Adam Ash

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

US Diary: Are we going to have 3 wars now? Are the Saudis still with us? What's with Iran?

1. Eye On Iraq: Three Wars At Once -- by Martin Sieff/ The Post Chronicle

"One war at a time," U.S. President Abraham Lincoln famously said when dismissing a proposal to risk war with the British Empire, the most powerful nation on earth, when he already had his hands full waging the U.S. Civil War. But as the United States heads for a full-scale confrontation with Iran, it risks fighting three separate wars simultaneously in the same theater of operations.

The first war is already raging at fill intensity, and the United States and the Iraqi government are still losing it: That is the struggle against the Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

This weekend Lt. Gen. David Petraeus will get his fourth star. Petraeus will succeed Gen. George Casey, slated to be the U.S. Army's next chief of staff, as the next U.S. and allied ground forces commander in Iraq. He has already made clear he wants to saturate Baghdad with troops and clear insurgents out of Sunni majority neighborhoods to end their violent onslaught in the Iraqi capital of 6 million people.

In recent weeks, far from abating, Sunni insurgent violence in Baghdad has reached new levels of intensity with scores and even hundreds of people at a time being killed in mass terror bomb attacks.

However, even while U.S. policymakers await hopefully but uncertainly to see the results of Petraeus' new strategy, they're also hunkering down for a looming confrontation with Iran over its refusal to heed United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737 of Dec. 23 and abandon its nuclear development program.

A second U.S. aircraft carrier battle group has been dispatched to the Persian Gulf. An aviator admiral with no experience of dealing directly with land warfare but with almost unrivalled experience in directing carrier-launched aircraft against mainland targets, Adm. William Fallon has been chosen by President George W. Bush to head Central Command or CENTCOM, the U.S. command that includes both Iraq and Iran. And the U.S. government has sent new batteries of Patriot anti-ballistic missiles out to the region to protect U.S. bases and ground forces, Israel and other potential targets of Iranian ballistic missile attacks.

Meanwhile, the Iranians appear to be expecting a U.S. attack. In the past three days, they have announced successful tests of their new, state-of-the-art Tor-M1 anti-aircraft missile system, jut received from Russia, and of their older but still potentially dangerous Sark anti-ship missile system, also supplied by Russia.

The Iranians would have other forms of retaliation available too. In the event of a U.S. air strike on their new nuclear centrifuges and other faculties, they would almost certainly unleash the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, the highly popular Iraqi Shiite leader, which is particularly strong across southern Iraq and in the Sadr City Shiite poor neighborhoods of Baghdad, where 2 million people live.

But if the U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft strike Iranian nuclear facilities, then Washington policymakers could end up directing three separate but overlapping wars at the same time.

For the war Gen. Petraeus has been sent to fight against the Sunni Muslim insurgents in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, is a very different kind of war from an air campaign involving possible retaliation by anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles. And if Sadr's Mahdi Army were to rise, especially, if it was supported by other Shiite militias or even by significant elements in the U.S.-raised and trained new Iraqi army, that would be a third, even more complicated war.

Historically, even the finest armies have often been unbalanced, caught by surprise and even annihilated when they were forced to fight very different kinds of enemies simultaneously or in quick succession.

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 only succeeded because King Harold of England had had to fight and destroy the Norwegian army of Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Hill to the north only weeks before he fought and died at the Battle of Hastings.

More recently, the German Sixth Army in World War II, reputed to be the finest infantry force in the world at the time, was ground up and decimated in street fighting in the Battle of Stalingrad. Neither the Sixth Army's own top officers nor the German High Command paid any attention to the build up of reserve Soviet Red Army forces on the flanks of the Sixth Army until they attacked in November 1942 and cut the German force in the city off from behind.

Two years later, in the fall of 1944, the German Army ruthlessly and effectively crushed the Armija Krajowa, the Polish Home Army, after its unsuccessful rising in the Battle of Warsaw. But they proved no match for the rested Red Army in conventional battle when it swept across the River Vistula and scattered German reserve forces to the winds in its January 1945 offensive.

