The Perils of Seeking an American "Victory" over Iran
Louis René Beres
Following recent events in Iraq, most notably the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleiman, President Donald Trump is apt to seek some sort of larger or longer-term “victory” over Iran. Though his favored operational stance is more likely to be incremental than sudden – that is, than some substantial “bolt-from-the-blue” war-initiating strike - there will still be multiple dangers of an uncontrolled escalation. Plausibly, going forward, both states, assuming mutual rationality, will actively pursue approximately the same principal objective.
This goal will be to achieve “escalation dominance,” but without suffering any corollary consequences of a major war.
There will be more factors to consider. Here, as a pertinent “antecedent” consideration, the basic idea of a traditional military “victory” would be flawed. Inherently, it could no longer carry operational significance because it could no longer express any tangibly identifiable correlates.
What, if anything, could sometime constitute a determinable victory over Iran? To be sure, no one has any reasonably specific or prospectively useful ideas. Furthermore, the notion that a measurable victory could somehow be achieved via competitive risk taking interactions with Iran ignores the following: Inevitably, any successes achieved by “escalation dominance” must be both transient and perilous. Though, technically, any all-out war with Iran would be prima facie “asymmetrical,” the Islamic Republic, even as a non-nuclear adversary, would represent a demonstrably formidable foe.
All things considered, President Trump ought never to affirm that America’s goal vis-à-vis Iran is “to win," but rather that any US search for military success will always be tempered by a prudent escalatory caution. Meaningfully determining what, exactly, might ultimately identify the "sweet spot" in optimizing two fixedly interconnected goals (escalation dominance and national security) will depend upon the extent of any ongoing crisis, and also on available analytic bases for suitably making precise comparisons.
By definition, without being able to compare all possible outcomes to a crisis, Mr. Trump and his pertinent counselors would be unable to decide rationally between all relevant alternatives. Even more importantly, issues of rational decision would have to be raised and appraised in absolutely every corresponding crisis. Are Iranian moves and counter-moves expectedly consistent with rational decision-making in world politics? Though exceptionally difficult to answer, this question will need to be confronted whenever Washington and Tehran are caught up in any intrinsically complex escalatory competition.
There is more. Typically, nation-states no longer declare wars,[i] or enter into legally binding war-terminating agreements. Conceptually, applying classical or traditional criteria of "war winning" to impending military struggles with Iran would make no conceivable sense. To the president’s credit, however, he has yet to apply his more abstractly belligerent rhetoric concerning “victory” to Iran in particular. In the future, any such more expressly specific application would be sorely misconceived and tactically unproductive.
In the "old days," a time extending well into the twentieth-century, states first had to defeat an enemy army before being able to wreak wished-for destruction upon that adversary’s cities and infrastructures. Then, in those earlier days of traditional arrangements concerning war and peace, an individual military’s capacity to win was necessarily prior to any sought after capacity to destroy. Today, a state adversary of the United States needn't first defeat American armies to harm this country as a nation. Reciprocally, of course, Americans now needn't be able to “win” a war with Iran in order to (1) successfully threaten that adversary with purposeful strategies of deterrence; or (2) actually inflict upon it appropriaterly grave military harms.
For President Donald Trump, the core lesson of all these evolving transformations should be this awareness: Operationally, winning and losing against Iran has become effectively extraneous or starkly injurious to America’s core national security interests. In principle, at least, any misconceived Trump orientation to "winning" within this daunting “dyad” of armed competition and conflict could lead the United States toward genuinely irreversible losses. It follows, going forward, that U.S. military posture toward Iran should never be shaped according to the barren expectations of clamorous clichés or empty witticisms. Instead, the president’s focus should be fixed steadily upon only the most disciplined theses and antitheses of strategic thought. More exactly, this means a self-conscious commitment to dialectical military thinking; that is, to a continuous process of asking and answering pertinent questions. Among other things, during any upcoming crisis with Iran, American military planners should consider what could happen if there would simultaneously open up a “second front.”
