If things keep on the way they're going, yet another armed service of the United States will pay the price for ill-advised foreign policy measures based on fuzzy pretexts.
Historian and journalist Gareth Porter surmises that one of the main things that has kept the administration from launching a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is the real and present danger that key four-star officers--including Central Command Chief Admiral William Fallon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff--would resign if Mr. Bush issued such an order. This in part is why, as the Iraq "surge" strategy was announced in January 2007, Cheney's Iranian Directorate changed its tactics from nuclear "smoking gun" scare rhetoric to phantom allegations of Iran's culpability in the deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq. As Porter notes in a recent article titled "Military's Opposition Pushed Bush Away from Massive Iran Strike," the shift in emphasis creates a significantly different political equation.
Former National Security Council adviser [Hillary] Mann believes the Iraq-focused strategy is now aimed at averting any resignation threat by Fallon or other military leaders by carrying out a very limited strike that would be presented as a response to a specific incident in Iraq in which the deaths of U.S. soldiers could be attributed to Iranian policy. She says she doubts Fallon and other military leaders would "fall on their swords" over such a strike.
According to Porter, retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner--who traced some 50 media stories pushing for war with Iraq to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld's Office of Strategic Influence (OSI)--"agrees that Fallon is unlikely to refuse to carry out such a limited strike under those circumstances." Indeed, the administration friendly segment of the media might successfully portray the rebellious generals as traitors if the American public perceives they tried to stop an attack on Iran intended to "support the troops."
On the other hand, is there really such a thing as a "limited" or "surgical" strike on Iran? Mann believes--correctly in my opinion--that the Bush-Cheney motivation for advancing that sort of attack on Iran would be to provoke a strong, if ill advised, military response. As she told Porter: "The concern I have is that it would be just enough so Iranians would [retaliate] against U.S. allies."
When you get right down to it, any limited strike that didn't evoke retaliation would be so surgical as to not have even broken the skin: something between a love tap and a tongue kiss. So what we appear to be watching now is the Cheney gang trying to design a little strike the generals can't object to that will provoke enough of an Iranian reaction to create a "remember the Maine" atmosphere in the U.S., at which point the U.S. Air Force can live in fame and roll in on target. The real political infighting over an Iran strike may take place not between the Pentagon and the White House, but within the Pentagon itself. If you think the traditional inter-service rivalry among America's armed forces vanished on 9/11, think again.
Back in the days before the mission in Iraq went south, the military's transformational watchwords were "shock and awe" and "network centric warfare," concepts that favored high-tech, low footprint naval and air forces. When the taste of victory in Iraq turned fecal, it became clear that the military solution, if there was one, would have to come from the guys in green.
The emergence of Iran as "the single greatest challenge to American security interests" (despite the fact that Iran's gross domestic product and defense budget are less than five percent of America's) gave the United States Air Force an foreign enemy tailored to its talents and a leg up on its number one adversary, the United States Navy.
As airpower forces, the Air Force and Navy more or less maintained separate areas of responsibility--maritime and land dominated theaters of operation--throughout the course of the Cold War. But then the Evil Empire fell apart, and the Axis of Evil and a loose collection of all-purpose Evil Doers took its place. With no serious blue ocean adversary, the Navy transformed itself into a global reach coast guard with an army (the Marines) and an air force (aircraft carriers and cruise missile shooters) that could project power ashore from littoral seas. From Desert Storm/Desert Shield on, the two blue services have been hissing cousins, the Navy fighting to get in on the air piece of joint operations and the Air Force fighting to keep the Navy out of the action.
The Air Force's ubiquitous argument against the efficacy of Navy ships operating in restricted hostile waters is that they offer relatively little striking power in return for the vulnerability they present. This is particularly true in the Persian Gulf where Iran's naval forces enjoy significant asymmetric advantages over ours. If I'm planning a surgical strike on Iran and want to maximize force protection, I get the Navy out of the Gulf. Operating from the North Arabian Sea limits the set of targets in Iran that carrier based jets can reach, but I suspect the Air Force has plenty of manned aircraft available for missions requiring air breathing pilots, and the Navy's cruise missiles, only having to go one way on each mission, have a sufficient un-refueled combat radius to hit whatever they have to hit.
If I'm the Navy, of course, I’m not wild about leaving the Gulf because it will look like I ran away from the fight (because, in essence, I will have.) What's more, once I leave the Gulf and the fight starts, it may be a long time, if ever, before I can get back in, and then how will I ever justify my share of the defense budget again?
Fortunately or unfortunately for the Navy, it will probably stay in the Gulf to serve as a casus belli. A torpedo in the side of an amphibious ship carrying Marines or a destroyer losing its bow to a mine or an anti-ship cruise missile cooking off in a carrier's hangar bay will give the Cheney gang all the justification it needs to unilaterally declare general war against Iran
You'd like to think the administration wouldn't sacrifice an armed service that way just to enable a Dick Cheney foreign policy initiative. But look at what they did with the Army and Marine Corps in Iraq.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword and ePluribus. Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books, ISBN: 9781601640192) will be available March 1, 2008.