How well has the United States prepared for war?

Ricardo Israel

By: Ricardo Israel - 11/02/2024

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In the end, any answer will depend on how the question is formulated, since, if there is no clarity, the answer will be insufficient. If the question is whether the US is preparing, the answer is yes, always and around the clock, given the size of its armed forces and the magnitude of its budget.

However, if the question were related to the two most likely scenarios and the two most complex challenges to its superpower status, the answer is clearly no. Indeed, even if a war of proportions does not materialize in the near future, both China and Iran make Washington look bad today, which, by the way, is worrying and has all kinds of consequences, generally unpleasant not only for the USA, but also for the cause of freedom throughout the world. Furthermore, the Russian invasion of Ukraine itself has shown weaknesses, very notable and publicized in the case of Moscow, but not in the case of the United States, about which much less is known due to lack of debate, with the addition that, for the Chinese or Iranian scenario, it is highly doubtful that Europe will provide the USA with the type of support that NATO has given to kyiv.

Although the US remains much more powerful than China, it is undeniable that Beijing has made immense advances, adding the military as the latest of Deng Xiaoping's pending modernizations, from the navy to cyberspace and outer space. . This was visible to everyone, after Nancy Pelosi's ill-advised official trip to Taiwan in 2022, and the reason why both the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department had opposed it, since Washington's problems were laid bare. , since, for security reasons, the official plane that transported it had to divert from places in the China Sea, where Beijing has militarized simple islets, transforming them into real landing strips. What happened next was even worse, since the island was practically surrounded and isolated, all publicized at the communist party summit that later took place.

Ultimately, what China disputes with the USA is who will be the world's undisputed superpower, the only number one in the world's geopolitical position.

In the case of Iran, since its founding, the Islamic Republic has advanced without pause in its project of leading a universal Jihad against what the United States represents, that is, the very idea of ​​the West, the heritage of the enlightenment. and of the Judeo-Christian civilization. It is not what he does or does not do, but rather the confrontation is total against what the United States is.

And this occurs when, although it is approaching its goal, Iran is not yet a nuclear power. The White House's statement that it does not want a military confrontation with Tehran is evident and credible, unlike what happened in the first Gulf War with Iraq, where politically it formed a diverse and broad alliance against Saddam Hussein in 1991, and militarily , brilliantly buried those complexes that came from his failure in Vietnam, although today, with the perspective of time, there is no doubt that General Norman Schwarskopf was right (not so in challenging his commander in chief) that the Iraqi tyrant should be overthrown. , since the second Gulf War and the bad result that is experienced today would have been avoided, with Tehran's control over Baghdad.

There are military reasons that also explain Washington's caution. To begin with, in the Arab countries of the Middle East, there is much greater clarity than in Europe and in the US itself about the inevitability of a confrontation. Furthermore, compared to Iraq, invading Iran is much more difficult if it is done by land, just look at the map, including the difficulties of having access from neighboring countries, which are rather critical of the US. The decision is also difficult. from the intelligence point of view (not to mention the nuclear issue), since as in North Korea, in the Islamic Republic it is very difficult to have real-time access to the decision-making process at the highest level, it is that is, close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Also influencing is the shield of fanaticism that Iran has built in so many proxies available to fight Tehran's wars, be they Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis, or their equivalents in Syria or Iraq, not to mention the rapprochement with China and Russia.

The USA also does not want a direct confrontation on Ukrainian soil with Russian soldiers, although in the case of Iran the fact that the last two American wars did not end well, whether Iraq or Afghanistan, where at the beginning, there was a very easy victory over those armies, but from then on, a notorious fiasco in the prolonged fight against the insurgency, so much so that they ended in victories for their rivals, since it is Iran that today controls Iraq, which was its war rival for 8 years , while the Taliban returned to power, after the humiliating retreat from Kabul, rather, flight.

Therefore, just as in the case of a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, in the Middle East the US does not want war either, so now there is no possibility that direct military action is being sought or that it is wanted. build a coalition for invasion, none, which is bad for confidence in the superpower on the part of most Sunni Arab governments.

The move away from the conflicts in the Middle East began during the Obama administration, which occurred for the first time since 1945. This profound change was what motivated Saudi Arabia's approach to Israel, since in Tel Aviv they saw the will to confront to Iran, which seemed to have abandoned Washington, and although it may not seem like it today, if Israel makes any concession to Palestinian autonomy in the post-Hamas scenario, the agreement between Jerusalem and Riyadh will undoubtedly be signed, since this decision was already taken by the Saudi monarchy and its prince regent MBS, so a defeat of Hamas will be accompanied by a transformed Middle East, especially if, as it seems, in that scenario, the US is also going to participate with what Saudi Arabia has requested, which is a security agreement, clearly anti-Iranian, but that could benefit Washington itself by giving it a horizon of preventive deterrence, which it lacks today.

