Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Once more into the breech

There is probably no more literate and thoughtful geopolitics site on the web than Commentary Magazine's "Contentions" blog but that doesn't mean that folks there don't sometimes see other world issues through lenses colored by their positions on other issues so I found myself in a back and forth with a couple of very well informed fellows. I've removed comments by other parties that didn't bear on the thread.

Russia, Georgia, and IranNoah Pollak - 08.12.2008 - 11:42 AM
The response of the West to Russia’s invasion has been to dress up in tough rhetoric a helpless message: What can we do? And there isn’t much the free world can do. The most aggressive proposals consist only of arming the Georgian army and throwing military and diplomatic support behind other nations which live in Russia’s crosshairs. One important reality narrows options and prevents serious consideration of a First Gulf War-style response: the fact that Russia is a nuclear power.
This is a lesson surely not lost on the Iranian regime, which like Russia has territorial designs on its neighbors, wishes to play an outsized role in its region, and views an American-allied democracy on its borders (Iraq) with about as much benevolence as Putin views such nations on his borders. Those who confidently predict a “containable and deterrable” nuclear Iran should consider the suddenly not-so-deterrable nuclear Russia and ask themselves whether such confidence is warranted.

10 Responses to “Russia, Georgia, and Iran”

2J.E. Dyer Says: August 12th, 2008 at 12:03 PM
Perfect, Noah. The problem with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union was always that it was NOT containable. We never succeeded in containing it, unless you credit the 53+-year armistice in Korea to the “contained” column.
Those who think it would be better to “contain” Iran than disarm Iran misread the history of containment (or don’t even know it).
The “contained” don’t have to directly confront the US, NATO, or anyone else with strategic nukes, to steadily push back our line of “containment.” Their method will be the one perfected by the Soviets: attack nations on the periphery — by subterfuge if possible, rather than outright military invasion — and calculate that, again and again, we will consider ourselves out of position, or not obligated, to respond.
Consider that during the years of the USSR’s existence, there was only one occasion when the US or any other Western power literally reversed, with force, a Soviet-client Marxist coup or incursion in a third party nation. Where did we do this? Grenada. From 1917 to 1989: Grenada.
Containment ain’t all that.

3Sully Says: August 12th, 2008 at 12:22 PM
Noah Pollak - I wholeheartedly agree that a nuclear Iran is a seriously bad prospect, but this is a seriously overstretched analogy.
J.E. Dyer - You missed Afghanistan as an example of where a Soviet incursion was reversed.
And both of you missed Vietnam, where a non-nuclear state took over a neighbor despite our massive effort over a very long period.

4Noah Pollak Says: August 12th, 2008 at 12:31 PM
Sully, The point of the analogy was to show that when a state with large regional ambitions is also a nuclear power, the ability of its rivals to deter its aggression is significantly reduced. The Soviet incursion into Afghanistan was indeed reversed, but only after years of bloodshed; more importantly, the vital point here which bolsters my argument, and J.E.’s argument, is that the Soviets felt sufficiently undeterred that they launched the incursion in the first place. With nukes, the Iranians will no doubt feel the same way toward, say, Bahrain. Which is exactly my point. No?

5Forbes Says: August 12th, 2008 at 12:37 PM
Shorter version: Under a policy of deterrence and containment, a nuclear power is neither sufficiently deterred, nor contained, to prevent acts of aggression.

6J.E. Dyer Says: August 12th, 2008 at 12:44 PM
Sully — nope, didn’t miss either of them. We failed to contain the Soviet client in Vietnam. Period. We lost the whole country to the Soviet client (Hanoi) and the Soviet orbit. Within six months of the fall of Saigon, the Soviet Navy and Air Force were using the old bases in South Vietnam to patrol the South China Sea.
In Afghanistan we supported the rebel tribes, whose persistence and ungovernability eventually induced a Soviet Union that was pulling in its horns on all fronts to withdraw from there also. It’s arguable how to call this one, but I don’t include it with Grenada for several reasons, such as the ten years the Soviet Army occupied Afghanistan, and the sea change that had already been induced by Reagan’s policies in the Soviet posture: agreeing to the INF treaty; not responding when Poland effectively declared her political independence, and Czechoslovakia hers, or when Austria opened her border to the East Germans; remaining passive and impotent as Iraq and Iran duelled in the Persian Gulf, and the US performed the role of enforcer for the safety of international shipping there.
A strong case can be made that we got the Soviets out of Afghanistan — which, after all, IS in Russia’s back yard, and matters to her security as Mexico does to ours — not through a “containment” policy, but by the destruction of the Soviet Union itself, through the package of pressures applied by Reagan. That’s why I don’t include it as a victory for “containment.” The very definition of containment means that you don’t defeat or transform the opposing power itself, you merely pen it in behind a containing perimeter.
And the truth is, that never worked. Only forcing the Soviet Union to disintegrate stopped her career of expansion.

7Sully Says: August 12th, 2008 at 12:46 PM
Noah, Again, no argument that Iran will feel more free with nukes, but they already feel pretty darn free to mess around in Iraq without them and they feel pretty darn free to intimidate about the Straits of Hormuz without them. And I suspect that Russia, with its massive conventional forces, would feel pretty darn free to mess with Georgia without them as it did in breaking its assurances about eastern Europe after WW2 without them given the logistics and such of anybody else making an issue of it.
Everything isn’t comparable to Iran just as everything isn’t comparable to Munich.

