Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 December 2006

Barack Obama and Colin Powell

The Presidential Field Today
Obama's Qualifications
What Powell Could Add

In their collective wisdom, the American people have repudiated the politics of fear, division and hate. The Bush administration will grind on for two more wearying years, but its misguided and divisive revolutionary fervor is spent. From now on, it must work under the watchful oversight of a Democratic Congress and with the knowledge that the people want unity, not division, and honest government, not “spin.”

The Presidential Field Today

It is therefore not too early to think about 2008. The two current putative front runners are Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Does either have what it takes to repair our divided and largely dysfunctional country?

Although trying to re-invent herself as a centrist, Senator Clinton is almost as much a polarizing figure as George W. Bush. Rightly or wrongly, conservatives see her as a “far-left liberal.” Many women resent her for what they see as her having tolerated her own moral and psychological abuse. Her candidacy rubs all the raw wounds left open by our still-ongoing transition between militant feminism and tolerant gender equality.

Through no fault of her own, Senator Clinton also carries much of the baggage of her husband’s presidency and the failed attempt to impeach him. Her candidacy would reopen all those old wounds, to the detriment of the nation and any attempt to reunite it.

Finally, Senator Clinton’s position on the political spectrum is still an enigma. Many of us, including this writer, will find it impossible to evaluate her centrist credentials—let alone discern her moral core—until we draw much closer to the 2008 general election and Senator Clinton finishes re-defining herself.

In the view of this writer and many others, Senator Clinton has no chance of winning a general election, especially against a universally admired figure like John McCain. If you’re a Democrat, you have to recognize a Clinton candidacy for what it is: political suicide.

Senator McCain has a different problem. His moral core is plainly evident. Indeed, his moral leadership is his most attractive quality. He played a key role in reforming campaign financing, preserving the traditional confirmation process for judges, and retaining legal restraints on torture. He has tried—although so far vainly—to steer a middle course on energy and immigration policy as well. In comparison, Senator Clinton’s list of legislative accomplishments is meager, if not non-existent.

Yet McCain, too, carries baggage from the past. Once tarred as a “maverick,” he allowed himself to be overrun by the Bush-Rove juggernaut. Lately he has been too quick to make amends with a runaway regime with which his moral principles clearly and irreconcilably conflict. He is getting on in years, and it is unclear whether he can or will withstand further pressure to bend his principles. The compromises that he may yet have to make in order to win the Republican nomination may cause us all to wish that he had remained a benevolent moderating influence in the Senate.

There is therefore reason to doubt the genuineness of Clinton’s centrist credentials and the durability of McCain’s. Neither has a towering intellect—a quality in such self-evident short supply in the Bush Administration. Is there anyone better?

Obama's Qualifications

From his political debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Senator Barack Obama (D. Ill.) has established himself firmly and irrevocably as a centrist. That quality, combined with his unique life story, has made him the current “rock star” of American politics.

By itself, rock-star celebrity makes many folks uneasy, including this writer. Our last two presidents once achieved that status, seemingly out of nowhere, only to crash and burn, demeaning and damaging our country and our politics in the process. The last thing we need is another “rock star.” What we need is sober, mature and penetrating judgment.

To see whether Barack Obama possesses those qualities, one must read his book, The Audacity of Hope. This writer did so and came away impressed.

In the first 35 pages, Senator Obama describes the origin of our current political polarization, beginning with the upheavals of the civil-rights struggle and the Vietnam-War protest era. Nowhere has this writer seen a more brilliant, penetrating and beautifully written analysis. Not only is there superior intelligence and understanding of what got us where we are; there is a sensible prescription for what ails us. No one can read this work without crediting Obama’s centrism and understanding its personal origins. It is as deeply felt and thoroughly thought out as John McCain’s love for our military or Hillary Clinton’s ambition to become our first female president.

Obama’s books* are not the only testament to his superior intellect. In his law-school days he was President of the Harvard Law Review. This obscure but elite legal publication, edited and partly written by students, selects its leaders purely on merit. The process involves a series of secret ballots reminiscent of the way the College of Cardinals elects a Pope. The most important criterion is writing skill, with ability to lead and control extremely bright and aggressive young minds a close second. Obama’s elected tenure as the Review’s top officer reflects peer evaluation of his writing, analytical and leadership skills, at a young age, by some of the nation’s most talented and egotistical students.

A more recent testament to Obama’s intellect is his ten years teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago School of Law. That school is among the top ten national law schools generally. In constitutional law, it is among the top three. By all accounts Obama was a superb teacher and thinker, whose loss when he went into politics was greatly mourned. With a man like that in the White House, we won’t have to worry about a president “forgetting” that our government has three branches or that Congress and the Supreme Court have important roles to play even in wartime.

Yet intellect, leadership and even a solid grounding in constitutional government are not enough. A president must have a moral core that the nation—all of it—respects.

Here, too, Obama shines. He is a self-confessed and unapologetic Christian. His love for his wife and children glows through every chapter of his book. He makes common cause with the so-called “religious right” in believing that America without God is impossible.

Yet Obama shuns the religious right’s intolerance and absolutism. His is a Christianity secure in faith and humble in intelligence. He not only tolerates, but celebrates, differing beliefs and views, even on such hot-button issues as abortion and homosexuality. Obama has a great mind’s ability to attract people whose faith is absolute, without scaring the hell out of those who value reason over faith and intelligent compromise over absolutism. If anyone is uniquely prepared for the religious struggles we now face at home and abroad, it is Obama.

Given the perfect fit between times and temper, one might suspect that Obama’s tolerance is contrived. I think not. He was the product of a racially mixed marriage. He was raised and educated in Indonesia and in Hawaii, our most racially diverse and arguably most tolerant state. His tolerance and inclusiveness were inbred and appear genuine. He not only talks the talk, but he has walked the walk, since long before he entered politics.

So is Barack Obama the perfect candidate? Is he too good to be real? Every human being has flaws. He must have some. What are they?

So far as this writer can see, Obama has only one serious flaw, and it is obvious. He has no significant experience in military or foreign affairs. Given the time in which we find ourselves, with two foreign wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) in progress and two more (Iran and North Korea) threatening, that is a serious deficiency.

History shows how important that deficiency can be. Many have compared Obama to Jack Kennedy in charisma, self-deprecating humor, and a rare ability to connect with people from every walk of life. Yet Kennedy brought us the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis—which nearly destroyed the world—and the first fateful steps into the quagmire of Vietnam. Whether blame should fall on Kennedy and his crew, or whether his evident inexperience caused the Soviets to test him too severely, are matters for historians to debate. But it is clear that Al Qaeda, Iran, Sunni Iraq and North Korea will be no more gentle in testing an inexperienced new president than were the Soviets in Kennedy’s day.

George W. Bush provides a second example, if one were needed. His experience as a politician comprised six years as governor of Texas. Besides a few tutorials from Condoleezza Rice and Saudi Prince Bandar, he had no knowledge of or experience in foreign affairs when he took office.

Two of Bush’s appointees—Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld—had had some experience in defense years or decades earlier. Yet in their most important single decision, to invade Iraq, all three ultimately ignored the advice of the man with the most thorough, most recent and most relevant experience: Colin Powell.

What Powell Could Add

Colin Powell was the only member of the administration who had served over three decades in the military and had achieved the rank of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. His advice was not to invade. When the decision was made, he advised sending far more troops than Rumsfeld, enough to do the job. The decisions to ignore his mature, expert advice were a triumph of ideology over experience, whose results speak for themselves.

Which brings us to the connection between Powell and Obama. No one—repeat, no one—in public life today has more or better experience, relevant to our current international difficulties, than Colin Powell. His combination of longstanding military leadership with varied and extended cabinet-level civilian responsibility is unique today. It is nearly unique in our nation’s history, shared only by a handful of prominent historical figures like Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Marshall, who gave us the Marshall Plan. Yet Powell has repeatedly refused to run for president, apparently to spare his wife the vicious personal attacks that inevitably accompany presidential politics in our polarized society.

Powell also has another vital quality, which complements Obama’s intellect, youth, energy, charisma, and lack of political baggage. Powell is the only figure of national stature who has a consistent record of demonstrated good judgment—before the fact—on the most important issues of our times. This author has described how Powell’s judgment was right in Gulf I, in Iraq, on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, and on the Chinese spy-plane crisis, which is now nearly forgotten but could have turned this century’s history sharply for the worse. If you are looking for sober, mature, and prudent judgment to correct the impulsive ideological blunders of the last six years, you need look no further than Powell.

Obama’s and Powell’s resumes fit together like hand and glove. Obama has the extraordinary intelligence, the penetrating insight and understanding, the religious faith tempered with reason and tolerance, and the genuine heartfelt centrism to be a great president. He also has the charisma, the “common touch,” the youth, the energy and the lack of political baggage to get elected. Powell has mature, sober judgment, demonstrated repeatedly under fire. He has all the experience that Obama lacks, while refusing to run. Yet despite his enforced gaffe at the United Nations, Powell still enjoys the admiration and respect of the American people, and he has shown no reluctance to serve in appointed positions. Put the two together, and you have an unbeatable combination of brains, energy, tolerance, centrist politics, mature judgment and experience.

