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Sunday | April 06, 2003

Science Experiment

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Basic physics. But in politics, much less global politics, things are never that simple. Obviously, the war in Iraq will have immediate consequences in the Middle East. What those consequences will be however, is another story.

At the moment, it seems the Wolfowitz Coalition is hoping the shock and awe effect that failed to collapse Saddam's regime in the opening days of the war will have a paralyzing effect on the two countries most directly affected by the outcome of the war: Syria and Iran.

The New York Times provides some insight into how the Coalition is going about its business with this little anecdote:

WASHINGTON, April 5 Shortly after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a stark warning to Iran and Syria last week, declaring that any "hostile acts" they committed on behalf of Iraq might prompt severe consequences, one of President Bush's closest aides stepped into the Oval Office to warn him that his unpredictable defense secretary had just raised the specter of a broader confrontation.

Mr. Bush smiled a moment at the latest example of Mr. Rumsfeld's brazenness, recalled the aide. Then he said one word "Good" and went back to work.

We could, of course, interpret that "good" several different ways, as in "good, I want to start another war PDQ," or "good, I want them shaking in their boots at the thought that I might start another war PDQ."

Now Interpretation Number 2 is obviously better than Interpretation Number 1 -- at least for those of us who would rather not to have to fight World War III (or IV, depending on who's doing the counting.) But it still raises some issues.

First, of course, is the credibility issue. Can the Wolfowitz Coalition plausibly threaten to start another major regional war -- just 19 months before the next election, and with the occupation and pacification of Iraq not even off the ground yet? Because if not, then they may have created a one-sided proposition for the Syrians and the Iranians: Do what you can do to get ready for war now, because this may be the last chance you get.

In Iran's case, that could mean making life as difficult as possible for the US occupation forces in Iraq, while accelerating, if possible, its nuclear weapons program. Syria would seem to have fewer options. However, if the rumors are true, and most or all of Iraq's residual WMDs have been smuggled into Syria, this might be the time to distribute those materials as widely as possible -- to Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, etc. Conceivably, this could force the Coalition to deal simultaneously with multiple terrorist threats, both to the US and to Israel, postponing the timetable for an invasion of Syria.

The second issue is how Syrian and Iranian decision makers perceive the Wolfowitz Coalition's intentions and capabilities. If they believe war is inevitable, but that the US war machine must take at least a short break to digest its Iraqi roadkill, then they have absolutely no incentive to stand still until the beast is ready to pounce again.

This is what makes the administration's recent bellicosity so puzzling. If the Coalition truly wanted to alter Syrian and Iranian behavior without resorting to war, you would expect it to offer up some sort of carrot, no matter how small, to induce the Iranians and the Syrians to believe that behavior change could indeed prevent war.

And even if the Coalition was preparing for aggressive action against Syria and/or Iran, you would still expect it to tone down the verbal provocation -- so as not to encourage the Iranians and Syrians to do any of the drastic things suggested above.

Yet, all we have heard so far are some fairly curt and ambiguous statements from Colin Powell to the effect that the US has no immediate plans to invade Syria or Iran. But it's difficult to believe the Syrians and the Iranians have missed what the rest of the world has clearly learned: that Colin Powell does not speak for the Wolfowitz Coalition.

So we're left with a few possible conclusions:

1.) The Wolfowitz Coalition doesn't give a damn what Syria and Iran try to do to prepare for invasion, because there is nothing they can do that will significantly alter the strategic equation. This would mean Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs aren't far enough along to present a credible deterrent, and that the Syrians either don't have WMDs, or the Coalition has strong reason to believe they won't pass them along to anyone else. So the next war can begin on the Coalition's timetable. Perhaps when the weather cools in the fall?

2.) The next war is closer than we think. Syria and Iran won't have time to do anything drastic. The "stabilization" forces scheduled to arrive in Iraq as part of Rumsfeld's "rolling start" will keep right on rolling, probably into Syria, which is the softer target, but possibly into Iran, which is closer to nuclear capability. The GIs will just have to sweat.

3.) The Wolfowitz Coalition is bluffing. It has no intention of starting another war any time soon, because it understands that pacifying Iraq is going to absorb its full attention for the foreseeable future. The goal is to intimidate Syria and Iran into not interfering with the Coalition's presence in, and plans for, its Iraqi protectorate.

The problem is that even if the truth is actually behind Door #3, the Syrians and the Iranians may decide the threats behind Doors #1 and #2 are too dangerous to ignore. If that's the case, we may find out what they are capable of doing in response -- and how quickly they can do it. Let's just hope it isn't physics, of the nuclear variety.


Posted April 06, 2003 04:01 PM | Comments (84)


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