One thing is clear after the killing of Iran’s second most important official: Americans are not safer.
Americans would be wise to brace for war with Iran.
Full-scale conflict is not a certainty, but the probability is higher than at any point in decades. Despite President Trump’s oft-professed desire to avoid war with Iran and withdraw from military entanglements in the Middle East, his decision to order the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s second most important official, as well as Iraqi leaders of an Iranian-backed militia, now locks our two countries in a dangerous escalatory cycle that will likely lead to wider warfare.
How did we get here? What are the consequences of these targeted killings? Can we avoid a worse-case scenario?
The escalatory cycle began in May 2018, when President Trump recklessly ignored the advice of his national security team and the opposition of our allies in unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal — despite Iran’s full adherence to its terms and its efficacy in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. Since then, the Trump administration has had no coherent strategy to constrain Iran’s program or to counter other aspects of its nefarious behavior.
Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” to impose ever more debilitating economic sanctions did not force Iran to capitulate; instead, predictably, it induced Tehran to lash out with a series of increasingly bold military provocations against Sunni Arab and Western targets while restarting important aspects of its nuclear program. Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, notably in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, have only intensified. At the same time, it has conducted a brutal crackdown on its civilian population. None of the Trump administration’s stated objectives have been met; if anything, the United States’ security and strategic positions in the region have weakened.
In deciding to eliminate General Suleimani, Mr. Trump and his team argue they were acting in self-defense to thwart imminent attacks on Americans in Iraq and the region. This may be true, as General Suleimani was a ruthless murderer and terrorist with much American blood on his hands. Unfortunately, it’s hard to place confidence in the representations of an administration that lies almost daily about matters large and small and, even in this critical instance, failed to brief, much less consult, bipartisan leaders in Congress.
Second, even if the killing of General Suleimani is justified by self-defense, it doesn’t make it strategically wise. Given the demonstrably haphazard and shortsighted nature of the Trump administration’s national security decision-making process (including
- calling off strikes against Iran 10 minutes before impact,
- inviting the Taliban to Camp David and
- abandoning the Kurds),
it’s doubtful the administration spent much time gaming out the second and third order consequences of their action or preparing to protect American military and diplomatic personnel in the region.
To assess the fallout of killing General Suleimani, we must understand that the Iranian regime cannot survive internal dissent or sustain its powerful position in the region if it backs down from this provocation. For Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a strong response is essential. For the United States, the question is: What form will it take and how quickly will it come? One thing is clear: Americans are not safer, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued on Fox News the morning after. Rather, American citizens are at greater risk of attack across a far wider battlefield than before. That is why the State Department has urged all Americans to depart not only Iraq but also Pakistan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
In Iraq, Iranian-backed militias have attacked United States and allied installations, and can continue to do so around the country. The government in Baghdad has declared the killing a violation of the terms of the American military presence in Iraq. We will face mounting pressure to withdraw our military and diplomatic personnel from the country. If we leave, the United States will suffer a major strategic defeat: Iran will justifiably claim victory, and the gains of the fight against ISIS will be lost as the terrorist group rebuilds.
There is no hope now to revive, much less strengthen, the Iran nuclear deal, and we must expect Iran will accelerate its efforts to revive its nuclear program without constraint.
The global economy is imperiled, as the Gulf States’ energy infrastructure faces the risk of an Iranian attack, and commercial shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and the larger Gulf region is threatened.
United States military, diplomatic and commercial operations as well as civilian targets throughout the Middle East are in range of both Iranian missiles and terrorist cells. From Afghanistan and Europe to Africa and Latin America, Iranian proxies — once latent — can stage asymmetric attacks against American and allied targets without warning. Even in the United States, we have reason to fear that terrorist sleeper cells could be activated. Worse, we face these threats now substantially alone, as the Trump administration apparently neglected to consult or even warn our key allies and partners about the impending risks to their interests that result from killing General Suleimani.
