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

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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  • At Sun Dec 10, 09:00:00 PM EST, Blogger bobl said…

    This is a persuasive but unbalanced essay.
    The imminence of World War III is exaggerated. In each of the first two wars, the initiators saw potential economic or strategic gain. Who would gain from World War III? Perhaps the United States or Russia, which could survive and find a world that is easier to control. But Iran and North Korea would be devastated if they took part or even were implicated. Israel might strike out defensively, but a preemptive strike at this time would be very dangerous for this small country.

    The superiority of air power is not as clear as Jay claims it to be. Consider Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan in the 80's, or Lebanon in 2006.

    One conclusion is clearly accurate - the world needs the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be settled, and the US must play a key part in the settlement by pressuring both Israel to soften its stance and to control its right wing.
    But after a settlement, one of those pesky international ground forces will have to be put in place to keep the Israeli and Palestinian hot heads from destabilizing the situation.

  • At Mon Dec 18, 12:39:00 AM EST, Blogger jay said…

    This is the first serious (non-spam) comment on this blog, so I treasure it like gold.

    If my essay seems alarmist, the reason may be that our leaders seem blasé. They obsess about our failure in Iraq and dispute how to correct it, but they neglect the rapidly changing big picture. In six years I haven’t read or heard of anyone in our government analyzing the big picture, let alone preparing a long-term plan to deal with it. Secretary Rice has come closest, referring to a “generational conflict,” but I’m not aware of her prescribing a comprehensive plan for dealing with it. Maybe she’s too busy trying to correct her colleagues’ mistakes.

    The big picture is unique in human history. The world’s 1.3 billion Muslims comprise nearly one-forth of humanity. They control a huge swath of nations, from Morocco to Indonesia, and they have a significant presence in our country and throughout Europe. Virtually everywhere among them, extremism is rising rapidly. At the same time, Muslim youth in the most volatile countries is undereducated, unemployed, increasingly disaffected and isolated, and often well trained in violence. Differences between moderates and extremists, and between Shiites and Sunnis (or other sectarian groups) have caused violence approaching chaos in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. If the risk of that violence spreading doesn’t scare you, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

    My definition of world war may be more hyperbolic than the accepted ones, but not by much. Even World War II was not literally a world war. Some parts of the world (in Africa, Latin America, and India, for example) escaped it. World War I was much more localized, being confined largely to Europe. The conflagration that now threatens the Middle East could easily be of the same scale as World War I, in both murderousness and economic losses. If it draws a nuclear response from Israel, let alone Pakistan, it could be much worse. There is no way that such a conflict will leave us unscathed.

    As for air power, I did not say it was a panacea. I recommended it for a specific, limited purpose: deterring the development—by nations like Iraq, not major powers—of WMD or other aggressive weapons, such as medium- to long-range missiles. In my view, Vietnam was a unique case, a result of the amazing perseverance of the North Vietnamese and the difficulties posed by Southeast Asia’s ubiquitous tree cover over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Kosovo and Gulf I proved the value of air power, even against armies, with other enemies and in other climes, especially the relatively treeless Middle East. But the essay’s main focus was limited use of air power as a deterrent to aggressive extortion.


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