Almost every day I am asked by someone what the likelihood is that we may soon be at war with Iran or North Korea, or conceivably both. As it’s unlikely either of those countries will attack the United States since it would be suicidal, the question of war really means: are we going to attack them?
There are those who say all the tub-thumping emanating from Washington is just bluster. For example, Justin Raimondo of Antiwar.com writes that President Donald Trump is just engaging in “rhetorical pyrotechnics and scor[ing] political points with certain [domestic] constituencies while maintaining the status quo: in short, he gets to engage in what is essentially a theatrical performance entirely unrelated to what is actually occurring on the ground. His enemies, mistaking rhetoric for reality, have risen to the bait.”
I hope Raimondo is right but I fear otherwise. Underlying his analysis is the all-too-factual reality that attacking either country would result in catastrophe. “Millions would die, on both sides of the demilitarized zone,” if we were to move first, he writes. “For this reason, the US – despite Trump’s tweets – is not going to launch an attack on North Korea.” Similar logic applies to Iran.
Unfortunately, if a prudent assessment of costs and benefits had guided American policy in recent years, none of our other wars of choice would have taken place either – yet they did. The fact that foreseeable consequences may appear “unthinkable” to rational minds does not mean they are not regarded as quite thinkable to those making the decisions.
The potential for war is not, as Trump’s enemies and even some of his lesser-informed supporters would have us think, the product of his populism or nationalism. Quite the contrary, in 2016, Trump excoriated the globalist establishment’s interventions under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. Now he’s adopted those very same policies clothed in Trumpish “America First!” bombast. Why he has done that is unclear and in the end not particularly relevant to what happens next.
To be sure, I do not think that the generals and globalists who now guide Trump’s policies want war with either country, but they are willing to risk war to get what they want. On Korea, they insist on North Korea’s denuclearization, which would likely set the stage for regime change in Pyongyang – which Kim Jong-un well knows, and why he will never agree to it. “The ‘America First’ solution is clear: Kim’s threat to the U.S. is present only for as long as America remains engaged in Korean affairs,” writes Srdja Trifkovic. “Disengage, and it disappears.” But Washington will not countenance ever giving up the U.S. military foothold on the Korean peninsula. To keep it, they would rather put in jeopardy the almost 30,000 American personnel in South Korea and the lives of countless Koreans on both side of the 38th parallel.
Given that any U.S. attack on North Korea, or even Pyongyang’s coming to believe that such an attack may be imminent, would almost certainly trigger a devastating counterstrike against South Korea and perhaps Japan, any American military action would have to be overwhelming from the start. Recent speculative talk of Kim’s ability to wipe out up to 90% of the American population with an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack can have only one aim – to lay out a justification for a preemptive U.S. strike, perhaps a nuclear one. Perhaps Trump will wave that scenario under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s nose at their summit next month based on delusions in Washington that if the U.S. can appear sufficiently bellicose, the Chinese will be panicked into solving the problem for us, either by a coup to remove Kim and his entourage or even via an invasion of North Korea.
Trump’s belligerence towards Iran is similarly divorced from American national interests. To start with, the Administration’s claim that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is a tacit admission that Tehran is in fact meeting its obligations. Decertification of the agreement has less to do with actual concern about an Iranian nuclear device than seeking to neuter Iran as a regional power. This is clear from Trump’s recently announced new strategy towards Iran, directed against the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), Iran’s missile program, and Iran’s state integrity and regional interests generally. Many of those pushing Trump in this direction make no secret of wanting military action achieve “regime change” in Tehran to install in place of the current theocratic government the so-called Mojahedin-e Khalq-e Iran (MEK) terrorists – subsidized by Saudi Arabia – much as we parachuted the ersatz Iraqi National Congress into Baghdad after overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Full-spectrum hostility to Iran has nothing to do with putting America first. Critics of U.S. foreign policy have long pointed out that we tend to act less in accord with the interests of our people than those of trans-national corporations (notably those connected to what is known anachronistically as the Military-Industrial Complex, more properly called the Deep State) and those of supposed “allies” that do nothing to safeguard our security but are all too happy to drag us into their quarrels to further their interests, not ours. Two of the most powerful foreign lobbies in Washington are those of Israel and Saudi Arabia, which are increasingly linked based on their shared hostility to Iran. It is significant that Trump’s first two destinations abroad as president were to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Trump seems to have entirely bought the false line that Iran is the world’s foremost supporter of terrorism. Really? How many Shiite, Iranian-supported terrorist attacks have taken place in Europe or North America? No, the dubious honor of top sponsor of jihad terror belongs far and away to Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabist ideology that inspires Daesh, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and many other groups. In an inversion of reality, the U.S. administration blames global terrorism explicitly on Iran (including the IRGC), Syria, and by extension Russia, all of which are fighting against al-Qaeda and Daesh, as Trump himself acknowledged during the 2016 campaign to the chagrin of GOP “experts.”