In the face of Iranian reprisals, it will be difficult for the United States to de-escalate tensions and avoid a larger conflict. Iran gets the next move. The United States has failed to deter Tehran thus far, even with the deployment of 14,000 additional American troops to the Gulf region since May. The announcement this week that the Pentagon was sending 3,500 more soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division seems unlikely to change things.
When Iran does respond, its response will likely be multifaceted and occur at unpredictable times and in multiple places. President Trump will then face what may yet be the most consequential national security decision of his presidency. If he reacts with additional force, the risk is great that the confrontation will spiral into a wider military conflict. If he fails to react in kind, he will likely invite escalating Iranian aggression.
It’s hard to envision how this ends short of war.
For several years, there has been a significant shift underway in U.S. strategy toward the Middle East, where Washington has consistently sought to avoid combat. The United States is now compelled to seek accommodation with Turkey, a regional power in its own right, based on terms that are geopolitically necessary for both. Their relationship has been turbulent, and while it may continue to be so for a while, it will decline. Their accommodation has nothing to do with mutual affection but rather with mutual necessity. The Turkish incursion into Syria and the U.S. response are part of this adjustment, one that has global origins and regional consequences.
Similarly, the U.S. decision to step aside as Turkey undertook an incursion in northeastern Syria has a geopolitical and strategic origin. The strategic origin is a clash between elements of the Defense Department and the president. The defense community has been shaped by a war that has been underway since 2001. During what is called the Long War, the U.S. has created an alliance structure of various national and subnational groups. Yet the region is still on uneven footing. The Iranians have extended a sphere of influence westward. Iraq is in chaos. The Yemeni civil war still rages, and the original Syrian war has ended, in a very Middle Eastern fashion, indecisively.
A generation of military and defense thinkers have matured fighting wars in the Middle East. The Long War has been their career. Several generations spent their careers expecting Soviet tanks to surge into the Fulda Gap. Cold Warriors believed a world without the Cold War was unthinkable. The same can be said for those shaped by Middle Eastern wars. For the Cold War generation, the NATO alliance was the foundation of their thinking. So too for the Sandbox generation, those whose careers were spent rotating into Iraq or Afghanistan or some other place, the alliances formed and the enemies fought seemed eternal. The idea that the world had moved on, and that Fulda and NATO were less important, was emotionally inconceivable. Any shift in focus and alliance structure was seen as a betrayal.
After the Cold War ended, George H.W. Bush made the decision to stand down the 24-hour B-52 air deployments in the north that were waiting for a Soviet attack. The reality had changed, and Bush made the decision a year after the Eastern European collapse began. He made it early on Sept. 21, 1991, after the Wall came down but before the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a controversial decision. I knew some serious people who thought that we should be open to the possibility that the collapse in Eastern Europe was merely a cover for a Soviet attack and were extremely agitated over the B-52 stand-down.
It is difficult to accept that an era has passed into history. Those who were shaped by that era, cling, through a combination of alarm and nostalgia, to the things that reverberate through their minds. Some (though not Europeans) spoke of a betrayal of Europe, and others deeply regretted that the weapons they had worked so hard to perfect and the strategy and tactics that had emerged over decades would never be tried.
The same has happened in different ways in the Middle East. The almost 20-year deployment has forged patterns of behavior, expectations and obligations not only among individuals but more institutionally throughout the armed forces. But the mission has changed. For now, the Islamic State is vastly diminished, as is al-Qaida. The Sunni rising in Iraq has ended, and even the Syrian civil war is not what it once was. A war against Iran has not begun, may not happen at all, and would not resemble the wars that have been fought in the region hitherto.
