The Ignored Iron Triangle of Power

January 1, 2009

[First published April 5, 2006] It was a prime strategic concept during the Cold War and helped carry us to victory. Once America was fully engaged in the Vietnam War, it became the prime justification for fighting to win. It is at the heart of peacekeeping. And it was ignored during the senior Bush and Clinton Administrations, with the predictable result that we ended up in a war against Iraq. Now, opponents of this war and democratization are destroying it, with dire consequences for the future.

This is about credibility, one of the elements in an Iron Triangle of Power and is so important in itself as to be enshrined within a strategic principle of action.

Its crucial importance is well revealed in Saddam Hussein’s official documents. Consider this revelation from Saddam’s official documents (see here):

Saddam never believed such war with the U.S. would ever occur—he believed that the United States was casualty-averse to an absolutely incredible degree. Saddam based that on several factors: the fact that he received only a diplomatic note after Iraqi Mirage fighters fired on the USS Stark in 1987, that the United States left Somalia after losing 19 troops, and its failure to commit ground troops early on in Kosovo.

And also there are the revelations of Georges Sada, one of Saddam’s top generals and insiders (see here):

In 1990, Saddam ordered a poison gas and chemical attack on Israel with 98 of Iraq’s best fighters. No warning would be given, nor would permission be requested to use Syrian and Jordanian airspace. He could not be dissuaded from this even when Georges argued that all 98 would be shot down before reaching Israel. Saddam was willing to gamble that at least 10 aircraft would be able to drop their bombs. He also ordered a similar attack on the capital of Saudi Arabia. The launching of the Gulf War by the United States caused him to cancel these plans.

As to what the U.S. would do if Israel were so attacked, “everyone” thought the U.S. would rattle its papers and do nothing. This estimate was based on Clinton’s weak response to attacks on American ships, bases, and citizens. Saddam believe that the Americans were afraid to fight.

The invasion of Kuwait was predicated on the belief that American Ambassador April Glaspie had given Saddam a free hand regarding Kuwait, or to do whatever else he planned. So, after Saddam invaded Kuwait, they thought the American military buildup in Saudi Arabia and threats were for show.

Then there is the interview with Bin Laden:

BIN LADEN: ….We believe that the defeat of America is possible, with the help of God, and is even easier for us, God permitting, than the defeat of the Soviet Union [in Afghanistan] was before.
Q: How can you explain that?
BIN LADEN: We experienced the Americans through our brothers who went into combat against them in Somalia, for example. We found they had no power worthy of mention. There was a huge aura over America — the United States — that terrified people even before they entered combat. Our brothers who were here in Afghanistan tested them, and together with some of the mujahedeen in Somalia, God granted them victory. America exited dragging its tails in failure, defeat, and ruin, caring for nothing.

President Bush and his top people understand the principle involved and have followed it. But, now, its incredible and strategically stupid violation by the American demagogic and “realist” opponents of the Iraq War and Bush’s Forward Strategy of Freedom are reaping the expected cost. The best gauge of this is what Amir Taheri wrote in his The Wall Street Journal article, “The Last Helicopter:

Hassan Abbasi…,”The Dr. Kissinger of Islam,”…is “professor of strategy” at the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard Corps University and, according to Tehran sources, the principal foreign policy voice in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s new radical administration. For the past several weeks Mr. Abbasi has been addressing crowds of Guard and Baseej Mustadafin (Mobilization of the Dispossessed) officers in Tehran with a simple theme: The U.S. does not have the stomach for a long conflict and will soon revert to its traditional policy of “running away,” leaving Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed the whole of the Middle East, to be reshaped by Iran and its regional allies.

To hear Mr. Abbasi tell it the entire recent history of the U.S. could be narrated with the help of the image of “the last helicopter.” It was that image in Saigon that concluded the Vietnam War under Gerald Ford. Jimmy Carter had five helicopters fleeing from the Iranian desert, leaving behind the charred corpses of eight American soldiers. Under Ronald Reagan the helicopters carried the corpses of 241 Marines murdered in their sleep in a Hezbollah suicide attack. Under the first President Bush, the helicopter flew from Safwan, in southern Iraq, with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf aboard, leaving behind Saddam Hussein’s generals, who could not believe why they had been allowed live to fight their domestic foes, and America, another day. Bill Clinton’s helicopter was a Black Hawk, downed in Mogadishu and delivering 16 American soldiers into the hands of a murderous crowd.

According to this theory, President George W. Bush is an “aberration,” a leader out of sync with his nation’s character and no more than a brief nightmare for those who oppose the creation of an “American Middle East.” Messrs. Abbasi and Ahmadinejad have concluded that there will be no helicopter as long as George W. Bush is in the White House. But they believe that whoever succeeds him, Democrat or Republican, will revive the helicopter image to extricate the U.S. from a complex situation that few Americans appear to understand. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s defiant rhetoric is based on a strategy known in Middle Eastern capitals as “waiting Bush out.” ….

