In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, the Amsterdam-based military historian Gabriel Kolko talks about the prospect of war with Iran and argues that many in the US military now view the White House as being 'out of control.'
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad watches a military parade in Tehran, Iran, in September 2007. Tension between Tehran and Washington has been rising.
Gabriel Kolko: The American military is stretched to the limit. They are losing both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Everything is being sacrificed for these wars: money, equipment in Asia, American military power globally, etc. Where and how can they fight yet another? The Pentagon is short of money for procurement, and that is what so many people in the military bureaucracy live for. The situation will be far worse in the event of a war with Iran.
Many in the American military have learned the fundamental dilemma of modern warfare: More money and better weapons don't mean that you win. IEDs, which cost so little to make, are defeating a military which spends billions of dollars per month. IEDS are so adaptable that each new strategy developed by the United States to counter them is answered by the Iraqi insurgents. The Israelis were also never quite able to counter IEDs. One report quotes an Israeli military engineer who said the Israeli answer to IEDs was frequently the use of armored bulldozers to effectively rip away the top 18 inches of pavement and earth where explosive devices might be hidden. This is fantastic, as the cost of winning means destroying roads, which form the basis of a modern economy.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are people in the Pentagon getting nervous about how influential voices in the White House continue to push for conflict with Iran?
Kolko: Many in the US military think Bush and Cheney are out of control. They are rebelling against Bush and Cheney. Washington Post reporter Dana Priest recently said in an interview that she believed the US military would revolt and refuse to fly missions against Iran if the White House issued such orders.
CENTCOM [US Central Command, the military grouping whose responsibilities include the Middle East] commander Admiral William Fallon reportedly thwarted Cheney's wish to sent a third additional aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. One paper wrote that he "vowed privately there would be no war against Iran as long as he was chief of CENTCOM."
Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, in charge of US forces in Japan, told the Associated Press last week that the Iraq war had weakened American forces in the face of any potential conflict with China. He was quoted as saying, "Are we in trouble? It depends on the scenario. But you have to be concerned about the small number of our forces and the age of our forces."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think that conflict with Iran is likely?
Kolko: All the significant economic journals (Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.) recognize that the American and European economies are now in a crisis, and it may be protracted. The dollar is falling; Gulf States and others may abandon it (as an investment currency). A war with Iran would produce economic chaos because oil would be scarce. There are states which the United States wishes to isolate, like Russia and Venezuela, who can develop great influence through their ability to sell oil in such a crisis. The balance of world economic power is involved, and that is a great issue.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But aren't the Gulf States interested in seeing Iran weakened through a conflict with the United States?
Kolko: The Gulf States do not like Shia Iran, but they export oil, which makes them rich. They are dependent on peace, not war.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would Iran react to a provocation by the United States, say, on the border? Could the Iranian military in any way be a match for the United States?
Kolko: Iran fought Iraq for about a decade and lost hundreds of thousands of men. Perhaps they will roll over, but it is not likely. There are a number of tiny islands in the gulf they have had years to fortify. Can 90 percent of their weapons be knocked out? Even if this United States could achieve this, the remainder would be sufficient to sink many boats and tankers. The amount of oil exported through the gulf would thereby be reduced, perhaps cease altogether. This would only strengthen American rivals like Russia and Venezuela.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But what about the bunker-buster bombs? Wouldn't that be a technology which Iran could not match?
Kolko: Bunker busters are only able to knock out so many bunkers, but alas, not all. If bunker-buster bombs are nuclear they are very useful, but they are also radioactive. In addition to killing Iranians, they may also kill friends and nearby US soldiers.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What about the so-called 'Cheney plan' to let Israel attack Iran? What role would Israel play in a conflict with Iran? Isn't Israel also interested in seeing that the United States weakens its greatest threat in the region?
Kolko: Israel may be a factor. They must cross Syrian and Jordanian airspace, and the Iranians will be prepared if they are not shot down over Syria. Their countermeasures may be effective, but perhaps not ... War with Iran will lead to a rain of rockets and Israel would be left with an inability to deal with local priorities. Iran is likely to get nuclear bombs sooner or later. So will other nations. Israel has hundreds already. Israeli strategists believe deterrence will then exist. Why risk war?
Israel dislikes Iran and the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons, but they believe they can handle it with a deterrent relationship. Israel needs its army, which is not large enough for potential nearby problems -- for Palestinians and its Arab neighbors, who it rightfully fears and hates. That means Israel can be belligerent, but it is not capable of playing the US role, except of course with nuclear weapons.
So I regard the Israelis as opponents of a war with Iran which would involve them. They certainly noticed how during the war with Lebanon the Palestinians in Gaza used the opportunity to increase pressure on Israel from the south. Israelis opposed the Iraq war because it would lead to Iranian domination of the region, which it has.
Hence, the report that Cheney is trying to use Israel, if it is true, shows that he's confused and quite mad -- but also unusually isolated.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But what about the Democratic Party? Isn't it in the interest of the Democratic Party to do everything they can to end the war?
Kolko: All three leading Democratic Party presidential hopefuls -- Clinton, Obama and Edwards -- refused at a debate recently in New Hampshire to promise to pull the US military out of Iraq by the beginning of 2013. The American public is a small factor, as elections have repeatedly shown, but may play some role also. As the last election proved, anyone who thinks Democrats will stop wars is fooling him- or herself. But war with Iran would require new authorizations. Then the Congress would, potentially, be very important.
Interview conducted by John Goetz
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