Persian Shrug

A few days ago Iran shot down an unmanned US drone, which may or may not have been in Iranian airspace. The US military was prepared to respond with airstrikes but:

Mr Trump … called off strikes after being told 150 people would die.

He tweeted: “10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

Naturally, this being Trump, we find all this out via Twitter from the man himself. Equally naturally, the warmongers aren’t happy:


Bill Kristol is a fat fool who was a cheerleader for the Iraq War. His hatred of Trump is not to do with policy differences but personal ambition: Kristol was all set for a cushy job on the taxpayer dime in a Jeb Bush administration (assuming he’d have beaten Hillary) but Trump upset the apple cart by demolishing his patron and then becoming president. The refrain from the Never Trumpers since the day he was elected has been that Trump is an unstable lunatic who is likely to lash out and plunge the US into a major war without thinking. Only Trump’s done the exact opposite and refused to start a war despite being egged on by neocons and probably half the defence establishment, so suddenly he’s an unreliable peacenik. Here’s General Shapiro:

Do you think Benny boy is going to be pulling on a uniform and volunteering to fight? I sincerely doubt it. War with Iran will be absolutely devastating for all participants: it is not Panama, or even Iraq. Now one of the advantages of using unmanned drones is that shooting one down does not require the same response as if a pilot has been killed or captured. That’s the whole point of using them: while expensive, they are expendable to a much greater degree. The only people who think the US should go to war with Iran over the downing of a drone are unhinged neocons and people who think America and its military should act as Israel’s foreign policy bureau, regardless even of what Israelis themselves might want.

And no, I am not someone who buys into stupid conspiracies that Mossad is blowing up tankers in the Straits of Hormuz in order to goad America into destroying their greatest foe, Iran. There may be plenty of Jewish Americans who think the US should fight Israel’s battles as first priority, and there might be Israelis who want the same thing, but it doesn’t follow that Israel is calling the shots here, nor blowing up tankers. This is as daft as the pipeline theories, or this:


That’s right: the Somali who somehow got elected to the US Congress believes Trump pulling out of a nuclear deal left the Iranians with no choice but to start blowing up Japanese oil tankers.

It’s really come to something when there is violence in the Persian Gulf and Trump is the most sensible, restrained person in the room. I suspect Iran is just being Iran, using terrorism to leverage an advantage somewhere, although who knows what in this case? America ought to keep an eye on things, but it’s really not its business. Not a lot of people know this but most of the oil which leaves the Gulf gets shipped to Asia, not Europe or the US. Sure, oil is fungible which means disruptions to the Middle East supplies affects everyone, but it’s not Americans who are going to be scrabbling around looking for alternative sources, but the Chinese. So let them deal with it, by leaning on the Iranians diplomatically, commercially, or even militarily: I don’t really care. This is not America’s concern, at least for now, and it’s most certainly not ours. If the likes of Shapiro and Kristol want a war, well they can first go here and enroll themselves or their children. Until then, they should sit down and shut up.

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37 thoughts on “Persian Shrug

  1. Ben is also wrong about the ayatollahs fearing the business end of a US cruise missile. That would be martyrdom. The calculus changes considerably when faced with an enemy who wants to die. You’d have thought that even western chickenhawks would have internalised that since, oh, September 2001.

  2. I visited the Jewish Museum a while ago. (An exhibition of historical antisemitism, vaut le détour.)
    One of the volunteers, presumably a jew, told me that Trump was an anti semite itching to start WW3.
    It baffles me why this opinion is so widespread when there is no evidence to support it and much to refute it.

  3. I’ll just be picky about the fact that the Collateral Damage Estimate is a key part of the targeting process, because there’s a tradeoff between “which targets are we blowing up, how hard”, “how much risk are we asking our crews to take?”, and “how many noncombatants will be at risk in this strike?” that governs targets, tactics and weapons.

    The idea that ten minutes from weapons release, or even aircraft/weapon launch, the President is having to ask – and being told for the first time – that the CDE for this strike package is 150, suggests that this is not an entirely accurate story… unless, I suppose, he wasn’t paying attention to the earlier briefings.

