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

06 December 2012

No-Bluff Obama

Bashar al-Assad
Iran and its Leaders
John Boehner

Introduction. It’s amazing how many strong people have underestimated Barack Hussein Obama and lost. Slowly but steadily, the list grows longer. Hillary Clinton. John McCain. Osama bin Laden. Muammar Qaddafi. Hosni Mubarak. And recently Mitt Romney.

The problem is one of perception. We live in a world of flamboyance, arrogance, bluster, incessant and shameless self-promotion and, yes, rampant stupidity. In that world a firm, steady rationalist like our President can seem weak.

He will reason and bargain with you as long as he sees the faintest spark of intelligence or cooperation in your eyes. Sometimes he will bend over backwards toward compromise, either in the vain hope of achieving consensus, or in a bid to show just how dumb you might be.

But once he sees that you are hell bent on unreason or mischief, he will crush you. (1 and 2)

The President doesn't bluff. For him, politics is not a game. It’s a serious life-or-death business.

If you analogize politics to a game, the proper analogy is chess, not poker. It’s a game of pure skill, not luck mixed with skill. It requires extraordinary emotional and analytical intelligence, in equal measure. And the US is a major long-term player. In that status, you can bluff only once.

The President doesn’t bluff because he doesn’t have to. He can see more moves ahead than anyone since Garry Kasparov.

He won’t bluster, and he won’t trash talk. You may get a chance to come to reason if you come to your senses after the first or second check. But if not, you won’t even see the checkmate coming. Ask Hillary, John, Mitt or Osama’s ghost.

Up next are Bashar al-Assad, Ahmadinejad and Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (together or separately), then John Boehner. None, apparently, is smart enough to take the President’s true measure. All will fail.

Bashar al-Assad. Assad will be the easiest. The writing is already on the wall, just not the date. If he steps across the “red line” of chemical weapons, American air power will help the increasingly capable rebels to take him out.

If not, America's post-election focus, perhaps largely unseen, will put a strong and heavy hand on the most reliable rebels’ side of the scale. The right weapons will find their ways into the hands of the right people. The bloodshed and suffering will stop shortly thereafter.

Most likely, Assad will end up dead, probably by next Thanksgiving. If he wants to die sooner, he can try chemical weapons. No one but his immediate family will weep for him. The President doesn’t bluff.

Iran and its Leaders. Ahmadinejad and Khamenei will take longer. Their battle is not a simple military struggle like the one that Assad started against his own people. It’s the closest thing in the world today to three-dimensional chess.

That’s why the President is going slowly and carefully, husbanding and honing his strategy like a grand master. The dimensions are military, political, and economic.

Militarily, Iran is two or three decades behind the United States in technology, let alone force training and preparation. With its desert skies, clear weather and sparsity of vegetation, Iran is an open book to our drones and spy satellites. Day by day, we are carefully and methodically studying its force posture and military assets.

That’s why the occasional (and inevitable) downing of a drone is a good thing. It shows that our superb military is on the job, preparing for an attack, if necessary, while at the same time earning good will helping Iranian ships in distress. Both steps are exactly those we should be doing at this time.

If it comes to that, it won’t be hard for us to set Iran's nuclear program back a few years. We have overwhelming technological superiority, plus the element of surprise. Nor will it be hard to keep the Straits of Hormuz largely open to oil shipment, although some losses will undoubtedly raise oil prices and shipping insurance rates.

So why don’t we strike now, since the election is over and Israel is increasingly restive? The answer resides in other two dimensions, politics and economics.

A single strike will delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It won’t stop them. Then what comes next? If we want Iran to stop—and if it decides to pursue nuclear weapons at all costs—we will have to strike again and again. We will have to contemplate a semi-permanent state of war with Iran, in which we will have lost the element of surprise.

Not only would the ongoing state of war make the military problem much harder. It would also make Iran’s irrevocable pursuit of nuclear weapons more likely, not less. Iran’s leaders, and even its people, might conclude that nuclear weapons were the only way to fight us to a draw and preserve their society.

Even a rat you don’t want to back into a corner. And Iran is far from a rat. It’s the third strongest country in the Middle East, after Israel and Turkey. So while the short-term military scenario looks favorable, the long-term one does not. And the long term is just where the President’s skills excel.

War, von Clausewitz said, is just an extension of politics. The two are intertwined.

Our goals in Iran are not primarily military; they are political. We don’t want to invade, conquer, or occupy Iran, far less to annihilate it or convert it to Christianity. What we want is to get it to stop working toward nuclear weapons, stop supporting terrorism, stop threatening its neighbors, and become a responsible member of the international community, as Islamic as it likes. Those are all political goals.

But politics is where things get much more complicated. Iran’s internal politics is one three-dimensional chess set inside another.

Ahmadinejad is increasingly unpopular within his own country. He’s apparently feuding with Supreme Leader Khamenei—a battle he is likely to lose. In any event, his two terms are almost up. In the background are Ali Rafsanjani, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and other moderates and pragmatists, carefully husbanding their resources and building their strength. We have little idea of their status, strength or likelihood of gaining power, let alone of when. And Khamenei is an old man who could die or become incompetent at any time.

