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Mullen Wary of Israeli Attack on Iran

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Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came home with sweaty palms from his mid-February visit to Israel. He has been worrying aloud that Israel will mousetrap the U.S. into war with Iran.

This is of particular concern because Mullen has had considerable experience in putting the brakes on such Israeli plans in the past. This time, he appears convinced that the Israeli leaders did not take his warnings seriously--notwithstanding the unusually strong language he put into play.

Upon arrival in Jerusalem on February 14, Mullen wasted no time in making clear why he had come. He insisted publicly that an attack on Iran would be "a big, big, big problem for all of us, and I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences."

At a Pentagon press conference on February 22 Mullen drove home the same point--with some of the same language. After reciting the usual boilerplate about Iran being "on the path to achieve nuclear weaponization" and about its "desire to dominate its neighbors," he included this in his prepared remarks:

"I worry a lot about the unintended consequences of any sort of military action. For now, the diplomatic and the economic levers of international power are and ought to be the levers first pulled. Indeed, I would hope they are always and consistently pulled. No strike, however effective, will be, in and of itself, decisive."

In answer to a question about the "efficacy" of military strikes on Iran's nuclear program, Mullen said such strikes "would delay it for one to three years." Underscoring the point, he added that this is what he meant "about a military strike not being decisive."

No Glib Talk About War

Unlike younger generals such as David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, Adm. Mullen served in the Vietnam War. It seems likely that this experience prompted this gratuitous philosophical aside at the press conference:

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"I would remind everyone of an essential truth: War is bloody and uneven. It's messy and ugly and incredibly wasteful, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth the cost."

Although the immediate context for the remark was Afghanistan, Mullen has underscored time and time again that war with Iran would be a far larger disaster. Those with a modicum of familiarity with the military, strategic, and economic equities at stake know he is right.

Firing "Fox'

Recall that one of Mullen's Vietnam veteran contemporaries, Adm. William ("Fox') Fallon was cashiered as CENTCOM commander in March 2008 for saying things like war with Iran "isn't going to happen on my watch." Fallon openly encouraged negotiations with Iran as the only sensible approach, and harshly criticized the "constant drum beat" for war.

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Fallon's attitude appears to be shared by the more politically cautious and less rhetorically blunt Mullen, as the same war-with-Iran drumbeat reaches a new crescendo today. Fallon abhorred the thought of being on the receiving end of an order inspired by the likes of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams to send American troops into what would surely be as Mullen would describe it a "bloody, uneven, messy, ugly and incredibly wasteful" war.

How strong the pressure was within the Bush administration to attack Iran and/or to give Israel "a green light" to go first can be read between the lines of a Feb. 14 exchange between ABC News' "This Week" host Jonathan Karl and former Vice President Cheney.

Karl: "How close did the Bush administration come to taking military action against Iran?"

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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