    More generally, though, I agree with our esteemed host, and @Phil B’s good find of Cdr Salamander’s blog; getting into a shooting match with Iran will be pointless and unproductive at this point (at most points, to be fair).

    They’re not good guys, but they’re no worse than the Saudis, and if we could say “set past history aside…” I’d far rather go to war with the Iranians on my side than opposed to me, they’re militarily and technically innovative and have managed to be remarkably effective despite serious handicaps: compare to the way the Saudis can spend fortunes to achieve the square root of SFA in military effect.

    Back in the Tanker Wars days, the US only got lively when reflagged tankers (so they were a US problem) and then a US ship hit Iranian mines, giving the Iranian navy a sharp smacking; since then the US is much less dependent on Gulf oil and the Iranians have shifted to less conventional tactics that’ll make such a scrap rather harder and more expensive to try.

    It’s very hard to see a direct advantage the US gets for kicking off a skirmish that gets the Straits of Hormuz closed for a while; during which time, of course, all the economic woes and collateral damage caused will be blamed on them.

  4. Trump shows sense for the 10000th time, Best President for 100 years at least.

  5. Trump shows sense for the 10000th time, Best President for 100 years at least.

    Better than some certainly (Obama and Slick Willy for instance), but Reagan was still better for my money by facing down the commies without triggering global thermonuclear conflict. That covers a lot in my book.

    Trump is doing okay. His views of tariffs are decidedly outdated (by about 2 centuries), but he’s using that more as a negotiating position than as an ideology in most cases and seems to be prepared to accept being wrong and change direction if that is in Americas best interests, which again is okay in my book.

    The greatest thing about Trump is that 2 1/2 years into the job he’s STILL NOT HILLARY.

  6. The greatest thing about Trump is that 2 1/2 years into the job he’s STILL NOT HILLARY.

    Indeed. On past form Hilary would have bombed Iran 2 years ago.

  7. Bill Kristol has always been stupid and wrong about everything, but since Trump entered the race back in 2015 he seems to have gone literally insane. He is now pushing for “regime change in China,” and he spent some effort trying to get an obscure National Review writer (David French) to run for president, hoping he would take votes away from Trump.

    Kristol’s insanity and stupidity can’t be cured, so why does anyone still take him seriously?

  8. The military lives by the adage “para bellum” but not so much the “si vis pacem” part. The unofficial motto of one of America’s finest fighting units is “Gung ho! Pray for war!” You’ll get no promotion this side of the ocean, not unless of course you put forward a brilliant proposal that the real enemy is climate change and all your military efforts should be directed thereto.

    Military planning departments prepare military actions. They have to be ready at the drop of a hat to fight anywhere. They prepare detailed scenarios “on spec.” So far, so good. The question is, how did this one get so close? (Acknowledging that Trump’s “ten minutes ” is an enhancement of the truth to make himself look more decisive, peace-loving, and all those other good Boy Scout things.)

    Second-guessing, some general in search of another star muttered softly to The Don, “How about we plan a retaliation?” And when the CIC said, “Yeah, go ahead,” the JCS took that as authority to launch a full-scale war. Obama probably got caught up in the whole Libyan thing in just the same way.

    Drastic KITA is needed. These off-balance-sheet initiatives must stop. America is presently at war with China. Right now it’s still a trade war. It only takes one inspired entrepreneur in the JCS to turn that into a shooting war.

  9. I don’t necessarily believe that Mossad hit the tanker, but it certainly isn’t silly to think that they are capable of doing such a thing. The Israelis, unlike the Iranians, have a clear motive for wanting to engineer conflict, plus a long and sordid history of doing exactly that.

  10. plus a long and sordid history of doing exactly that.

    I await this long list of examples of Israel engineering conflict between two other nations with interest.

  11. I just cannot understand the leftists who says that the best way to have peace with Iran is to give them the money and the material with which to destroy whomever they want, especially considering that it is their stated intention to do so.

  12. When the usual suspects start their hectoring for war I’m glad we have somebody now who apparently starts looking at just where our true interests are. War when they try to kill us and not before,screw regime change and nation building.

  13. I suspect that Trump understands the “tit for tat” strategy of winning.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tit_for_tat

    In brief, you respond to aggression with an equal amount of aggression. Not over the top (which invites escalation), and not too little (which leaves you looking weak).

    And if your enemy backs off, you back off. Tit for tat.

    In the case of iran, it appears the Pentagon struck at Iranian hackers targeting US ships.

    https://news.yahoo.com/pentagon-secretly-struck-back-against-iranian-cyber-spies-targeting-us-ships-234520824.html

    Tit for tat

  14. It amuses me to hear people speak of the US being war mongering. Our only interests lie at our shores except when the Israelis prod us to do their bidding. Where was this sober European thinking in say, 1918, or 1939, or the mid 1990’s Serbia?

  15. @James – “One of the volunteers, presumably a jew, told me that Trump was an anti semite itching to start WW3”

    The only thing that I could put that down to and its a guess on my part is that he has the evangelical vote and lobby or at least the rump of it in the US. They need Jerusalem to be the HQ of Israel in order that the false prophet will appear there, triggering their apocalypse and Jesus returning and revealing himself and killing the anti-Christ and destroying Jerusalem in the process. This may well be the reason that he was so bullish on the US Embassy moving to Jerusalem. This is the first time in history when each major religions apocalyptic predictions are in sync, ie Moslem, Christian and Jewish end times.

    Not sure which county the museum was in, I was in the UK recently and they have totally lost the plot there, with anti-Semites under the bed everywhere, Its amazing to see rational people most of which have never met a Jewish person behaving like this.

  16. @Jason – “suggests that this is not an entirely accurate story”

    Yes it was horse shite, but for a good reason, Trump wants to talk, he is good at avoiding the conflict so far, well done sir. Blessed is the peacemaker.

    When he bombed that empty field in Syria, he called up the Russians in advance knowing that they would tell the Syrians to make sure that there were no farmers or oxen carts near the field before he hit it.

    If they wanted to ratchet it up a notch with Iran, they could simply just shoot down an Iranian scheduled passenger flight inside Iranian airspace and refuse to apologies for it.

  17. Bloke in Germany
    “Ben is also wrong about the ayatollahs fearing the business end of a US cruise missile. That would be martyrdom. The calculus changes considerably when faced with an enemy who wants to die.”

    Can you guess how many ayatollahs have died as martyrs in all the conflicts Iran has been involved with over the decades? From that number, you can calculate the willingness of them to die as martyrs.

  18. Bardon
    “Not sure which county the museum was in, I was in the UK recently and they have totally lost the plot there, with anti-Semites under the bed everywhere, Its amazing to see rational people most of which have never met a Jewish person behaving like this.”

    Well, I’ve met plenty of profound anti-semites who have never met a Jew. The presence, or lack thereof, of a Jewish person seems to be completely unconnected to antisemitism.

  19. We should have some sympathy for President Trump, who finds himself in the kind of negotiating position which would become one of the standard case studies at the Harvard Business School — if the denizens of the HBS were not the kind of worthless partisans that they are.

    On the one hand, it is necessary for the President to “negotiate”, whether with words or weapons, with an Iranian regime which calls his country the “Great Satan” and actively tries to destabilize a region of great importance to the world (primarily Europe and China, but also the US).

    On the other hand, he needs to consider the Democrat Establishment behind his back, since at some point he will likely need Congressional approval for some actions. Yet those Democrats would apparently be quite happy to see their own citizens nuked, as long as they could blame it on Trump.

    And on the third hand, there is Europe, where greedy spineless Europeans are happy to complicate negotiations by bad-mouthing Trump and doing their best to undermine non-military responses like sanctions — even though it is fossil fuel-dependent Europe which actually has major skin in the game of finding a constructive solution to the problems created by Iran.

    And on the fourth hand, there is China, which desperately needs continued oil supplies from the Arabian Gulf (and would like to continue to enjoy discounted oil from Iran) but which also has many other irons in the fire and can be assumed to be working towards an outcome which disadvantages the US in some way.

    Tim has talked before about the importance in any negotiation of considering the interests of the people not at the table. This one is a doozie!

  20. but it’s not Americans who are going to be scrabbling around looking for alternative sources, but the Chinese. So let them deal with it, by leaning on the Iranians diplomatically, commercially, or even militarily: I don’t really care.

    Taking action against Iran will have consequences; but not taking action will also have consequences. Consider the example you chose in a little more detail. Suppose Iran overplays its hand, and China beats them into submission, sets up a permanent fleet in the straits of Hormuz, complete with new naval bases carved out of Iranian territory. Having expended money and lives, do you think they will be content to keep things exactly as they were during the time the US kept the peace? What will India do – to say nothing of Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan – at such a brazen display of Chinese power?

    Inaction also has consequences, which need to be weighed in the balance. Bin Laden, I believe, explained that the notion of striking the US came after viewing US passivity after the attack on the USS Cole. Unfortunately, this is part of the world where decisions are made based on an honor/shame calculus; retaliation is expected, because the alternative is shame, and shame will only be accepted by someone who is too weak or cowardly to retaliate.

    War with Iran will be absolutely devastating for all participants:

    Not every reaction has to use the invasion of Iraq as a blueprint.

    I guess I’m using the Israeli conflict with Gaza as a template. Since the war in 2014, there have been several rounds of escalation and de-escalation. Not every missile is countered with a full-scale invasion. It’s not always easy to judge what the right reaction is. It may be that Trump has judged this very finely. Perhaps he prepared to respond in a manner which the Iranian military was sure to detect, and cause a panic, and then released the tweet instead. But having a consistent policy of not reacting to attacks may produce the opposite effect than what you expect.

    @Jason Lynch
    suggests that this is not an entirely accurate story

    Yeah, I’m with you on that. It’s a message.

    @Bill Peschel

    It’s “tit for tat” that usually causes escalation, rather than preventing it, because your opponent does not see your actions in the same way you do. Your attacks may hurt him a lot more that you think they do, which encourages escalation, or they seem incompetent, which looks like weakness.

    @David Moore
    Yeah, the Ayatollah’s son is learning opthalmology in London. It’s the son of the farmer in the remote village who gets to be the martyr, not his.

  21. Inaction also has consequences, which need to be weighed in the balance.

    Yes, and Trump – quite rightly – decided air strikes were not a sensible response to the shooting down of an unmanned drone. And how come it’s only the US which has to consider the consequences? It was Japanese and Norwegian ships which got attacked: what are they proposing?

    Not every reaction has to use the invasion of Iraq as a blueprint.

    I guess I’m using the Israeli conflict with Gaza as a template.

    You want to use the Israeli conflict with Gaza as a blueprint for a US attack on Iran? Okay.

  22. To add another whatabout into the the mix, surely there’s a considerable message in that we’re discussing this at all? One of the advantages of drones & drone missions is that they’re deniable. The US could have reacted to Iranian claims of shooting one down by denying that they’d lost one. After all, all Iran’s got is some unidentifiable, possible aircraft parts & maybe some falsifiable interception data. Don’t suppose the Defence Department gets the manufacturers to stamp ‘US surveillance drone. Property of Uncle Sam’ all the way through them. US could have simply said “Nah. Not one of ours”

  23. “Trump – quite rightly – decided air strikes were not a sensible response to the shooting down of an unmanned drone.”

    Can you imagine the hue and cry when he eventually gets down to talks with the dude?

    Lets face it the media are pro-war, always have been always will be, when the yanks shot that Iranian passenger jet down killing 290, the press blamed Iran for “creating the tension” which led to it being shot down. Here you have a President turning the other cheek, chalk and cheese if you ask me.

  24. And how come it’s only the US which has to consider the consequences? It was Japanese and Norwegian ships which got attacked
    Everyone has to consider the consequences. But the Norwegians, for example, have no real options available to them, so if they think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, there’s not much they can do about it. The U.S. has freedom of action, so it has the occasion to consider the consequences of its actions. This does not mean Iran ought to be smashed; it also does not mean that all provocations should be ignored.

