Every time the Bush administration has dug itself a hole it’s asked for a bigger shovel to dig itself out. This thought is worth bearing in mind as talk of a U.S. airstrike against Iran heats up. No doubt, there are hard-line elements in Iran bent on disrupting America’s efforts in Iraq. There aim is multi-fold: 1) Keep America bleeding in Iraq so that it is less capable of responding to Iran’s nuclear program. 2) Force the United States into a humiliating withdrawal from Iraq, which would then leave Iran as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. 3) Goad the Bush Administration into launching preemptive strikes against Iran, which would rally a pro-American Iranian public around the fundamentalist regime.
The discerning reader will notice there is more than a kernel of contradiction between these three goals. But these incongruities do not work to America’s benefit: The United States can lose by staying in Iraq, by quitting Iraq, or by attacking Iran. For the Bush administration, which has inadvertently furthered Iran’s interests by thoroughly botching the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the prospect of a game changing strike against Iran may seem like a gamble worth taking. Put simply, George Bush and Dick Cheney do not want to go down in as the architects of the biggest foreign policy disaster in American history. Accordingly, in their view the best way to get Iraq’s recalcitrant militias into line would be to decapitate their sponsors in Iran.
There is also the related problem of Iran’s nuclear program, which if successful would: a) instantly transform Iran into the dominant power in the Gulf, b) provoke a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, c) destabilize the entire region, d) leave the West over a barrel (of oil). In a nutshell, the United States cannot disengage from the Middle East without suffering catastrophic economic and geopolitical consequences. Nor can it easily continue to sustain the Bush administration’s present course, which has decimated America’s image abroad, divided the country at home, and stretched America’s military to the breaking point.
Attacking Iran can be understood as escaping forward, which is military jargon for launching a frontal assault when faced with an increasingly untenable position. As a military gambit, escaping forward is often the soundest choice one can make when facing dire straights. However, most military experts believe that it would be sheer lunacy for the Bush administration to launch a preemptive attack against Iran. After all, Iran could probably close the Straits of Hormuz, the transit way for more than 30% percent of the world’s oil. And U.S. troops in Iraq would be highly vulnerable to retaliation from groups controlled by Tehran. Indeed, a direct assault on Iran could unleash a wave of terror attacks across the globe launched by Iranian controlled sleeper networks.
So, what’s a superpower to do? The Iranian regime’s greatest vulnerability is the price of oil. In fact, if the price of oil were to drop precipitously the mullahs in Iran would likely lose their grip on power fairly quickly. It is axiomatic, for instance, that the ruling elites in petro states are corrupt and cannot sustain their rule without subsidizing inefficient state industries, supporting the security apparatuses, and buying off the political opposition. Significantly decrease the amount of petro profits flowing into the clerics’ coffers and the Iranian regime will collapse of its own accord, just as the Soviet Union did when oil prices hit bottom in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War the successful commander is the one who can defeat his enemy before the first battle even begins. Many military experts consider Sun Tzu’s meditations on warfare the most important observations ever made on the topic. But for Sun Tzu, the ideal commander-in-chief is not characterized primarily by his (or her) military skill or his genius for combat, but rather for his (or her) ability to achieve greater social harmony. The war in Iraq, or a war against Iran, is unlikely to engender a more harmonious and balanced world. However, recognizing the ecological dimension behind the conflicts America faces gives us the opportunity to adapt our energy habits so they no longer feed the forces that threaten us. Before striking Iran it is worth pondering a question that the Bush administration failed to ask before attack Iraq: what would Sun Tzu do?