The effects of withdrawal and Iranian covert operations

Two recent “Intelligence Briefs” from PINR caught my eye: “Iran’s Covert Operations in Iraq,” and “The Implications of Strategic Withdrawal from Iraq.” As some readers know, I’m a big fan of PINR for supplying ‘open source intelligence,’ which is to say, generalized insights into foreign policy and educated guesses based on publicly available information. In these two pieces, they advance the argument that Iran is quite likely involved in supporting pro-Iranian groups and in trying to prevent the spread of violence eastward. Their goal in Iraq is simply to avoid a repeat of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, which was expensive, destructive, and deadly. This means they are pursuing the eventual victory of a pro-Iranian, anti-Saudi Arabian regime in Baghdad.

PINR is only willing to say that Iran is playing a role in the country, not to accuse them of supplying particular groups or particular weapons. Those are beyond their ‘open-source’ capacities. The point is that:

“Iran is likely supporting the various friendly Shi’a groups in Iraq. Most Iraqi Shi’a factions — such as S.C.I.R.I. and Moqtada al-Sadr’s group — are probably accepting assistance from Iran since, even if they wish to remain independent of Tehran, they are willing to accept assistance at least until they gain power. Other Shi’a groups — such as S.C.I.R.I., which runs the Badr Corps/Brigade — spent years in exile in Iran when Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist establishment was in power. Iran’s goal is to have one of these actors take and maintain power in Iraq, so that it can eliminate what has traditionally been a hostile Sunni Arab state.”

The second report is the truly interesting one. In the US, we’ve gotten so bogged down in questions of cowardice and bravery that we’ve stopped evaluating the goals of the continued occupation. Given the increasing likelihood of a strategic withdrawal, those interested in foreign policy must begin to evaluate the opportunities the region will supply without such a strong American presence. It’s not the WWII model, with complete capitulation and a long occupation: victory and defeat are rarely as absolute as we’ve begun to think of them. Instead, we’ll continue to attempt to balance Iranian influence in the region while furthering American interests in the oil available there. We can continue to do that from the safety of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.

“The bottom line is that withdrawing the majority of U.S. forces from Iraq will not necessarily be a disaster for U.S. interests. The failure to achieve the original mission in Iraq has already occurred, and the United States has already suffered a significant loss of its interests. Withdrawing troops from the country may not make matters much worse. Instead, upon withdrawal the United States can begin to pursue operations more in line with its capabilities, using technology to eliminate potential Islamist threats and using its overt and covert elements to work toward a stable government in Baghdad.”

So long as we remain the occupying power, it will be impossible to differentiate freedom fighters from terrorists. When we leave, the only militants remaining will be sectarians and the hard-core jihadists. Nor will this spell an immediate victory for Iran… in truth, we may benefit Iranian interests more by remaining than by leaving, since we are distracted and bleeding capital, while they can sit back and manipulate events from relative safety.

The question PINR resolutely resists asking and answering is whether its ethical to leave Iraq now that we’ve destroyed the regime. I don’t relish the kind of ethnic cleansing and we may see; on the other hand, we don’t seem able to stop it and it continues even today, with almost 150,000 American troops caught up in the conflict. I hold out a little hope of a partition-type solution, but until there’s a Commander-in-Chief in office who’s willing to consider that possibility, the options are stay and perpetuate the violence or go and observe it from afar. In such a situation, it’s clear our responsibility is to reduce the solidarity that militants are currently experiencing against the invading Western power. It’s always possible they’ll settle on a political solution themselves.

Reading Tehran

This CSM piece gives an excellent background on the British-Iranian conflict that lead to the capture of British soldiers last week. The big mystery is why Iran would give the UK/US a clear casus belli like this, when we’re so clearly itching for a fight. It’s not like they couldn’t guess what sort of reaction there’d be to another “Iranian hostage crisis.” CSM suggests three possible motivations for the Iranians to provoke the British:

  1. It could be about nukes: “An attempt to rebuke Great Britain for its role in supporting a new United Nations Security Council resolution imposing fresh sanctions over Iran’s refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program.”
  2. Or maybe they’re looking to trade for some Iranian hostages that nobody bothered to comment on: “Richard Beeston, the diplomatic editor of The Times of London, writes in an analysis that ‘privately there is acknowledgement that [the British sailors’] fate is bound closely to that of the Iranian captives‘ seized by the US” in January.
  3. Of course, it could also be due to ancient ethnic hatreds cartographic disputes (!?): “The main cause of the showdown could be a centuries-old dispute over the water border between Iran and Iraq. It began with the 1639 Treaty of Zuhab between the Persian and Ottoman empires, which divided the land without a careful survey. Disagreements through the 1980s, and some of the fiercest fighting in the eight-year war between the two nations occurred along this border. The Associated Press quotes Lawrence G. Potter, an associate professor of international affairs at Columbia University, who says that even to this day the exact demarcation has not been established. ‘The problem is that nobody knows where the border is,’ Potter said. ‘The British might have thought they were on their side, the Iranians might have thought they were on their side.'”

