Reprisal Raids: Decisive Victory or a Quagmire of Attrition?
As it prepares to strike back against Iranian proxies, the spectre of the US being dragged into yet another ammunition-depleting war of attrition haunts the Middle East.
Just last week the US not only floated a trial balloon on withdrawing its illegally stationed troops from Syria, but also started negotiations with the Iraqi government over a timetable to pull out US troops. Following Hamas’ October 7th violent incursion into Israel, which provoked the IDF’s potentially genocidal liquidation of Palestinian civilians, US bases in Iraq and Syria have come under almost constant aerial attack. Claims of responsibility by Iranian-proxy resistance groups usually followed. At first these attacks were downplayed by the US government and the casualties incurred were listed as “traumatic brain injuries.” These drone and rocket strikes demonstrated the vulnerability of US bases—small islands of imperial power-projection set in a hostile desert of resistance. In retaliation, the US did launch a couple low-energy counter-strikes targeting mid-level militants.
A Great Power such as the US, particularly one low on air defense capability, must rely on the principle of deterrence to protect these dusty outposts. But each unanswered volley of missiles, rockets or drones by resistance fighters erodes away the American aura of invincibility.
On January 28th, an attack on an American logistics base—Tower 22— in north-eastern Jordan, killed several US troops. The base supports US efforts in Syria to undermine the al-Assad government. The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an Iranian proxy group, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The powerful pro-Israeli neoconservative grouping within and without the Biden Administration, having spent the days before the attack vigorously trying to shoot down the Syria withdrawal trial balloon, heaped pressure on Biden to respond to the killing of these three US soldiers.
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In response, the beleaguered Biden Administration reluctantly preannounced a series of retaliation strikes. Many US and Israeli politicians lobbied for a direct retaliatory bombing campaign against Iran. In their eyes, and not incorrectly, Iran is seen as the “head of the octopus.” As the metaphor suggests, the many proxy militias are Iran’s tentacles. And so, the story goes, just pounding a few disposable proxy-group tentacles will not dissuade Iran from projecting power in the region.
Israeli war hawks have for some time been threatening decapitation strikes by either Israel or its proxy, the US. But with Israel struggling mightily against the modest capabilities of the Hamas militant group, the idea that Israel herself could defeat Iran is laughable. Pro-Israeli voices in the US have instead proclaimed that the United States should directly attack Iran.
Implicit in these calls is that a dose or two of “shock and awe” would reinstate an aura of US invincibility that has been so clouded by the current debacle in Ukraine. The normative “should” is employed. Like the parents of a gifted child who struggles in class, these politicians assert that if only the US would muster the will to apply itself, then the US will succeed at anything it endeavours, including chastising Iranian defiance.
Military officials, however, are responsible for the “could.” They must determine whether the US actually has the capability to deter Iranian proxy aggression through a short and sharp bombing campaign.
In order to maintain an admittedly crumbling illusion of omnipotence, for the past few decades, the aging US quite wisely bombards nations that have little to no means of fighting back. Meanwhile, youthful Iran, despite decades of “crushing” US sanctions, has built an impressive arsenal of cruise and ballistic missiles. If the fading US punches the young thug Iran in the face, there is a good chance that Iran will show blatant disrespect for the elderly power and strike right back. With numerous US bases in the region—and the US short on air defense capability—America must tread carefully.
Those tough-talking US and Israeli commentators and politicians calling for a bombing campaign on Iran are not necessarily wrong in theory. Given what can only be called US imperial overextension across the world, this global presence is only sustainable if the rest of the world both mightily fears the US, and sees enough benefit from Pax Americana that nations are willing to submit to American dominance in return for her protection. Unfortunately for the US, the ongoing destruction of Ukraine, and of Europe more subtly, is teaching the world that despite the most acquiescent displays of submission, US protection is not assured.
