Small Wars Journal

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

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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).



Sat, 06/01/2019 - 11:20am

“Plain and incontestable” that the war couldn’t have been won? This is often heard from those who never served Vietnam, draft dodgers (in action or in thought) of the time, academics, press, and by (unfortunately) students who believe(d) their professors knew what they were talking about. Most of us (over 91%) are proud to have served and 74% say they would do it again. We knew how to win, while the “armchair experts” stayed home to write their books and/or tell their students how wise they were (and to make sure they buy their book for the class) or those who pontificated on television or wrote their columns in the press - go ask those who served instead while you still can.

To think that Iran, the world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism today, should be given a free pass is amazingly naïve and dangerous.

Revolutionary Iran, since its inception, has not been a worthy member of the community of nations. They’ve lied, cheated, and stolen. They’ve made agreements, knowing full well they’d never abide by whatever they signed (just as China, North Vietnam, and Russia). And yet, the previous administration (though they denied it) paid a $1.7b ransom for our citizens jailed in Iran and shielded Hezbollah from the DEA and CIA. Dealing with a terrorist country doesn’t seem to have mattered to many in the last administration and Chamberlain seems to have been John Kerry’s hero, but We are Americans – we don’t trust those who kowtow to those who threaten others, despite the arrogance and pomposity of those who presume to know better.

It is unfortunate that the lessons of Vietnam are lost on those so intent in obtaining Peace at Any Price that they distrust the American people by trying to peddle the idea that they know best and that we couldn’t possibly understand. Despite the usual and obvious interferences, we know better – the question then becomes, why don’t you?

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

The way to "win" in Vietnam was to have accepted the friendship and alliance offered by Ho Chi Minh in 1945 to assist his people in throwing off the chains of French colonialism.  Though Ho was a communist, he did not insist on imposing a communist dictatorship on Vietnam, and he actively sought US help.  But alas, Truman chose to support his French ally in reimposing a colonial system after we booted the Japanese from Indo China.  The Vietnam War for the US actually began in 1945 .. and continued through the 1950s, long before most Americans realized we were fighting a war there.  The subsequent presidents were all stuck with a bad policy, and though they all could have simply quit Vietnam, they could not bear the assured criticism from the anti-communist hawks, who would have skewered them for being weak-kneed on communism.

The battle in Vietnam was not so much against communism as it was against Vietnamese nationalism and anti-colonialism, and the US became the colonial power, stepping into the shoes of the French.

Could the US have subdued communism in Vietnam?  Could communism coexist with those Vietnamese who were not communists?  Those are good questions.  But without the war that began in 1945, it is rather certain that millions of Vietnamese would not have perished, and 58,000 Americans would not have perished, and hundreds of thousands more maimed, and a US nation torn apart ... and the end result could hardly have been any worse for the non-communist Vietnamese, who ended up dead, imprisoned and "reeducated", and as refugees who forever lost their homeland.

We need smarter leaders, for sure, who understand that the war not fought is the war with the best outcome, always.  This is not a call for "isolationism" - the US can and ought to be a force for international security and stability and does NOT need to fight pointless wars in order to so function.

As for today, Trump and his stupid Bolton created the "crisis" by stupidly trashing the JPCOA, launching economic war against Iran, and then waited with baited breath for the first inkling of a reaction from Iran in order to have their pretext for an attack.  It appears that having run out of patience, the Trumpkins did not even wait for an Iranian reaction, so instead relied upon proclamation of Iranian intent, rather than actual reaction, to serve as their pretext for at least a show of chest beating, and hoping that such display would also goad the Iranians into trying a stupid attack.

But alas, Trump is no Sun Tzu:

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt."



From our article above:


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.


With regard to "enemies" and/or "foes," perhaps the following from Joseph Schumpeter will -- in the larger and continuously on-going context that we need -- help us to properly identify and distinguish same:


Where cultural backwardness of a region makes normal economic intercourse dependent on colonization, it does not matter, assuming free trade, which of the civilized nations undertakes the task of colonization.


As can be seen by the Schumpeter quote above, the "enemy" -- the "foe" -- is what Schumpeter calls "cultural backwardness;" a "cultural backwardness" which:

a.  Is seen as standing directly in the way of what Schumpeter calls "normal economic intercourse" (defined as complete, free and unfettered capitalism and free trade?) and which, in his day at least,

b.  Required "colonization."  (Today, we believe that such things as "nation-building" is the proper way to [a] overcome these "cultural backwardness" problems and [b] achieve "normal economic intercourse;" this in [c] the insufficiently market-oriented states and societies of the world.)

It is exactly this such "cultural backwardness" enemy/foe, might we agree, that such things as "communism," "socialism" and "Islamism"/"Jihadism" (a) all fall under and, thus, (b) all must be understood by?  

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

Based on my suggestion here --that, then as now --

a.  "Cultural backwardness" of a state, society and/or civilization (and/or, indeed, any non-market-oriented "belief" community or group) 

b.  THIS is the properly-understood "enemy"/"foe" -- of the individuals and groups within the world that desire, and/or depend upon, "normal economic intercourse;"

Based on this such suggestion, is it:

a.  This such "cultural backwardness" problem that -- properly understood -- (from my quoted item from our article at the top of my comment here) is:

b.  "The foe that can never be defeated, at least not in any usual or tangible sense, and not on any of the usual battlefields?"