Defense, Foreign Affairs

Trump, Iran, and the Thin (Red) Line Between Ambiguity and Weakness

Maybe it's not so smart to brag about being "cocked and loaded."
June 21, 2019
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(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Let’s talk about the Iran strike that wasn’t.

In recent days two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. government claimed it had incontrovertible proof that Iran was responsible for those attacks.

Yesterday Iran shot down an American UAV. This was not a disposable Predator. It was a $220 million Global Hawk. A very serious piece of American technology and hardware that costs more than an F-22.

Last night Trump approved a military strike against Iran in retaliation. Planes were in the air, ships were standing by.

Midway through the operation, he changed his mind.

And now he’s telling the whole world about how he was “cocked and loaded” before having second thoughts.

This is dangerous.

I’ve written about this before, but we’re going to do it again: Strategic ambiguity is a double-edged sword.

There is a great advantage in being strategically ambiguous. If your enemy does not know how you will respond, it can expand their OODA loop —  observe–orient–decide–act — and reduce the scope of their field of action.

Sometimes strategic ambiguity bluffs an opponent out of taking an action that you might not want them to take, but are not prepared to fight them over.

They’re not sure whether or not you’ll fight, so they hold off.

But strategic ambiguity isn’t all puppy dogs and ice cream.

In order for strategic ambiguity to be useful, it must be carefully mixed with strategic clarity.

Your enemy has to know for sure that you won’t tolerate X, but not be sure whether or not you’ll tolerate Y.

That places objective X off-limits to them and forces them to probe your intentions on Y. Over time, the clever leader will then shift the goal posts so that the enemy knows that he won’t tolerate X or Y, and suddenly even the question of whether or not he’ll tolerate Z is in doubt.

Thus, over time strategic ambiguity can be used to advance a nation’s interests.

But when everything is subject to strategic ambiguity?

Well then you’re not actually dealing with “strategic ambiguity” any more. You’re dealing with weakness. And the enemy knows that.

Barack Obama created a great deal of trouble in the world by establishing a “red line” in Syria and then refusing to respond when it was crossed. This was abject weakness and weakness is, in geostrategic terms, a provocation.

In practical terms, Trump’s total ambiguity of intentions—where no one knows how he’ll respond to anything and he countermands even his own orders—winds up creating the same strategic weakness as Obama’s empty ultimatum.

Because when the enemy knows that you’re not being purposely ambiguous—you just don’t know what you’re doing—then they are free to push and push and push and push. Because they aren’t worried about crossing some red line that they don’t know about. They know that you haven’t even come up with a red line yet. They are seizing the initiative.

They’re in your OODA loop.

And when the weak player is dictating terms to the strong player, that’s when things get dangerous for everyone.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.