It is very easy, even when policymakers on both sides are acting in good faith and pursuing only what they perceive to be their legitimate national interests, for military games of chicken to get completely out of hand. People miscalculate. They make decisions based on incomplete information. They misinterpret the signals being sent by the opposite side. Rigid rules of engagement can force outcomes that nobody wants. Individual decisions made at the cutting edge, in the heat of the moment, can seem to indicate a complete change in the opponent’s posture, when really what happened is some local commander went beyond his authority. Actors on both sides can forget that the way to defuse a crisis is to always leave the other guy a way to back down without losing face.
The classic study of geopolitical crisis management is of course the Cuban Missile Crisis, which, we now know, brought us even closer to thermonuclear armageddon than we thought at the time (and at the time we thought we were terrifyingly close). In academia, we pored over the handling of the missile crisis in minute detail, looking at the decisions made hour by hour, studying how each side mis-perceived the other, made mistakes, reacted to the mistakes of the other side, and struggled to find a way out short of war that didn’t amount to humiliating and disastrous strategic capitulation. Some of the lessons derived might seem obvious: what’s needed are leaders willing to pause and reflect, intelligent leaders surrounded by smart advisors willing to speak their minds, leaders whose gut instinct is to resist the momentum of events and not be the first one to take the next step up the escalation ladder, and whose open minds can try to imagine how their own actions might be perceived by the other side. As Kennedy tried to pick his way through the minefield, resisting the bellicose pressure of the Joint Chiefs and trying to understand what Khrushchev was really thinking, he was constantly asking himself questions like what would we do in that case? Say we do X – if he did that, how would it look to us? Does he see it the same way we do? Does he know we didn’t mean to do that? Won’t he take that to be a deliberate escalation? What are his hardliners pushing him to do? Does he even know that? Is that a signal, or just noise?
It helped mightily that Kennedy knew his history. He’d recently read Barbara Tuchman’s study of the First World War, The Guns of August, which gave a sobering account of the way nations can find themselves propelled towards war almost against their own will, hamstrung by treaties, military protocols, and the dictates of established plans. “I don’t want some future historian to write a book called The Missiles of October“, he said, or so the story goes. It also helped – it was our salvation, really – that Kennedy understood in his bones that the solution was to find a way for Khrushchev to back down without seeming weak, indeed without seeming necessarily to have backed down at all. At the end of it, Nikita would have to be able to make some sort of straight-faced claim of success to the Politburo. Jack wasn’t playing to win. He was playing to survive, for all of us, everywhere, to survive.
Does any of that sound like anything you’d expect from the Trump-Bolton-Pompeo geopolitical dream team? Do you suppose Donald has read The Guns of August? I’ve been saying for a while now that at least we’ve had one bit of luck in this dismal epoch of Trump: he hasn’t been tested by a significant crisis involving the risk of major war. When I woke up this morning, though, the news was starting to look like maybe that’s no longer the case. Overnight, as the tensions in the Persian Gulf have been slowly increasing, the Iranians shot down an American reconnaissance drone, identified by the media to have been an RQ-4 Global Hawk.
So they shot down a drone. So what? You might well ask. But this is no small thing. These days, surprisingly large and sophisticated drones perform a number of important tasks that used to require piloted airplanes, and the Global Hawk is analogous to the U-2 “spy planes” that were so crucial to the management of the Cuban crisis. These things are big and expensive, with a wingspan of 130 feet. Here’s an image to give you some idea:
Packed full of sensors, they can stay aloft for more than 30 hours, gathering all sorts of intelligence, and shooting one down has significance beyond its $130 million price tag – it could signal an intent to escalate. It could signal that Iran is making preparations for war that it doesn’t want America to see. It could mean that Iran wants a conflict.
