Small Wars Journal

War With Iran? - Error, Manipulation and President Donald Trump's "Strategy" of Incoherence

Mon, 05/20/2019 - 2:57am

War With Iran? - Error, Manipulation and President Donald Trump's "Strategy" of Incoherence

Louis René Beres

To some extent, there is nothing new under the sun. Fabrication and folly are hardly unknown to US presidential policies on war and peace. Before President Donald Trump commits further to any new or expanding military operations against Iran, therefore, it would be prudent to look back at some of this country's previous war policy manipulations and errors.

Even if it should first appear that a "tailored," "limited," or "narrow" American-led action against Iran would be gainful in geo-strategic terms (and also defensible in law), a second look would still be in order.

In any such complex matters, history deserves its pride of place. Where, precisely, have we gone wrong in the past? Why were we Americans so sorely mistaken in Vietnam and other places? Were we simply misled by poor presidential leadership? Even as a free people, have we just been incapable of selecting capable candidates for high public office?

And why?

Thomas Jefferson would likely have replied to these intersecting questions straightforwardly. Against John Adams, who divided classes in America according to the now-curious bifurcation of "gentlemen" and "simple men," Jefferson chose to identify a different measure. According to Jefferson, embracing what then amounted to an oddly revolutionary dialect (his enemies dubbed him a "Jacobin"), the meaningfully distinguishing criterion of class in the new nation would hinge instead upon degree of confidence in popular self-government.

Even for Thomas Jefferson, then contemplating and continuously re-evaluating the new American democracy, there were firm constraints on who should and should not be allowed to participate. But the principal author of America's Declaration did expressly favor those who would identify with "the people" over those (like Adams) who were inclined to fear them.

While Adams had been most urgently concerned with stemming off violent actions by the "mob," Jefferson's preoccupation was of a different sort. It was designed to prevent oppression of Americans by a democratic government.

What has this earlier preoccupation to do with our seeming series of already lost and possibly soon-to-be-lost American military ventures? Although Jefferson had sincerely expressed democratic faith in "the people," he had also made such faith contingent upon a proper public education. Believing, unreservedly, in the diffusion of knowledge "among the masses," he announced, in his first inaugural address, that an enlightened American public was the sine qua non for successful governance. Not surprisingly, he remarked that if forced to choose between government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, he would easily opt for the latter.

In essence, Jefferson was not afraid of "fake news," but of fake government.

After the long-forgotten War of 1812, still hidden away somewhere in our country's "lost" column, the first generally acknowledged American military failure was Vietnam. However we might ultimately prefer to assess this glaring defeat, it had been a sorely misconceived conflict from the start. To the point, Vietnam never made even a scintilla of conceptual or common sense.


Significantly, it too had begun with talk of "punishing" a presumed enemy.

It began, even before Tonkin, with increasingly shrill American threats to "tailor reprisals" and to "fire across the bow."

Even today, some of my 4-star (retired) military friends would argue that Vietnam might still have been "won." In their professional judgment, we would be advised, the real problems had been tactical, and thus not insuperable. Back then, they would continue, more lethal patterns of bombing could have made a difference. They might have "worked."

But they seem to have forgotten their Clausewitz.

Recalling Carl von Clausewitz, the still esteemed author of On War, the always-determining criterion of any military contest must be its expected political outcome.

Also recalling Cicero, the views of my distinguished military friends notwithstanding, it would have been pointless, in the steaming jungles, to "make a desert and call it peace."

South Vietnam, a concocted artifact originally of the Eisenhower-era Geneva Accords (1954), was never a falling "domino." As to the American Order of Battle crafted for Southeast Asia, it never had even a narrow sliver of utility. On Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's simplifying chalkboards, "counter-insurgency warfare" had then looked determinedly neat, and tidy.

But in its actual and incremental implementation, as we now know only too well, it became something else.

On two occasions, back at Princeton in the mid-1960s,  I spoke privately and directly with Secretary McNamara. Even then, to an aspiring young strategist in his twenties, the apparent extent of his military understanding seemed a series of disjointed extrapolations drawn entirely from his own limited world of corporate commerce. In certain respects, though McNamara was far more intellectually impressive than Trump, it was a somewhat similar "business" background to our current president.

