Rob over at LGM has a great post in which he cogently makes the case for why the Iraq War is now screwing up our ability to effectively deal with Tehran. Besides removing an obvious security concern from Iran’s western front and providing Iran with 110,000 “hostages” in the form of US troops right next store (not to mention the ability to threaten to or actually destablize Iraq domestically), Rob touches on one issue that I find particularly interesting and have mentioned before: the effect of the Iraq War on the US ability to credibly threaten adversaries.
Information is critical to any effective attempt at coercive diplomacy in international relations. More specifically, the ability to control information and to create asymetries of information that create disadvantages for your opponent. Whether we are talking about the balance of interests, capabilities, or both, convincing an opponent that you have the advantage in both will and means goes a long way towards effectively coercing a target. When it comes to the case of Iran (and any near-term case of coercive diplomacy I would argue) we have lost a significant advantage, one that we held prior to Iraq.
As Rob points out, the Iraq War not only decreased the capability of the US to launch any kind of substantial invasion/occupation of Iran but it also demonstrated (and continues to demonstrate) this fact in the most public way. It is virtually impossible for the US to hide its operational military weakness (wow, never thought I would utter this phrase in my lifetime) from Iran or any other state at this time–this information is no longer private but public. Here is what I wrote back in September:
First, the Iraq war has shown that while the US still holds a preponderance of power relative to other states its ability to translate that potential power into operational military power is more limited than many would have originally thought. With forces stretched to their limits and an insurgency still surging in Iraq, the US seems incapable of carrying out multiple operations that include regime change. Secondly, the economic and political strain experienced domestically also casts a large shadow over the notion that the US is willing to stage operations similar to Iraq in the near future.
This means that our options are limited. Additionally, we have seen that the so-called revolution in air power that was much touted during the 1990’s has not been all that effective as a coercive tool. If Iran believes it will only be subject to aerial assualts it may be willing and able to ride out such attacks, thereby making any military threat by the US ineffective.
One need not be a pacifist to be critical of the Iraq War, as many commentators on the right are quick to claim. You can believe the war was a major mistake simply because it has placed the US in weaker strategic position. It has handcuffed the US in terms of dealing with those threats which are most urgent (e.g. Iran, North Korea) and brought us few rewards or strategic advantages.