This inevitably generates a strategic re-evaluation, which begins by accepting that the prior era is gone. It was wrenching to shift from World War II to the Cold War and from the Cold War to a world that many believed had transcended war, and then to discover that war was suspended and has now resumed. War and strategy pretend to be coolly disengaged, but they are passionate undertakings that don’t readily take to fundamental change. But after the 18 years of war, two things have become clear. The first is that
- the modest objective of disrupting terrorism has been achieved, and the second is that
- the ultimate goal of creating something approaching liberal democracies was never really possible.
The world has changed greatly since 2001. China has emerged as a major power, and Russia has become more active. Iran, not Sunni jihadists, has become the main challenge in the Middle East and the structure of alliances needed to deal with this has changed radically since Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. In addition, the alliances have changed in terms of capability. The massive deployments in the Middle East have ended, but some troops remain there, and to a section of the American military, the jihadist war remains at the center of their thinking. To them, the alliances created over the past 18 years remain as critical as Belgium’s air force had been during the Cold War.
There is another, increasingly powerful faction in the United States that sees the Middle East as a secondary interest. In many instances, they include Iran in this. This faction sees China or Russia (or both) as the fundamental challenger to the U.S. Its members see the Middle East as a pointless diversion and a drain of American resources.
For them, bringing the conflict to a conclusion was critical. Those who made their careers in this war and in its alliances were appalled. The view of President Donald Trump has been consistent. In general, he thought that the use of military force anywhere must be the exception rather than the rule. He declined to begin combat in North Korea. He did not attack Iran after it shot down an American drone or after it seized oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. After the attack on the Saudi oil facility, he increased Saudi air defenses but refused offensive actions against the Iranians.
Given the shift in American strategy, three missions emerge. The first is the
- containment of China. The second is the
- containment of Russia. The third is the
- containment of Iran. In the case of China, the alliance structure required by the United States is primarily the archipelago stretching from Japan to Indonesia and Singapore – and including South Korea. In dealing with Russia, there are two interests. One is the North European Plain; the other is the Black Sea. Poland is the American ally in the north, Romania in the south. But the inclusion of Turkey in this framework would strengthen the anti-Russia framework. In addition, it would provide a significant counter to Iranian expansion.
Turkey’s importance is clear. It is courted by both Russia and Iran. Turkey is not the country it was a decade ago. Its economy surged and then went into crisis. It has passed through an attempted coup, and internal stress has been massive. But such crises are common in emerging powers. The U.S. had a civil war in the 1860s but by 1900 was producing half of the manufactured goods in the world while boasting a navy second only to the British. Internal crises do not necessarily mean national decline. They can mean strategic emergence.
Turkey’s alignment with Iran and Russia is always tense. Iran and Russia have at various times waged war with Turkey and have consistently seen Iraq as a threat. For the moment, both have other interests and Turkey is prepared to work with them. But Turkey is well aware of history. It is also aware that the U.S. guaranteed Turkish sovereignty in the face of Soviet threats in the Cold War, and that the U.S., unlike Russia and Iran, has no territorial ambitions or needs in Turkey. Already allied through NATO and historical bilateral ties, a relationship with Turkey is in the American interest because it creates a structure that threatens Iran’s line to the Mediterranean and compliments the Romanian-U.S. Black Sea alliance. The U.S. and Turkey are also hostile to the Syrian government. For Turkey, in the long term, Russia and Iran are unpredictable, and they can threaten Turkey when they work together. The American interest in an independent Turkey that blocks Russia and Iran coincides with long-term Turkish interests.
Enter the Kurds
This is where the Kurds come into the equation. Eastern Turkey is Kurdish, and maintaining stability there is a geopolitical imperative for Ankara. Elements of Turkey’s Kurds, grouped around the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, have carried out militant attacks. Therefore it is in Turkey’s interest to clear its immediate frontiers from a Kurdish threat. The United States has no overriding interest in doing so and, indeed, has worked together with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. But for the Turks, having Kurds on their border is an unpredictable threat. American dependency on the Kurds declines as U.S. involvement in the Middle East declines. Turkey becomes much more important to the United States in relation to Iran than the Kurds.