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the greatest British combat commander of World War II, always emphasized the importance of balance in full-scale army formations deployed to fight major land battles. But if an army's operational and planning energies are focused on defending their lines of communication, maintaining control of large cities, or in fighting and suppressing large irregular forces, then they may be disastrously distracted from the main axis of conventional attack against them.

If U.S. forces in the Iraq-Iran region are forced to fight two or three major but very different campaigns simultaneously within a small geographical area, they will run the risk of confusion and dispersal of effort that could generate this kind of dangerous distraction.

2. The Axis of Fear
Who do the Saudis fear more, expansionist Iranians or incompetent Americans?
By Shmuel Rosner/Slate

Vice President Al Gore traveled to Saudi Arabia in 1998 with a message for Iranian President Mohammed Khatami. Just a couple of weeks earlier, in an interview with CNN, the moderate Khatami had called for a dialogue among civilizations. The Clinton administration, eager to de-escalate the tensions between Washington and Tehran, wanted to use the Saudis as a back channel through which it could talk with the Iranian president without the interference of the mullahs.

It didn't work. Khatami was caught in an internal political battle with the hard-liners in his country, and the year of hope—American wrestlers competed in Iran in 1998—ended with no real achievement. But the Saudis kept trying to advance their relations with Tehran, because they are most alarmed about the prospect of a hostile Iran and most frightened of the possible consequences of instability in the Middle East.

The Bush administration is now counting on the Saudis to help contain Iran. That's one reason we don't hear much these days about democratization and political reform—or criticism of the Saudis, an authoritarian regime that provided most of the manpower for the 9/11 suicide missions. What we hear from American policy-makers is a conciliatory message aimed at the "moderate Sunni regimes"—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. Supposedly, those regimes are tasked with the mission of countering the "Shiite extremists"—namely Iran and its allies, organizations like Hezbollah, and states like Syria.

As the tensions marking the Sunni-Shiite divide grow, U.S. officials have high hopes that these Sunni-led countries will lend a hand. With their help, Washington would like to contain Iran, advance the peace process with Israel, reform the Palestinian Authority, isolate Syria, and rehabilitate Lebanon. Perhaps fear of Iranian expansionism will achieve what time and persuasion didn't do. The Bush team has worked closely with the Saudis over the last couple of months, consulting with them on issues ranging from how to approach Iraq (do not pull out, the king cautioned them) to the search for a way to break the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Americans urged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to include a positive reference to the so-called "Saudi plan" for Middle East peace in an important speech he made two months ago. They asked the Saudi king to give more material support to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. They actually thought that this alliance of fear—that is, the fear of the growing Iranian influence—might help them to bring about peace.

On paper, it seems logical, but the theory has one flaw the administration can't seem to understand: The Saudis don't really trust America. Nor, of course, does Tehran. Three days ago, in Munich, Germany, an Iranian official blamed the United States for the current Middle East flux. "The [U.S.] policy of denial, isolation, adventurism, sanctions can only serve instability in our region," said Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.

Everybody noticed that he was echoing the criticism made a day earlier by President Vladimir Putin of Russia—but some quietly admitted that Larijani was also reflecting a common sentiment among many so-called U.S. allies in the Arab world, the Saudis among them. "They have no confidence that the Americans will be able to clean up this mess they created," an Arab diplomat recently told me. Thus, the "moderate" countries—branded "responsible regimes" by administration officials—may take their "responsibility" more seriously than the Bush team would like.

Just take a look at the most recent example: The Saudis, initially with Washington's blessing, brought together the two Palestinian adversary groups, Hamas and Fatah, striking a deal to create a national unity government that will make U.S. policy more difficult to implement.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says in every interview that the administration has no intention of attacking Iran by force. The president, she says, "absolutely believes" that countering Iranian overreach "can be done through diplomacy." Yesterday, as the administration revealed some details related to Iranian intervention in Iraq , it seemed that some Democrats don't believe she is sincere about that. The Saudis, however, apparently take her on her word. They use diplomacy to achieve their ultimate goal, whether or not it pleases Washington.