So the US has only three options. One is to reinstate deterrence by pounding Iran into submission through a masterful thunderclap of high-tech military prowess. The second option is for the US to grab its geopolitical football and go home: abandoning the region and hoping that as the resulting chaos mounts, some day America will be begged to return. It seems the Biden Administration has chosen a third option: a Kabuki Theatre round of martial symbolism followed by kicking the can down the road for a few months past the election.
Performative strikes takes two to tango.
Through diplomatic channels, the US seems to have asked Iran permission to repeat the Yemen performance by pounding sand with empty show-strikes in desert wastelands. In return, Iran would not retaliate. Perhaps the Iranians were offered a hint of an eventual US withdrawal from the region after the next election in the US? Perhaps Iran was reminded if the difficult political situation good-cop Joe Biden finds himself and it is Iran’s solemn duty to do nothing that would aid bad-cop Donald Trump’s return to power?
It’s actually a great idea from the American side to try to stage manage an attack on Iran. While obvious no serious international players would be impressed, it might achieve the political goal of relieving rising political pressure within the more gullible domestic audience. More importantly, it manages the huge escalation risks associated with an assault on such a dangerous nation as Iran. Such a face-saving gesture could give the US the political cover to withdraw more fully from the Middle East by seeming to demonstrate that the US does indeed still maintain the military might to force a powerful and rising nation to her knees.
In requesting a Potemkin reprisal, US policy makers are not stupid. Iran has been demonstrating its missile capabilities over the past month with strikes against US-backed militias in Syria, Pakistan and Iraq. There is next to no chance, outside of a massive nuclear attack, that the standard pyrotechnics of a 100 Tomahawk strike will bring Iran to heel. Almost certainly a grinding game of escalatory tit-for-tat will follow, dragging the US into yet another slow-burning war of attrition.
Iran’s menu of retaliation options is large. If attacked, Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz. With the Red Sea already suffering a partial blockade imposed by the modest Houthis, if Iran were to thwart petrochemical flows through this sensitive chokepoint, the impact on already fragile Western economies would be devastating. To maintain BRICS solidarity, Iran could repeat what the Houthis are doing near the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, where Chinese, Russian and even Saudi shipping is getting a free pass into the Red Sea.
In a more drastic move following an attack, Iran could test a nuclear weapon. It’s nuclear program is well advanced and it is very likely they already have numerous devices ready to go. Iran would need to coordinate this move with their BRICS allies.
Iran could target any number of US bases or warships in the Middle East with their impressive arsenal of cruise and ballistic missiles. Iran produces numerous air and sea drones to threaten US facilities and warships in the region.
Even higher on the escalation ladder, following any US attacks, Iranian proxies could launch air and then ground attacks over the walls of US bases in the region, hoping to capture American soldiers. An Iranian Hostage Crisis 2.0 would devastate Joe Biden’s campaign chances by bringing back the spectre of Jimmy Carter.
What the Iran-hawks ignore is the downside disillusionment that a failed attack on Iran would spread, both inside and outside of the US, if strikes fail to not only deter Iran, but result in embarrassing losses for the US. Stripping off the fading remnants of the US’ mask of invincibility may lead to an expedited withdrawal to its North American bastion. It is for these reasons that the US has announced the coming assaults will be limited to Iraq and Syria. Despite the modest nature of the strikes, the UK, in normal times America’s most faithful lapdog, announced that they will not be taking part in the coming US action.
Even in the US showtime strike scenario, a few proxy group reprisals is all it would take to place US honor on the line. The Iranian and wider BRICS goal is to mire America in a grinding war of attrition in the Middle East. This would allow BRICS-proxies to attack US assets, in revenge for America’s Ukrainian proxies attacking Russia.
A Rising Primal Horde
As articulated in Primal Parity, an allegorical narrative of current geopolitical events is that of a gathering Primal Horde coalescing to attack their violent Primal Father on as many fronts as possible. In all likelihood we are in the early innings of Global War 6, a fight for global supremacy between Team USA and her dependents against China-Russia-Iran-North Korea-plus their BRICS and Global South allies. Often the term “World War 3” is used to describe the potential conflict brewing. WW3 is historically short-sighted as it ignores all pre-20th century patterns of global conflict. From a global hegemonic point of view, WW1 and WW2 were two chapters of the same war: Global War 5.
