Thursday, March 8, 2007

Regional Balancing and The Clash of Civilizations

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has publicly stated that the Bush administration is not preparing for war with Iran. Yet the administration has also said it will consider all options for stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear deterrent. It has also argued in its 2006 national security strategy that Iranian “tyranny” is a direct threat to the national security of the United States. In keeping with the spirit of this document, the military presence in the Persian Gulf and surrounding regions has been increased. According to defense news.com:
“The administration backed up its tough talk by deploying the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group a week earlier than planned in January and, in a surprise move, also “surging” the Ronald Reagan to the west Pacific and dispatching the Stennis to the Middle East. Stennis joined the already-deployed Dwight D. Eisenhower group in the 5th Fleet area Feb. 19, doubling the Navy’s combat power in the region.
Defense news also provides us with a vivid mental image of what might soon come to pass.
"The initial strike could come from stealth Air Force fighters and bombers and cruise missiles launched from B-52Hs, Navy submarines and surface warships. The attacks could center on command-and-control centers, anti-aircraft sites and other targets that pose a threat to follow-on strikes by nonstealth bombers and fighters. The Air Force bombers could fly nonstop from their home bases in the United States, while Air Force fighters would have to be launched from bases within the region. The Air Force already has fighters based in Iraq, Afghanistan and along the western Arabian Gulf. The Air Force and Navy bombs, like the cruise missiles, would all be precision-guided in an effort to minimize unnecessary deaths and collateral damage at dual-use facilities or those located amid civilian populations. F-22As, once they drop their bombs, would focus on shooting down any Iranian fighters that tried to challenge U.S. aircraft. Navy cruisers and destroyers from the Eisenhower and Stennis strike groups would be prepositioned in the Arabian Gulf, their flanks protected by anti-submarine helicopters and attack submarines. The latter would be submerged, simultaneously preparing to fire cruise missiles. The two carriers would not be anywhere near them. With much uncertainty about the locations of Iranian anti-ship missile ships, high-speed boats or mobile shore batteries — and the range U.S. Navy jets can produce with the aid of Air Force fuel tankers operating on the periphery of the battlespace — the carriers probably would be situated outside the Arabian Gulf, likely in the Gulf of Oman."
While it appears the administration may be gearing up to strike Iran by itself, it may instead be preparing to support an Israeli led strike, showing support for an emerging anti-Iran coalition, or simply providing extra support for US ops in Afghanistan. Balance of power logic suggests that containing an aspiring regional hegemon like Iran may be necessary through war, but it doesn’t require that the US should act as the immediate balancer. If history is a guide to what may come, the US typically shouldn’t assume that role until the power of regional balancing is exhausted. The US’s traditional role as offshore balancer in the past meant that intervention was required only when a regional power had conquered its neighbors, enabling it to then project its power into our backyard and directly threaten our immediate security interest. However, this logic was clearly abandoned when the 2002 National Security Strategy announced its neo-liberal (neo-conservative) agenda, so it’s hard to say that the administration actually understands its own role in the world.

Should such a coalition emerge, how would it look? Samuel Huntington suggested that conflicts in the post-soviet era would occur along civilization’s fault lines. And when evaluating our war against Islamic terrorism, his thesis certainly seems vindicated. Yet at the regional level, this particular conflict involves not only an inter-civilization split, but also an intra-civilization split. Huntington describes Islam as a civilization in itself. However, even though Iran is an Islamic nation, its people are ethnically non-Arab. Also, the emerging Sunni and Shia conflict, exacerbated by altered religious dynamics in Iraq, has further removed Iranian identity from the rest of the wider Islamic world. Perhaps this increases the chances of a coalition emerging against it. But, in terms of regional military capabilities certainly the most logical candidate for leading it would be Israel. Unfortunately though the Palestinian issue may exclude it from participation. The dis-utility of Israeli participation was typified when Israel sat out the first gulf war for this reason

What are the implications of civilization divergence for a regional anti-Iran coalition? Perhaps it may be a naive proposition to include Israelis in an Arab coalition. But such an alliance could go a long way in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the wider Israeli- Arab conflict in general. At this point, a unilateral US strike seems like the worst of all possible worlds. Let us hope that Robert Gates injects some foresight and innovative thought into the Bush administration's seemingly eyeless liberal internationalist crusade. We should use our efforts wisely and attempt to foster the creation of a regional coalition that includes Arabs and Israelis, while sitting this one out.

1 comment:

Jeb said...

Travis,

I'm not convinced that building a massive anti-Iranian coalition in the Middle East is the right way to go. Any military strikes on Iran would be disastrous, no matter who carried them out. As in Iraq in 1981 when Israel targeted the Osirak reactor, Iran is likely to increase its efforts to build a nuclear bomb if it is attacked. Furthermore, such an attack would only strengthen the radical government of Ahmadinejad, and undermine the influence of Iranian moderates.

I think that there is a whole lot of diplomacy that can be done to force the Iranians to back down. Any military attack would be both unnecessary and counterproductive.