JURIST Guest Columnist Louis René Beres, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Purdue, examines United States security interests if a war with Iran were to arise...
Abstract: Although US President Donald Trump may eventually be content with achieving only modest operational successes against Iran, there is reason to believe he would still prefer some notion of a military “victory.” Any such notion would likely be starkly injurious to overall US security interests. Derivatively, as shall now be argued, any such erroneous notion could also be harmful to Israel, a principal US ally in the region.
“Every battle is won before it is fought.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
In planning its core strategic policy, the United States should always be guided by coherent doctrine. If, however, for any reason, this antecedent doctrine were wrongly conceived, its net effect could prove markedly negative. More particularly, for the current President of United States to continue to approach America’s most insistently urgent security challenges ad hoc, or viscerally, without any proper theoretical foundation, would be sorely mistaken.
Going forward, the only correct strategic stance for President Donald Trump regarding Iran should be twofold: (1) forge and identify an appropriately underlying strategic doctrine; and (2) take all possible steps to ensure that this indispensable doctrine will be lawful and net-gainful/advantageous. In the matter of Iran, this means “winning” specific “battles,” but without seeking any overall military victory. Though this counsel may at first sound self-contradictory or counter-intuitive, it is actually indispensable.
This is because any search for a traditional victory in this theatre could place even the plainly “stronger” state adversary in a position of irrecoverable harm.
If planned prudentially, United States strategic doctrine vis-à-vis Iran would carefully exclude any manifestly implausible goals. Achieving some sort of determinable victory over Iran would represent just such a futile goal. To clarify further, a more precise set of explanations is immediately in order.
More than anywhere else in America’s geopolitical universe, except perhaps for North Korea, the US president’s enhanced doctrinal focus should be laser-focused on Iran. Following recent new year events in Iraq, beginning with the US-ordered assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, President Donald J. Trump is apt to seek some sort of larger “victory” over Iran. Though his favored operational stance is more likely to be incremental than some sudden or “bolt-from-the-blue” American strike, there will still remain assorted and intersecting dangers of an uncontrolled escalation. Furthermore, the two adversarial states, assuming a mutual and reciprocal rationality, will pursue essentially the same principal objective, and – contextually – within the same “Westphalian” system of world politics and international law.
This is the case only as long as analysis can reasonably assume a mutual and reciprocal rationality on the part of Washington and Tehran. In the “real world,” of course, this assumption could prove problematic at best.
What is the common principal or overriding objective here? Assuredly, it is to achieve “escalation dominance,” but without suffering any simultaneous or corollary consequences of a major war. In principle, at least, this plausible goal would also pertain to Israel. If this US regional ally should consider once again an active posture of preemption – here, recalling especially the country’s June 7, 1981 defensive strike against Saddam Hussein’s Osiraq nuclear reactor – this stance could represent a timely and present-day expression of the “Begin Doctrine.”
For the most part, they key issues here are doctrinal ones. Accordingly, there will be several interlinked factors and subsidiary goals to consider by decision-makers in Washington and Tehran, but Mr. Trump might still seek some sort or other of recognizable “victory.” As an “antecedent” consideration, however, the very idea of somehow achieving a traditional military triumph amid such utterly bewildering circumstances would be flawed. In essence, for the United States, a military victory could carry no current operational significance because it could no longer express any tangible or identifiable correlates.
Certain questions necessarily arise. Most meaningfully, what, if anything, could constitute a determinable American victory over Iran? Plainly, thus far, no one seems to have offered any reasonably specific or prospectively useful ideas. Additionally, the patently seductive notion that some measurable victory could be achieved via successive competitive risk-taking interactions with Iran ignores a thoroughly basic and incontestable postulate: Any successes achieved by “escalation dominance” must be transient and perilous.
Prima facie, though any US war with Iran would be technically “asymmetrical,” the Islamic Republic, even as it remains a conspicuous non-nuclear adversary, could represent a distressingly formidable foe.
Just how formidable could become most immediately apparent in Israel, rather than in the United States itself. This is because the largest fraction of any Iranian military strikes would likely be launched by Hezbollah rockets fired directly and perhaps exclusively at Israel.
All things considered, President Trump ought never affirm that America’s goal vis-à-vis Iran is “to win,” but instead acknowledge that any US search for military success in this theater will be operationally oriented and reliably fact-based; that is, it will be tempered by a consciously prudent presidential attention to escalatory caution. Here, determining what, exactly, might best identify a “sweet spot” in optimizing two fixedly interconnected strategic goals (escalation dominance and national security) will depend upon both the determinable extent of any still-ongoing crisis and on all available analytic bases for advancing systematic course comparisons.
By definition, if unable to compare all possible outcomes to a particular crisis, Mr. Trump and his counselors would then be unable to decide rationally between relevant alternatives. Even more important, all issues of rational decision would then have to be raised and appraised in every corresponding crisis. Will Iranian moves and counter-moves be expectedly consistent with rational decision-making obligations in a “Westphalian” or anarchic world politics?
It’s not a simple question. Though difficult to answer, this question will need to be raised whenever Washington and Tehran find themselves caught up in any complex escalatory competition. For Jerusalem, moreover, whatever transpires here could become a matter of more than a merely passing interest.
There is more. Typically, nation-states no longer expressly declare wars or enter into legally binding war-terminating agreements. Conceptually, therefore, applying any classical or traditional criteria of “war winning” to still-impending military struggles with Iran could make no conceivable sense. To this American president’s “credit,” however, he has yet to apply his more abstractly belligerent rhetoric concerning “victory” to Iran. To the contrary, following Iran’s seemingly limited military reprisal on January 8, 2020 (a rocket attack against certain US positions in Iraq), Trump promptly tweeted his view that this reprisal could end the then current US-Iran cycle of strike and counterstrike.
In the “good old days,” a time extending well into the twentieth-century, warring states first had to defeat an enemy army before being able to wreak any wished-for destruction upon that adversary’s cities and infrastructures. Then, in those earlier days of traditional diplomatic arrangements concerning war and peace, an individual state’s military’s capacity to win was necessarily prior to achieving any capacity to destroy. Today, a state adversary needn’t first defeat American armies to harm the US as a nation. Now, reciprocally, of course, America need not first be able to “win” a war with Iran in order to successfully threaten that country with purposeful strategies of deterrence and/or inflict upon it grave military harms.
For US President Donald Trump, the core lesson of all these evolving transformations should be the following awareness: operationally, winning and losing against Iran has become effectively extraneous and/or starkly injurious to America’s most rudimentary national security interests. In principle, any misconceived Trump orientation to “winning” within this daunting “dyad” of armed competition and conflict could lead the United States toward certain genuinely irreversible losses.
Derivatively, any such misdirected orientations could play havoc with US ally Israel’s indispensable national security.
It follows from all this, inter alia, that U.S. military posture toward Iran should never be shaped according to the invariably barren expectations of clamorous presidential clichés or annoyingly empty witticisms. Rather, the American president’s focus should be fixed steadily upon only the most disciplined theses and antitheses of refined strategic thought. More exactly, this means a self-conscious US doctrinal commitment to dialectical military thinking; that is, to a continuous process of asking and answering pertinent questions. Among other things, during any still-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 feel compelled to pursue escalation dominance with Tehran (not yet nuclear) and Pyongyang (already nuclear) at the same time. What then? From the standpoint of US ally Israel, the stakes could sometimes be existential. To wit, any crossing of the nuclear threshold on the Korean peninsula (whether by the US or North Korea) could have overwhelmingly significant implications for its own still-ambiguous nuclear strategy and for a catastrophic Middle Eastern war.
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 strategic orientation emphasize deterrence (potentially the simultaneous dissuasion of multiple adversaries), not victory. Naturally, any such informed emphasis must also be intentionally connected to meeting the variously complex requirements of coinciding military escalations.
These more-or-less simultaneous escalations, whether expected or unexpected, could involve significant underestimations of enemy intent and/or military capacity. They could also involve certain unforeseen but important synergies. Again, these very specific 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 pertinent “parts.”
President Donald Trump ought to be made more fully aware of these “caveats.” Escalation dominance is no less relevant today than it was in earlier military history. It still remains a critical decisional consideration, but one presenting in markedly different ways. Specifically, it is now absolutely central to ensuring stable deterrence against a broad variety of enemies, both state and sub-state, and in assorted circumstances that could favor conventional military ordnance (non-nuclear) to those armed forces that would be nuclear.
In the case of Iran, Trump should take into especially serious account the asymmetrical but operationally significant alignments that obtain between Tehran and non-state Shiite militia Hezbollah.
Already, the Hezbollah “general staff” can field very large “armies” and tens of thousands of conventional but overwhelmingly lethal rocket forces. In this connection, it is entirely conceivable that certain escalations between Washington and Tehran could sometime bring extraordinary harms to Israel. This is the case, moreover, whether or not the Jewish State would have any presumptive or perceived involvement in any related military operations.
During any potential spiral of deterrence and counter-deterrence, US President Trump’s most basic obligation should never be to “win” against Tehran and/or its designated Hezbollah proxies, but to efficiently dominate complex escalatory processes without placing America’s elemental security at an expanding peril. Should he mistakenly seek some “victory” at all costs against Iran, however, Trump would more likely cast all residually critical caution to the winds, and thus invite largely unpredictable levels of both American and Israeli losses.
In the matter of Iran, managing escalation dominance without spawning any corollary catastrophe will continuously represent a fundamental intellectual obligation of the United States. Under no circumstances should such management be undertaken by President Donald Trump with a principal view to pleasing public political tastes. Always, for the United States and its relevant allies, especially Israel, managing competitive risk-taking dynamics with Iran must remain an overriding security objective.
But the relevant efforts should never stem from some narrowly opportunistic and/or self-defeating goal of “winning.”
In the end, whether or not the Trump-ordered “termination” of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani proves to have been cost-effective for the United States (and derivatively, for Israel) will depend significantly on having first fully understood this core strategic obligation.
For both America and Israel, any plausible successes against Iran will eventually depend upon a commendably common awareness in Washington and Jerusalem that the ongoing struggle with Tehran must always be waged with suitably refined doctrines of military engagement. Accordingly, if US President Donald Trump continues to approach this expansively unpredictable regional conflict with a narrowly visceral or “seat-of-the-pants” ethos, both countries will experience not any reassuring semblances of “victory,” but rather variously cascading elements of military and civilian loss. For Israel, still joined at the hip with the United States (at least as long as its existential nuclear strategy remains “deliberately ambiguous”), the manifestly evident shortcomings of this particular American president should be assessed continually, and with an amply conspicuous measure of Cartesian doubt.
However unwittingly, an ally operating without any coherent strategic doctrine could become a de facto foe of the United States. It follows, both for Washington and Jerusalem, that identifying and implementing plausible goals vis-à-vis Iran must proceed according to a coherent and antecedent doctrine. Anything less refined would only leave both countries substantially ill-prepared and more conspicuously vulnerable.
In all continuing matters of US national security concern, the search for any decisive military victory over Iran would be fanciful, misdirected and fraught with unnecessary peril. Such a search would also carry very grave and significant legal risks.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books, monographs, and scholarly articles dealing with various legal and military aspects of nuclear strategy. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). Over the past years, he has published extensively on nuclear warfare issues in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); Yale Global Online (Yale); JURIST; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Atlantic; The Washington Times; US News & World Report; Modern Diplomacy; Special Warfare (Pentagon); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); The New York Times; The Hill; The War Room (Pentagon); Small Wars Journal; Modern War Institute (West Point); Israel Defense; The Jerusalem Post; The National Interest; and Oxford University Press. His twelfth book, published in 2016 (2nd ed., 2018) by Rowman & Littlefield, is titled: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016((2nd. ed., 2018). A widely-circulated monograph with U.S. General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey was published at Tel Aviv University in December 2016, Israel’s Nuclear Strategy and America’s National Security.
Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Seeking Plausible Strategic Goals: America’s Doctrinal Imperative on Iran, JURIST – Academic Commentary, January 27, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2019/07/louis-beres-seeking-plausible-strategic-goals-iran/
This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at email@example.com
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