No war with Iran
eciding what to do next about Iraq is hard — on the merits, and in the politics. It’s hard on the merits because whatever comes next, from “surge” to “get out now” and everything in between, will involve suffering, misery, and dishonor. It’s just a question of by whom and for how long. On a balance-of-misery basis, my own view changed last year from “we can’t afford to leave” to “we can’t afford to stay.” And the whole issue is hard in its politics because even Democrats too young to remember Vietnam know that future Karl Roves will dog them for decades with accusations of “cut-and-run” and “betraying” troops unless they can get Republicans to stand with them on limiting funding and forcing the policy to change.
By comparison, Iran is easy: on the merits, in the politics. War with Iran would be a catastrophe that would make us look back fondly on the minor inconvenience of being bogged down in Iraq. While the Congress flounders about what, exactly, it can do about Iraq, it can do something useful, while it still matters, in making clear that it will authorize no money and provide no endorsement for military action against Iran.
Why? Think of the three ways war between the United States and Iran might start.
One is the surprise, “surgical” air operation against Iranian nuclear facilities to take them out before they cause too much trouble. This option is beloved of the kind of tough-guy op-ed writers who earlier cheered on a war with Iraq. It is not at all beloved within the U.S. military. That is because military officials know what would happen roughly five minutes after the attacks were over: a short-term effort to make things really difficult for Americans in Iraq (where Iran obviously has huge leverage), in world energy markets, and everywhere else — plus a long-term, renewed effort to build Iran’s own bomb. More than two years ago, this exercise in the Atlantic indicated that it was simply too late for the United States (much less Israel) to deny Iran a nuclear option via surprise attack. Since then — well, it’s even later.
The second option would be land war. Please. Iran is nearly four times as large and has nearly three times as many people as Iraq. With what army will the U.S. attack and occupy such a state?
And the third would be some kind of drift into war, Cuban Missile Crisis-style. Threats and bombast on both sides, hair-trigger preparations, each side hurrying to strike because it thinks it’s too dangerous to wait for the other side to strike first. (Come to think of it, wasn’t this the essence of the “National Security Strategy” the Bush administration laid out in 2002, with its concept of “preventive” war?) For the likely consequences, see Option One.
Would it be better if Iran did not acquire nuclear weapons? Of course. But there are certain important goals that cannot realistically be attained by war. This is one of them. Analogy: it would be far better if North Korea did not build a full nuclear arsenal. The United States should do all it can to keep that from happening — but no sane person thinks that attacking North Korea, and provoking an instant assault on Seoul and neighboring cities, is the way to go.
If we could trust the Administration’s ability to judge America’s rational self-interest, there would be no need to constrain its threatening gestures toward Iran. Everyone would understand that this was part of the negotiation process; no one would worry that the Administration would finally take a step as self-destructive as beginning or inviting a war.
But no one can any longer trust the Administration to recognize and defend America’s rational self-interest — not when the President says he will carry out a policy even if opposed by everyone except his wife and dog, not when the Vice President refuses to concede any mistake or misjudgment in the handling of Iraq. According to the constitutional chain of command, those two men literally have the power to order a strike that would be disastrous for their nation. The Congress has no official way to prevent them from doing so — it is interesting, and alarming, to think that in practice the safety valve might be the professional military, trained to revere the chain of command but faced with what its members would recognize as ruinous instructions.
What the Congress can do is draw the line. It can say that war with Iran is anathema to the interests of the United States and contrary to the will of its elected representatives. And it should do that now.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and has worked for the magazine for more than 25 years. He has written for the magazine on a wide range of topics, including national security policy, American politics, the development and impact of technology, economic trends and patterns, and U.S. relations with the Middle East, Asia, and other parts of the world.
Fallows grew up in Redlands, California and then attended Harvard, where he was president of the newspaper The Crimson. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1970 and then studied economics at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He has been an editor of The Washington Monthly and of Texas Monthly, and from 1977 to 1979 he served as President Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter. His first book, National Defense, won the American Book Award in 1981; he has written seven others. He has worked as a software designer at Microsoft and from 1996 to 1998 he was the editor of U.S. News & World Report.
In the five years after the 9/11 attacks, Fallows was based in Washington and wrote a number of articles about the evolution of U.S. policies for dealing with terrorism and about the war in Iraq. One of these articles, "The Fifty First State?," won the National Magazine Award, and another, "Why Iraq has no Army," was a finalist. He also writes a monthly technology column for the magazine.
His books Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (January 1996), and Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel were excerpted in the February, 1996, and June, 2001, issues respectively. Looking at the Sun (1994) was excerpted in several installments in the early 1990s. His latest book, Blind into Baghdad: America's War in Iraq (2006) is based on several of his Atlantic articles.
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