The Primal Horde’s basic strategic objective is to trigger a Geopolitical Bank Run. With the US overextended from legacy security commitments made by a much more powerful and cohesive version of itself, the Primal Horde will seek to tie down and spread thin the US and allies in as many conflicts as possible. These many grinding wars of attrition will deplete US arms depots. Then comes the decisive strike—China reuniting with Taiwan whether peacefully or not.
An important ancillary goal is maintaining strategic ambiguity. The Primal Horde seek to keep the level of conflict low enough to allow US leaders to engage in bouts of denial that they are even facing a Global War 6. The horde seek to avoid a Pearl Harbor moment that could unify America and wake it out of its financially-fuelled opium dreams. Such a jolt could ignite a rejuvenation that purges the cultural corrosion that creates a Rust Belt in favour of a disciplined productivity manifested in the cold grey glint of manufacturing prowess.
Arms Race 2.0
In the meantime, the Horde are discreetly launching Arms Race 2.0. After years of following the oligarch-friendly, Western neoliberal economic model, Russia’s military industrial complex (MIC) struggled to meet demand following their invasion of Ukraine. Once it was clear that the war would continue for years, and with their relationship with the West deeply fractured, Russia moved to adopt the Chinese model of state capitalism. After an awkward transition period, Russian arms production is booming along with the rest of their economy. Thanks to Western sanctions forcing Russia to reject neoliberalism, their economy is set to grow at 2.6% according to the IMF.
China, having already reached its limit in milking economic stimulus from the real estate sector, combined with increasing threats to their export markets, gives China an incentive to increase weapons spending by adopting a policy of military Keynesianism. China’s arms production has been steadily climbing for decades, and so no drastic actions are needed.
In response to, for example, huge tariffs, China can switch to arms manufacturing to maintain employment levels. At the same time the US will have to urgently start at least some manufacturing to make up for stoppage of commodity flows from China. The US will first look for cheap labor zones to pick up the Chinese slack: Mexico, Vietnam and India among others, but if China’s factories are cut off from Western consumers then US will also need to increase manufacturing at some levels. This will further limit US arms potential, as military production competes with commodity production for scarce investment capital.
The greatest challenge the US faces is that it currently is in the end stages of its financialization cycle. As Fernand Braudel and Giovanni Arrighi, among many others, have emphasized in their work, capitalism works in both secular and cyclical trends. The secular trend is one of ever larger nation-state epicentres of capitalist accumulation. The journey from Northern Italian, Dutch, British, and American centers of power is capitalism’s secular progression. Today, China, the greatest manufacturing economy in global history, is the epicenter of global industrial capitalism.
Each capitalist hegemony goes through two cycles, first a productive manufacturing stage and then, once the rate of profits starts to decline, a financialization cycle. As finance takes control, capital flows outward to seek cheaper labour and higher profits and inevitably finances the next epicenter of capitalist power. From Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing:
One is the tendency of over-accumulation crises to bring about long periods of financial expansions which, to paraphrase Schumpeter, provide the means of payments necessary to force the economic system into new channels. As Braudel underscores, this tendency is no novelty of the nineteenth century. In sixteenth-century Genoa and eighteenth-century Amsterdam, no less than in late nineteenth- century Britain and the late twentieth-century United States, "following a wave of growth . . . and the accumulation of capital on a scale beyond the normal channels for investment, finance capitalism was already in a position to take over and dominate, for a while at least, all the activities of the business world. While, initially, this domination tends to revive the fortunes of incumbent capitalist centers, over time it is a source of political, economic, and social turbulence, in the course of which the existing social frameworks of accumulation are destroyed; the "headquarters of the capitalist system," in Schumpeter's sense of the expression, are' relocated to new centers; and more encompassing social frameworks of accumulation are created under the leadership of ever more powerful states. (p. 93)
Not only has the center of capitalist power moved to Beijing, in its wake, financialization in the US has wrought powerful economic and cultural erosions. In a financialized economy, stout workers are led out of the factories and into pampered corporate cubicles. Missiles, tanks, battleships and artillery shells cannot be built by the resulting laptop class. A financialized economy inevitably emphasizes the feminine and suppresses the masculine. This process is manifested in the US through the complementary girl-boss and toxic male phenomena.
