Lord “Littlefinger” Petyr Baelish did, or as something to be avoided, “a gaping pit,” as Lord Varys did?  The Varyses seem few and far between when it comes to those leaders driving current events.

A Gaping Pit

One would hope leaders on both sides are considering all these things, and have plans for how to deal with these multiple varied flashpoints.  History has shown that such hope is often misplaced, that the cooler heads of the Cuban Missile Crisis are more the exception than the norm.  The above axes I have mentioned are by no means all the fronts on which a regional conflict could quickly become a more widespread war and even a global one, one which may even involve Russia, Israel, Turkey, multiple terrorist groups, and crucial oil shipping routes, with leaders mixing domestic politics and foreign policy in ways not for the better of either.  From the 2020 election to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the security of Jordan and a further inflaming of the Sunni-Shiite conflict, there are a number of fronts beyond the direct confrontation between the U.S. and Iran that could be consumed by the chaos unfolding before our very eyes, “swallowed” by its “gaping pit.”

Actions in the next days, weeks, and months could set the board for the next century, much in the way World War I did and, in many ways, set the map for many of the preexisting conflicts into which this American-Iranian conflict will play and which will play into it.  Every step, every act, every missile right now carries a weight that, if not properly respected (and it seems clear it will not be) risks throwing not just the Middle East, but the world into chaos, bloodshed, displacement, and recession that will make most recent conflicts seem quaint by comparison.

For all the talk of how the U.S. might fall into a Thucydides trap with  China, here it is in one now, with Iran.  Nothing was inevitable about coming to this point, but now that we are here, some disturbing events are now inevitable.  This is, of course, the most likely outcome from the beginning since the Trump Administration abandoned the nuclear deal that was stemming most if not all (but perhaps even all) of the current dynamics leading to this juncture.  One would hope a “lesson” to not casually abandon logical diplomacy would emerge, but then perhaps the bar is so low as to be meaningless?

In Trump, we have a brutal reminder about how history can be dangerously ignored at will to the peril of all.  He will not read this article, nor any of the countless others calling for reflection on the sheer weightiness of this moment.  Will we read thoughtful pieces?  Will our voting public?  Iran will now inevitably be front-and-center in the 2020 election, forcing voters to at least partly realize they are not just voting on Trump, but on the kind of U.S. foreign policy they want, the kind of world they want to help create.  How any of this turns out remains to be seen, but simply hoping for cooler heads to prevail, as was the case with the brink of nuclear war in 1962, seems today naïve at best and irresponsible at worst, with our current cast of characters misstepping from Mar-a-Lago to Persia and altogether too many other locations in a conflict that will refuse to be contained.

© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981 and on his news website, Real Context News.  He also just recently authored A Song of Gas and Politics: How Ukraine Is at the Center of Trump-Russia.

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