Tuesday, September 13, 2005

America’s dangerous game

The Iranians are playing a dangerous game. But they have taken a long look at the playing field and come to the accurate conclusion that there is no time like the present to seize the advantage.

The United States military is stretched thin. The war in Afghanistan continues on as the Taliban forces have regrouped. In Iraq, more than two years after President Bush declared the end of major combat operations, the hostilities continue unabated. With an active duty Army of only 500,000 soldiers, we have begun to rely heavily on the 700,000 or so in National Guard and Reserves to play an active operational role––certainly not what many of those serving anticipated when they signed up.

At home, the President’s credibility has been shaken by the fail response to Hurricane Katrina, and the public's realization that their compatriots abandoned to their fate in the Superdome and the Convention Center paid the price for the continuing political wars and the politicization of the federal bureaucracy. For an American public consumed with the hurricane aftermath, the war in Iraq, the John Roberts confirmation hearings, the Karl Rove/Valerie Plame saga, and the removal of Martha Stewart’s electronic bracelet can barely compete for cable time.

In the midst of all of this, Iran has accurately perceived that the time is right to push its agenda forward. The clerics that sit on the Council of Guardians have pushed back the moderate challenge with the victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative former mayor of Teheran, in recent elections. Now Ahmadinejad, who will speak at the United Nations this week, is leading the Iranian challenge to the international community with its determination to move its nuclear program forward.

The United States holds few cards in the confrontation with Iran. The Bush administration has been bold in brandishing the sword against countries who defy its dictates, and much was made of “Iran or Syria next” in the early days following the end of major combat operations in Iraq. But Iran is not Iraq. It is a large, mountainous country that would be hard to march through in short order. Furthermore, while the Iranian street has large pro-American sentiments, it is also a proud nation whose nationalist sentiments are galvanized by attacks on its nuclear program, and certainly would be even more so by an American invasion.

The simple fact is that in the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq and now Katrina, our resources are stretched and our guard is down. With Bush’s popularity at its nadir, he would be hard pressed to call the American people once more into the breech––or “once more into the Jeep” as a Canadian colleague mocked. Our call for Europe and Russia to take the lead in confronting Iran––a difficult charge in the best of times––has been undermined by the continuing resentments over our treatment of European opinion and the United Nations in the run up to Iraq.

But Iran alone is not the problem. Under the auspices of the “muscular” foreign policy doctrine of the Bush administration, we have disdained traditional alliances and multi-polar leadership in the world, and assumed unto ourselves the role of enforcer of international norms of conduct. With righteous conviction and faith in our military, we have sought to dictate terms to regimes around the world. We will be at great risk if we are shown by Iran to be––even momentarily––a paper tiger.

It is the what-ifs that loom large. Yes, Iran may be on its way to developing nuclear weapons. As a regional power surrounded by nuclear states––Pakistan, Israel, India, Russia, Ukraine––it would be unrealistic to give much credence to its denials. But the end game in Iran will be left to Europe and Russia, as continued admonishments by Condi Rice only seem to make matters worse, particularly as everyone knows the military option is now off the table.

The what-ifs are Asian. What if North Korea decides that our moment of weakness is offering a final chance to finish the war with the South? What if China decides that we are in no condition to defend Taiwan?

China aspirations on Taiwan and North Korea’s hostility to South Korea are historic and doctrinal, and have largely been held in abeyance by our presence and our commitment to the joint defense of Taiwan and South Korea. Would we fulfill our commitments? Perhaps, but the Taiwan Strait is barely over 100 miles across, and Seoul is less than 50 miles from North Korea. It all could be over quickly, and there just might not be much we could do about it.

One cannot help but imagine, on the eve of President Ahmadinejad’s speech in New York, that the distractions of West Asia, our diminished military numbers––if not capacity––and Bush’s domestic weakness might call out to Beijing and Pyongyang that There Is No Time Like the Present.


Becca said...

Well that's cheerful...

guile said...

indeed, it is..