So, the continuing isolation of Hamas, which seemed all but certain after another Middle East "Quartet" meeting in Washington 10 days ago, is now challenged—and by the actions of a U.S. ally. The Saudis see the Palestinian agreement as a way to block Iranian influence in the Palestinian territories. Hamas might be extreme, they say, but it's also a Sunni organization, and the Saudis will be ready to serve as its savior, as long as it prevents Iran from playing that role. And there is a similar pattern of Saudi diplomatic independence in the talks they are conducting with Iran over the future of Lebanon.

Any side effect of such talks—namely, the possible interference with the goals of the Bush team and the annoyance of the administration—is a sad but also inevitable result of the new "moderate Arab" policy. It also reveals how the "the axis of fear" perceives the current state of affairs: The Iranians might be scary, but at least for now, the American display of incompetence is even more frightening.

(Shmuel Rosner, chief U.S. correspondent for the Israeli paper Ha'aretz , writes daily at Rosner's Domain.)

3. TROUBLED WATERS OVER OIL – by James Surowiecki/New Yorker

The past few months haven’t been easy for Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His refusal to halt Iran’s uranium-enrichment program led the United Nations to impose sanctions in December. Inflation in Iran has exploded, with the price of commodities like bread and meat rising as much as twenty-five per cent. In the country’s recent municipal elections, Ahmadinejad’s political allies were crushed, and clerics and lawmakers have begun criticizing him in public. Worse still, through the second half of 2006 the price of oil tumbled almost thirty per cent, a disaster for an economy as dependent on oil revenue as Iran’s. (The country pumps almost four million barrels of oil a day and ultimately exports more than half of it.) And then the Bush Administration said that it had authorized U.S. troops to detain or kill any Iranians found to be working with the Iraqi insurgency, and dispatched a second aircraft-carrier group to the Persian Gulf, sparking rumors that a military strike against Iran was in the works.

This latest confrontation with the U.S. should have been the capper to a bad winter for Ahmadinejad. Strangely, though, it may instead have brought about an upturn in his fortunes. Soon, oil prices started to rise, jumping twenty per cent in just two weeks. As a result, the Iranian regime suddenly has an extra twenty million dollars or so to spend every day, a windfall that will help Ahmadinejad to placate his critics and solve some of his country’s more pressing economic problems.

The jump in oil prices wasn’t entirely a geopolitical phenomenon—the cold snap in the U.S. was also a big factor—but it was driven in part by an increase in what oil traders call the “risk premium.” When buying and selling oil, traders don’t just look at today’s supply and demand. They also try to forecast the future. And if buyers think there’s a chance that supply is going to be lower down the line—because, say, Iranian oil fields will be shut down—they will be willing to pay a higher price today in order to guarantee that they will have the oil they need. That’s why, in the run-up to the Iraq war, oil prices jumped more than fifty per cent. In the current confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, these same concerns create a perverse set of incentives: whenever the U.S. says things that make a military conflict with Iran seem more likely, the price of oil rises, strengthening Iran’s regime rather than weakening it. The more we talk about curbing Iranian power, the more difficult it gets.

It’s hard to measure the risk premium exactly, but most estimates suggest that in the past couple of years, thanks largely to the turmoil in the Middle East, it has accounted for somewhere between ten and twenty dollars on each barrel of oil. (Last year, Qatar’s oil minister said, “If you can stop the politicians from making negative statements, I am sure you will see almost fifteen dollars disappear from the price.”) And, because Iran has the world’s second-largest reserves and pumps so much oil, trouble with Tehran sends the premium soaring. Ten months ago, for instance, when Iranian leaders were talking about their progress in enriching uranium, and were threatening to attack Israel in response to any U.S. attack, the price of oil rose to more than seventy-five dollars a barrel. The economic consequences of this are not trivial; in the past few years, the inflated risk premium has given Iran tens of billions of dollars that it would otherwise not have had.