These are all fascinating theories, especially the last little dig at Iran’s geographic fundamentalism. But why does no one credit the Iranian claim that the British soldiers were in fact trespassing? It’s water. Boats float on top of it with a remarkable lack of precision. There’s been a flurry of GPS coordinates supposedly proving, or disproving, the location, but all I’ve seen are numbers on the page… nothing approaching real proof.

More to the point, I can easily credit the Iranian claim that these militaries might be engaged in all sorts of special forces or espionage work in or near their territory. We haven’t exactly shown a great deal of respect for national borders and sovereignty, lately, and if we were planning to invade, there’d be a flurry of this sort of minor infringement to put Tehran on edge and slow their reactions to future transgressions.

Of course, I’m probably overreacting… it turns out this has all happened before! CSM draws an apparently obvious parallel with a “2004 incident in which Iranians arrested eight British servicemen on patrol in disputed waters between Iran and Iraq. Those servicemen were released three days later, after making a televised apology for straying into Iran.” Could it all be as simple as that? Iranian hostage crisis: business as usual. Yawn.

Three faces of courage

Recently, a woman asked whether being told to “grow a pair” was evidence of misogyny, since it assumes that the only way to be courageous is to be masculine. I responded with some nonsense about the Laches and ᾳνδρειᾳ, stubborn manliness, which is the Greek word for courage. Still, it’s an interesting question: in the fervor of feminist theorizing, the debates about jingoism and patriotism in Vietnam and Iraq, and the flap regarding Bill Maher’s comment that suicide bombers are not cowards, we seem to have become confused as to what we mean when we say ‘courage.’

I stand by the Laches in one respect: the only courage we can identify that’s worthy of the name is a courage that is indistinguishable from the whole of virtue, which requires the guidance of wisdom and refers us away from military feats of daring. It seems to me that there is nothing essentially manly about this sort of courage. “Sacking up” is like having the “courage of your convictions”: it advocates strength and testosterone instead of insight and resolution. ᾳνδρειᾳ is a weak substitute for the riskiness of doubt, uncertainty, and the philosophical life.

Which brings me to the second ‘face’ of courage, Linda Rabieh‘s Plato and the Virtue of Courage. Her book was recently reviewed by The Weekly Standard, which turns her work into an indictment of contemporary liberalism (which it is in part) while ignoring the turn away from militancy. In the Republic, courage is necessary in order to strive for justice. However, heroics and political courage won’t get you all the way to philosophy, and that is indubitably where Rabieh wishes to lead us. Instead, the concerns of wisdom and prudence eventually turn the soul away from bellicose honors and incomplete notions of justice until the courageous individual begins to face up to the challenges of metaphysics: to discern the One and the Good.

This calls for the Laches again, especially Plato’s claim that courage, tempered by wisdom, requires us to face both the past and present in addition to the fears and hopes we hold of the future. Thus, there is something in courage that requires us to face experience and memory in a different manner than we are accustomed to. I think of this third ‘face’ of courage as its onto-theological face, or perhaps simply its existential one: Paul Tillich called it The Courage to Be. This is the bravery that allows the philosopher to confront the challenges of inquiry: fear of death, fear of meaninglessness, and fear of condemnation. The philosopher must forgo the comforts of an afterlife, the at-home-ness of received wisdom, and innocence in the face accusations of corruption leveled by the many. To be thus confronted by non-being, emptiness, and guilt requires a more complete courage than the solider or the statesman. It requires resolution in the face of anxiety.

That’s what’s missing in my favorite passage from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. One character (the American) asks the narrator why he left a woman he loved: “I was terrified of losing her. I thought I saw her changing–I don’t know if she really was, but I couldn’t bear the uncertainty any longer. I ran towards the finish just like a coward runs towards the enemy and wins a medal. I wanted to get death over.” I’ve always found that passage unbelievably moving: my partner quoted it to me in a moment when I needed to be reminded of the varieties of cowardice. Now, it serves as a warning of the dissembling of ostensibly brave men, and the courage to be found in the everyday commitment to our choices and our present.

