An Iran war push is underway, but the basis for it is pretty thin. While Iran has been a thorn in America’s side since its Islamic Revolution in 1979, America typically has prioritized other threats. These include Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Sunni terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, and hostile secular nationalists like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Our Middle East policy has many layers, including cozy relations with the Sunni regime of Saudi Arabia and with Israel. But the legacy policy often has an “autopilot” feel, where little effort is made to step back, consider first principles, and determine how much any of this activity benefits American security.
The Iraq Precedent
Iraq should loom large in consideration of a similar campaign against Iran.
In spite of the rhetoric about “weapons of mass destruction” and the later turn to imposing democracy in Iraq, it made sense to many Americans to engage Iraq chiefly as an act of tribal retaliation for the attacks of September 11, 2001. The scale of that terrorist atrocity fueled a rage not fully satisfied by the swift expulsion of the Taliban and al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. Regardless of the lack of any apparent involvement in the 9/11 attacks, Saddam Hussein was hostile to the United States, he was Arab, and this was enough for most Americans.
In this fertile ground, other events combined to allow the Iraq campaign to unfold, including the long-standing desire of Israel to decapitate the unpredictable Saddam regime, the Bush family’s own blood feud with Saddam stretching back to the first Gulf War, and the widely held sense that the risk of a nuclear-armed Iraq was too much too bear.
But the war was an expensive, bloody disaster that failed to deliver on its own terms, dragged on incessantly, cost a great deal of money and blood, soured Americans on excessive involvement in the Middle East, and permanently marred the credibility of the “Intelligence Community.” It was an expensive education for the country at an unspeakable cost to a great many military families.
Trump came into power, in part, through his respect for the American people’s widely held, bipartisan sense that we needed a foreign policy of restraint and caution. Instead of promoting democracy or vague goals like ensuring stability in the tar pits of the Middle East, he promised instead to put America’s interests first. While not an isolationist per se, he was a realist, restrained, and clear-thinking on these matters, asking always and without shame, “What’s in it for us?”
President Trump, however, had another tendency, apparent in his policies toward Russia and Syria, and it came to fruition in his hiring of the seemingly misplaced John Bolton as his national security advisor.
Trump was the anti-Obama, critical of him for nearly everything he did. Where Obama was weak, obsequious to allies and enemies alike, and often in over his head, Trump would be strong, unilateralist, and decisive. Trump was always highly critical of the Iran nuclear deal and withdrew from it under the tutelage of Bolton. The proximate cause is a claim that Iran is funding “proxies” hostile to the United States and its allies and, according to Israeli intelligence, planning some kind of nefarious action against U.S. interests in the region. Iran also may have damaged a few Saudi tankers.
The earlier withdrawal from the nuclear deal presents a dilemma. Deals, by their nature, are two-sided and reciprocal. In other words, in exchange for lifting sanctions and inspections, Iran would gain access to embargoed cash, global oil markets, and other benefits of being a more responsible member of the world community.
More important, the deal, in spite of its flaws, created a united front that included Iran’s occasional sponsors, Russia and China. While Iran is even now also accused of violating the deal, the questions remain whether a deal exists and on what basis can the United States criticize Iranian’s nuclear pursuits if the United States has also withdrawn from the deal that was supposed to put a halt to all that.
Israel and America’s Interests are Distinct
The driving force of much of this is Trump’s—and many Americans’—sense of common cause with Israel. In spite of accusations of anti-Semitic dog whistles, Trump has been a stalwart supporter of Israel and enjoys an extraordinarily friendly relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, as promised, and also recognized Israel’s annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights. This policy finds favor both with the largely Jewish camp of neoconservatives, as well as Christian Zionists, who make up a large (but shrinking) plurality within the Republican Party. Both of these groups are hostile to Iran largely because of Israel’s own hostility to Iran. And Israel is hostile to Iran for many reasons, but the largest seems to be its support for Hezbollah, which fought Israel to a standstill during Israel’s 2006 incursion into Lebanon.
Hezbollah is a sophisticated and effective fourth-generation fighting force that finds its largest sponsor in Iran. But Hezbollah’s focus seems chiefly to be on ensuring Lebanon’s territorial integrity and opposing Israel. Unlike al-Qaeda and ISIS, it does not appear expansionist or insane.