It is probably too much to expect that Powell would switch parties and support Senator Obama, far less if his fellow warrior McCain were the Republican nominee. Yet even a slight hint by Powell that he might serve if called on by a president-elect Obama would help put to rest qualms about Obama’s inexperience. This writer, for one, would sleep much better at night knowing that Powell would serve as Secretary of Defense in 2009 no matter who won in 2008. No one else would have anywhere near the same chance of repairing a Pentagon so badly broken by Donald Rumsfeld.

With a mere hint that Powell might serve, Senator Obama’s chief deficiency would fade away. Careful selection of an experienced, senior vice-presidential candidate would also help, but not nearly as much as the expectation of a Powell Pentagon. For no politician who might be asked to serve as vice president could hope to compare with Powell’s unique record of military and Cabinet experience, let alone sober, mature, and ultimately correct judgment under fire.


It is unlikely that our national position will be perceptibly better in 2008 than it is today. Likely Iraq will still be in disarray, and our troops (as Iraqi President Talibani recently requested) will still be there. Likely Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri, or both will still be alive, or their status and whereabouts uncertain. The twin menaces of North Korea and Iran will not go away. Global warming will have progressed two more years, with minimal effort on the part of the Bush Administration to join international efforts to retard it. China will be two years richer, stronger and more polluted, and our trade and budget deficits two years larger. Energy independence will be just as much a dream as it is today. Our inner cities and our secondary education will not have improved perceptibly, and the sterile debate over school vouchers will continue.

These problems are all serious and intractable. In an effort to stay in power, a small clique of radical Republicans, led by evil genius Karl Rove, has distracted attention from these vital problems with such irrelevancies as abortion, homosexual marriage, and hypocritical attacks on leaders’ personal sexual morality. Further distractions of this sort could be disastrous to our nation and the world.

Senator Obama has the intelligence, understanding, and leadership skill to get us out of this morass. His centrism, tolerance, youth, energy and lack of political baggage make him electable. With the participation of Powell, an Obama administration would have experience and maturity, as well as youth and brains. (I would like to say “or someone like Powell,” but unfortunately there is no one in public life remotely like Powell today.)

The combination is irresistible, if only our half-broken political system could figure out how to make it. Let’s hope that Obama and Powell, both men of immense intelligence, love of country and good will, can figure out how. Our collective future may depend on their doing so.

* Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father, was autobiographical.

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23 December 2006

Iran's Christmas Present and the Future

Democracy and What We Do about It

What a wonderful Christmas present to the world! In local elections, Iranians repudiated the apocalyptic policies of their wacky, belligerent President Ahmadinejad. Ordinary Iranians, it seems, are not looking to the Mahdi’s return and want to step back from the brink.

Iran’s local elections make bookends with our own recent congressional elections. Both repudiated foreign policies driven in part by religious extremism. Both showed that reason still prevails, albeit by narrow majorities. Both showed reluctance to let literal and mindless interpretations of ancient scriptures drive modern nations into the Inferno. Jesus Christ—who at last report said “turn the other cheek,” not “Bring it on!”—would be pleased.

This writer has described the likely outcome of the triumph of religious extremism: World War III. But it need not happen. The Iranian elections reflect an important victory. Bad memories of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war seem to have vanquished Iran’s national fantasies of a new and worldwide Islamic Caliphate supposed to solve all mankind’s problems. But that victory is temporary. The mind of Iran still hangs in the balance, and we must help it reach the right decisions.

How can Americans encourage Iran to do the right thing at this critical time? The most important step we can take is to keep quiet, at least publicly. Teddy Roosevelt’s prescription was the right one: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” Now is the time to speak softly, while we prepare our big deterrent stick and hope we won’t have to use it.


It was depressing to see Secretary Rice repeat the president’s mindless policy of refusing to talk with Iran or Syria. She cut her intellectual teeth on the Cold War, and she knows better. That tense conflict saw constant talks with the Soviets, if only to prevent the sort of misunderstanding that almost provoked a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

If talking helped avert that ultimate disaster, surely it can help prevent a general conflagration in the Middle East. Secretary Rice’s attempt to distinguish then from now was sheer sophistry, and she’s bright enough to know it.

We need to talk to Iran for one reason above all: to make sure there is no misunderstanding about our own intentions and capabilities. Iran needs to know five things about us and the real world, and it needs to know them directly (and with nuance) from the highest official levels of our government.

First, Iran needs to know that we have no designs on its territory, people, religions, or government. We should support Iran’s economic, cultural and industrial development, and we should support its eventual entry into the WTO, once Iran has proven convincingly and verifiably that it has no aggressive intentions and is not building tools of aggression.

The “Axis of Evil” talk must stop now. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” under vastly different conditions. The Soviets knew that their own nuclear deterrent prevented any invasion from the West, and Reagan himself assured Gorbachev that the West had no designs on the Russian people and its territory. In contrast, a single nuclear submarine of ours could reduce Iran’s major cities to rubble in fifteen minutes, with little or no immediate consequence to us. That kind of power, coupled with what might reasonably be construed as a threat, has the risk of producing paranoia and encouraging an irrational quest for nuclear weapons. We need to make clear to Iran that we do not intend ever to use that kind of power aggressively or for purposes of regime change.

Second, Iran mullah’s need to know that we are going to take primary responsibility for ensuring a just and permanent solution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, as quickly as possibly. They need to understand that we are going to spare no effort and to twist Israeli arms as hard as possible to this end (while asking our Arab allies to do the same to Palestinian arms). They also need to be told that, if they oppose this process by insisting on an apocalyptic military solution in a quest for regional hegemony, they will be marginalized and will become objects of disdain, derision and distrust throughout the region.

Third, both Iran’s mullahs and its military leaders need to know that we will not tolerate the rise of a new kind of Nazi Germany in the Middle East. They need to understand that economic sanctions are just the first step. They must be told that any armaments beyond those that Iran needs to defend itself from invasion—and the plants to make them—will be destroyed. They should understand that conventional precision air power suffices for that purpose and will be used if necessary.

Fourth, Iran needs to know that its fantasies of destroying Israel are just that. It needs to know that we will use all of our conventional arsenal to protect Israel, including conventionally armed ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, precision guided weapons, and manned and unmanned air power. We need to remind Iran what we did to Zarqawi and the Serb armies in Kosovo (incidentally, protecting Muslims!). We should explain in detail what the same technology can do to fissile-material production facilities. Iran also needs to know that our capability of thermonuclear retaliation backs the nuclear retaliatory capability that everyone presumes Israel has.

In other words, Iran needs to know that pursuing nuclear weapons as a means to national defense, let alone realizing aggressive fantasies, will be pointless, economically wasteful (because the weapons and production plants will be destroyed), and extremely risky. We should also encourage Iran to talk with leaders of all the former Soviet satellite states, which uniformly and voluntarily elected to go non-nuclear after the Soviet Union’s demise. Some of those states have large Muslim populations and Islamic leaders, and maybe they can explain things to Iraq’s leaders in a way that we cannot.

Finally, the Iran’s mullahs need a lesson in physics. Then need to know, intimately and personally, why nuclear weapons have only been used twice, and then only to conclude history’s bloodiest war. These ivory-tower leaders, who live in their heads and inside the Koran, must open their eyes and see what nuclear weapons can do.

Perhaps we should pay, directly or through Muslim intermediaries, for them to visit the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. They need to understand that there is nothing glorious or spiritual about vaporizing human beings or the agonies of terminal radiation sickness. As spiritual men, they need to contemplate both the morality of visiting such destruction on anonymous innocents, plus the risk that it might happen to them.

Iran’s mullahs need to travel and see the world as it is. If we can’t get them to travel, we need to bring the world to them, either through helpful intermediaries or through multimedia productions provided in the course of diplomatic discussion.

So there is a lot that we can say to Iran’s leaders, and perhaps some things that they can say to us.

A lot to be said on both sides might better be said in private. Perhaps there are already “back channels” for this purpose. But back channels have a disadvantage: because they have plausible deniability, they cannot dispel paranoia. Iran needs to hear all these things, officially and directly, from someone in our government at the cabinet level or above. Most of all, the mullahs and their people need to know and believe that no one in the U.S. is about to launch an invasion or a first strike or to try to re-install someone like the Shah.

Democracy and What We Do about It

Ahmadinejad’s belligerence, his apparent intention to arm Iran, and his scapegoating of the Jews are scarily reminiscent of Hitler and Nazi Germany. But the recent electoral rejection of his policies shows that Iran differs from Nazi Germany in one important respect. Democracy, albeit limited, lives in Iran, and it may be on the rise. Apparently the mullahs, unlike Hitler’s Brown Shirts, are not trying to build a totalitarian state.

Under these circumstances, our best policy with regard to Iran’s internal, civilian affairs is to watch, wait and learn. Because many Iranians view us with suspicion and distrust, any direct support from us for reform—far less for any particular candidate or party—would be the kiss of death. Our policy should have two watchwords: (1) hands off and (2) patience.

Above all, we should avoid picking champions. We simply don’t know enough to do so without shooting ourselves in the foot. In Iraq, our placing big bets on Ahmed Chalabi’s supposed “charisma” and “competence” was one of our biggest strategic mistakes. We should learn from that mistake and be humbler in Iran.

Yet that does not mean we should be idle. A large number of expatriate Iranians live in the United States. They speak and read the language and they understand Iran’s culture and history. Most of them are Jews, and many are bright and well-educated professionals. They have no desire to live in an Islamic society, but they have few illusions about changing Iran. What they want is what we all want: an Iran at peace and nonbelligerent, to which they can return to visit and do business without fear. In other words, unlike Ahmed Chalabi’s personal interests in Iraq, their interests are our own. And there are enough of them that we can average out their individual idiosyncrasies and prejudices.

