The View From Olympus: President Trump, Iran, and the Indirect Approach

The neo-cons and neo-libs are jointly crying to the heavens that President Trump’s refusal to attack Iran shows weakness.  In their elementary school understanding of the world, unless we are the biggest bully on the playground, other bullies will come after us.  The fruits of their puerility include Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Fortunately, President Trump is wiser.  He understands that, as a maritime power (which our geography dictates we must be), we will accomplish our objectives better with an indirect approach.

The indirect approach is traditionally British, and the man who understood it best was the great maritime historian and theorist Sir Julian Corbett.  His book on the principles of maritime strategy, and his masterful history of Britain in the Seven Years’ War, both explain how it works. It works just the way President Trump has been applying it to Iran.

Through the economic and financial sanctions that the President has placed on Iran he has caused the ruling circles of that country to face real problems–especially since he has repeatedly offered to sit down and negotiate with them, which they have refused to do.  The combination has led the Iranians to have growing doubts about their country’s leadership. They suffer, their leaders can do nothing to relieve their sufferings, yet they won’t agree to talks that might reduce or even eliminate the sanctions. This is exactly the kind of pressure the indirect approach excels at creating–and we haven’t had to fire a shot.

In World War I, this is what finally defeated Germany.  The British distant blockade that included (illegally) food caused mass hunger in Germany.  More Germans starved to death than in World War II. The German government was unable to improve the food situation, and eventually the people revolted and overthrew that government–tragically for the world, because the fall of the German monarchy opened the door to Hitler.  At the same time, because the British departed from maritime strategy and sent a large army to fight on the Continent, the war also brought the end of the British Empire, another disaster for the world.

It is of central importance that President Trump stick to the indirect approach and not get sucked in to taking less effective but more dramatic military action.  Some pinprick attacks on Iran by cruise missiles or aircraft will lead the Iranian people to rally around their government, which is the opposite of the result we are seeking and achieving through the sanctions.  I hope someone reminds the President of one of Machiavelli’s wiser sayings: never do an enemy a small injury.

The strategy of the indirect approach applies equally to China.  Should China grow so belligerent we must respond, perhaps by attacking an American ship or aircraft and thereby killing Americans (something the Iranians have so far been careful to avoid), instead of sending in the Marines to attempt to take some Chinese islands, we should apply a distant blockade.  A distant blockade, like that in the British used in World War I, would be beyond China’s reach–say, in the Indian Ocean. It would cut off China’s oil and food supplies, which would be a very large problem indeed for the leadership in Beijing. But as is the case with the sanctions on Iran, we would probably not have to fire a shot.

When President Trump responds to his critics who cry for war, he should continue to say what he has been saying: that his refusal to attack Iran is a policy of strength, not weakness.  That is exactly correct, because the sanctions exert real pressure on Tehran while some minor military attacks would work in their favor. This should be a no-brainer. Regrettably, as they have shown over and over, the neo-cons and neo-libs have no brains.

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