For A Few Dollars More…

The New York Times has a report on the proposed law regulating oil contracts. There’s no mention of production-sharing agreements there, but there is something a little fishy about the law, which centralizes the approval procedure for contracts for the oil under regional control. Here’s the relevant text from the NYT:

[The law allows] regions to initiate the process of tendering contracts before sending them to Baghdad for approval. To limit the powers of the committee, they also have drawn up an exacting set of criteria to govern the deliberations of the committee rather than simply relying on its independent discretion. And in a bow to the Kurds, who objected to the use of the word “approve” in describing the committee’s duties, the draft law says instead that the committee may review and reject contracts that do not meet the criteria.

In order to preserve a degree of regional autonomy, especially for the Kurds who obviously want nothing to do with the rest of the country, the districts of Iraq are being allowed to negotiate singly rather than taking advantage of collective bargaining. In fact, it seems clear that they’ve mostly already negotiated these contracts, since most of the relevant interests have been in Iraq, wooing their prospective clients for months:

“The international companies keep contacting me — every week, without exception,” Mr. Shahristani said. “They are all very, very keen.”

It seems like the regions will be competing with each other, which will depress prices, but then, so will the oil companies. All told, it looks like there will be a lot of people trying to take advantage of the system, which is sort of a promising context in which to form a market. On the one hand, every oil company executive in the world would sacrifice her grandmother’s eye teeth to get a hold of one of these contracts. On the other hand, the Iraqis are staring down the barrel of instability and poverty, while standing on the second largest accumulation of fossil fuel wealth in the world. That’s what brokers and arbitrageurs like to call a motivated seller. If they’re truly making thirty-year deals… well, I imagine that a number of oil companies are going to achieve some record profit margins over the next few years: “oil company rates of return from investing in Iraq would range from 42% to 162%, far in excess of usual industry minimum target of around 12% return on investment.” (via) Yet, as a deal-maker for a big oil company, how much of those absurd profits would you bargain away to keep the rest, especially knowing your competition is angling to do the same?

Even as I write this, I have to say I approve of the overall institutional design that the Iraqis are working up for federal oversight of oil contracts. This kind of loose federation of oil interests strikes me as pretty well managed; the opportunities for corruption are manifold, but there’s also great potential for oversight, if the federal government chooses to exercise it. It just might work! And once these deals are inked, there’s no reason for Americans to stick around getting blown up. Send in the blue hats, and let them keep the oil people safe….

Okay, maybe I’m still a little bitter. The situation is so explosive that it’s hard to say what kinds of policies will be best for the Iraqis. Maybe corrupt oil executives are actually good for regime stability. (Works for the US, right?) At least there’s someone there thinking about money instead of religion. That’s good politics, I suppose.

A day late and a dollar short… (Iraqi currency cliches continue)

Steve at Cows and Graveyards correctly connects the upcoming oil extraction agreements in Iraq to peak oil. Yes, Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world, and as the global demand (mostly due to 40% increase in yearly consumption caused by the burgeoning Chinese economy) outstrips supply, prices will skyrocket unless the US can preserve a pipeline through a puppet government in Iraq. I think that it’s time for us to admit this to ourselves: we’re going to spend $1 trillion for a fraction of that in oil. In a good year, Iraq made $14 billion a year on its oil. To me, this sounds like a bad investment, but perhaps these calculations make more sense when we compare them to the 1956 Israeli invasion of Egypt. Fifty years ago, Britain and France sponsored an Israeli attack on Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Then, the Suez canal was a necessary conduit for importing oil to Europe. Yet this ‘simple invasion’ saddled Israel with its two most troublesome possessions: the Gaza strip and a reputation for doing the imperialists dirty work. Moreover, it distracted the world from the Hungarian Revolution, giving the Soviets time to reoccupy Budapest in force and re-establish democracy communism after the first of many Eastern European insurrections.

When I look at the Suez crisis, I see the parallel logic: the Soviets threatened to shore up Egypt’s defenses, and could have cut off Europe’s oil supplies while hotting up the war in Hungary. It was a potential flashpoint towards World War 3. In our present case, however, we’re just competing with China for oil in the marketplacce. There’s no war, cold or otherwise, between us. Why not invest that $1 trillion in energy alternatives and conservation, or just bite the bullet and pay more per gallon and let the market do the rest? Much as I prefer this brand of power politics and geostrategic Risk to the mealy-mouthed justifications of freedom and democracy for the tyrannized Iraqi people, I can’t help but wonder whether lying to ourselves about our real goals has led us to make a catastrophic blunder. Perhaps the Bush administration thought it was being pretty sneaky, but at this point their noble lie and grand strategy seems to come down to a bit of bad math.