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Iraq, Iran and the Folly of Preventive War

March 25, 2013

America's soul-searching to mark the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq went pretty much according to script. While many of its liberal supporters offered their mea culpas for having been so catastrophically mistaken, the Bush administration's architects of the war doubled-down on their epic failure. (Meanwhile, some of their biggest cheerleaders lamented only that the Iraq war enabled the resurgence of the Democratic Party.)
But while the post-mortems predictably focused on who got it so horribly wrong and why, the mindset that helped produce the Iraq disaster has gone largely unquestioned. That is, if any idea should have been thoroughly discredited by the blood and treasure lost in ousting Saddam Hussein, it is the very notion of preventive war itself. Nevertheless, while many in the United States vowed to never again initiate a war to prevent a supposed, as-yet substantiated future threat, the President and a bipartisan majority in Congress are preparing to do just that, this time against Iran.

Whether or not preventive war constitutes legitimate self-defense under international law, history is replete with examples. (As the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. march to Baghdad show, the American experience has not been a happy one.) While "preemption" is "meant to grab the tactical advantages of striking first against what is seen as a truly imminent threat, when an adversary's attack is close at hand," the Oxford Bibliographies explained:

The strategic logic of preventive war is rooted in the desire to halt the erosion of relative power to a rising adversary and the future dangers this power shift might present. Leaders calculate that a war fought in the near term will be less costly than a war fought at a later date, after the potential adversary has had an opportunity to increase its military capabilities. Under preventive war conditions, there is no certainty that this future war will actually be fought; preventive war is launched to avoid the mere possibility of a higher-cost future war or the potential for the target state to use its rising power in a coercive way.

If that sounds disturbingly familiar, it should. After all, virtually every Bush administration warning about Saddam Hussein--that he had or would soon have weapons of mass destruction, that he would supply them to terrorist organizations, that he would use them against the United States and its allies, that he had ties to Al Qaeda and possibly the 9/11 attacks and that he would be replaced in a "regime change" putting the pro-U.S. Iraqi National Congress in power--was either proven untrue or fabricated outright. The confident claims of Iraq war supporters that the conflict would last only a matter of weeks and that U.S. troops would be "greeted as liberators" was catastrophically wrong. (In August 2004, President Bush instead used the term "catastrophic success" to describe the growing chaos and carnage in Iraq.) As the U.S. policy of containing Saddam was replaced by the invasion of 2003, General David Petraeus asked the question that still haunts Americans:

"Tell me how this ends."

Ten years, 4,500 dead Americans, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and over a trillion dollars later, we still don't have an answer.
Sadly, the United States may once again be following a similar path when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program. Two weeks ago, Time magazine claimed that President Obama has already decided to strike Tehran's nuclear facilities if negotiations to prevent its acquisition of a weapon fail.
According to Time, in a secret January 2010 memo to then National Security Adviser James Jones, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked four key questions that should dictate the American strategy towards Tehran:

But Gates, who had worked for every President since Jimmy Carter, was nearly as alarmed by Washington's lack of readiness as by the bluster coming from Jerusalem and Tehran. He thought the Obama Administration had not sufficiently planned for a war against Iran and worried that Israel was drawing the U.S. into one unprepared. In his secret memo to Jones, the detailed contents of which have not previously been reported, Gates asked hard questions: Was the U.S. goal to keep Iran from getting a weapon or to prevent it from having the capability to get a weapon? What would an Israeli strike mean for the U.S., and how could the Administration keep Israel from acting? Was the U.S. ready not just to attack but also to defend itself and its allies in case of a war? Most controversial, Gates asked whether the U.S. might be willing to deter and contain Iran if it got a nuke, rather than launch a war to damage its program.

By all indications, the Obama administration has already made up its mind on all four.
To the consternation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama long ago drew his red line at an Iranian nuclear weapon, not at Tehran's capability to produce one. As he told AIPAC last year, "I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests." And, as Obama explained in his speech to the people of Israel last week:

When I consider Israel's security, I also think about a people who have a living memory of the Holocaust, faced with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian government that has called for Israel's destruction. It's no wonder Israelis view this as an existential threat. But this is not simply a challenge for Israel -- it is a danger for the entire world, including the United States. A nuclear-armed Iran would raise the risk of nuclear terrorism. It would undermine the non-proliferation regime. It would spark an arms race in a volatile region. And it would embolden a government that has shown no respect for the rights of its own people or the responsibilities of nations.
I do believe that all of us have an interest in resolving this issue peacefully. Strong and principled diplomacy is the best way to ensure that the Iranian government forsakes nuclear weapons...But Iran must know this time is not unlimited. And I've made the position of the United States of America clear: Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained, and as President, I've said all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

But if President Obama has rejected the notion that Iran can be contained, bipartisan majorities in Congress are willing to go much further. In September, the Senate voted 90 to 1 for a nonbinding resolution rejecting containment as U.S. policy and accepting Netanyahu's much lower "capability" threshold for military action. But not content to rule out "any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran," a new coalition of Senators led by Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has proposed a new resolution essentially green-lighting an Israeli assault on Iran and guaranteeing U.S. intervention. That resolution:

Urges that if Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States will stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.

Last May, former Secretary Gates had this to say about the prospect of a U.S. blank check for unilateral Israel action:

"That would be worse than us doing it. Because I think that then has lots of regional complications that may end up in a much larger Middle East conflict. So I think that would be worse."