    You want to use the Israeli conflict with Gaza as a blueprint for a US attack on Iran? Okay.

    No, as a template for understanding the wide range of options available to the US. Perhaps a better choice of words would have made my meaning clearer. It is simply not true that the US has a choice between doing nothing and repeating Iraq, any more than Israel’s choice vis-a-vis Gaza is do nothing or repeating 2014. It is possible that within that range of choices, there is a better one than doing nothing. Now, it’s also possible that Trump made precisely the right decision. Perhaps a very strong argument can be made for doing nothing this time. But it is an error to always say “doing nothing is the right choice, because the only alternative is Iraq II”.

  25. It is interesting in all the media noise around these incidents in the Middle east how little news there has been about how the Iranians (or Iranian proxies) carried out their bombings of the tankers.

    Where were the ships when the limpet mines were attached? When were the mines attached? Why were foreign objects on the sides of ships in busy waterways not noticed? Where did the mines come from, and how were they delivered to the site of attachment? How were the mines detonated — timer or radio control?

    Is the lack of coverage simply due to the standard ignorance & stupidity of the media? Or is nothing being done to investigate the chain of events leading to the bombings? Or are the entities doing the investigating successfully playing “Distract the Media”? If one knew how the bombings were accomplished, one could target a response (military or non-military) much more effectively.

  26. Two points.
    Eisenhower delayed DDay because things weren’t right.
    Giap delayed Dien Bien Phu because things weren’t right.
    I’ve never heard either commander described as weak or stupid. Delaying a long anticipated event is hard to do.
    IF (and I hope not) America is to go to war and win it must choose its own time and method. It must also not repeat its most common mistake of scoring a military victory with no workable plan as to what to do next (see Vietnam, Iraq 2, Lybia).
    Hence reaction to some Iranian provocation should not be immediate even if it is appropriate.

  27. >bloke in spain:
    >The US could have reacted to Iranian claims of shooting one >down by denying that they’d lost one.

    If they can find the airframe they can figure out who made it. The US would have to say “Oh yes, we sold some of them to *rolls dice* Malta, talk to them”

  28. I’m pretty sure if I was doing a project in how to win a conflict, the Israeli actions in Gaza would be a useful counterexample.

    They’re unable to win in any useful meaning of the word. Their escalations and retaliations, while often justified, are not an example of winning.

    The US strongly needs to avoid an endless fit for that with Iran. They simply cannot win. Invasion leads to another Iraq. Or Afghanistan, if you prefer. Or Vietnam.

    Shouting from the side and not invading doesn’t achieve much either.

    Coming to terms would help. But the hawks with long memories need to be let go, on both sides, for that to happen.

  29. @ Gavin Longmuir

    how little news there has been about how the Iranians … carried out their bombings of the tankers.

    Yeah, I also noticed that. Usually it means either that they don’t know, or that the method was so embarrassing that they’d rather everyone think they don’t know. 🙂

    @kenmce

    Yeah, it’ll have “Made in China” printed over all the components, so of course it’s American 😉

    @Chester Draws
    I’m pretty sure if I was doing a project in how to win a conflict, the Israeli actions in Gaza would be a useful counterexample.

    That may be a function of the timescale you’re examining. If you assume that each round of fighting is designed to bring peace as soon as it’s over, then it will appear to you as a long list of failures. If you look at it as a strategy to bring about a 20-30 year period of relative quiet after a 10-15 year period of relative conflict, then it’s not so bad.

    The West Bank is pretty quiet now. It’s been quiet for quite a few years. This is a result of Operation Shield Wall in 2002, plus building the fence, plus a long period of low-level policing and military action. There are also external factors – a degree of cooperation from the Palestinian Authority, and the hard lesson of Gaza, where the PA saw how a climate of chaos let Hamas take over. They don’t want to get dragged through the streets by motorcycles. And if the IDF were kicked out, ISIS might come in, and even Hamas look askance at them. This may sound like a nightmare to people who are used to 60 years of peace, but the real nightmare was April-May 2002 (think Manchester bombing every other day). This is fine. There will probably be another intifada in 20 years or so, but we’ll deal with that when we get to it.