We should recruit these folks by the hundreds to help us keep tabs on what is going on in Iran. They can help us analyze and predict consequences, advise on policy and (where appropriate and necessary) engage in covert action to discover illicit Iranian arms activities. These same people can also help us to decide how, whether and when to support reform in Iran so that we work with Iran’s people, rather than against them. We should go on a full-court press to expand and improve our intelligence capability vis-à-vis Iran.

Rather than prepare for a costly and risky ground invasion, we need to prepare to manage a long, difficult and perhaps uneasy peace, something like a mini Cold War. We need to train lots of analysts and spies to make sure we have good intelligence on precisely what is happening in Iran. Then, where appropriate, we can give democracy there a subtle and secret boost.


The final leg of our policy toward Iran should be deterrence, backed by limited and conventional military force. Neither we nor the world can allow Iran to arm itself for aggressive action, far less with WMD.

World War II taught us the danger of failing to deter a rising aggressor nation. Fortunately, today’s technology and the vast technological gulf between the United States and Iran give us the tools to deter aggressive armament with limited cost and risk. All that effective deterrence requires is the funds to build the means and the will to use them.

Effective deterrence begins by prioritizing threats. Recent events make clear that nuclear weapons and conventional medium- and long-range missiles should be the top priorities. Chemical weapons are a distant third, and biological weapons are virtually negligible. Here’s why.

Nuclear bombs are the aggressor’s perfect weapon. Once he has perfected weapons design (which takes a few years), the weapons are compact and can be delivered by any means: land, sea, or air. There is no defense against them but prevention. They can destroy an entire city and, unless rain washes the fallout away (as it luckily did with Hiroshima and Nagasaki) leave it partly or largely uninhabitable for the centuries required for natural radioactive decay.

Nuclear weapons are especially troubling from a geopolitical perspective because they can be delivered and used secretly. Containers, cars, boats, rail cars and vans can hide them, providing plausible deniability for their use. A secret nuclear attack would leave the victim (even if it possessed nuclear weapons itself) with the Hobson’s choice of doing nothing in response to a devastating attack or visiting similar destruction upon a rival who might be innocent or upon a guilty party’s innocent civilians. Thus nuclear weapons give the utterly ruthless aggressor and the terrorist without moral scruples an asymmetric advantage over those troubled by the prospect of destroying innocents.

For these reasons, the primary focus of foreign and military policy for the twenty-first century must be keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of aggressors, extremists, and terrorists. There is no more important external goal, period.

Medium- and long- range missiles are slightly less troubling because their trajectories can be traced back to their origins. With the earth blanketed by satellites and radar, a first strike is possible, but secrecy is not. An aggressor who fires missiles is always subject to counterattack and retaliation, as Hezbollah learned last summer.

Nevertheless, as Kim Jong Il has discovered, even missiles with conventional warheads can be useful instruments of geopolitical blackmail. Kim’s 10,000 conventional missiles aimed at Seoul give him substantial assurance that he will be able both to build his nukes with impunity and to continue his despotic regime for the rest of his twisted life. There is not much that the rest of the world can do about it, whether or not he has nuclear weapons. Only China has the leverage (food and oil) to deter Kim. But China understandably (in light of its history) fears instability above all else and is therefore reluctant to use that leverage.

Chemical weapons may be effective instruments of terror, but they have only limited use, if any, in warfare. The world discovered this nearly a century ago, when both sides tried poison gas in World War I and eventually abandoned it. Present technology allows whole armies to supply their own uncontaminated food and water, and there are effective (if expensive and inconvenient) precautions against airborne chemical weapons. Add to this the risk that the wind will change and cast airborne chemicals back at those who release them, and you have a good explanation why this century-old technology has been used only for massacres like Saddam’s in Halabja.

As for biological weapons in the form of transmissible plagues (such as smallpox), this writer has explained in detail why that risk is science fiction. A generalized plague would be a sui-genocide bomb if released by the type of disorganized terrorist group or third-world rogue nation likely to consider doing so. If such an aggressor wished to protect its own population from the artificial plague—and in the unlikely event it had the advanced biotechnology needed to do so—it would have to vaccinate or provide an antidote to the entire population that it wanted to protect. There is no way that it could keep such a widespread program secret. The vaccination or antidote-distribution program would give potential victims and the world time to take countermeasures. As for short-range bioweapons like anthrax, they are analogous to chemical weapons and equally ill suited to targeted aggression or warfare.

Thus for now and for the foreseeable future the spread of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is the chief threat to world peace and stability. In comparison, chemical and biological weapons pose secondary and minor risks.

Fortunately, the technology now exists to deter and prevent dangerous regimes, including Iran, from developing these aggressive weapons. While it might be possible to generate chemical or biological weapons in the type of mobile labs that Saddam was once (erroneously) suspected of having, no one can develop nuclear weapons or missiles in a semi-trailer. Missiles are big and need ground launchers or silos, which can be observed from satellites. Developing fissile materials requires a massive, fixed and extremely expensive industrial infrastructure.

Take Iran, for example. It has reportedly chosen to generate fissile material using centrifuge technology. That technology requires many centrifuges, which in turn require massive amounts of electricity—enough to power whole cities. While Iran might hide the centrifuges in underground caverns, it cannot hide the massive electrical infrastructure (generators, transmission lines, etc.) needed to supply them with electricity.

All these things are visible to satellite, and all are vulnerable to destruction from the air. With modern precision weapons, it should be possible to take them out with little damage to surroundings and minimal casualties. Ballistic and cruise missiles with conventional warheads, unmanned aerial vehicles, and even conventional manned air power could be used for this purpose. Since Iran has no present defense against ballistic missiles, submarine-based ballistic missiles converted to conventional warheads could be used to take out these facilities. They might be so effective as to permit a five-minute warning before impact, enough to minimize civilian casualties while destroying immovable targets.

It is essential for peace during this century that the world not shrink from the unpleasant but vital task of deterring questionable regimes from arming themselves with nuclear weapons and aggressive missiles. It is no excuse to say that a rogue regime (North Korea) already has crude nuclear weapons and short-range missiles or that another questionable regime (Pakistan) has a small nuclear arsenal. If the major powers do not call a halt to the spread of these weapons and back it up with a limited but effective conventional military deterrent, the twenty-first century will be far more dangerous and insecure than it need be. Iran should be a test case.


The right policy for Iran is thus the three Ds: diplomacy, democracy, and deterrence. The first two, plus the inherent difficulty of generating enough enriched uranium for a bomb, should give us time to perfect and deploy the third.

But the third D—deterrence—is the linchpin and the backstop. We have the technology to deter and prevent Iran from acquiring weapons that could allow it to destabilize the region and perhaps start World War III. Our development and deployment of that technology would cost a small fraction of what we have already spent in Iraq. We should not allow Iran, or any other secondary power, to checkmate world peace with nuclear weapons or medium-range missiles. So as to be ready if the need arises, we should begin to move our pieces now.

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10 December 2006

Avoiding World War III

How It Might Start: the Tinderbox
   The Balkans Redux
   Nazi Germany Redux?
Why World War III Will be Nuclear
How to Stop It
Unmanned Air Power: Deterrence for the Twenty-First Century

While the best minds among our military and policy makers dither about Iraq, World War III draws closer and closer.

It is now clear where it might start and generally why. The risk of it going nuclear is quite plain. While it may avoid becoming a worldwide holocaust, war is unpredictable. If we were to use the same color coding for World War III as for terrorism, we should now be changing our warning signs from orange to red.

How It Might Start: the Tinderbox

World War I started with a match in a tinderbox: the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in the middle of the volatile Balkans. World War II started with failure to deter a potent and unabashed aggressor, Nazi Germany, from an armaments binge. Now we have both of these conditions, and in the very same region.

   The Balkans Redux

For sixty years, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has festered and grown. Each side, in its own way, has become more intransigent.

Now the entire world is taking sides. For decades the United States and (to a lesser extent) Western Europe have supported Israel. The motives are complex. They include guilt for the Holocaust and for failing to accept refugee Jews, admiration for Israel’s pluck, economic success and democracy, and (if the truth be told) a European preference to have Jews live somewhere else. Now Israel’s supporters include American Jews and fundamentalists who believe that God is on Israel’s side. The fundamentalists go even further: they want the conflict to cause Armageddon and bring on the second coming of Christ.

The Palestinians also have their champions: 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide. For a long time, they were splintered, isolated, ignorant and disorganized. Yet we now have Al-Jazeera, feeding Islamic people worldwide daily images of Palestinian suffering and oppression.

It does not matter whether you think those images are Islamist propaganda or the first unbiased coverage of what is really happening in Palestine. Morality and who is “right” are irrelevant now. What matters is consequences: the temperature of Muslims worldwide is rising, and the rate of rise is accelerating rapidly.

As if all this were not bad enough, the Muslim world itself seems to be fracturing violently. There are two fault lines. The first lies between Muslims who believe that jihad is a metaphorical and spiritual struggle (the modern view), and those who believe it is a coming, obligatory and very real war with Israel and the West. Again, it does not matter which group is “right,“ far less which group better interprets the Koran. What matters is probable consequences.