Trump clearly feels that the wars in the Middle East must be wound down and that a relationship with Turkey is critical. The faction that is still focused on the Middle East sees this as a fundamental betrayal of the Kurds. Foreign policy is a ruthless and unsentimental process. The Kurds want to establish a Kurdish nation. The U.S. can’t and doesn’t back that. On occasion, the U.S. will join in a mutually advantageous alliance with the Kurds to achieve certain common goals. But feelings aside, the U.S. has geopolitical interests that sometimes include the Kurds and sometimes don’t – and the same can be said of the Kurds.
At the moment, the issue is not al-Qaida but China and Russia, and Turkey is critical to the U.S. for Russia. The U.S. is critical for Turkey as well, but it cannot simply fall into American arms. It has grown too powerful in the region for that, and it has time to do it right. So Trump’s actions on the Syrian border will result in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington and, in due course, a realignment in the region between the global power and the regional power.
Unlike the 2008 global financial crisis, which was mostly a large negative aggregate demand shock, the next recession is likely to be caused by permanent negative supply shocks from the Sino-American trade and technology war. And trying to undo the damage through never-ending monetary and fiscal stimulus will not be an option.
NEW YORK – There are three negative supply shocks that could trigger a global recession by 2020. All of them reflect political factors affecting international relations, two involve China, and the United States is at the center of each. Moreover, none of them is amenable to the traditional tools of countercyclical macroeconomic policy.
The first potential shock stems from the Sino-American trade and currency war, which escalated earlier this month when US President Donald Trump’s administration threatened additional tariffs on Chinese exports, and formally labeled China a currency manipulator. The second concerns the slow-brewing cold war between the US and China over technology. In a rivalry that has all the hallmarks of a “Thucydides Trap,” China and America are vying for dominance over the industries of the future: artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 5G, and so forth. The US has placed the Chinese telecom giant Huawei on an “entity list” reserved for foreign companies deemed to pose a national-security threat. And although Huawei has received temporary exemptions allowing it to continue using US components, the Trump administration this week announced that it was adding an additional 46 Huawei affiliates to the list.
The third major risk concerns oil supplies. Although oil prices have fallen in recent weeks, and a recession triggered by a trade, currency, and tech war would depress energy demand and drive prices lower, America’s confrontation with Iran could have the opposite effect. Should that conflict escalate into a military conflict, global oil prices could spike and bring on a recession, as happened during previous Middle East conflagrations in 1973, 1979, and 1990.
All three of these potential shocks would have a stagflationary effect, increasing the price of imported consumer goods, intermediate inputs, technological components, and energy, while reducing output by disrupting global supply chains. Worse, the Sino-American conflict is already fueling a broader process of deglobalization, because countries and firms can no longer count on the long-term stability of these integrated value chains. As trade in goods, services, capital, labor, information, data, and technology becomes increasingly balkanized, global production costs will rise across all industries.
Moreover, the trade and currency war and the competition over technology will amplify one another. Consider the case of Huawei, which is currently a global leader in 5G equipment. This technology will soon be the standard form of connectivity for most critical civilian and military infrastructure, not to mention basic consumer goods that are connected through the emerging Internet of Things. The presence of a 5G chip implies that anything from a toaster to a coffee maker could become a listening device. This means that if Huawei is widely perceived as a national-security threat, so would thousands of Chinese consumer-goods exports.
It is easy to imagine how today’s situation could lead to a full-scale implosion of the open global trading system. The question, then, is whether monetary and fiscal policymakers are prepared for a sustained – or even permanent – negative supply shock.
Following the stagflationary shocks of the 1970s, monetary policymakers responded by tightening monetary policy. Today, however, major central banks such as the US Federal Reserve are already pursuing monetary-policy easing, because inflation and inflation expectations remain low. Any inflationary pressure from an oil shock will be perceived by central banks as merely a price-level effect, rather than as a persistent increase in inflation.