    The Lebanese border is also pretty quiet now. It’s been quite since 2006, after a war which exacted a heavy price from Hezbollah and Lebanon.

    And Gaza? It’s not a perfect parallel to the West Bank, because there’s no Israeli control on the ground. It’s not a parallel to Lebanon, because the conflict of 2014 was not of the same order of magnitude as 2006, and Gaza doesn’t have the same political structure as Lebanon, and besides, Hamas wasn’t distracted by Syria the way Hezbollah was. And the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 had an effect on Gaza (as a display of Israeli weakness) which it did no thave on the West bank. But a long-term strategy of managed conflict can have an effect over the span of a decade. If the current policy is maintained, we may find ourselves (in 5 years’ time) with a declared policy of open war, and a practical policy of inaction on both sides. That’s the best you can hope for in a situation like this.

    And what’s the alternative? Appeasement – sorry, “””Negotiations”””? Tried that in 1993, and again in 2000. Unilateral withdrawal? Tried that in 2000 (Lebanon) and 2005 (Gaza). Open borders? The border was open from 1967 to 1989, it did not produce peace, because this is the middle east. Annexation? Worse than open borders. Conquest and expulsion? Not on the table.

    I think Israel’s policy vis-a-vis Gaza is pretty good, considering the circumstances. Whether it was chosen after solemn deliberations, or blundered into via a series of compromises – that’s a separate question.

  30. I think Israel’s policy vis-a-vis Gaza is pretty good, considering the circumstances.

    I think it is too. I just think it has about as much relevance to Iran as it does Operation Barbarossa. And yes, I know there are policy options which fall between a full-on invasion and doing nothing. I’d like to think I come across as smart enough to not need that pointing out to me.

  31. I don’t see how an invasion and regime overthrow can be on the table.

    Even if a neighbouring country allows the US to use it as a launch base, Iran isn’t going stand by idly waiting for the US to prepare like Saddam did. It isn’t like Afghanistan either, where you can fly a load of troops in to the relatively benign capital as a bridgehead and work out from there.

    Iran has some quite effective troops, many battle hardened in Syria, as well as a lot of experience in asymmetric warfare both directly and using proxies like Hezbollah. Added to that Russia isn’t going to stand by and let the USA have a free run. Even if they don’t provide troops under their own flag they’re likely to provide munitions and specialist troops, as a minimum.

    They won’t get Security Council support, Russia will veto and China has a vested interest and may well veto as well, at best they’ll abstain. Without UN clearance European and other countries won’t provide support and may well be hostile and refuse over-flight for a build-up of troops.

    The whole region will descend in to chaos with indiscriminate bombing and terrorist attacks on the US’s allies as soon as the US makes its plans clear. Its likely that Hezbollah will start another Intifada in Gaza and skirmishes on the Lebanese border to tie Israel down and limit their support.

    Its difficult to see how this ends peacefully though. With the hawks rattling cages and Iran increasing its nuclear program the hawks will be pushing for something fast, and that’s not a good recipe for clear headed thinking and compromise.

  32. @Tim
    War with Iran will be absolutely devastating for all participants

    I suppose that line misled me into thinking you were considering only the worst-case scenario.

    @Bloke in North Dorset
    I don’t think Iraqi-style regime change is part of anyone’s plan, for all the reasons you gave, and more. I don’t think anyone’s going to try to put that into effect for the next 50 years. The lessons of Iraq/Libya/Syria will prevent anyone from trying, even in cases which appear to be an easy win. Of course, that doesn’t include Russia 🙂

  33. I suppose that line misled me into thinking you were considering only the worst-case scenario.

    No, I was responding to the likes of Kristol and Shapiro who are drooling at the mouth for a war with Iran. And sure, in this day and age air strikes on a country by the US doesn’t actually mean they’re at war, but the Iranians might see things differently.

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