Last week President Trump halted strikes on Iran that he ordered in retaliation for attacks on a US drone and several foreign tankers. He avers it was because of last-minute casualty estimates from generals, but this is unlikely. More likely it was because of opposition from the generals expressed early on.
We have a precarious time-out in the escalating conflict. It allows investigation into the underpinnings of the administration's Iran policy, oddly for the first time. There's little to learn from the president's foreign-policy team. They are deeply committed to the policy. Those who weren't, have been shown the door. Among them are Generals McMaster, Kelly, and Mattis.
They and their colleagues in military and intelligence bureaus should be summoned before Congress to comment on the White House's justifications for its Iran policy.
Is Iran building nuclear weapons in violation of the JCPOA? The intelligence community's 2007 National Intelligence Estimate said Iran stopped weapons research in 2003 and hasn't restarted it. Last January CIA chief Gina Haspel testified before the Senate that Iran was still complying with the JCPOA. The intelligence community is capable of error but so are presidential advisors.
Is Iran spreading its influence in the region? There are counterarguments. The war in Syria, the only state in the region aligned with Iran, has gravely damaged the economy and military. It will take over a decade to rebuild the economy. The Sunni-Shia divide is so deep that it will be unable to field an effective army in the foreseeable future.
Iran's allies in Lebanon and Yemen have effective militias but they are checked by Sunni opponents backed by Saudi Arabia, which have inflicted very high casualties on them, and are continuing to do so.
Is Saudi Arabia spreading its influence in the region? Riyadh has been disbursing petrodollars to numerous Islamic countries. It has spread its Wahhabi/Salafi creed and built a popular base for the House of Saud. It rewarded the Egyptian army after it overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government and is poised to suppress popular movements in Algeria and the Sudan.
Is Iran the largest sponsor of state terrorism? Iran certainly backs Hamas and Hisbollah but few states in the region have clean hands. Not Pakistan of course, and not Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi/Salafi creed stresses hostility to the West and Israel and preaches armed struggle as the path to salvation. Though not all adherents pick up Kalashnikovs, the creed is "Jihad 101".
Intelligence figures might reveal what they know of foreign backers of al Nusrah Front, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Have the Saudis and Emiratis supplied them with arms and money as regional specialists say?
Will war with Iran advance our security interests? Unfortunately, this question doesn't always figure highly in lead-ups to war. It isn't clear the US has a great deal to gain from a war. It might deepen the divide between the US and long-standing allies around the world. Few believe the Trump administration's claims about Iran. All of them want a tranquil Middle East and stable oil prices.
There was a time when the matter of war was quite important in public affairs. Much can be learned by hearing from generals and intelligence chiefs. The information they offer might be more important than what Robert Mueller will say in coming weeks and what the presidential candidates will announce in their debates.
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who's written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard's Center for International Affairs.