This helps Ahmadinejad enormously, because Iran has made huge commitments to government spending that can be kept only by relying on oil revenue. Last year, Iran spent more than forty billion dollars on things like subsidies for gasoline, bread, and heating fuel, and to keep money-losing enterprises in business. High oil prices also help protect Iran against the woeful state of its oil infrastructure. Getting a barrel of oil out of the ground can cost Iran three or four times what it costs Saudi Arabia, and a recent paper by Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Johns Hopkins University, argues that Iran’s lack of investment in its oil fields has reached a point where the country may be unable to export oil within the decade. Iran, in short, may well be running itself into the ground. But higher oil prices defer the day of reckoning.

The persistence of the risk premium means that Ahmadinejad, whatever his religious or nationalist inspiration, has an economic incentive to say confrontational things that spook the oil market. But the effect of his pronouncements is limited, because traders know that self-interest is likely to keep Iran from doing anything that would cut off the supply of oil. What really keeps the risk premium high is the American penchant for public responses to Iran’s provocations. So cooling down the martial rhetoric—even if we plan to take military action eventually—would likely bring oil prices down for a time, making Iran weaker. History shows that regimes that inflate their promises to their citizens during periods of high oil prices often have a hard time when prices fall. (The collapse of the Soviet Union, which, in the nineteen-seventies, had used oil wealth to make modest improvements in the standard of living of its people, was likely accelerated by the collapse of oil prices in the mid-eighties.) Lower oil prices won’t, by themselves, topple the mullahs in Iran. But it’s significant that, historically, when oil prices have been low, Iranian reformers have been ascendant and radicals relatively subdued, and vice versa when prices have been high. Talking tough may look like a good way of demonstrating U.S. resolve, but when tough talk makes our opponent richer and stronger we may accomplish more by saying less.

4. The War Must End
Why We Are Striking
By Columbia Coalition Against the War/Counterpunch

We, the Columbia Coalition Against the War, are staging a strike followed by a teach-in on February 15th, 2007. We are inviting the entire Columbia community, including students, faculty, staff, and the administration, to join us in publicly and actively opposing the unjust War in Iraq.

We call upon the people of this country-especially our generation-to shoulder the responsibility of bringing an immediate end to this war.

This unjust war began without provocation and continues despite the opposition of the vast majority of American and Iraqi people. This war, criminal in its violation of the Geneva Conventions, has resulted in a catastrophic loss of life-3,300 coalition troops and over 655,000 of our Iraqi brothers and sisters. In the name of this war, and the "war on terror," there has been a broad assault on our civil liberties including the violation of habeas corpus, condoning of torture, and rampant racism against Arabs and Muslims. This war has made the world less safe, and less free.

We strongly encourage the students of Columbia to walk out of classes in opposition to this war. We call on the faculty and administration to set aside business as usual, join our strike, and issue statements of support. Columbia, as a global university, has a responsibility to take a proactive stance against this illegal war.

By investing in corporations crucial to the war effort, our university has aligned its financial future with America's protracted occupation of Iraq. We therefore call on the administration to divest from these corporations for the duration of the war to hasten the war's end.

February 15th, 2003 marked the largest coordinated anti-war demonstration in human history. We unite on the upcoming anniversary to "rekindle the flame of protest that flared up all over the world on that date four years ago," as noted by historian Howard Zinn in his support for a nationwide strike. Our protest and teach-in on the 15th is only the beginning. We aim for this to be the rebirth of a strong and diverse anti-war movement on Columbia's campus and on campuses around the world.

We will work to build support in our schools and our communities for resistance to the war. We will give voice to the majority of Americans who have expressed their strong opposition to the war. We will show the leaders in Congress that we, the people, are the true "deciders." We will continue to struggle to end the war and bring the troops home now.


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