He used that message to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to adopt a defiant position vis-à-vis the U.N. investigation of the murder of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon….According to sources in Tehran and Damascus, Mr. Assad had pondered the option of “doing a Gadhafi” by toning down his regime’s anti-American posture. Since last February, however, he has revived Syria’s militant rhetoric and dismissed those who advocated a rapprochement with Washington….

In recent visits to several regional capitals, this writer was struck by the popularity of this new game from Islamabad to Rabat. The general assumption is that Mr. Bush’s plan to help democratize the heartland of Islam is fading under an avalanche of partisan attacks inside the U.S. The effect of this assumption can be witnessed everywhere.

In Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf has shelved his plan, forged under pressure from Washington, to foster a popular front to fight terrorism by lifting restrictions against the country’s major political parties and allowing their exiled leaders to return…. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, arguably the most pro-American leader in the region, is cautiously shaping his post-Bush strategy by courting Tehran and playing the Pushtun ethnic card against his rivals.

In Turkey, the “moderate” Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is slowly but surely putting the democratization process into reverse gear….

Even in Iraq the sentiment that the U.S. will not remain as committed as it has been under Mr. Bush is producing strange results. While Shiite politicians are rushing to Tehran to seek a reinsurance policy, some Sunni leaders are having second thoughts about their decision to join the democratization process. “What happens after Bush?” demands Salih al-Mutlak, a rising star of Iraqi Sunni leaders. The Iraqi Kurds have clearly decided to slow down all measures that would bind them closer to the Iraqi state. Again, they claim that they have to “take precautions in case the Americans run away.”

….Saudi Arabia has put its national dialogue program on hold and has decided to focus on economic rather than political reform. In Bahrain, too, the political reform machine has been put into rear-gear, while in Qatar all talk of a new democratic constitution to set up a constitutional monarchy has subsided. In Jordan the security services are making a spectacular comeback, putting an end to a brief moment of hopes for reform. As for Egypt, Hosni Mubarak has decided to indefinitely postpone local elections, a clear sign that the Bush-inspired scenario is in trouble. Tunisia and Morocco, too, have joined the game by stopping much-advertised reform projects while Islamist radicals are regrouping and testing the waters at all levels.

….Running away from Saigon, the Iranian desert, Beirut, Safwan and Mogadishu was not hard to sell to the average American, because he was sure that the story would end there; the enemies left behind would not pursue their campaign within the U.S. itself. The enemies that America is now facing in the jihadist archipelago, however, are dedicated to the destruction of the U.S. as the world knows it today.
Those who have based their strategy on waiting Mr. Bush out may find to their cost that they have, once again, misread not only American politics but the realities of a world far more complex than it was even a decade ago. Mr. Bush may be a uniquely decisive, some might say reckless, leader. But a visitor to the U.S. soon finds out that he represents the American mood much more than the polls suggest.

What is most important about this misreading of a post-Bush American foreign and defense policy, is the risk for more wars that it entails. Need I mention Iran, North Korea, and China over Taiwan?

The principle that opponents of Bush have not only ignored, but shredded in a time of war, is this:

Maintain or enhance one’s credibility for action.

Maintaining the credibility of America’s commitment to defense alliances and containment was what powered strategic support for the Vietnam War. Maintaining the credibility that we would respond in kind against a Soviet nuclear first strike against the United States was the strategic core of American Cold War defense policy. Now, in Iraq, Bush has signaled in many ways that the U.S. is committed to staying the course, to the defeat of terrorism, and to a democratic Iraq. He has bolstered the credibility of this by putting the lives of American soldiers at risk, spending billions of dollars on this war and the democratization of Iraq, and displaying his dedication through speech after speech.

But, his political opponents and those of the war have shown in many ways that if they gain power over Congress and the presidency, which our enemies who are unsophisticated in American politics, see as likely, they will not only force a last-helicopter-out-of-Vietnam defeat, but weaken the war on terror (or turn it over to the UN, which is the same thing) and return to a “realist” emphasis on supporting the thugs that promise political stability at the cost of democracy.

Credibility is part of the peacekeeping triangle of power, which is capability for action, interest, and will (or credibility/resolution). Capability is not only military, but also involves the people’s morale, the type of political system, leadership qualities, and so on). The interest of the leadership and public is equally important. If one loses or does not have interest in a certain action, then this affects one’s power to do something about it, such as the lack of interest in stopping the Rwandan genocide, or the current one in Sudan. Then there is will power, or the will to use one’s capabilities when one’s interests are threatened. It is that will that confers credibility, the most important element of this triangle.

To sum all this up by a political equation:

Power = capabilities X interest X will

If any of the elements on the right are zero, power is zero, no matter how strong the other elements. If interest and capabilities to defeat an enemy are great, but will appears weak, then so is power.