It looks like 2002 all over again. Despite all the protestations and admonitions about the disastrous potential of declaring war on Iran without the troop levels, national will, international support or track record to ensure success, the issue is no longer whether the United States will attack Iran, but when.
Just as in the 2002 run-up to the war in Iraq, it is increasingly clear that President Bush has made up his mind to strike Iran before the end of his term. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than Mr. Bush’s pointed reference last week to a nuclear Iran fomenting “World War III” and his refusal to rule out military action to resolve the impasse with the defiant nation over its nuclear program.
Their policy clearly based on the assumption that conflict is inevitable and that lasting accommodation with Iran is unachievable, President Bush and Vice President Cheney are again convinced that military force is both right and necessary. They are equally certain that they cannot trust a Democratic successor to stand up to a recalcitrant Iran. They are doubtful even that any of the Republican hopefuls would have the stomach for such an unpopular fight. While the President sees no shame in leaving unfinished business in Iraq to his successor, he seems to believe that leaving office with Iran unbowed would be a stain on his legacy.
The comparisons with 2002 are eerie indeed. All sorts of groups with shadowy funding are coming forward to build elements of the case against Iran. The usual suspects in the punditocracy are firing on all cylinders to justify the use of force. The propaganda machine is in overdrive spewing vitriol at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his putative enablers, including Columbia University—whose president, bowing to pressure, gave what may be remembered as the most unwelcoming welcome in history—for daring to extend him a speaking invitation last month.
Even worse, American diplomatic efforts are more focused on building a coalition to fight than on persuading Iran to compromise, and the administration is arming anti-Iranian groups and countries in a way that ensures further confrontation rather than a peaceful resolution.
Indeed, the potential of war with Iran is close enough that we must begin to think seriously about the possibility that, by continuing to debate whether we ought to strike Iran we are missing an opportunity to force a public discussion of just what such a strike would look like, what it would cost, and what its consequences would be.
At best, by forcing the administration, Congress, and the public to confront the difficult strategic challenges of this course, we might slow the drive to conflict and avoid another war based on half-baked, poorly enunciated, speculative and ahistorical theories. At worst, it is quite possible that through such a discussion, we may mitigate some (but not all) of the inevitable consequences of war with Iran.
There are three sets of issues the United States must address if it is to seriously contemplate armed conflict with Iran.
First, what would be the goal of using force? Do we hope to simply delay Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons? Is the goal permanent elimination of any capacity to pursue such devices? Is regime change necessary? And if so, what are the parameters of success? Would a clerical regime that eschewed the pursuit of nuclear weapons be acceptable? Or must a secular regime be installed in place of the current government? How important or likely is democracy? Would we plan to pursue trials against current Iranian government officials?
Second, how do we intend to control the inevitable consequences internationally? Iran has strong ties to several regimes and numerous non-governmental groups throughout the Middle East. What is our plan to mitigate their response? Would Hezbollah in Lebanon be willing to renounce Iranian ties in return for recognition by the United States? Would we be willing to consider this sort of deal? How would conflict impact our relationship with Israel and renewed hope of peace talks? What is our plan for Iranian responses in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will we be willing to accept the consequences, in lives lost and missions compromised, as a result of Iranian retaliations in those theaters?
Third, what resources will we be able to bring to this fight? How will the U.S. military prosecute this conflict while remaining mired in Iraq? Which countries will realistically commit to the effort and what will be their level of commitment? Will any countries come to Iran’s aid, either militarily or diplomatically?
In Iraq we went to war with a force too small to establish democracy or even security, and with a strategy too narrowly focused on regime change to pursue the myriad other goals bandied about in the run-up to the conflict. We failed to engage other states in the region sufficiently to prevent foreign meddling in the country. And we over-estimated the level of international support. A conflict with Iran would be much harder. We would need to be much, much smarter and infinitely more prepared. A spirited debate on the details may yet save the country from another ill-conceived, poorly planned adventure based on wishful thinking and faulty assumptions.
So, let’s start talking.