We all know from history what happens to moderates when tensions rise and war threatens. The entire twentieth century is a morbid example. What happened to moderates in Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution? in Nazi Germany? in Imperial Japan? in Serbia? When the affected population comprises not just a single nation, but nearly one-fourth of humanity, you have to pay attention.

Although much more ancient, the second fault line among Muslims has been largely hidden until recently. It lies between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. More secular than religious, the struggle between these two peoples is all about power and domination. It has been festering for over a millennium. Now our own misguided adventure in Iraq has revivified and inflamed it.

These developments have made the Middle East every bit as volatile as the Balkans just before World War I. Historians generally recognize that war as the most senselessly destructive (given the level of then-existing technology) in world history. Yet it started with a match in a tinderbox. To call the Middle East a tinderbox today would be an understatement.

Yet there is more. There is Iran. Islamic but not predominantly Arab, this successor to the old Persian Empire longs to revive its ancient glory. At the same time, its predominantly Shiite people yearn to avenge a millennium of oppression by their Sunni brothers, who—until the present War in Iraq—controlled most of the Mideast’’s oil and therefore enjoyed better Western support.

As any Russian knows, the most dangerous times in history are those when long-oppressed peoples see a chance to throw off their yoke. So it is with the long-suffering Shiites. Both in Iraq and elsewhere, they are ready to burst their millennial bonds of subjugation and repay their Sunni overlords for suffering and oppression. The conditions in the region are therefore ripe for the perfect storm.

   Nazi Germany Redux?

Yet there is still more. While the analogy is far from complete, Iran is beginning to resemble Nazi Germany in several respects. It is arming itself at a rapid rate. It appears to be running out the diplomatic clock, in order to give itself time to develop nuclear weapons. It is run by folk who keep their real agenda secret, not only from the world but also from Iran’s people. All this recalls the Nazi Party in the early 1930s, and German re-armament a bit later.

Now Iran has a new leader, named Ahmadinejad. He promises glory for his people, in part to distract them from his economic failure. He calls for more room for the Palestinians, through the destruction of Israel. Isn’t that reminiscent of the Nazis’ call for Lebensraum (living room) in pre-war Europe?

Like Nazi Germany, Iran has convenient scapegoats. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) its scapegoats are the same as the Nazis’, or at least their descendants. To be sure, there are differences: this time the Jews are external “enemies,” not Iran’s own. More important—and more significant for the rest of the world—this time the scapegoated Jews have more than the Torah for their protection. They are presumed to have nuclear weapons.

Again, it does not matter whom you believe, who you think is “right,” or whose side you are on. What matters is consequences. This time an attempt to annihilate the Jews will not produce death camps, but a nuclear response. If that happens, the Holy Land and the world will never be the same again, whether or not Armageddon follows.

The final point of similarity between Iran and Nazi Germany is its “road map.” Long before he came to power, Hitler told the world, in his book Mein Kampf, exactly what he intended to do. The world laughed. About a decade later, 50 million people lay dead, and no one was laughing.

Today Ahmadinejad appears intent on destroying the nation of Israel. Like our own racists, who once talked of shipping African-Americans to Africa, he offers an alternative: finding the Jews of Israel a new home. His voice is softer than Hitler’s; he is less of a caricature of the evil madman. He even writes long letters to our president offering to “reason” with him. But does this make him less dangerous than Hitler or more?

Until last summer, one could give Ahmadinejad the benefit of the doubt. Everyone has evil thoughts and sometimes says evil things. Even Jimmy Carter had lust in his heart. It would be foolish to worry about everyone’s fantasies and threats, even if expressed in speech.

But last summer Iran took the first concrete steps to realize Ahmadinejad’s expressed goals. It began a limited war with Israel, using Hezbollah as a proxy to fire its weapons. While not as stark or successful as the Nazis’ bloodless annexation of Austria (anschluss), that was the first overt act. Under the old English and American common law, an overt act turns intention into crime.

The result was the utter devastation of southern Lebanon, followed by Hezbollah’s rise and the unexpected resurgence of Syria’s influence in Lebanon. As I write this, a political crisis in Lebanon threatens a resurgence of civil war there, even as civil war also rages in Iraq. Unintended consequences these may have been, but all resulted directly from Iran’s overt act.

So let’s add up the digits. First, a long-festering conflict, slowly and inexorably, is causing much of the globe to take sides. Second, a millennial split between moderates and extremists divides a religion practiced by one-fourth of humanity, and the moderates (in the short term) can only lose. Third, there is a resurgence of the ancient conflict between Sunni and Shia, with oil riches for stakes and for fuel. Fourth, a major regional power is arming itself and threatening war, using the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a pretext but having regional hegemony as its goal. Fifth, a civil war between Sunni and Shia rages in Iraq, triggered by our intervention. Sixth, a similar civil war threatens Lebanon, triggered by that same regional power’s first overt act of aggression.

Who (besides historians) remembers what Archduke Ferdinand stood for, or why his assassin struck? The cause of his death is an historical footnote, but World War I is not. There are enough potential Archduke Ferdinands in the Middle East today to require a playbook.

Virtually every country in the region (but Iraq) has a modern, well equipped army and a credible air force. The analogy to the Balkans in 1914 is compelling. In so many unintended ways, an odd event could get those armies rolling or the planes in the air. Assassins could strike Grand Ayatollah Sistani, or leaders of Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia. An Islamist coup could occur. A division commander in an Arab nation could take matters into his own hands. Israel could launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear or missile facilities, and Iran could decide that the time is ripe for a ground war. Islamic extremists could attempt to destroy the big oil fields, or Shiites could attempt to capture them from Sunnis. With so much turmoil in the Middle East, the risks of miscalculation and unintended consequences are too numerous to count.

Why World War III Will be Nuclear

If it comes, World War III is likely to be nuclear. The reason is simple. Any general war is likely to involve Israel. And this time Israel is unlikely to be able to defend itself without nuclear weapons.

Among the many dangerous notions regarding the Middle East is the comforting myth of Israeli military superiority, if not invincibility. To be sure, Hitler’s Holocaust forced a Darwinian struggle upon Europe’s Jews. Only the smartest and toughest survived, and they founded Israel. Those who fled to Zion and founded the new nation were among the toughest, smartest and most resilient people on the planet. They had to be, in order to survive Hitler’s “final solution.”

But that generation has nearly left the stage. Immigrant Jews from all over the world have filled Israel’s population, and most of them want peace. Israel’s last major war was over thirty years ago. The hardness of the continual struggle for survival that began with the Holocaust and ended with the Yom Kippur War and peace with Egypt simply could not be sustained.

At the same time, Israel’s enemies are now vastly more numerous, better equipped, and better motivated. Some 140 million Arab Muslims surround Israel. If you include Iranian Persians, the number is closer to 200 million. Israel’s population is 7 million, of which about five million are Jews. Thus Israel’s enemies and potential enemies outnumber its Jews forty to one. As for arms, the United States and the Soviet Union both gave them to Israel’s Arab neighbors and Iran during the Cold War, and the United States and Russia continued to do so afterward. Both still continue to do so to this day. Israel maintains a technological edge, but its neighbors’ and enemies’ arsenals are far from primitive.

But the most important point is motivation. Think of the average Arab in a tank. In the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, he was not a Palestinian. He was an average Egyptian, Jordanian or Syrian being paid (not very much) to fight someone else’s war. Nothing that he cared about—not his home, his honor, or his own country—was at stake. No wonder the Israelis won so easily. Today, the same tank driver is likely to be a closet Islamic extremist, inflamed with pictures of oppression from Al-Jazeera and inspired by visions of martyrdom and jihad. Or he might be a member of Hamas or Hezbollah driving a tank “borrowed” from a neighbor.

Not only that: now the Palestinians have their own irregulars in Hamas and Hezbollah. Whatever else these groups may be, they lack neither courage nor motivation. Last summer’s proxy war with Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon exploded the myth of Israeli superiority, forcing the Israeli troops to withdraw after taking heavy casualties. Unfortunately, the lesson of that encounter seems not have sunk in, either in Israel or among its allies. The easy victories over Arab armies are gone forever.

But the real problem is Iran. We think of Iran as a semi-comical place, run by enigmatic clerics with beards and a loopy and sometimes ludicrous president. But in so doing, we make a grave mistake.

Iran is a formidable regional power and becoming more so as it arms itself. It has a population of seventy million people. In comparison, Germany had a population of 65 million in 1930, before it started gobbling up the rest of Europe. Iran also resembles pre-war Germany in another respect. Just as Germany had a cadre of battle-hardened soldiers who had fought in World War I some twenty years before, Iran has a huge cadre of battle-hardened soldiers who fought in its eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s.

Neither Israel nor any other country in the Middle East has experience in ground combat as recent, as intense, or as longstanding as Iran’s. The losses that Iran suffered may cause its people to shun war, but, if war comes, Iran will be a formidable enemy. Just like appeasing Hitler, underestimating Iran’s military potential, or ignoring its expressed intentions, is the surest way to bring on war.

Iran’s power does not stop with its own considerable military potential. It also has existing and future proxies. Hamas and Hezbollah (which may soon control Lebanon) already have shown their potential to act as foot soldiers in Iran’s crusade against Israel.