In addition, Israel has shown no compunction about making increasingly shrill and implausible warnings that an Iranian nuclear weapon is just around the corner, which gets the attention of our political leaders, but has little credibility because of sheer repetition and how similar Israeli claims about Iraq turned out to be false.
None of this, of course, has much to do with the United States. But the essence of neoconservatism is a bias for action and a conflation of American and Israeli interests in the region. And whether in the Bush Administration or now, none has been more bellicose, foolhardy, or aggressive than John Bolton. As Trump himself put it, “He has strong views on things but that’s OK. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing . . . That’s OK. I have different sides. I have John Bolton and other people that are a little more dovish than him. I like John.”
A war with Iran is a profoundly bad idea, and nothing in particular makes it necessary at the moment. Such a war would involve the expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure to help another nation, which we already help to the tune of $3.2 billion in aid per year. While Saudi Arabia and Israel are understandably wary of Iran, and I have no particular objection to either of them doing whatever they feel they need to do to protect their security and interests, it’s not so clear how any of this squabbling has anything to do with the United States, whose interests in the region are minimal, because of the renaissance of America’s domestic oil production.
A Needless War
Iran is not a friend to America. Few older Americans can forget the hostage-taking at the American embassy, or their involvement in the Beirut barracks bombing or the arming of Sadr’s militias in Iraq. Notably, though, all of these events happened in the Middle East. In other words, the harm Iran has done to the United States was almost entirely avoidable, and such avoidable harms should be avoided.
True, Iran’s clerics are nearly as radical as al-Qaeda or ISIS, but they face a natural ceiling on their potential global reach, because Shia Islam is a minority sect within Islam. When Western powers are absent, the Sunni and Shia radicals tend to fight one another, as in Lebanon and the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iraq again in the 2000s, and Syria today.
Little good has come from America’s wars of choice in the Middle East. In addition to failing to tamp down the ultimate driver of terrorism in the region—various radical Islamic ideologies—these groups find easy targets and sources of unity in opposing interventionist western powers.
Avoidance is also a strategy for husbanding national power and avoiding unnecessary conflict; this same strategy worked when America avoided the various brushfire wars of the 1970s and 1980s, instead concentrating its military power on the real sources of conflict in the Soviet Union, leading ultimately to victory.
How a conflict with Iran would play out is anybody’s guess. U.S. attempts to impose national power in Libya, Iraq, and Syria suggest that our ability to conduct regime change, while substantial, can be undermined in the post-conflict attempt to usher in a friendly, peaceful political counterpart.
Even the regime change portion is less certain than it used to be, as the ill-fated proxy war in Syria has shown. There, Assad remains in power, and the use of “moderate” rebels have proven to be a costly dead end. Whether in Iran or elsewhere, the enemy gets a vote, and the enemy can study what works as well as we can.
Iraq’s failed conventional resistance to the United States in 2003 provided an important lesson to Iran and other conventional militaries. Their only sure means of resistance is in the form of guerrilla and other asymmetric activity. The U.S. announcement that we dispatched an aircraft carrier and bomber wing to the region to thwart Iran would prove only minimally capable against such forces.
Moreover, geography is an important factor in any conflict. The Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil and any American carrier must transit, are only 21 nautical miles wide. Small boats with suicide bombers, particularly if engaged in swarm attacks augmented by drones and other commercial off-the-shelf technology, could score a surprise win against American forces. After all, it’s hard to hide an aircraft carrier, and the Iranians have shown an appetite for religiously-fueled “human wave” type attacks.
The American people have no appetite for another Mideast War over a few damaged Saudi oil tankers. In contrast to the 9/11 attacks or the ISIS atrocities in France, Belgium, and Iraq, this hardly raises an eyebrow.
More important, the American people rightly recognize that more than mere anger is required to go to war. A war must be necessary, it must have some realistic path to victory, and it must have something to do with our interests.
While we have friendly relations with the Saudis and Israelis, it is not in our interest to spend our money and the blood of our soldiers and sailors to relieve them of the obligation of defending themselves and dealing with their own problems. The last time America engaged in such a campaign in Iraq, it ended in disaster. When we tried to intervene for other reasons, in Libya and Syria, it also created a variety of foreseeable forms of chaos that ultimately energized our enduring opponents among extremist Islamic radicals, such as ISIS.
The most logical lesson of America’s last 40 years sojourning through the Middle East is that we should avoid the place as much as possible and defend ourselves at home by keeping out hostile people from these troublesome countries.
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