And that is the key word, since it is exactly what the United States has lacked as a power. Exact. Deterrence is what it has lacked militarily and diplomatically, and what has led to the chain of military aggressions and attacks that the US has suffered from Syria, Iraq and Yemen, all ordered from Iran. Given the military power of the power, having serious problems in deterrence is evidently a problem of management by its authorities, policies and military.

It is a lack of deterrence that has led to the US's current problem with the Houthis in the Red Sea, as it otherwise failed Israel with Hamas on October 7.

Fear or respect or both has been lost for the superpower, be it the failure of the Venezuelan dictatorship to comply with a political agreement, be it Iran, or China, or others. It is also, and partially, what helps explain the failure of the sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, where the war machine not only has not stopped but seems to be winning, and the many countries that do not pay attention, it is because they do not They fear American punishment.

Along the way, Russia has become a junior partner of China, in what history will surely record as an American mistake, of having “gifted” this partner to Beijing, not because it would not have been worthy of sanctions, but because the policy of true “cancellation” of Russia, including cultural and sporting contacts, strengthened Putin rather than harming him within Russia. He has also coincided with China and Russia deploying successfully in Latin America and Africa, in the face of US inactivity.

What would have happened if instead of bombing many targets in several days, the US had attacked Iran directly, perhaps an oil well, as the Houthis did with Saudi Arabia on behalf of Iran? Perhaps that was the most effective way for the proxies to understand that Washington still acted as a power. What would have happened if they had followed the example of Reagan who, faced with terrorist attacks ordered by Libya, instead of attacking many times, gave the order to bomb Gaddafi's palace?

It is an example of deterrence, since Libya and Gaddafi would no longer sponsor anti-Western terrorism, which continued until the colonel's death. It is a classic example, since the importance of deterrence is such that, if rivals are not deterred, in the Middle East a war becomes inevitable.

In that region, when there is deterrence, those who hate the US simply would not have attacked those soldiers as if it were target shooting. Or from another point of view, the North American response of many attacks on different targets would not have been necessary, since now it is perhaps too late, in the sense that the only thing left is to trust that the Houthis, Iraqi militias or Tehran itself, separately understand that It is not worth attacking the United States.

Whatever it is, it is too late for deterrence, since, although it is credible that neither the US nor Iran want war, they cannot necessarily avoid it, since by not acting in a timely manner the war scenario is getting closer instead of further away. Deterrence avoids this scenario as well as distances it from what abounded in the Cold War, since then there was great mutual understanding of the existence of red lines not to be crossed by the adversary, lines always respected.

The truth is that not just now, but for some time now, Washington has been wrong in its role as a power. It happened to President Obama when he said that if Syria used chemical weapons he would intervene, and nothing happened in the face of the violation of his own red line, so the only thing that was achieved was that Putin filled the void, sending his expeditionary army to support to Bashar al Assad. In the case of China, they and we do not know which are the red lines whose violation would be unacceptable for the US, while China has repeated time and again that for them Taiwan independence is unacceptable.

For this reason, the United States' hesitancy to act militarily does not help it in an area of ​​the world like the Middle East, where, above all, the will and effectiveness in the use of force are respected, which convinces the Arab world that, with an enemy like Iran, has found that ally in Israel, helping to forget the past. Perhaps, it is because they know enough about Hamas terrorism to understand - unlike Europe and, partially, the US itself - the need for it to be destroyed militarily or because they believe that Israel is better willing to act on Iran, not only because since 1979 Tehran has been talking about its destruction, but very recently the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic Ali-Akbar Salehi confirmed that the confrontation "will continue as long as Israel exists, even if a Palestinian State is established."

Israel has been successful in its frequent confrontations on Syrian soil with Iran as well as with covert operations, whether in Tehran or other distant locations, although so far, the West has not been available with the political support necessary for the day after a eventual attack on the atomic bomb itself the day it exists, although Europe above all seems not to understand that they could be next, in case Israel fails.

However, for Arab countries, Israel appears to have the will and resources to act now. In other words, if the will falters in Washington, the same does not happen in Tel-Aviv, since the struggle is an existential problem, of survival, so the will exists. For now, this includes a possible war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, in case that militia attacks, since the Iranian intention is visible to everyone, from the moment it prompts the Houthis to send missiles from Yemen, no less than 2000 kilometers from its target.

Iran has been very successful in organizing and using the 21st century reality of the growing role of non-state actors, who take advantage of the territorial control they achieve for war. This is the case of Hamas and Gaza, Hezbollah and Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen, where control of the capital and ports was used, first to successfully attack Saudi Arabia, and now, to interrupt trade. and international navigation. So far the US has not been able to avoid it, hindered by its own confusion, since Trump considered them terrorists and Biden has oscillated between yes and no.