Who is to say that others proxies will not join a war against Israel if that time comes? Who is to say that an Arab nation like Syria, or even Saudi Arabia, will not assist Iran, covertly or overtly, if war comes? What will keep “renegade” units from joining the battle against Israel, perhaps with tacit governmental support and plausible deniability?

Finally, geography matters. Israel is a very small country, in both geography and population. Many of the world’s major urban areas have bigger populations and more space. With a single mistake or defeat, especially in an air war, Israel could be history. Before that happens, however, Israel would use the nuclear arsenal that everyone assumes it has.

It is worth spending a moment to spin out that terrible scenario. Would Israel nuke a major city? Unless a neighbor made all-out war on Israel and appeared to be winning, destroying an Arab capital would be a tactical and strategic mistake. Israel might nuke Damascus if the Syrians invaded, but Israel has to live with its neighbors, and any such action would surely preclude peace virtually forever. Iran, however, is not a neighbor, so Israel might retaliate for an Iranian or Iranian-backed invasion by nuking Tehran. If pushed to that point, Israel might count on Arab-Persian enmity and Arabs’ fear of Iranian hegemony to foster toleration for such a strike.

More likely still, Israel would use its nukes as tactical weapons, to destroy and deter invading armies. Depending on wind direction, radioactive fallout might render much of the Holy Land uninhabitable, with little rain in that dry climate to wash it away. Religious fundamentalism thus might ultimately cause the Holy Land to be cordoned off, like Chernobyl, for a thousand years. There would be no Armageddon, but everyone with an interest in the Holy Land—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—would suffer. A non-Armaggedon that destroyed the extremists’ holiest places without discrimination would be a supreme irony.

But a risk exists that war would not stop there. Muslims already have their own nukes, in Pakistan. The only thing that keeps them out of extremists’ hands is President Musharraf’’s security forces. He has survived several assassination attempts already. Who is to say that all-out war against Israel would not motivate a successful attempt and permit diversion of Pakistani nukes for use against Israel?

As one spins this scenario further and further, of course it becomes more speculative. But it pays to plan ahead and consider risks. In the late 1930s, many Americans thought that we could keep “that war in Europe” from affecting us. They were wrong. It is equally wrong to think that any major war in the Middle East, whether between Sunni and Shia, Persians and Arabs, or Arabs and Israelis, will not involve the United States and our economic interests.

How to Stop It

No matter how close and ominous disaster may be, we can try to avoid it. A speeding bus may be only meters away, but one can jump out of its path. First, however, one must see the oncoming bus.

The speeding bus that we Americans most need to see is Israel’s increasingly tenuous military and geopolitical position. Whether you are a friend and supporter of Israel, its sworn enemy, or a neutral observer, you have to acknowledge reality: the tide of history is turning against Israel.

Whatever truth there may be in the myth of Israeli military superiority, a nation of seven million people simply cannot fend off 200 million Muslim neighbors forever, let alone 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide. As Muslims’ anger and solidarity increase, Israel’s geopolitical position becomes more and more untenable. As Muslims improve their conventional arms and seek all kinds of weapons of mass destruction, Israel’s military position becomes downright precarious. Israel simply has to make whatever compromises and concessions are necessary to make peace, as quickly as possible.

Any “friend” of Israel that advises Israel otherwise does its people a grave and potentially fatal disservice. That kind of misguided advice ultimately may damage or destroy not only Israel, but much else that we all value highly, including the big oil fields.

Our nation has the task of bearing the bad news, for two reasons. First, misguided religious zealots in the United States are principally responsible for encouraging Israel’s ultimately suicidal intransigence over the past six years. While someone’s conception of God or heaven may do so, nothing on the ground justifies that intransigence. Apart from its presumed nuclear arsenal, Israel’s relative military superiority continues to deteriorate. Its enemies grow in number, hostile motivation, strength, weaponry, and political support. Having encouraged irrational intransigence, we Americans bear the responsibility for making Israel face reality.

The second reason why we Americans bear a burden is that we are holding back the tide. Right now, today, in a conventional war with all its Arab neighbors—let alone Iran—Israel would almost certainly lose. The only things that secure its survival are its peace treaties with moderate Arab states, its own nuclear arsenal, and American power. The peace treaties are in jeopardy as the tide of Islamic extremism rises. Israel’s nukes are a potent deterrent, but their actual use would likely be fatal to Israel in the long term. Therefore, as the clouds of conventional war gather in the region, the only thing that really secures Israel’s survival is America’s conventional military power and our promise to use it in Israel’s defense. We therefore have a grave responsibility for Israel’s survival, which we can best exercise by using our influence to bring about a just and lasting peace.

But our responsibility does not stop with Israel. We are the only power on earth that is capable of deterring Iran and appears willing to do so. Iran is clearly the predominant and most aggressive military power in the region. It threatens not only Israel, but its neighbors as well. Its adventurism and quest for regional hegemony threaten to ignite war not only with Israel, but between Arabs and Persians or Sunni and Shiite. Only we have the technology, the force in the region, and (apparently) the will to stop this reckless power from igniting World War III.

Our own reckless adventure in Iraq increases our responsibility. By invading Iraq with too few forces (and too clumsily to succeed in stabilizing it), we have caused the Sunni/Shiite civil war that Iran now seeks to exploit to extend its power and become regional hegemon. Our blunders have given Iran its chance, and only we have the power the correct that error by deterring Iran from further mischief.

The war in Iraq was, is and will remain a sideshow. Its neighbors are relatively strong and stable, and some of them can help quell the civil war, or at least keep it from spilling over Iraq’s borders. But they cannot deter Iran from exacerbating the situation, far less from starting or fomenting a war with Israel that could end in a nuclear strike.

It is up to us Americans to provide the deterrence for the main event: a war against Israel or a major Sunni-Shiite or Arab-Persian war. Properly conceived, the method of deterrence would play to and exploit our strengths as a nation and require neither massive deployments of ground troops nor protracted casualties as in Iraq.

Unmanned Air Power: Deterrence for the Twenty-First Century

It should be apparent by now to all but the blind or ignorant that ground invasions don’t work well. Modern weapons and the assistance of allies who remain outside the theater of conflict make them untenable.

Look at the record. The North Koreans and Chinese failed in the Korean War. We failed in the Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam. We are failing in Iraq. The Soviets failed in Afghanistan. Saddam failed in Kuwait. The Serbs failed in Kosovo. The Argentines failed in the Falklands. With the possible exception of some murky situations in Africa and China’s bloodless conquest of Tibet, it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify a single successful invasion and occupation of any recognized nation by any other—for whatever reason or cause—since the end of World War II.

There are three possible counterexamples. Palestinians might claim that Israel invaded and occupied their land. Yet there was no recognized state of Palestine at the time; what state was recognized (albeit not by everyone) was Israel. Second, the jury is still out on whether our “invasion” of Afghanistan will succeed. Third, Russia is having as tough a time in Chechnya as we are having in Afghanistan, if not Iraq.

On analysis, each of these supposed counter-examples proves the rule. Whether you call it “occupation” or self-defense, Israel’s control over lands not its own has caused it no end of trouble. It voluntarily ended the occupation of Gaza and has expressed its intention to withdraw from the West Bank. Our invasion of Afghanistan succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban, but it will succeed in the long run only to the extent NATO can convince the local population that it is a “soft” invasion, with no intention to occupy and every intention of leaving as soon as Afghanistan is made a better place to live. If NATO cannot soon make good on its promises of a better life, its presence in Afghanistan will meet the same end as in all the other examples. Likewise, Russia’s invasion of Chechnya will succeed only if Russia can offer Chechens a better life and quell Islamic extremism. The jury is still out.

Why is the record of ground invasions so universally dismal? The results seem to reflect a basic human consensus that no one should violate or change recognized borders by force. This worldwide consensus seems to transcend ideology, religion, and culture, and it seems to apply regardless of the reason for the invasion.

Take the Korean War, for example. When North Korea invaded the South, we acted to protect our ally. Troops under U.N. auspices drove the North Koreans back to the Yalu River, nearly occupying that country. Then China, fearing an enemy at its borders and wishing to support its own ally, entered the war and drove U.N. forces deep into South Korea. A brilliant campaign by General MacArthur managed to drive this “counter-invasion” back to the starting point, and that’s where the matter has stood for half a century. Neither side could stomach a loss of its ally’s territory, but both could agree begrudgingly on the status quo ante.

Now take our abortive invasion of Cuba, at the Bay of Pigs. It motivated Soviet installation of medium range nuclear missiles on Cuban territory, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. That crisis nearly produced a nuclear holocaust. But the agreement that averted it guaranteed Cuba’s territorial integrity against the vastly superior might of the United States—a guarantee that persists to this day. The deal to remove our nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba was just an adjunct to this basic compact. The fact that our base at Guantanamo, guaranteed by treaty, remained and remains in our hands is just a corollary of this basic principle of territorial recognition.

What does all this have to do with averting World War III? A lot. First, it both explains the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and suggests a way to resolve it. The Israelis believe that the Palestinians invaded their territory by attacking their homes immediately after the State of Israel was formed. The Palestinians believe that the State of Israel itself is illegitimate, formed on their land without their consent. They see its very presence as an invasion and occupation of their land.

This argument is interminable, and there is no way to resolve it by reason alone. The rest of the world is partly at fault for being unwilling or unable to designate recognized boundaries in such a way as to achieve consensus. Much of the world, including the United States, is at fault for supporting intransigence on one side or the other.