Meanwhile, our sanctions are biting hard, bringing the Iranian rial down to 30% of its pre-boycott level. Just before our election, Tehran’s merchants were rioting in the streets to protest economic conditions. Merchants! Not students, lawyers, intellectuals or rich people! When merchants riot, political change cannot be far behind.

So politically, Iran right now is an unstable, unpredictable mess. Iranians blame our boycott, but they also blame their own leaders. They will blame us a lot more if we or Israel attacks their territory, even if the attacker is smart and lucky enough to avoid many civilian casualties. Nothing unites a fractious people so much or so quickly as an attack from abroad.

To say that the military and political problems are in delicate balance would be an understatement of Obamanian proportions. If Israel were not so restless and not so sure that Iran is close to a bomb, the best thing we could do—by far—would be to wait for Iran to solve its own problems and things there to clarify themselves.

Just as in the Cold War, the ultimate internal outcome is predictable in general terms. The Iranian people are far better educated and far more in touch with the external world than Russians were during their Soviet period. They are aching for reform. The only questions are how long it will take them to get there and whether the Israelis will pull the trigger first.

The final dimension, of course, is economic. It also has two dimensions, internal and external.

Internally, we need to keep economic pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program. How deep will our boycott cut, and how much and how quickly can we strengthen it? Can we do so without alienating or weakening the forces inside Iran that will make the internal changes we seek? In other words, can we discourage Iran’s nuclear program without upsetting the unstable apple cart that is Iran’s reform-leaning internal politics?

Outside Iran, the economic questions are equally hard. Iran has lots of oil. We want it, for now, to sit in the ground or in storage tanks, without making Iran’s current leaders richer.

But as long as Iran’s oil stays unsold, global oil prices will stay high and go higher. How long can we ask our oil-dependent allies like Japan, not to mention trading partners and potential rivals like China, to accept that state of affairs? What happens to oil prices and the global economy if we or Israel strikes Iran and oil traffic through the Straits of Hormuz slows? And what happens to our best-case goal of peaceful self-reform in Iran if the international community has to “gang up” against Iran to keep its nuclear program down and the Straits open?

This three-dimensional chess game has dimensions within dimensions. It’s the most intricate and complex political puzzle in the world today. We amateurs—including this blogger—can’t even hope to solve it without the day-to-day accurate intelligence that only our Executive commands.

We can only be doubly thankful on two grounds. First, our leader is a superb chess player. Second, his reputation for not bluffing is growing, so people worldwide are starting to take him more seriously. They include Iran’s leaders (both seen and unseen), whatever they may say publicly.

John Boehner. Compared to Iran, the problem of John Boehner and his House wing nuts is child's play. The President has a nearly impregnable position. There is a growing awareness that the so-called “fiscal cliff” is a PR-propaganda ploy of Fox and the wing nuts. It’s of the same order as “clean coal.”

Just as there is no such thing as “clean coal,” there is no real “fiscal cliff.” There are only different ways of achieving deficit reduction. One of them will come to pass, one way or another. When that happens, the GOP’s chief and only pail of issues will be empty, and its well of ideas will run dry.

The President, of course, has backed Boehner & Nuts into a corner. There are several sticking points in bargaining, but the most important is the tax-the-rich-question. Bohner & Nuts are insisting on retaining tax cuts for the 1% as a condition of any deal. Obama is resisting, and he doesn’t bluff.

Why should he bluff? He’s got Boehner & Nuts exactly where he wants them politically. They are holding our middle class and our economy hostage to secure benefits that the 1% doesn’t even want. And they are doing so at the behest of an unelected, bearded, since-issue demagogue, demented guru Grover Norquist.

Let Fox and the Nuts bluster and bray. Both economically and politically, theirs is the dumbest position I have seen any politician take in my lifetime, let alone a whole political party.

Even Boehner is probably smart enough to see how dumb this position is. But he can count his Nuts in their shells. So he and his party are going down for the count, and we are drifting over the fiscal cliff.

But contrary to all the Sturm und Drang, our drop won’t be nearly as steep or as hard as expected. It will be a speed bump on the way to inevitably resurging prosperity. (Already, the recent adjustment in expectations for fourth-quarter GDP growth, or plus 0.7%, drawfs the earlier and now-outdated CBO estimate of an 0.5% contraction from the “fiscal cliff.”)

The choice that faces us is not hard to understand. Either make the rich pay more and cut a bipartisan deficit deal. Or make everybody pay more to spare the rich from any additional sacrifice, and do the deal on Democrats’ terms.

The simplicity of the latter choice is so breathtaking it’ll be hard to demagogue. Occam’s Razor will cut the GOP in half.

The consequences for Boehner & Nuts are now becoming apparent. There will be lots of screaming and premature blame after we “fall” off the “fiscal cliff.” But the deficit will be lower and full recovery will come, perhaps a few months late but well within Obama’s second term, and likely before the midterms.

Smart people will have lots of buying opportunities in stocks, bonds and commodities when the brief scare bottoms out. And the GOP, leaderless and utterly discredited, will become a permanent minority party, having followed Norquist into a political Hell of its own making.

With prospects like this, why should the President even think of bluffing?



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