Why did the United States take so long? Why warn Iran, your adversary? Why not learn the same lesson from Israel on October 7? That they are hated not for what they do or don't do, but for what they are. In the case of the US, this is what happens, the ayatollahs have long decreed Jihad against them, simply because of what they represent. And if the US took so long it was not because they needed to have that many planes for multiple bombings, since the alternatives were surely in the presidential office as soon as they were requested, as they are professional armed forces and which, moreover, have with many more immediate resources than anyone else.

No. If they were delayed it was because during the electoral campaign they had to weigh their impact in an election that looks increasingly difficult, among other reasons, due to the impact on votes of what is happening in the Middle East. Without going any further, in one of the states that will define the result, such as Michigan, there is a strong Muslim population that today would not be voting for Biden, but rather willing to harm him by abstaining.

Today, there could undoubtedly be an escalation, an extra argument for how negative it is for peace if we do not act in time with the necessary deterrence. And this is a reality, no matter how much Yemen has gone through periods of different civil wars since the 1960s, and in this last stage with many deaths, famines, human rights violations, with notorious silence from the international press, organizations of human rights, the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, etc., and a long list of institutions and people who have shown great concern for Gaza as well as seem to have forgotten about the massacre that Hamas carried out in Israel on October 7.

For their part, the Houthis have welcomed the warlike confrontation with Washington, they surely feel that whatever happens, for some it is a mark of pride and an approach to martyrdom. But how does the US respond if they follow through on the threat to cut the network of fiber optic cables that pass through the Red Sea, if their airports are attacked again?

This cable runs through the Bab-al-Mandeb Strait, linking Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and it is assumed that large transnational companies have a plan B, but, in any case, the blow to international trade and globalization itself It would be gigantic.

Even under these conditions, wouldn't the US hold Iran responsible? Since no matter how much the threat comes from Yemen, it is impossible for the Houthis to be able to maneuver in those depths, without the submarine that Tehran provides them. What will happen the day Iran has the bomb, if it doesn't already have it?

In the Middle East, the reality that the US faces today is that, even if Israel were not in Gaza, the rest of the attacks and challenges would still exist, and perhaps there would be even more in quantity, based on the multiplicity of sources that attack to the US more than to Israel, especially in situations like Syria, where, in a different way, Israel usually responds immediately.

Militaryly, it would be difficult for the United States today to face new war scenarios, which add to a situation that has become complicated in Ukraine, since the stagnant and attritional war that the Russian invasion has become shows that as power had not prepared well for a long war, furthermore, that after the Cold War it believed it was unnecessary to maintain industrial production of ammunition, a bad calculation, which contrary to previous assumptions, today is harming NATO equally or even more than to Russia.

Everything points to the difficulty of it being comfortable for the US to confront a regional war in the Middle East and even less so, with China over Taiwan. Beyond the political, there is an uncomfortable truth in the military, which confirms the damage caused to the United States itself by putting pressure on Israel in Gaza, for reasons that are not military, but have to do with an election that has been complicated.

They are also very different wars in magnitude and complications from the two counterinsurgency wars that have marked Washington militarily in this 21st century.

The challenge is great, on the one hand, to recover the deterrence and respect that should be given to the superpower, by everyone, be it the Venezuelan dictatorship, the Iranian ayatollahs or the Chinese hierarchs, whatever. On the other hand, in strictly military terms, it must recover the notion of accountability of military commanders, whether by action or omission in the withdrawal from Afghanistan or in the current Middle East scenario. And if it was not because of them, know it to hold those responsible responsible; Furthermore, it would be ideal for the US if there were no great fault on their part, for what lies ahead.

On the issue that beyond the disagreements in Congress, military support for Ukraine would not be working well these days, so it is very important to know why, especially that today self-criticism is doubly necessary, because China is a much more powerful rival. It also doesn't help that the Pentagon has failed in the recruitment goals for all its weapons, which, although it has been going on for a long time, this time it apparently was due to having adhered to woke strategies, as is also a problem for decision making, the loss at the quality levels of what was once a very critical and independent press.

The most difficult thing the US must address is how to have a bipartisan and consensus foreign policy, when it is polarized, divided and in a cultural war. The United States needs state agreements for military, strategic and foreign policy, to be followed by different governments, one after the other.

That is the main challenge it faces today, since foreign and military policy should be a continuum that is not radically modified by the next government. To begin with, perhaps the United States should promote a new architecture of international organizations, starting with the UN itself, which today is hostile to it, as a unitary path to recover a bipartisan foreign policy.

If it manages to achieve this, it will have made enormous progress in recovering the lost respect and deterrence, and the role of superpower that is now questioned, both from Beijing and Tehran.

With urgency deterrence, deterrence, since the advice of the 4th century Roman Flavius ​​Vegecia Renato that “if you want peace, prepare for war” remains insurmountable, si vis pacem, para bellum.


Master and PhD in Political Science (Essex), Law Degree (Barcelona), Lawyer (U. de Chile), former President of the Armed Forces Committee. and Society of the International Political Science Association

«The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author».