There are only two ways out of this blind alley. One is World War III: a hugely destructive war that would involve the entire Middle East, likely would result in Israel’s destruction, and might drag in significant portions of the rest of the world. The second is some sort of negotiated agreement by the parties, providing a consensus that the rest of the world can accept.

It is neither just nor effective, however, to put the burden of developing that consensus on the Palestinians and Israelis alone. The reason for the dispute’s longevity is a lack of consensus about boundaries and recognition. There is no way to cure the lack of consensus in 1948 retroactively. But the outside world bears partial responsibility for achieving a consensus today. And it can do so if it tries.

Rather than champion their respective allies, the United States and moderate Arab states have a duty to themselves, to the world and to history. Each side must twist the arms of its allies as hard as possible for peace. The present generation on both sides may hate it and cry foul, but their children and grandchildren will build monuments to the peace so achieved.

It is high time that the United States, rather than supporting Israel’s intransigence as it gets weaker and more isolated, begin to twist arms to achieve this goal. If we do so, reciprocation from the moderate Arabs is to be expected. The PLO and Fatah then will follow and so even might Hamas. Nothing less will solve the crisis and reduce the risk of this conflict inciting World War III. Pressuring Hamas for a change of position before negotiations even begin is a self-defeating policy.

The consistent record of ground invasions’ failure also has another consequence. It accentuates the importance of air power in pursuit of foreign policy goals.

Over the post-war period, air powers record of success is incomparably better than that of ground invasion. Air power provided the deterrent that helped win the Cold War, in the form of land- and submarine based long-range ballistic missiles. Air power dissuaded the Serbs from continuing their genocidal campaign in Kosovo. Air power kept Saddam contained for thirteen years and, if applied more intelligently, could have kept him from slaughtering the Marsh Arabs. Air power of the apocalyptic, nuclear type keeps Kim Jong Il in his cage. In the last fifty years, air power has been successful in support of limited, legitimate policy goals, while ground invasions have been unsuccessful no matter by whom started and for what purpose.

Insofar as Iran is concerned, air power is a good deterrent. It can threaten and, when necessary, eliminate aggressive weapons and the factories that make them, including missiles and weapons of mass destruction. If Iran seeks to move ground troops across its borders, air power can contain or annihilate them, just as it did Serbian troops in Kosovo and Saddam’s troops in Iraq and Gulf I.

Air power also has a signal advantage: it promises deterrence without American casualties. Ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles can destroy threatening military assets with virtual impunity and zero American casualties. Furthermore, they can do so with pinpoint accuracy, minimizing even enemy civilian casualties and collateral damage. Air power therefore provides a good deterrent in service of legitimate foreign policy goals, threatening aggressive military assets without harming the target nation’s people (except perhaps for those who make, service and deploy tools of aggression). Properly deployed air power might even make a rogue nation’s people hate their own government, by demonstrating a waste of scarce resources on aggressive weapons that are annihilated without causing the people direct harm.

Of course air power is not invincible or infallible. It cannot find hidden enemy assets, and it may create casualties where assets are protected behind human shields, or near important neutral assets, like the Chinese Embassy in Baghdad. But these tactics, too, have answers. An enemy never knows how much we know about the whereabouts of its assets. Good intelligence, or even a lucky guess, may allow air power to destroy an important asset and by that “demonstration” convince an enemy of the futility of spending massive sums building plants to make aggressive weapons only to be destroyed. Human shields might be warned five minutes before impact, giving them a chance to escape without allowing the plant or heavy equipment to be moved.

Not only are unmanned missiles or airplanes the best means of projecting American power abroad today. They also comport with our national ethos. Iraq has made it clear (if Vietnam did not) that Americans have no stomach for the casualties and destruction that a ground invasion entails, even if our forces are the world’s best trained and equipped, and therefore least vulnerable. Air power allows us to project national power in a way consistent with both our limited policy goals and our desire to protect our own people, including our armed forces.

As a deterrent, relying on air power plays to American strengths. We have the best, most advanced and most innovative aerospace technology in the world. We have the ability right now to destroy enemy assets (and personnel) using unmanned vehicles controlled by pilots sitting in comfort half way around the world. We should develop and expand that capability as rapidly as technically possible. What better way to deter aggression than to announce to an enemy, “You build aggressive weaponry, and we’ll destroy it, risk free to us. You’ll just be wasting your time and money”? This writer has argued for precisely that sort of program to deter Iran from igniting World War III, but it has much wider application in the Age of Terror.


World War III is imminent because for six years we have had no coherent or rational military or foreign policy. All our deployments have been crisis-driven or (like our invasion of Iraq) impulsive and ill-considered. The clock is ticking and the hour is late.

The way forward requires looking at the big picture, not obsessing over our failure in Iraq. Any effective big-picture policy must involve three steps.

First, we have to twist the Israelis’ arms as hard as possible and invite our moderate Arab friends to do the same with the Palestinians. We shouldn’t stop twisting until there is an agreed and lasting peace. The present “let the parties agree” policy is a recipe for interminable delay and therefore disaster. World War III will wait for no one.

Second, must we lead an international coalition toward an effective and simple foreign policy to limit the spread of aggressive weapons, including missiles and weapons of mass destruction. All offensive weapons made with aggressive intent, or after threats, must be destroyed remotely by air power. So must the factories and facilities to make them. We should build a coalition and announce its intention to maintain that policy indefinitely. The rule is simple: “You build it and threaten; we destroy it. Don’t waste your time or money.” The first target and test of this policy should be Iran.

Third, we should completely revise our military force posture in light of the reality that massive ground invasions are obsolete. We should create a homeland protection force and pass a limited repeal of the Posse Commitatus Act, allowing that force to work independently or with the National Guard and local law enforcement authorities to avert terrorism, respond to terror attacks and natural disasters, and protect critical infrastructure. We should downsize and reorganize our expeditionary forces for special operations abroad, including training and support of foreign forces, protection of deployed air power assets, search and rescue, disaster aid, hostage extraction, and destruction of weapons-related facilities. But most of all, we should embark on a massive buildup of precision, unmanned air power (including ground- and naval-based air power) capable of destroying weapons-related facilities, including production plants, anywhere in the world.

After oceans of blood were spilled in the last century, all but a few rogue nations (possibly including Iran) seem to understand that massive ground invasions of one’s neighbors are a bad idea, as much for practical as for moral reasons. This century’s bad idea is using advanced technology as a means to realize national fantasies of hate, aggression and domination. The chief foreign-policy goal of the current century therefore should be to give that second bad idea a decent burial.

Economic sanctions will not do the trick. They didn’t work with Saddam or Kim, and they won’t work with Iran. What we need is a credible, effective military deterrent, one which is limited, narrowly tailored and not reliant on the apocalypse of nuclear retaliation.

Unmanned air power seems fit for the job. We should get to work making it broadly available in the Middle East. Then we should use it to enforce a “no aggressive missiles” and “no WMD” policy, just as we enforced a “no fly” policy so effectively in Iraq after Gulf I. At the same time, we should twist Israeli arms vigorously to make peace in the conflict that drives much of the turmoil in the region.


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08 December 2006

Kim's Gambit and Iran

Kim’s Gambit
Kim’s Gambit and Iran
A New Global Threat More Fearsome than Terrorism
A Deterrent Policy

As we review our global military posture after the disaster that was Donald Rumsfeld, one persistent problem demands attention. It is the risk of Iran following in North Korea’s footsteps.

Iran seems to want nuclear weapons because it sees how gingerly we have treated North Korea, which has them. Iran seems to think that North Korea’s crude nuclear devices immunize it from American and international pressure and military power.

In truth, however, North Korea has had a kind of immunity for a long time, and it has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Its early immunity is the reason attempts to stop it from developing nuclear weapons have failed. To understand the source of this immunity, one must visit the South Korean capital, Seoul.

Kim’s Gambit

Seoul is in many ways the Gem of Asia. Ringed by mountains, with an ultramodern downtown overlooking a magnificent ancient gate (Gwang Hwa Moon), it is a classic blend of old and new. From downtown high rises you can still see the old medieval castle and varied structures with soaring Asian tile roofs.

Seoul’s newest quadrant is called “Tehran Alley,” for a mighty boulevard of the same name. (Ironically, Seoul and Tehran are “sister cities.”) Along Tehran Alley, as far as the eye can see, stretch massive high-rise buildings bearing logos of well-known Korean chaebol and virtually every multinational corporation. Clothed in elegant marble or polished steel, with modern, tinted windows of different hues, these buildings flaunt the most elegant design and construction. Between them runs Tehran Alley—five lanes in each direction, filled with sparkling, freshly waxed cars, nearly all of recent vintage and mostly of South Korean manufacture.

One small part of this amazing place—all built in the last ten years—is a development known as “Coex.” It has two world-class hotels, a huge convention center, and a gargantuan shopping mall offering food and merchandise from every corner of the globe. It is so big you need a map to get around it. Go there on any weekday and you will find huge crowds of well-dressed and well-mannered people. Men in business suits hail from all over Asia and from the West. Korean women stroll by in elegant Western dresses, with white lace hats and gloves, holding the hands of well-dressed and well-behaved children. The Tehran Alley section of Seoul is the type of place that makes Westerners feel Asia’s coming predominance in their guts.

