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Saturday, June 15, 2019

The global order has shifted and we don't know yet what will replace it

by digby

Brett McGurk, Payne Distinguished Lecturer at Stanford, Foreign Affairs Analyst, Former Presidential Envoy who served under Bush, Obama, Trump posted this series of tweets about the Iran situation:

The US seems to have embarked on its “maximum pressure” campaign with few allies and little forethought as to unintended consequences or how to respond if key assumptions — e.g., that Iran will implode or succumb and enter talks on US terms — prove false.

Those assumptions are now highly questionable at best, which means the entire policy foundation as articulated by Trump has eroded. Iran appears to have made the strategic decision (not surprising) to resist economic pressure and respond asymmetrically, not directly against us.

I suspect Iran’s aim is to draw the US in deeper to the Middle East and heighten US rifts with allies or force removal of new sanctions as a pre-condition to talks. Those are likely goals behind reckless acts. They have also likely prepared responses should we respond militarily.

Thus, any US military response would need to be decisive and sustained over a period of months. That is not where a maximum pressure policy was supposed to lead. It was supposed to set the table for a “new and more comprehensive” deal. That’s now highly unlikely. So what now?

Strategy 101: when assumptions underlying a policy prove false, it’s critical to immediately review the policy and adjust course. Failure to do so doubles down on risk. Here, Trump may soon be boxed in: either back down or resort to military tools (as economic tools have failed).

In my view, targeting tankers in int’l waterways warrants a rallied international response with military measures to deter future incidents. If Washington had developed a policy with allies, it could rally the world to isolate Iran and reinforce economic with diplomatic pressure.

Unfortunately, our great comparative advantage as a nation — building and working with alliances — has eroded, particularly with respect to Iran. Key western allies warned of this very circumstance and sequence of events when the US began its maximum pressure campaign a year ago.

Our regional partners are now divided amongst themselves, lack confidence in the White House, and do not want an escalation given risks of an uncontrollable spiral. This is not 1988 where the “tanker war” was limited in time, scope, and geography. More risk and uncertainty today.

Moreover, Trump has made clear he does not want a military confrontation and hopes to drawdown from the Middle East. On Iran, this means a policy that appears to be executed without the full buy-in from the president or at least his personal consideration of downside risks.

On multiple fronts now, the national security team is pursuing maximalist policy aims backed by a minimalist president. Iran is just the latest example of this problem. Consider the last two weeks alone on Iran policy:

In Japan, Trump said he opposes regime change & only wants to talk about the nuclear file (albeit after leaving the table where that file is discussed). Pompeo in Switzerland floats talks without preconditions. Bolton then tweets Iran must “first end its 40-year reign of terror.”

Worse, Trump asked a key ally @AbeShinzo to carry a message to Tehran and float dialogue but less than one week before Abe visits, Trump’s national security team announces significant new sanctions against Iran. This is how Bolton set up the Abe trip:

Iran is spending its money to fund & conduct terrorism, resulting in serious economic problems that will only get worse. The President has given Iran the opportunity to pursue a better future, but first the regime must end its 40-year reign of terror.

Was that a coherent sequence and plan? Did Trump know about it? Did Abe? Did anyone think such an announcement would help the visit of our key ally, made at the behest of Trump himself? Was it intended to sabotage the visit? In any event, it’s peculiar diplomacy/sequencing.

This incoherence has ramifications beyond Iran; it’s weakening our position globally. Iran is a 5th-rate power. Its economy is smaller than our poorest state. Its defense budget a fraction of our regional allies. China & Russia are our near-peer rivals — and now sense advantage.

If you focus on the signal and not the noise as @JoeNBC has been saying, here’s what happened last week alone (some broader strategic trend-lines worth noting when considering the issue of Iran and US strategy)

1) China’s President Xi completes a historic three-day visit to Moscow and hails strategic ties with Putin.

2) Chinese and Russian military commands meet to discuss deepening strategic partnerships.

Today, both Putin and Xi met with Iranian President Rouhani and expressed their full support for Iran even in the wake of smoking tankers and US evidence that Iran was unquestionably behind the attack.

This trend threatens to reverse a signal achievement of the Cold War and runs totally contrary to Trump’s own national security strategy with emphasis on great power competition, and needlessly avoiding Chinese-Russian convergence.

Our intelligence community similarly warned earlier this year that “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the 1950s” and the tend is likely to grow due to “perceived US unilateralism and interventionism.”

China and Russia have also made a decision with respect to US policies in the Middle East. They believe our zero-sum objectives on Iran as well as Syria cannot be achieved (given incoherence in resourcing, Trump’s aversion to more investment, mixed messages, and basic reality).

China has now afforded highest diplomatic status to Iran — and also Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt — positioning itself for the next 50 years on four pillars. I wroteabout this trend-line in @TheAtlantic after a @CarnegieBeijing seminar theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…

With smoking tankers attributable to Iran, this would be an opportune time to bring China and even Russia into a diplomatic coalition given that threats in the Gulf impact their own economies. Not unthinkable before. Now impossible: thus advantaging Iran, and limiting US options.

Bottom line: Iran is a real problem. But this policy is piling on strategic risk with little reward. It’s driving allies away & peer-competitors together. It’s not leading to talks but increasing risk of conflict. It’s ramifications go beyond the Middle East. Worth reassessing.

Yeah, it's worth reassessing.

There is no strategy. There is only impulse and infighting leading to chaos and incoherence.

Our best hope is that Trump's luck holds up.