Now Trump has decertified the Iran nuclear deal as expected but has not withdrawn the U.S. from it. The next move is up to Congress, whether to re-impose sanctions lifted under the agreement. If they do so, that would effectively mean the U.S. is withdrawing from the JCPOA, whether or not there is a formal repudiation by the U.S. – a step Trump could have taken but didn’t. Based on my conversations on Capitol Hill this week, immediately restoring sanctions is improbable. Keep in mind that Democrats, even those deeply hostile to Iran, will wish to preserve what may be Obama’s only significant foreign policy achievement from his time in office and will be loath to endorse the action of a president they despise. Many Republicans, much as they railed against Obamacare for seven years but then fumbled when they had an opportunity to repeal it, will find it easier to sound belligerent than to take a real action that might have consequences.
If Congress does not re-impose sanctions within the 60-day window, that effectively means that for now the U.S. will formally remain within the JCPOA despite the decertification, which even bellicose Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has conceded. (Giving some hope for Raimondo’s thesis, this could be what Trump intended – a way to look strong and hairy-chested, and to appease the partisans of Israel and Saudi Arabia, while leaving responsibility for staying in the agreement with Congress.) It’s likely, though, that eventually we will see some sort of measure from Congress condemning Iran for the usual laundry list of “bad behavior” – mostly untrue, and mostly not related to nuclear weapons development – with a sanctions trigger at some point in the future, perhaps in one year. Meanwhile, the U.S. will demand that Tehran agree to “improving” the deal with respect to ceasing development of missile technology, stopping aid to Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis, desisting from bad-mouthing Israel, pulling the IGRC out of Syria and Iraq, and swallowing pretty much anything else anyone can think of that would be fundamentally unacceptable to Iran.
If U.S. does at some point pull out of the JCPOA, or re-impose sanctions (which amounts to the same thing), it would be to the horror of the other signatories, who are anxious to preserve it. It would then be up to Iran to decide if pulling out of the agreement to which all the other parties except the U.S. remained committed were in her national interest. In my opinion that would be a foolish move and Iran would gain nothing from it. First, Iran has repeatedly said she does not wish to develop nuclear weapons and that doing so would contrary to her principles. Second, even if the U.S. were to re-impose sanctions, their effectiveness would be limited by the non-participation of even America’s closest allies and trading partners, not to mention rejection by Russia and China. Third, Iran’s remaining in the agreement with the other parties would create an advantageous circumstance for Tehran on one side with London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Moscow, and Beijing, while Washington is isolated on the other. (Or maybe this is part of Trump’s clever plan to disengage us from the Middle East! We go so far out on the limb that no one’s with us.) Finally and most dangerously, if Iran did denounce the JCPOA because the U.S. had, the hawks would claim it signaled a premeditated “breakout” toward acquisition of nuclear weapons, leaving Trump with “no choice” but to preempt it militarily.
While Patrick Buchanan writes that we are already on the road to war with Iran, there are many more relevant variables than is the case with North Korea. Moreover, while the fate of the JCPOA remains in limbo, it would take several months, perhaps a year, for the U.S. to assemble the forces necessary in the region to launch an attack on Iran. At this point I’d assess the odds of war with Iran holding at about 15%, but they could increase substantially and quickly depending on what happens next.
By contrast, assets for an attack on North Korea are already mostly in place on a hair trigger, awaiting only the order to engage. About a month ago, former NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis estimated a 10% chance of a nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea, and a 20% to 30% chance of a conventional one. I think that assessment was optimistic then and things are getting worse. With regard to any attempt at “limited” conventional strike targeting specific missile and nuclear facilities, plus a decapitation of the North Korea leadership, it’s not a realistic option – at that point Kim would have nothing to lose. I suggest that the odds of war have passed 30% and are increasing almost weekly but with strong possibility that any conflict could turn nuclear.
“Whatever happened to ‘America First’?”, asks Paul Mulshine. One can’t help but suspect that Trump doesn’t fully appreciate the box in which he now finds himself. If he does decide on war against North Korea or Iran, or God forbid both, with the anticipated horrible consequences, he will be blamed, not his newfound neoconservative fans. In that case, the Never-Trumpers won’t have to wait for impeachment, they can activate the 25th Amendment to remove him for what they will claim is proof of his mental illness.