Fifty years ago, bent old women in tattered kimonos scratched through the rubble of the Korean War. Today elegantly dressed, prosperous couples drive gleaming autos to places of work and rest that are pinnacles of modernity. South Koreans speak reverently of this transformation that good government, their own hard work, and American protection made possible. They call it their “economic miracle.”

Yet while Seoul is wealthy and beautiful, she is not entirely free. She has a gun to her head.

A few short miles away, across the Demilitarized Zone, sit 10,000 conventional rockets, and row upon row of conventional artillery, poised to strike. There is nothing nuclear about these weapons. Yet they could reduce Seoul, or most of it, to rubble in a few hours.

The situation is tragic. The Grand Lady of the East faces destruction at Kim Jong Il’s command. She pleads tearfully with us and with the world, “Please don’t let them pull the trigger!” But there is little that we or anyone can do.

We might hit all those conventional weapons with a pre-emptive strike. Yet to destroy all of them quickly and thoroughly enough would require nuclear weapons. Fallout would only threaten Seoul with a slower form of destruction, and total war would seize the Korean Peninsula.

We might seek to cut the chain of command by a preemptive thermonuclear strike on Pyongyang. But such a strike could not guarantee killing Kim in his bunker, far less severing the chain of command. In any event, neither China nor Russia would tolerate, let alone approve, such a strike. Our military options for keeping the gun at Seoul’s head from firing are limited, to say the least.

As if all this were not bad enough, North Korea has 4 million lean, half-starved and highly disciplined soldiers, most stationed within easy striking distance of Seoul. As far anyone can tell, they are just as fanatically devoted to their “Dear Leader” as Japanese troops were to their Emperor in World War II. The recent sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II occasioned much rethinking of that conflict. Yet in 60 years no one has devised any easy answer to that many misguided, fanatically loyal troops short of our own first use of nuclear weapons.

This tragic circumstance is a conscious result of what I call Kim’s Gambit. Push him too far, commit what he unilaterally designates an “act of war,” and you condemn beautiful, delicate Seoul to likely destruction.

Perhaps the threat is only a bluff. Perhaps the commander on the spot would reject Kim’s order to destroy Seoul, just as the retreating Nazi general refused Hitler’s order to burn Paris in World War II. The fervent hope of such an outcome is reason enough for cultural and other exchanges between South and North, if only to let highly placed Northern generals know what a thing of beauty their weapons threaten. But can anyone be sure? Can we risk a beautiful lady on a hope and a prayer?

Kim’s Gambit has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. A vicious tyrant, having cultivated an image of recklessness, threatens destruction of something that others rightly value highly. There is no way to get a “clear shot” at him to remove the threat. And so the world must tolerate his bullying. With such a hostage in his grasp, the world has little leverage even to prevent him from acquiring the greater menace of nuclear weapons.

Of course the Chinese have some leverage. They provide the oil and much of the food that keep Kim’s bankrupt and dysfunctional regime afloat. But they are only just beginning to get fed up enough to use their leverage, and their economic power is limited.

What makes Kim sufficiently tolerable to discourage risky countermeasures is his forbearance. He does not threaten a first strike. He threatens Seoul, but apparently only in response to what he defines as an act of war. He knows that any actual adventurism on his part would encounter massive retaliation—perhaps from all directions—that would mean the end of his regime and likely of him personally. And so we have a standoff liable to persist for the foreseeable future, until time removes Kim from the stage as it did Stalin and is doing with Castro.

Kim’s Gambit and Iran

What lesson does Kim’s Gambit offer for Iran? It suggests that Iran may seek to achieve similar military immunity long before it can build nuclear weapons. An Iranian version of Kim’s Gambit would proceed in three steps, as follows:

Step one: develop reliable, medium-range weapons. In the first step, Iran would develop medium-range weapons. Their precise technology and mode of operation would not matter. Their only requirements would be sufficient reliability, accuracy and destructive capacity—plus sufficient immunity from countermeasures—to destroy or substantially damage selected targets. A massive array of smaller conventional weapons, like Kim’s 10,000 rockets aimed at Seoul, could provide the military equivalent of a nuclear weapon without either radioactive fallout or (initially) international opprobrium.

Step two: aim the weapons at a target about which Iran’s enemies (and the world) care greatly. Two such targets come easily to mind. The first is Israel. America and the West care a great deal about Israel. They care even more about keeping Israel from being dragged into a war in which it might be tempted or forced to use the nuclear weapons that everyone presumes it has. A second possible target is the oil fields of Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Merely by credibly threatening them, Iran could raise the worldwide price of oil and put the world’s economy in a tailspin. Actually destroying or damaging them would create a worldwide economic disaster. With aid from the rising tide of Islamist extremism among its neighbors, Iran might use proxies to make this type of threat, rather than doing so directly.

Step three: announce the weapons’ existence and their target(s), provide credible evidence of the threat, and cultivate an image of recklessness. While such a threat would not preclude a response to invading others’ territory or similar direct aggression, it would likely provide substantial immunity from others’ first strikes, including legitimate pre-emptive action. At the very least, it would severely limit any attempt to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction while Iran was otherwise at “peace.” Thus would Kim’s Gambit work to the benefit of Iran’s dictatorial regime, just as it has with Kim’s.

If Iranian weapons could be placed in the hands of a proxy, perhaps with plausible deniability, so much the better for Iran. In fact, it is difficult to understand Hezbollah’s use of Iranian missiles against Israel last summer as anything less than a trial run for Kim’s Gambit. The political outcome was not particularly good for Iran: ultimately it pushed Lebanon more firmly into the hands of Syria, Iran’s erstwhile and long-time enemy. It did, however, demonstrate the possible utility of Kim’s Gambit, if only Iran can develop accurate, reliable and longer-range weapons.

A New Global Threat More Fearsome than Terrorism

Just as much as terrorism, Kim’s Gambit is a new feature of war and politics in the twenty-first century. The civilized world must learn to deal with it. In the long run it may be even more dangerous than terrorism, for it is a game of bluff that both nation-states and stateless persons can play. By threatening a city (Seoul), a country or region (Israel or the states affected by an all-out Arab-Israeli war) or the world’s economy (through the Saudi or Iraqi oil fields), a reckless regime can achieve political or military advantage. Or it can at least achieve sufficient immunity from legitimate pressure to grow even more dangerous while the world temporizes. Kim’s Gambit is thus a highly effective and infinitely more dangerous twenty-first century form of hostage-taking.

Short of massive pre-emption (a ground invasion or thermonuclear strike), only a policy of firm deterrence and (where necessary) limited pre-emption can counter Kim’s Gambit. It is now far too late for that policy to work in North Korea. But what about Iran?

Unlike North Korea, Iran has not yet sprung the trap. It is not close enough geographically to its likely targets. Nor does it yet have advanced enough weaponry to pose the kind of unanswerable threat of a sneak attack that North Korea poses to Seoul, with or without nuclear weapons. The thousands of rockets that Iran supplied to Hezbollah during last summer’s inconclusive war did little damage to Haifa, although they provoked a lot of fear. Jerusalem seemed almost immune.

Yet time is not on our side. Simply by building a credible threat to Israel’s major cities or the big oil fields—and without nuclear weapons—Iran can use Kim’s Gambit to immunize from international pressure both its development of longer-range weapons and its further development of weapons of mass destruction.

For four reasons, stopping Iran from completing Kim’s Gambit should be a pillar of American and international policy. First, while it is too late to stop Kim, it is not too late to stop Iran. Second, if North Korea and Iran both get away with Kim’s Gambit, others will follow. Why not Sudan? Why not Venezuela? Why not Byelorussia? Why not Syria or Libya? Third, Kim’s Gambit is as fundamental a threat to world order as were medieval hostage taking, the execution of emissaries, and piracy in their day. It therefore deserves a concerted and vigorous worldwide response.

Finally, Iran’s pretensions are more dangerous than North Korea’s. While Kim’s primary goal appears to be keeping his power and privileges until he dies, Iran has wider goals: regional hegemony and the destruction of Israel. Last summer it took the first steps toward its second goal. If the world does not stop it now, a bloody regional conflict, if not a new world war, is a likely outcome.

Iran is thus the main event, and Iraq the sideshow. Iran’s population, estimated at 70 million, is about the same as Egypt’s, nearly three times Iraq’s, and nearly double the combined populations of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Iran’s people outnumber Israel’s by more than ten to one. Iran has huge and thriving economy, a modern and healthy infrastructure, and a more educated and technically advanced population than Iraq. It also has a credible air force—which Iraq has lacked since 1991—and a huge army with modern weapons.

Although Iran was not the aggressor, it fought an eight year war with Iraq, ending less than two decades ago. As a result, it has a huge cadre of battled-hardened and experienced soldiers, many in positions of leadership. With the possible exception of Turkey, and but for Israel’s nuclear weapons, Iran is undoubtedly the strongest indigenous military power in the Middle East. If the world allows Iran to get away with Kim’s Gambit, the Middle East, and likely the world, will be a very different place in a decade or two.

A Deterrent Policy

Iran is now at a crossroads. It suffered terribly in its eight-year war with Iraq, and it was peaceful for a long time before. Yet it appears to be adventurist and ready to risk war, both with its neighbors and with us. We don’t know whether Ahmadinejad is really calling the shots in Iran, and we don’t know how close Iran’s Islamist regime is to democratic reform. We don’t know how much its adventurism is real and how much is bluster. In all these respects Iran is similar to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Just as in the Cold War, we cannot take chances. Appeasement of Hitler wrought worldwide devastation in World War II, while credible deterrence of Soviet aggression won the Cold War peaceably. There should be a lesson in that. Firm, determined and credible military deterrence is the only sensible policy toward Iran.