Could. Events just like this happened throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, and both sides had to scramble to figure out what they meant (which brings to mind Mark Twain’s reputed quip that history may not repeat, but it often rhymes). If it was Jack Kennedy in the Oval Office right now, he’d be asking whether the flight path of the drone strayed into Iranian airspace, whether, even if it didn’t, the Iranians might have honestly thought it did, whether the shoot-down was the product of orders from Tehran or a decision taken by a local unit commander applying rules of engagement, and whether the recent pattern of RQ-4 reconnaissance flights might have seemed particularly threatening to the other side. It cuts both ways – the sort of intelligence gathered by drones like the one lost would be highly useful if America was planning to strike. Is that what they think is going on?
We know that Donald himself likes to bluster, but all signs indicate that he doesn’t really want a war. If anything going on in the Gulf right now reflected Donald’s wishes, the point would be to create what looked like a crisis, then defuse it and claim a great triumph for having averted the mess he nearly created himself. Surprisingly – one always expects Trump to be irrationally aggressive, but when it comes to actual warfare, apparently not so much – Trump is making statements that sound so far as if he’s studied and absorbed some of the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis (which is of course impossible), suggesting that the shoot-down was a mistake. This is from the Washington post:
“I find it hard to believe it was intentional” on the part of the leadership, he said. Rather, Trump said, “I imagine that it was a general or somebody that made a mistake.” He added: “I think it could have been somebody that was loose and stupid. . . . It was a very foolish move.”
So far so good, then, and a rare attaboy for Donald. Worryingly, though, it seems that the whole affair has been mainly the work of Bolton and Pompeo, who do want war, and who may regard this shoot-down as the next agreeable step up the ladder in a climb that began when they tore up Obama’s nuclear deal. My fear is that they’re trying to box Donald in, by goading Iran into actions that will demand a military response, which response will force Iran to retaliate further, and before you know it, you’re into it all the way. Donald is resisting, and in the end that may spare us the godawful mess of yet another, and even greater, conflagration in the Middle East, but I have a feeling that Bolton and Pompeo aren’t giving up just yet.
Neither are the Iranians. As if champing at the same bit, Iranian behaviour has been aggressive and by our lights highly provocative – they’ve got their own hawks and hardliners to deal with, and they’re under tremendous economic pressure from US sanctions. With their attacks on tankers (and despite my suspicions, it does seem that Iran is behind the recent attacks) they’re probably trying to show that they can make our lives difficult, too. They may well perceive the punching of a few holes into three or four ships as sending a firm but restrained message, by means well short of starting a serious campaign to disrupt the flow of oil. That’s how these things tend to roll. What we view as an unwarranted provocation they view as a measured response to our provocations. Chuck in a little bad faith on one side or the other, and off you go. There’s still every chance this will jump the rails.
Crises have their own momentum. That’s a phrase turned by Henry Kissinger, describing his efforts to broker a cease fire during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The Israelis had the entire Egyptian Third Army surrounded on the wrong side of the Suez Canal, and Kissinger was trying to negotiate a cease-fire in place, but of course, as he later acknowledged, the Third Army was bound to try to break out, and the Israelis were bound to want to finish them off. Things had gone too far to just stop, just like that, and so the fighting continued for a time before he could broker an end to it. It’s just human nature, once you’re past a certain point, and after the ferocity of the combat that characterized the October War things had gone far, far beyond that point. Right now, in the waters off Iran, we’re nowhere near it. It can easily be avoided. Sadly, it won’t be that hard to push us towards it, either, if someone is so inclined.
A confrontation like the one ongoing in the Persian Gulf doesn’t have to be like a big boulder careening down a hill, too big to stop, while we all stand around helpless and wonder what it’s going to crush when it rolls into town. It doesn’t have to be, but what if some of the key actors want it that way?
At times like this you wonder if even the most heinous Trump sycophants, even McConnell and Graham, miss Obama. I bet Obama read The Guns of August.
Hey, long as we’re on topic, let’s have a laugh, we could both use one. This is from today’s Onion: