The View From Olympus: A Lesson in Strategy

As I wrote in my last column, our performance in the recent crisis with Iran followed the typical American pattern of sacrificing strategy to tactics.  It appears the Iranians, in contrast, are putting their strategic goals first and making sure their tactical actions, or (of equal importance) inactions, serve their strategic goals.

Iran’s goal is to get us out of the Middle East and Persian Gulf.  That should be our own goal as well, and President Trump has repeatedly said it is an objective he shares.  Regrettably, the Deep State is deeply invested in the region and wants us to remain. As usual in Washington, the Deep State prevails over a mere President, so we will only get out when we are thrown out.

Iran does not have the military power to throw us out, but there are other paths to this goal.  Iran seems to understand that, and its response to our killing of General Soleimani shows it knows how to play the game at the strategic level.  It did the bare minimum it had to do in direct, military response, in the form of some missile strikes on a couple of our bases in Iraq. The missile strikes caused little damage and no casualties, which appears to have been Iran’s intention.  It followed the missiles with an immediate message to Washington that Iran planned no further actions at this time. That, in turn, moved the world away from a war Iran did not want and probably could not win.

I think Iran sees that the best and safest way to get us out of its region is to start with Iraq, and to act politically rather than militarily.  It largely controls the Iraqi government, and through its allied Shiite militias it controls much of the ground in Iraq as well. The current Iraqi prime minister was put in office by Iran.  Not surprisingly, he drafted a new law telling Americans to withdraw from Iraq and quickly got it passed by Iraq’s parliament. Now, the Iranians are waiting for him to enforce it.

This has in turn led to a bizarre situation where our neocon Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has told the Iraqis we’re not going!  Excuse me? Under the treaty which governs our presence in Iraq we have to leave if the Iraqis tell us to. Moreover, we have about 5200 U.S. troops scattered in penny-packets doing training for the Iraqi army.  Are those troops expected to refuse to leave when Iraqi state armed forces and militias, who number in the hundreds of thousands, show up weapons in hand and say, “Guess what, you’re moving”? Only neocons live in a world so detached from reality.

Such a refusal would play right into Iran’s hands, in that it could then activate its most powerful option: ordering the Iraqi Shiite militias to take every American soldier they can grab as hostages.  At that point President Trump becomes President Carter all over again. If our forces fought, they would be fighting Iraqis, not Iranians. Again, the strategic winner would be Iran.

I doubt Iran’s response to the killing of General Soleimani is over and done.  All that is finished is Iran’s direct, military response. On the strategic level, Iran’s actions are likely to include forcing all U.S. troops out of Iraq and Syria, thus guaranteeing its line of communication with Hezbollah in Lebanon; further reducing our presence and importance in the Persian Gulf through a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf State allies; and using what leverage it has in Afghanistan to push us out of that place as well.  Its strategic goal of having the U.S. military exit the entire region is within reach, if it plays its cards carefully and continues to subordinate the tactical level to the strategic. It can count on us to help it along by subordinating the strategic level to the tactical, as we always do.

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.