It is entirely plausible that Donald Trump would have to pursue a search for escalation dominance with Tehran (not yet nuclear) and Pyongyang (already nuclear) at the same time. What then?
Long ago, Sun-Tzu reasoned famously: "Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence." To meet current U.S. national security objectives vis-à-vis Iran, this ancient Chinese military wisdom suggests, inter alia, that America’s orientation emphasize deterrence, not victory, and (potentially) the simultaneous deterrence of multiple adversaries. Any such informed emphasis must be intentionally connected to meeting the variously complex and intersecting requirements of several coinciding military escalations.
These more-or-less coinciding escalations, whether expected or unexpected, could involve certain significant underestimations of enemy intent and/or military capacity, and could also involve unforeseen synergies. These interactive effects would represent the result of various separate decisional outcomes in which the “whole” or cumulative effect would be greater than the simple arithmetic sum of all pertinent “parts.”
President Donald Trump ought to be made fully aware of this: "Escalation dominance" is no less relevant today than it was in earlier military history. Still, it remains a critical decisional consideration, but presenting in a markedly different way. Specifically, it is now central to ensuring stable deterrence against a broad variety of enemies, both state and sub-state, and in assorted circumstances that could range from involving entirely conventional ordnance (non-nuclear) to those that would be increasingly nuclear. In the current case of Iran, Trump should take into especially serious account the asymmetrical but operationally significant alignments that obtain between Tehran and non-state Hezbollah.
Presently, the Hezbollah Shiite militia can field very large “armies” and tens of thousands of conventional but manifestly lethal rocket forces. In this connection, it is entirely conceivable that certain escalations between Washington and Tehran could sometime bring extraordinary harms to US regional ally, Israel. This is the case, moreover, whether or not the Jewish State would have any perceived involvement in related military operations.
During any now widely-expected spiral of deterrence and counter-deterrence, President Trump's most basic obligation should never be to "win" against Tehran or its designated Hezbollah proxies, but instead to thoughtfully and consistently dominate complex escalatory processes without placing America's most elemental security at expanding peril. Should he mistakenly seek a "victory" at all costs against Iran, Trump would then more likely cast critical caution to the winds, thereby inviting largely unpredictable levels of American homeland destruction.
Regarding Iran, managing escalation dominance without spawning catastrophe will represent a fundamental intellectual obligation of the United States.[ii] Under no circumstances should such management ever be undertaken by President Trump with a view to pleasing public tastes, however presumptively compelling or extravagantly judicious. Always, for the United States, managing competitive risk-taking dynamics with Iran must remain an absolutely overriding security objective of the American President, but never with the narrowly opportunistic and self-defeating goal of "winning."
In the end, whether or not the recent Trump-ordered “termination” of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani proves to have been cost-effective for the United States will depend very significantly on having first understood this underlying strategic expectation.
[i] Under international law, the question of whether or not a true "state of war" exists between states is now generally ambiguous. Traditionally, it was held that a formal declaration of war was necessary before a true state of war could be said to exist. Hugo Grotius even divided wars into declared wars, which were legal, and undeclared wars, which were not. (See Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace, Bk. III, Chs. III, IV, and XI.) By the start of the twentieth century, the position that war obtains only after a conclusive declaration of war by one of the parties was codified by Hague Convention III. This treaty stipulated that hostilities must never commence without a "previous and explicit warning" in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum. (See Hague Convention III Relative to the Opening of Hostilities, 1907, 3 NRGT, 3 series, 437, article 1.) Currently, declarations of war may be tantamount to admissions of international criminality, because of the express criminalization of aggression by authoritative international law, and it could therefore represent a clear jurisprudential absurdity to tie any true state of war to formal and prior declarations of belligerency. It follows that a state of war may now exist without any formal declarations, but only if there exists an actual armed conflict between two or more states, and/or at least one of these affected states considers itself “at war."
[ii] The ancient Greeks and Macedonians were fond of calling war a struggle of "mind over mind," rather than one of "mind over matter." To be sure, similar sentiments animated ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun-Tzu, and much later, Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz.