Wednesday, April 29, 2015

When weakness matters more than strength in strategy

Strength, and the perception of strength, (in its many forms) is often a decisive factor in international relations. We see it in everything from discussions around trade and economic alliances to decisions about when and where to engage in armed conflict. In these equations, perceptions of weakness are just as important as perceptions of strength. We know this implicitly when comparing and contrasting nation-states as well as stretegies, and it's expressed explicitly when analysts, journalists and decision-makers look at situations like Russian aggression toward the Ukraine and attribute the success of the former, at least partly, to the "weakness" of the latter.  Catching up on the news yesterday out of the Middle East I was struck by two pieces, one in the Times of Israel and another in the Washington Post, which focused on the ways in which perceptions of weakness, as opposed to strength, can play a greater role in strategic decisions by regional powers.

The first thing I read was an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Professor Daniel W. Drezner of Tufts University and The Brookings Institution,  in which he considers recent pronouncements by Iranian officials about the rather shaky state of affairs in Saudi Arabia. As Drezner correctly notes, the Iranians are not the only ones worried about the long-term stability of the House of Saud, a top-heavy monarchy which has long maintained control and relative peace within its borders by quietly appeasing extremist elements internally and playing an out-sized economic role globally. There is no love lost between Iran and Saudi Arabia (or between Iran  and the Gulf Countries, for that matter), with the each nation consistently fearful of the growing influence of the another. In this sense, Iran's playing up the weakness of its rival/enemy Saudi Arabia fits neatly into the narrative of this larger conflict.

Since 1979 Iran has often sought to play a meedleseome role in the stability of neighbours, demonstrating a marked proclivity for covert action, both directly and through proxy groups such as Hezbollah - they're also prone to outbursts of hyperbolic rhetoric and the occasional display of naval power, as well as in the last decade devoting considerable resources to the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Attempting to foment instability is nothing new for Tehran, so perhaps along with the aforementioned bag of dirty tricks, bluster and nuclear ambition, they are adding something else to the mix: open efforts to encourage instability within Saudi Arabia by attempting to shift global perceptions of the monarchy there. Personally, I don't think such a strategy will be the decisive factor in the downfall of the Saudi regime, when and if it does happen. Nor would I call bombastic statements by Iranian  officials to a particularly novel or sophisticated tactic, but if it does become a  standard tool of Tehran it will be one more facet of Iranian hegemony that other regional powers, as well as the West, will have to take into account in assessing Iranian actions and intentions.

The second piece focusing on "weakness" which caught my attention was Mitch Ginsburg's analysis of the current situation on the Israel-Lebanon border, published by the Times of Israel. Ginsburg examines the balance of tension between Hezbollah forces and the IDF, in which events in Syria, as well as the strategic goals of Tehran, play a role. Citing analysis from  senior Israeli military officers that recent restrain on the part of Hezbollah is attributable to the group's primary patron, Iran, which worries that a war between Israel and Hezbollah would weaken the latter to the point where it could not serve as an effective deterrent against a potential Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. In this case, it is not rhetorical accusations of weakness that have the potential to lead to greater regional instability, but the actual weakening of Hezbollah, which could lead to additional risky action, such as their apparent efforts to lay a mine targeting IDF patrols over this past weekend. The possibility also exists that Israel will take advantage of the fact that Iran is restraining Hezbollah, along with the loss of many Hezbollah fighters in Syria, to launch a more thorough assault on the group in southern Lebanon.

However one looks at the calculus of power in the Middle East there are always innumerable factors to take into account. Very often the focus is entirely on the perceived strength of a regional power - how many submarines does country "x" have? How good is the air defense system if country "Y" ? These are important questions, but we must also look at weaknesses, both real and perceived, and the ways in which these views and analyses are actively used by rivals and enemies, if we are to have a clear picture of the region.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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