The alternative, then, is the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. But the regime has shown its willingness to slaughter hundreds and even thousands in order to stay in power, most recently in its brutal suppression of price riots. Such brutality works, at least for a time. And since the United States has, for now, gone out of the business of invading Persian Gulf countries, an external power is unlikely to facilitate regime collapse. Thus, even before recent events, Washington’s tactics seemed to have had no discernible way of getting to a strategic outcome.
Which brings to the fore the largest problem: the Trump administration’s national-security team. There is no such thing as a Platonic ideal of strategy. There is, rather, only strategy as can be executed by a particular group of people at any time. Any war—and if you are in the business of blowing people up, you are at war—involves improvisation and reaction. As Winston Churchill somberly observed, “Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.” Iran cannot beat the United States in the field, but it can win the war politically, and may very well do so.
Graeme Wood: Two questions to ask now that Qassem Soleimani is dead
The dominant tone in the American government is military assertiveness. The American military has in its theater commander, General Frank Mackenzie Jr., and its chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, two tough, experienced, aggressive commanders, with lots of time downrange in Iraq, where they personally felt the sting of Soleimani’s tactics. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is forward-leaning, while Defense Secretary Mark Esper, promoted unexpectedly from being secretary of the Army, has been a capable organizer but has not articulated a distinctive strategic point of view. Neither has the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. None has shown a substantial inclination to buck the president’s wishes or even his inclinations.
As the United States has learned to its cost, good decision making requires a forceful brake, or at least a counterpoise, to a tempting decision like the one to eliminate Soleimani. There seems to have been no one playing that role, and thereby ensuring that second- and third-order considerations had been identified and explored. Beneath the Cabinet officials is an uneven crew, many of its members filling acting positions. And above them all is a mercurial, impulsive, and ignorant president who has no desire to be pulled into a Middle Eastern war in an election year, and who wants to look tough without being prepared to follow through. This is a recipe for strategic ineptitude, and possibly failure.
The novelist James Gould Cozzens observed higher headquarters at close range during World War II. He drew on that for his masterly World War II novel, Guard of Honor. In one passage, his protagonist admits to himself that some of his seniors “were not complete fools.” However, he noted,
it was the habit of all of them to look straight, and not very far, ahead. They saw their immediate duties and did those, not vaguely or stupidly, but in an experienced firm way. Then they waited until whatever was going to happen, happened. Then they sized this up, noted whatever new duties there were, and did those. Their position was that of a chess player who had in his head no moves beyond the one it was now his turn to make. He would be dumbfounded when, after he had made four or five such moves (each sensible enough in itself) sudden catastrophe, from an unexpected direction by an unexpected means, fell on him, and he was mated.
Minus the compliments, that may be where the United States government is headed.