Over time, negative supply shocks tend also to become temporary negative demand shocks that reduce both growth and inflation, by depressing consumption and capital expenditures. Indeed, under current conditions, US and global corporate capital spending is severely depressed, owing to uncertainties about the likelihood, severity, and persistence of the three potential shocks.
In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession.
Given the potential for a negative aggregate demand shock in the short run, central banks are right to ease policy rates. But fiscal policymakers should also be preparing a similar short-term response. A sharp decline in growth and aggregate demand would call for countercyclical fiscal easing to prevent the recession from becoming too severe.
In the medium term, though, the optimal response would not be to accommodate the negative supply shocks, but rather to adjust to them without further easing. After all, the negative supply shocks from a trade and technology war would be more or less permanent, as would the reduction in potential growth. The same applies to Brexit: leaving the European Union will saddle the United Kingdom with a permanent negative supply shock, and thus permanently lower potential growth.
Such shocks cannot be reversed through monetary or fiscal policymaking. Although they can be managed in the short term, attempts to accommodate them permanently would eventually lead to both inflation and inflation expectations rising well above central banks’ targets. In the 1970s, central banks accommodated two major oil shocks. The result was persistently rising inflation and inflation expectations, unsustainable fiscal deficits, and public-debt accumulation.
Finally, there is an important difference between the 2008 global financial crisis and the negative supply shocks that could hit the global economy today. Because the former was mostly a large negative aggregate demand shock that depressed growth and inflation, it was appropriately met with monetary and fiscal stimulus. But this time, the world would be confronting sustained negative supply shocks that would require a very different kind of policy response over the medium term. Trying to undo the damage through never-ending monetary and fiscal stimulus will not be a sensible option.
ABOARD THE U.S.S. ABRAHAM LINCOLN, in the North Arabian Sea — Out here, deterring Iran means avoiding Iran.
The 5,600 men and women aboard this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier do not venture near Iranian waters, despite a warning from President Trump’s national security adviser that the warship is in the Middle East “to send a clear and unmistakable message” to Iran to steer clear of American interests in the region.
Instead, it is the Abraham Lincoln that has steered clear of Iran. In the past four months, the ship has entered neither the Persian Gulf nor the Strait of Hormuz, the crucial oil-tanker highways it is supposed to protect.
“We recognize that tensions are high, and we don’t want to go to war,” said Capt. William Reed, a fighter pilot who commands the ship’s air wing. “We don’t want to escalate things with Iran.”
In short, the Navy has carried out the order of its commander in chief to counter Iran in the Middle East, but in the least provocative way. Just where to station the Lincoln — one of the country’s 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers — is a decision made by the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which has its headquarters in Bahrain. The fear is that sending an aircraft carrier through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, right when Mr. Trump has turned up the heat on Tehran, could provoke exactly the kind of conflict the Pentagon wants to avoid.
“Anytime a carrier moves close to shore, and especially into confined waters, the danger to the ship goes up significantly,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and former supreme allied commander for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “It becomes vulnerable to diesel submarines, shore-launched cruise missiles and swarming tactics by small boats armed with missiles” — all parts of the Iranian arsenal of weaponry and tactical maneuvers.During each of those deployments, the carriers routinely tangled with Iranian fast boats. Both sides constantly watched each other. American naval ships openly roamed the waters along Iran’s 1,100 mile-long southern coastline, their radars trained on the Iranian shore and on Iranian ships leaving their harbors. Iranian fighter jets patrolled the skies, keeping an eye on American combat planes taking off from the Roosevelt every time an Iranian jet came close to the ship.
But these are not normal times. Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, including his withdrawal from an agreement meant to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and the imposition of crippling sanctions, has sharply increased tensions between the two adversaries. The Navy has sent smaller warships through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf, but Navy officials say privately that an aircraft carrier could prove too tantalizing a target for Iran to resist.