8Sully Says: August 12th, 2008 at 1:01 PM
J.E. Dyer, Good points. And with this “And the truth is, that never worked. Only forcing the Soviet Union to disintegrate stopped her career of expansion” I totally agree.
The problem in Iran is the regime and it will remain a problem as long as it exists.
Re Vietnam - I was over there in a destroyer helping to guard the minesweeper which were pretending to sweep the probably self-deactivated mines in Haiphong harbor. And I was over there a couple of years before that in a different ship to observe the kind of shouldering and electronic harassment we delivered to the Soviet intelligence trawler that periodically visited Yankee Station. I actually had the conn of an aircraft carrier during one such exercise which caused them to leave the area in a hurry and stay away for a while. “What’s the bearing of the trawler? “207 degrees.” “Make your speed 30 knots and make your course 207 degrees.” And then a bit later when he was about 5,000 yards away - “Come right one degree.”
We lost South Vietnam because of self-deterrence rather than deterrence by the Soviets.

9Dellis Says: August 12th, 2008 at 1:05 PM
Another analogy to this situation is our allied Gulf states within range of Iranian nuclear missiles. They have seen how little the U.S. will do to protect its ally Georgia in the face of an invasion by a nuclear armed adversery. Why would Saudi Arabia & friends not conclude that they need nuclear weapons too, since the U.S. nuclear shield is nowhere near 100% credible? Do we really want every nation in the world armed with nuclear weapons? How soon until one of these made its hands into terrorists, or until a minor row between states escalated to nuclear war? This is surely America’s national interest at stake, no matter how narrowly you define what America’s interests really are.

10Seth Halpern Says: August 12th, 2008 at 1:07 PM
I hope nobody here is implying that we could invade, regime-change and “reform” Russia even if we had nukes and they didn’t. Maybe the first two things, certainly not the third. If our objective is to unhitch the Slavs from their Slav mentality, way better to rely on natural demographics until Russia shrinks out of its self-imposed harness and explores alternative arrangements. But by then we may need them against the Chinese anyway.

11J.E. Dyer Says: August 12th, 2008 at 2:18 PM
Sully — You say, “We lost South Vietnam because of self-deterrence rather than deterrence by the Soviets.”
Truer words were never spoken — but the pretext for our self-deterrence started with the USSR being a nuclear power, all the way back in 1954 when Ike decided not to assist the French at Dien Bien Phu. What people still don’t understand is that we NEVER intended to “win” in Vietnam: to defeat Hanoi and ensure that Vietnam was not subsumed in the Soviet orbit.
A whole cottage industry emerged in the early 1960s to define how to fight “limited wars” in the nuclear age. The basic premise was that no interest was worth a nuclear war to protect, and that we somehow had to figure out how to wage a satisfactory security policy without the “destabilizing” idea of actually changing whatever the current situation was.
So the Soviets could retain whatever they managed to present to us as an existing situation. This was a horrible, bloody travesty in Vietnam, where we lost 58,000 lives in our bid to avoid actually defeating Hanoi.
Your description of shouldering the intelligence collection trawlers (I remember those guys well from the 1980s) is quintessential Robert S. McNamara, Mr. Limited War/Limited Objectives himself. Achieving an actual military effect against North Vietnam would, in his view, have been provocative, destabilizing, and might bring us into direct conflict with the USSR or China. He actually thought it was a good idea, instead, to administer a series of tactical pinpricks to Hanoi and her sponsors, and call that a show of resolve.
This practice got us the Tonkin Gulf incident. It got us a lot of aviators shot down over North Vietnam. What it did NOT get us was any political impression on North Vietnam, other than that we weren’t serious, and would go away eventually if Hanoi could just hang on.
Hanoi was right, and McNamara was wrong. The Soviets were right: we would fold, in a struggle on the periphery, because they were nuclear. They never even had to issue a threat.

15Sully Says: August 12th, 2008 at 4:16 PM
J.E. Dyer,Again excellent points, but I’m not as sure as you that the nuclear issue was as defining as you state. Particularly I think it mixes up with the disadvantage a morally self limited democratic leader has when up against a bloody minded dictatorial one who cares not a whit (or appears not to) for the safety of his own population let alone that of his adversary.
For one example Eisenhower settled for a draw in Korea against a conventional armed China after Truman fired a bloody minded McArthur in part for suggesting stuff like a nuclear windbreak along the Yalu which would certainly have won the war albeit a bit messily. For another the same Kennedy who brought in McNamara and his system analyst idiots clumsily and riskily backed down the Soviets over the missiles in Cuba when the issue was closer to home.
The good guy necessarily cedes a huge advantage in caring about the population oppressed by the bad guy. Nuclear weapons magnify that advantage but they don’t create it.
Given Iran’s use of children as mine sweepers during the Iraq war I don’t want them to have nuclear weapons but they are a big problem regardless unless we plan to build up a sufficient force to invade and conquer them, which I seriously doubt.

16lester Says: August 12th, 2008 at 5:07 PM
or we could accept things aren’t perfect in the world and be thankfull we have more freedom that the people in iran and russia and china and use that freedom to out innovate them, make better movies, steal all their best and brightest, and beat them in the olympics every 4 years.
eventually they will give in when they see there is no hope in planned economies, something we’ve known since 1917 (google “economic calculation problem” )

17M. Simon Says: August 12th, 2008 at 5:35 PM
So the Soviets could retain whatever they managed to present to us as an existing situation. This was a horrible, bloody travesty in Vietnam, where we lost 58,000 lives in our bid to avoid actually defeating Hanoi.
Uh, guys. We didn’t lose in Vietnam. Congress gave it away. Go back and read your history again.
As to Georgia. Russia stopped after 5 days. The 1,000+ American trainers are still there. Why would they stop if they were winning? It is not their way. Let us wait until the dust settles and see what the real results are.

18Sully Says: August 12th, 2008 at 5:53 PM
Blimey - now I find myself in rough agreement with a lester post!
I’m retiring from this discussion.

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