This author has argued that thermonuclear-armed submarines provide sufficient deterrence by themselves but now has doubts. By means of Kim’s Gambit, Ahmadinejad could wreak such economic and political havoc—let alone military havoc—as to require a finer-grained, less apocalyptic form of deterrence. Until Iran unequivocally renounces designs on its neighbors, including Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran must be deterred from developing the missile technology and any other technology that would allow it to take Kim’s Gambit.

Could we provide finer-grained, credible deterrence that did not rely on pressing the nuclear button? We could, but we would have to embark on a concerted campaign of diplomacy and limited military action, in four steps.

Step one: forming a global coalition. First, the United States could make a full-court diplomatic press to enlist governments around the world in a common goal: preventing Iran from developing either nuclear weapons or other peace-threatening technology until it credibly renounces aggressive intentions. (Experts would define what technology is “peace-threatening,” i.e., capable of making Kim’s Gambit.) This coalition could involve the United Nations, the existing “Quartet” (the UN, United States, EU, and Russia), NATO, or an ad-hoc group like the alliance assembled by Bush the Elder in Gulf I.

Step two: announcing the policy. Second, the diplomatic coalition so formed could announce a policy of seeking that goal by diplomatic action, including economic sanctions, and by military action if necessary. The coalition’s members could increase the credibility of the coalition’s deterrence by pledging or donating military assets to enforce the policy.

Step three: authorizing limited pre-emptive military action. Third, the coalition could authorize limited military action. In the absence of escalation by Iran, action would be authorized solely for the purpose of destroying plants and facilities useful for weapons to exploit Kim’s Gambit, while limiting civilian casualties and collateral damage to the extent possible.

Step four: building up regional force to make deterrence credible. Fourth, the coalition could tailor and (if necessary) build up its forces near Iran to make the threat of military action credible. The focus of this buildup would be air power, with only such ground forces as are needed to protect the air capability. The buildup would require more than a few stealth bombers flying missions from bases in the United States. Real deterrence of Kim’s Gambit would require massive conventional air power, in local venues, as close to Iran as possible. Subject to the need for force protection and military secrecy as to precise location, the buildup should be well publicized, or at least made known to Iran.

Of course these forces might be useless if the military assets to be used in Kim’s Gambit were hidden, dispersed, or buried deep under ground. But Iran would never know how much the coalition knew about where the assets are and how to destroy them. Kim’s Gambit is mostly a deadly game of bluff, and the bluff of a massive, local deterrent force would work against Iran. Iran would never know how easy or hard it might be for the coalition to destroy its Kim’s Gambit assets and, in the process, perhaps wreak havoc on Iran itself or begin a ground invasion. While Iran is hardly a democracy, its rulers are not immune from public opinion, and the threat of immediate deterrent military action might chill their more dangerous adventurism.

This last point is the reason why the United States should seek soon to wind down its commitment in Iraq, while keeping a significant expeditionary force in the region. As long as Iran has reason to believe that our forces are “tied down” in Iraq, our deterrence of Iran’s Kim’s Gambit lacks credibility.

Yet the risks posed by Iran are orders of magnitude greater than anything that might happen in Iraq, even in a worst-case scenario. The worst that can happen in Iraq is Somalia or Afghanistan redux. That outcome certainly would not be pleasant. But Iran, by design or miscalculation, could start World War III.

If Iran begins to use Kim’s Gambit on Israel, Israel will have to act. It will have no other choice. Imagine what havoc even a limited air war between Iran and Israel would cause. Then consider how easily a limited air war might escalate into an attempt by Iran and/or its proxies to invade Israel, perhaps with the help of sympathetic neighbors fed up with the slow pace of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Think about Israel using the nuclear weapons it is presumed to have, which it would do if its survival appeared to be at stake. Then think again about Iran’s population, industrial and technological capacity, battle-hardened army, and the credible threat they would pose to Israel in any direct conflict.

Fortunately, we still have time before Iran can spring Kim’s Gambit on unsuspecting neighbors. We have time to mount a sustained and patient diplomatic effort to attract as many allies to our cause as possible. We have time to redeploy our ground forces out of Iraq. We have time to build up the type of massive, regional air power that would provide a credible deterrent and have some ability to keep Kim’s Gambit weapons (including nukes) out of Iran’s hands, by military means if necessary.

If Ahmadinejad means what he says, and if Iran’s progress toward Kim’s Gambit continues, there will be war among nations in the Middle East, and it will involve Israel. The only questions will be when, how wide and bloody it will be, how many Arab nations or Islamist groups (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) will join Iran, and whether Israel or another nation will go nuclear.

Of course we should redouble our efforts to seek a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians. That is the linchpin for any effort to save the whole region. But as Iran moves closer and closer to Kim’s Gambit, we ignore Ahmadinejad’s ravings at our peril. We must have firm and credible deterrence in place, and be prepared to use it, long before credible weapons for Kim’s Gambit are in his hands. The mere threat of nuclear annihilation is no longer a sufficiently well-calibrated deterrent to step-by-step Iranian tactics that ultimately might bring on World War III.

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05 December 2006

The Rumsfeld Memo

Donald Rumsfeld’s leaked last testament as Secretary of Defense is notable for one thing only.  It condemns him by his own hand.  To anyone with the slightest understanding of how decision making in big organizations works, it shows precisely why the War in Iraq is going so badly and why Rumsfeld had to go.

In that respect the Rumsfeld memo is not just remarkable.  It is astounding.  To understand just how astounding, consider Rumsfeld’s probable motives for writing it.

Two motives are obvious.  First, Rumsfeld apparently thought that the post-election period, then only a day away, would be a good time to re-evaluate strategy and tactics in Iraq and consider new directions.  Therefore the primary purpose of the memo was to kick-start a serious re-evaluation.  Second, as bureaucratic-infighter-in-chief, Rumsfeld must have sensed that his own head might be on the block.  Therefore a secondary purpose of the memo was to show his boss (and perhaps posterity) how good a job Rumsfeld was doing.

How well did the memo accomplish these tasks?  It contains not a single piece of analysis and not a single recommendation.  It is a laundry list of possible things to do, in apparently random order.  It contains virtually every conceivable option, including (albeit far down the list) partitioning Iraq.  If you don’t believe this characterization, read it yourself.  It’s a short document.

The memo is a twelve-year old child crying “See.  Aren’t I smart?  I’ve thought of everything!”  Or it is the ultimate cover-your-ass memo by the ultimate bureaucratic infighter.  Whatever else it may be, it is not the product of a man who knows how to make decisions and is willing to put them on record and take responsibility for them.

Even if Bob Woodward had not so meticulously characterized Rumsfeld’s “leadership” style in his book State of Denial, the memo alone would reveal it.  Rumsfeld is the ultimate buck-passer and responsibility dodger.  He used consummate bureaucratic skill to make sure that all lines of authority for the war, related intelligence, and military affairs led through his office.  Then he refused to exercise that authority, as least in any way that could be traced to his hand.

No wonder Rumsfeld drove our generals crazy.  Here were men trained their whole lives to make tough decisions under fire.  Here were men used to speaking their minds, then taking orders and executing them.  Here were men for whom decisiveness was everything, for they knew that others’ lives would depend on it.  Yet they were asked to accept a style of leadership in which the “leader” refused to make decisions until he could be sure that responsibility for them would not be his.  Rumsfeld “led” like some Socratic law professor, asking his underlings random questions by means of his “snowflake” memos and refusing to answer questions himself.

To understand just how dysfunctional that style of leadership is—especially in the Pentagon—we must factor in the president’s own leadership style.  It is now self-evident to anyone who can read that the president is no micromanager.  This writer has described him as a coach- or cheerleader-in-chief.  If he makes decisions at all, he does so only at the highest levels of abstraction: “Let’s remove Saddam” or “Let’s make Iraq a democracy.”  At best, he is like a board of directors, setting broad policy goals or “targets” for action and leaving strategy, tactics, execution and details to his underlings.  What good is that kind of “leadership” if underlings refuse to make decisions?

Imagine that you sat on the board of directors of a multinational company.  The board asks an executive responsible for a major foreign subsidiary to explain why that subsidiary has lost money for three years and the losses are increasing, and to offer a plan for success.  In response, the executive produces a Rumsfeldian memo, listing all conceivable courses of action, without analysis or recommendation.

What would you do?  Most directors would use the opportunity to fire the executive and seek new leadership, exactly as the president did.

Yet tragedy lurks in what might otherwise seem an hilarious comedy of errors.  We have the brightest, best educated, and best trained military leaders in the world. The generals who sit in the Pentagon represent centuries, if not millennia, of military art, science, education, experience and expertise. Yet their collective wisdom and judgment—all that raw brainpower—Rumsfeld reduced to a random list of options that most casual observers who read newspapers regularly could have produced.

The end result of Rumsfeld’s memo was to abandon the collective wisdom of millennia for the experience and judgment of a single man derived from questionable service in the Texas Air National Guard.  If you want to understand why Iraq has been a fiasco, you need look no further than that.

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