Primal Horde Grand Strategy
The Primal Horde seeks to slowly pin the US down onto many battlefields. Currently the US is desperately trying the escape the quagmire of Ukraine. The US is one reprisal raid away from getting sucked into a long and grinding conflict in the Middle East. Once the US is pinned down in the Persian Gulf, Venezuela will start agitating in the Caribbean. North Korea may at the same time start a low-intensity conflict with South Korea. In doing so it will force the US navy to either respect its treaty duties to protect South Korea or hold back naval assets to protect Taiwan. When the US is stretched paper thin, and when its arms stocks are approaching depletion, is the moment China will have a hard conversation with Taiwan. If Taiwan falls, the opening phase of Global War 6 will end with a victory for the Primal Horde.
So for the time being, the Primal Horde are not looking for sudden explosive volcanic conflict escalations. They prefer the slow widening and ebbing of a most gentle effusion of the molten lava of attrition warfare for the global hegemon to be mired within. Time is on the side of the horde. They have no need for sudden and decisive victories. Keeping the tempo of conflict low helps disguise the true nature of events. Optimists in the US can even plead with China for help, hoping fervently that China wants to cool the rising geopolitical heat.
US Grand Strategy
Some Western leaders are realizing the allied nature of the revisionist powers. Seeking to shore up its image in face of a potential second Trump presidency, the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg recently gave a carefully calibrated speech to the Heritage Foundation
China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are increasingly aligned. Together, they subvert sanctions and pressure. Weaken the US dollar-based international financial system. Fuel Russian war in Europe. And exploit challenges to our societies, such as terrorism, disruptive technologies, or migration. In these dangerous times, we must stand strong against any regime that seeks to undermine us.
If the Primal Horde scenario has merit, then the US has two tasks it must achieve to avoid defeat. One is to avoid wars of attrition. The other is to diminish financialization and reorient the economy towards production.
The best manner to avoid wars of attrition is for the US to exploit its hegemonic position by pushing diplomacy over conquest. Backing Russia into a corner through eastward NATO expansion was a fundamental policy error. It transformed Russia from a mediocre, oligarch-infested underachiever into a powerful state-capitalist machine fitting into a win-win complimentary role with China.
For decades the US has enabled Israeli excesses in the Levant. These chickens are coming home to roost as Iran has risen to the status of regional power and Israel is now a genocidal pariah nation. The US desperately needs a ceasefire in Gaza while both Israel and Hamas seem to have a bit more fight left in them.
The weapon of choice for a financialized power is sanctions. In both cases US sanctions against Russia and Iran not only failed: they made these nations more powerful.
So far the same pattern is emerging with China. Restrictions against Chinese imports of high performance microchips has backfired as the PRC has been motivated to expand and innovate their own domestic production.
Changes towards a less aggressive foreign policy would require sending the entire neoconservative movement out to pasture. Moving back towards a productive economy is more challenging. Capitalist investment seeks the highest rate of profit possible. US salary structures are still too high to compete with low-wage nations. The US would therefore itself need to adopt a more state-capitalistic approach to arms and commodity production.
The cultural barriers to reindustrialization are even higher. Who in the US will be able to get fat American asses out of the corporate cubicles and back onto the factory floors? How will the US shift its cultural trends from idealizing Instagram girl-bosses to reembracing toxic martial masculinity? Without a devastating defeat on the global battlefield, it is highly unlikely these changes can be made. Realistically this radical cultural and economic retooling of America will only occur once the Primal Horde take Taiwan and the opening round of Global War 6 ends in defeat for the US.