The Administration’s new policy toward Iran has zero chance to succeed in changing Iranian behavior or regime change. The policy of maximum pressure and unachievable demands is based on deeply flawed assumptions about Iran and the wise use of American power.
U.S. governments should have learned from past experiences that an effort to squeeze an enemy government, strangle its economy, and isolate it from the world rarely works, especially when the desired end remains unclear and deeply contested. More often it harms U.S. national security, particularly if military force is engaged. To paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld on Afghanistan: “Are we creating more enemies than we are ending?”
Since WWII we have initiated internationally supported actions to modify behavior or confront militarily governments inimical to the US and the world. These actions failed because of the overreach and uncertainty of US goals, the shortcomings of U.S. strategy and understanding of the problem.
There is a U.S. default preference for regime change rooted in the success of “unconditional surrender” strategies that defeated Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany leading to democracy. But the post-WII versions of “unconditional surrender” have led to strengthening the enemy government, building national resolve against the U.S. and tightening the grip of the regime. The overthrow of a despot virtually never led to a better government but rather to chaos or a collapsed state.
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In 1950, Truman ordered an UN-endorsed action to stop the massive North Korean invasion of the South. But he then allowed MacArthur to morph the UN limited objectives into an effort to conquer North Korea, and China entered the war. The U.S. ultimately had to settle for a truce and a legacy of deep hostility with the oppressive Kim regime.
In the 1960s, President Kennedy provided U.S. military advisers to help the South Vietnamese defend themselves against the Viet Cong and the North. As that effort faltered, President Johnson Americanized the war, deploying over 550,000 American troops in the most damaging overreach in American history. Johnson’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, 30 years later rued the mistake, explaining he had overestimated “the power of “coercion” (military force) and underestimated the “endurance of the enemy” (strengthened national solidarity under attack).
For decades American presidents sought to force the Castro regime out or into submission with economic pressure, political isolation, covert operations, and even military force. While the corrupt Castro communist model never took hold in Latin American, small Cuba became a symbol in the region of national resistance against a Goliath. It left the Cuban people in poverty not freedom.
President George W. Bush’s decision in 2003 to invade Iraq to finish off Saddam Hussein is the costliest overreach of US military power since Vietnam - an indelible warning not to repeat in Iran that calamitous debacle.
On regime change, Iranians remember that in 1953 the U.S. removed Iran’s last elected leader and returned the autocratic Shah. Iranians harbor rage over the U.S. support of Iraq’s 1980s bloody war against Iran. Iraq expected to destroy the divided, new 1979 revolutionaries who had nearly taken control of Iran. The Iraqi attack supported by the US solidified the Ayatollahs’ hold, converting Iranians into patriotic supporters of their nation and revolution.
Despite the heroic sacrifices of America’s unmatched fighting women and men to relieve oppression, because of misunderstandings, lack of strategy and overreach of ambitions, the seemingly interminable conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria continue.
When will we ever learn?
President Trump, despite his mistaken jettisoning of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is not condemned to repeat the errors of the past. America’s armed forces can help win conflicts using smart and consistent diplomacy. Trump promised in his campaign no more wars. Korea has shown that military and economic pressure with unmeetable promises leads to extended and dangerous confrontation. When he realized the dead end could result in devastating military conflict, Trump chose diplomatic engagement. Opening the door to talk with Iran was wise in 2013; doing so after the unilateral rejection, violating the JCPOA, is far more difficult.
Success will come by restoring solidarity with the Western alliance; improving the unprecedented inspections and limitations that prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon; strengthening an international push back against Iran’s regional ambitions; and using a leveraged diplomatic strategy to resolve regional conflicts.