Given all the developments in Washington, former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems confident that it won't come to that. Israel won't need to attack Iran because, he seemed to suggest, the United States will do it instead:

Mr. Barak replied that there were more than just the two options -- of full-scale war or allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons capability -- in the event that sanctions and diplomacy failed.
"What we basically say is that if worse comes to worst, there should be a readiness and an ability to launch a surgical operation that will delay them by a significant time frame and probably convince them that it won't work because the world is determined to block them," he said.
Under orders from the White House, "the Pentagon prepared quite sophisticated, fine, extremely fine, scalpels," Mr. Barak added, referring to the ability to carry out pinpoint strikes.

In October, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers those pinpoint strikes would not constitute an act of war.
That assessment would come as a surprise to many national security experts, both here and Israel. In May, it was revealed that a majority of Prime Netanyahu's own defense chiefs opposed an Israeli strike on the mullahs' nuclear facilities. That same month, the New York Times reported that Israel's former intelligence chief Meir Dagan "has said that a strike on Iran's nuclear installations would be 'a stupid idea,' adding that military action might not achieve all of its goals and could lead to a long war." Why?

"A strike could accelerate the procurement of the bomb," claimed Dagan, who spoke at a conference held at the National Security Studies Institute in Tel Aviv. "An attack isn't enough to stop the project."
Dagan posited that military action would align the Iranian population behind the regime, thus solving the country's political and financial problems. Moreover, he asserted that in the case of an Israeli strike, Iran could declare before the world that it was attacked even while adhering to agreements made with the International Atomic Energy Agency - by a country that reportedly possess "strategic capabilities."
"We would provide them with the legitimacy to achieve nuclear capabilities for military purposes," he said.

Another ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy claimed in 2011 that "Iran is] far from posing an existential threat to Israel."
And despite the claims of virtually every Republican presidential candidate, Iran is certainly not an existential threat to the United States. In 2011, then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that "To go beyond (sanctions and diplomacy) raises our concerns about the unintended consequences that could result. ... There are going to be economic consequences to that, that could impact not just on our economy but the world economy." A majority of "national security insiders" surveyed by National Journal argued that no military strike should be carried out. Only 5 percent backed military action by Israel alone; none supported unilateral American strikes against Tehran.
At a minimum, thousands of Iranian civilians would die in an American attack against Tehran's nuclear installations. (Even if the Israelis alone launch a strike against Iran's nuclear sites, Tehran will almost certainly hit back against U.S. targets in the Straits of Hormuz, in the region, possibly in Europe and even potentially in the American homeland. And Israel would face certain retaliation from Hezbollah rockets launched from Lebanon and Hamas missiles raining down from Gaza.) Last November, the Federation of American Scientists estimated that a U.S. campaign of air strikes would cost the global economy $700 billion; a full-scale invasion could have a total impact of $1.7 trillion. Two months earlier, a bipartisan report including signatories Brent Scowcroft, retired Admiral William Fallon, former Republican Senator (now Pentagon chief) Chuck Hagel, retired General Anthony Zinni and former Ambassador Thomas Pickering warned Americans about the cost of trying to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program once and for all:

A unilateral Israeli attack would set back the Iranian nuclear program by only 2 years and an American attack by 4 years. But if the objective is "ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear bomb," the U.S. "would need to conduct a significantly expanded air and sea war over a prolonged period of time, likely several years." In order to achieve regime change, the report says, "the occupation of Iran would require a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."

Nevertheless, Newt Gingrich could have speaking for most Republicans and many Democrats when he declared in 2011:

"I think replacing the regime before they get a nuclear weapon without a war beats replacing the regime with war, which beats allowing them to have a nuclear weapon. Those are your three choices."

Of course, there are other choices. Reaching an agreement with Tehran to not build nuclear weapons, destroying Iran's nuclear capabilities through military action, or ultimately, learning to live with a nuclear Iran. And thus far, neither President Obama nor Congress has made a convincing argument why the last one isn't America's least, worst option.
To be sure, the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would constitute a dangerous and destabilizing development. Even without resorting to its nuclear arsenal to supposedly "wipe Israel off the map," Iran could theoretically blackmail American allies, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, perhaps forcing the U.S. to extend its nuclear umbrella. Especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, a nuclear Iran could ignite an unpredictable and difficult to contain regional arms race, with the Saudis and Egyptians pressured to pursue their own nuclear programs. (It is not without reason, as Time reported, that "the most compelling argument for Obama, the former law professor, was that a nuclear Iran would spell the end of the international regime limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.)
But to assume that a newly nuclear Iranian regime, even with the prevalent Shiite eschatology of the Twelfth Imam, would immediately attack either Israel or the United States is to believe that Tehran (unlike Pyongyang, New Delhi or Islamabad) is uniquely beyond deterrence. (Last year, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz expressed doubts that the Islamic Republic would even go "the extra mile" and develop a nuclear weapon because "I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.") An Iranian first-strike would surely result in nuclear annihilation for the Islamic Republic at the hands of Israel, the United States or both. The Soviet Union did not jump through "windows of opportunity." To believe that Iran would choose to commit national suicide is to believe that Tehran, sui generis, is irrational in a way without historical precedent.
During the 2012 campaign, President Obama rightly took his Republican opponents to task for their casual talk of war with Iran. As Obama cautioned last March, "This is not a game," he said. "And there's nothing casual about it."

"If some of these folks think that it's time to launch a war, they should say so. And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be."

Of course, that same requirement applies to President Obama as well. If the United States is going to launch another (apparently popular) preventive war to halt Iran's progress towards a nuclear weapon, Obama needs to answer David Petraeus' question from the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq 10 years ago.
Tell me how this ends.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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