The View From Olympus: Korea and Iran

North Korea and Iran now appear to be the two trouble spots most likely to drag the United States into another war.  Seen from the State Department and the Pentagon, both cases seem somewhat alike.  But if we look at them through the lens of Fourth Generation War, they could not be more different.

North Korea offers one of the few situations where we could, at least in theory, win a war.  That is to say, if North Korea were defeated, we would not end up creating another stateless region that would quickly become dominated by Fourth Generation entities.  Why is this the case?  Because a defeat of the current North Korean regime and its subsequent collapse would almost certainly lead to immediate union with South Korea.  That would be an economic disaster for the South, at least in the short term.  But it would not spread the plague of statelessness that is the main threat to the U.S. and every other state in the 21st century.

That is not to say that war with North Korea is desirable.  No war’s outcome is predictable.  If the North Korean regime collapsed immediately after our first blow, we might well win.  If it did not, then our chances of victory would diminish sharply.  An infantry fight with the North Korean army could easily turn into a disaster, and the longer the war went on, the greater would be the probability of other countries intervening.  As I have argued before, the U.S. has no real strategic interests at stake on the Korean peninsula.  But China, Russia, and Japan do.

The Iranian case is entirely different.  The Iranian state is relatively fragile.  Persians are not an ethnic majority, and Iran has long faced a variety of separatist movements.  A war with Iran, even if the U.S. defeated the current state of Iran, could easily create the same chaos we authored in Iraq, Libya, and (as a bit player) Syria.  The result would be a greater threat to American interests in the region than that now represented by the Iranian state. 

This is the conundrum presented to our foreign and defense policies in most of the world: Fourth Generation war means war with other states offers only a lose-lose proposition.  If the other states defeat us, we lose.  If we defeat the other state we also lose because it disintegrates into stateless disorder.

In general, President Trump’s instincts lead him in the right direction.  But that does not appear to be the case with Iran.  It is important both the President and Congress understand that if we renounce the current agreement with Iran curbing its nuclear program, we are deciding to go to war.  It is possible that Iran would take opportunity to isolate the U.S. diplomatically by upholding the agreement with the other signatories.  But Iran would be more likely to resume its nuclear program and thus dare the U.S. to respond.  Almost any response with a potential to halt Iran’s nuclear program would mean war, with the lose-lose outcome I have already pointed out.

In both cases President Trump would do well to remember Bismarck’s description of preventive war as “committing suicide for fear of being killed.”  The Pentagon can put together a razzle-dazzle first strike plan that seems a sure thing.  But “shock and awe” has been seen before, and in the long run we were the ones who ended up shocked if not awed.  None of the perpetrators of the disastrous invasion of Iraq expected that war to be going on in 2017, with many twists and turns and more yet to come.