The inevitable war nobody wants

The world heads for another war in the Persian Gulf that nobody wants but everybody seems to need. Looming behind the most crucial dynamics is the possible presidency of Barack Obama, suggesting that war may become inevitable due to the fear of peace. After eight years of Bush-Cheney, such is the state of our world.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency has been a disaster for the Iranian people. Despite all the oil wealth, inflation is raging and the economy goes nowhere. Add in a stunning birth dearth, the world’s worst brain drain, plus Iranian prostitutes headlining European brothels, and this is clearly a society in a death spiral. With restless students chanting in public for Ahmadinejad’s death, little wonder the man pines for a splendid little war.

Ahmadinejad’s one popular success has been to champion Iran’s brazen reach for nuclear capacity, an effort cleverly designed to emphasize the strategic dangers of attempted regime change by outsiders. Toss in ritualistic threats against Israel, and Tehran’s stance qualifies as pan-Islamic — all the better to mask the region’s Shia revival that empowers Iran.

But Ahmadinejad’s time grows short. A bevy of candidates seeks to oust him next year, and his opponents now head the parliament, the crucial Assembly of Experts and Tehran’s city hall. With Obama currently leading decisively polls for the U.S. presidency, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, faces the prospect of losing his most useful — for internal politics, that is — external enemy, reducing Ahmadinejad’s utility as frontman.

This is where Israel becomes most useful to Iran’s headliners. With Bush-Cheney seemingly content to reward North Korea with a peace treaty for generating nuclear weapons and sharing the technology with fellow rogue Syria, Israel’s dead-set on preserving its long-standing regional monopoly on weapons of mass destruction.

Now we turn to another supremely unpopular leader, Israel’s Ehud Olmert, who has privately begged Bush to end Iran’s nuclear bid before leaving office. But as Bush’s military leaders and even his Secretary of Defense now argue publicly against that course, that seems like a long shot.

With Obama’s presidency threatening, Olmert’s freedom of action narrows. Strike before the election and two birds may be killed: Iran receives the same lesson that Syria got earlier this year on its nuclear program, and the resulting regional conflict(s) logically boosts John McCain’s presidential bid. After all, America will need a "war president" in this time of "inevitable" wars.

And so Israel clears the decks in anticipation of striking Iran: a ceasefire with Hamas, the rapprochement with Syria, and the ramping up of military training for a predominately air campaign. Iran’s hardline leadership naturally returns the favor by test-firing missiles this week.

And what of the other great powers who might step into this fray to prevent this war? Europe is too interested in Iran’s oil and gas, as are the Chinese and Indians. Moscow, meanwhile, sees all of its major interests served by letting Washington embroil itself in another Persian Gulf war: oil prices will skyrocket, Iran will need its patronage, Europe’s energy portfolio will become further dependent on Russia’s good graces, and troublesome superpower America will remain strategically tied down.

When the Iraq Study Group, a Congress-appointed, bipartisan panel, argued eighteen months ago that a military surge strategy in Iraq would logically fail without an accompanying regional diplomatic surge, this is the outcome those members must have feared: one war solved just in time for another to begin.

The problem, of course, is that the "other war" is already here, demanding America’s attention — namely, the ongoing Afghanistan conflict where last month the U.S. military suffered more deaths than in now-stabilizing Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, Obama’s primary argument for reducing the U.S. military presence in Iraq has been to increase America’s efforts in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Right now, that strategic logic appeals to nobody who needs another war in the Gulf.

Too bad.


(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center and author of the forthcoming book "Great Powers: America and the World After Bush." Contact him at (tom(at)