Sailing across Vietnam just a few years ago, it became obvious to me yet again that this lost American war had never been "winnable." This observation was plain and incontestable, even if elaborate US battle plans had somehow been fashioned along the way with more appropriate military refinements; that is, even if the war had been able to display manifestly reasonable analytic underpinnings. But why was this not always perfectly obvious to the generals and to the several pertinent American presidents?

Why did we have to wait so many years for McNamara's mea culpa, for his admittedly calculated delay that cost tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives?

For years, similarly more-or-less futile American wars have been underway in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

In time, for both Iraqis and Afghans, all once-presumed oases of stability will regress to what seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, would have called a "war of all against all." At best, it will all end exactly as if these wars had simply never even been fought.

Status quo ante bellum?

Over the years, with the now obvious exception of North Korea, our doctrinal enemy has changed, from "communism" to "Islamism" or "Jihadism." This time, to be sure, our ideological adversary is real, not merely presumptive.  And is also a formidable adversary.

In short, this current enemy is not just another contrived foe, one that has been crudely carved from some antecedent "doctrine" of simplifying metaphors, blowing smoke and distorting mirrors.

Still, even this conceptually reasonable enemy remains a foe that can never be defeated, at least not in any usual or tangible sense, and not on any of the usual battlefields.  

Inevitably, if a particular Jihadist enemy has seemingly been vanquished by our military forces, in one country or another, it will re-group and reappear elsewhere. After Iraq, after Afghanistan, even after Syria (which ends "victoriously" with US support of a genocidal regime), we will continue to face resurgent adversaries in such unmanageable venues as Sudan, Mali, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, and perhaps even Bangladesh or in "Palestine." Now, in the Middle East, an American president and his always-misguided National Security Advisor are sounding alarm bells over Iran -  this after the United States, not Iran, unilaterally withdrew from a binding international legal agreement (the JCPOA).

How, then, do we Americans manage to descend, again and again, from one significant war-policy forfeiture to the next? The most obvious answer seems to lie in the continuing intellectual and political inadequacies of our leaders. In turn, recalling Jefferson's earlier wisdom about democracy and education, we are bound to look more closely at the underlying American society that repeatedly substitutes short-term distractions for any longer-term understanding.

More precisely, it must soon be acknowledged, we Americans have entered into a protracted bargain of sequential surrenders, a Faustian bargain accepting bribes and public amusements in exchange for all indispensable citizenship responsibilities.  

It is finally time for genuine candor. In a society where many remain expressly content with presidential "rallies" based on Schadenfreude (taking joy in the suffering of others), any so-called "life of the "American mind" must continue to deteriorate. More than anything else, this shattered intellectual life has become an unwitting self-parody.

In the 1950s, Harvard historian Perry Miller published a modern classic he titled The Life of the Mind in America. Then, thoughtful references to a vital literary tradition rooted primarily in Emerson, Thoreau and the American Transcendentalists were instantly recognizable, sometimes even to the average citizen reader. Not today.

Now, any work offered with a similar title would need to be a very short book. More than likely, because few Americans are ever willing to challenge themselves beyond the openly pedestrian demands of moment-to-moment social networking, it's authentic genre would have to be identified as satire.

In retrospect, our third president was right-on-the-mark. An avid reader himself, and one well-acquainted with leading philosophical and jurisprudential ideas of the late-eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson already understood that wisdom and virtue in democratic governance must depend upon wisdom and virtue among "the people." For certain, he did not intend the sort of rampant vocationalism that currently passes for higher education in the United States. Instead, Jefferson had urged and expected an enriching curriculum, a Western Canon, a conspicuously humanistic plan of study that would favor an expanding attention to history, literature and the arts.

In other words, Jefferson had understood that nothing could ultimately prove more practical for the United States than an "impractical" education, and that this understanding would have incrementally much to do with core American foreign policies concerning war and peace. Now looking ahead toward a potentially self-defeating military engagement with Iran, Americans must do whatever they can to hold presidential decision-making to reason and fact-based standards of judgment. Otherwise we will be forced to endure what Yogi Berra had once so famously described as "déjà vu all over again."


About the Author(s)

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books and articles dealing with history, law, literature, and philosophy. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II. Some of his pertinent publications have appeared in JURIST; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Yale Global Online; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (Pentagon);  Armed Forces and Society; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Strategy Bridge; Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Tel Aviv);  INSS Strategic Assessment (Tel Aviv); The War Room (USA War College); Infinity Journal (Tel Aviv); Modern War Institute (West Point); International Security (Harvard); and World Politics (Princeton).