Why Is War Off the Table in the Conflict with Iran?

Inaction is as risky as action, and frequently riskier.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

The Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti reminds us of how the Obama administration sold the Iran Nuclear Deal.  In 2016, Obama’s ex national security advisor Ben Rhodes told the New York Times Magazine how the administration “created an echo chamber” in the media in order to sell the terminally flawed Iran Nuclear Deal to reporters who, Rhodes said correctly, “literally know nothing.” The center-piece of Obama’s narrative was an either-or fallacy: sign the deal with Iran, or go to war.

The strategy worked, which may be why in the current crisis we’re seeing it again. Now, however, the media are taking their direction from Iran. A few days ago an advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (pictured above), the alleged “reformer,” tweeted, “You [Trump] wanted a better deal with Iran. Looks like you are going to get a war instead. That’s what happens when you listen to the mustache.” The “mustache,” of course, is National Security Advisor John Bolton, whom the Dems and their media flunkeys have tarred as a “war-monger” leading the cognitively impaired president into war. As Continetti shows, the media have dutifully followed the Iranians’ propaganda: “Their goal is saving President Obama’s nuclear deal by manipulating Trump into firing Bolton and extending a lifeline to the regime.”

While correcting the old “deal or war” fallacy, however, other commentators seemingly take war off the table, while accepting the need for military action that retaliates or deters. These responses are what, so far, the Trump team is threatening rather than war, contrary to the media shills. But these two important tools for dealing with adversaries and enemies are effective only insofar as the threat of war is credible. If an enemy thinks war is not in the cards, he can continue his aggression, absorbing the occasional military strike or economic sanctions, and buying time in which he continues to escalate his aggression, secure in his assumption that he will not face significant or existential damage.

Of course, we all know why democratic leaders “take war off the table”: we the voting people don’t like war. In an age of instant video, the gruesome carnage and suffering of war are present in our homes, disturbing our peace of mind. Nor do we care for the expense of war, a truism of democracies since ancient Athens. As a character in Aristophanes’ Knights says, “If two politicians were making proposals, one to build warships, the other to spend the same on state pay [to citizens], the pay man would walk all over the trireme man.” So too today, buying butter trumps buying guns. That’s why entitlement and welfare spending eat up over two-thirds of the annual budget, while military spending takes a bit more than one-sixth.

Another problem with democracies and war is that democracies are prey to short-term thinking. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote why in 1835: “The people are more apt to feel than to reason; and if their present sufferings are great, it is to be feared the still greater sufferings attendant upon defeat will be forgotten.” For us Americans today, only a tiny portion of whom actually suffer the horrors of war, we are jeopardizing our future security in order to avoid spending money we’d rather spend on ourselves, and feeling bad over disturbing images that offend our therapeutic sensibilities––even if a nuclear armed Iran will in the future exponentially endanger our own interests and security.

Given these restraints, as things stand today a formal war with Iran is politically impossible, not to mention contrary to Trump’s campaign pledges to stay out of conflicts abroad. Last week he said publicly, “We don’t want a war with Iran,” and some State Department officials explicitly told journalists that there were no plans for an invasion. Apparently, Trump’s deployments to the region and precautionary withdrawal of U.S. personnel from Iraq, are signals meant to intimidate the Iranians back to the negotiating table in order to work out a nuclear deal that doesn’t give the store away.

Indeed, there are rumors that we are already engaged in talks, or at least talks about talks. I’m not sure what evidence from the last 40 years suggests that the mullahs see diplomatic engagement as anything other than a delaying tactic, and that any “agreement” or even “treaty” they sign has any more value than did the worthless piece of paper Neville Chamberlain waved when he returned from Munich.

Moreover, how many examples of failed diplomacy do we need to realize it can’t work with a determined, ruthless foe? Decades of summits, bribe, meetings, and deals with North Korea couldn’t stop a dysfunctional gangster-state on Chinese life-support from acquiring nuclear weapons. Or how about the mother of all failed “diplomatic engagement,” the Arab-Israeli conflict? The roster of “summits,” and “agreements”–– Madrid (1991), Oslo (1993), the Wye River Memorandum (1998), Camp David (2000), Taba (2001), the Arab Peace Initiative (2002), the Roadmap (2003), the Geneva Accord (2003), Annapolis (2007), and Washington (2010) ––is a record of abject failure. Even as Trump’s envoys are talking today, the Palestinian Arabs still passionately long for Israel’s destruction, and still see terrorist violence as a legitimate means to that end. “Two states living side-by-side in peace” is of no interest to them, as 70 years of rejected peace-offers and violence against Israel shows.

Even a casual student of history can tell us why diplomacy fails: the peoples of the world have conflicting goods they pursue, and many see violence as a legitimate tool for achieving them. In a world dominated by the West, they will pretend to abide by the “international rules-based order,” but only for extracting concessions and buying time. More important, they know that our preference for verbal negotiation frequently reflects a failure of morale, an unwillingness to risk our lives of affluence, leisure, and comfort, as long as we can enjoy them for another day. This moral decadence has been the theme of jihadist sermons for decades: as Osama bin Laden lectured to his trainees in Afghanistan, the U.S. is a “weak horse” and has “foundations of straw.” Our military capacity may be enormous, but our willingness to use it and risk our lifestyle is weak.

But didn’t the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq disabuse the jihadists of this belief and restore America’s prestige? At first they did, but soon the mistakes, unforeseen consequences, and tragic costs typical of every war ever fought, along with the political aims of the antiwar Democrats, and Bush’s misbegotten Wilsonian policy of democracy promotion, squandered U.S. morale. Barack Obama exploited this disaffection to get elected, and his vacillating, half-hearted policy in the Middle East nourished a perception among our enemies that we just wanted to get out and wash our hands of the whole region. As a result today Iran is more consequential in Iraq than we are, and along with Russia has usurped our traditional dominance in the region.

This history leaves us with a melancholy conclusion: either we destroy an offending regime and then go home, which means running the risk of even more destructive disorder arising in the rubble; or we return to the Cold War geopolitical model, in which we keep extensive military garrisons and air bases to maintain order, buttressed by indigenous regimes, no matter how illiberal, that we keep in power as long as they serve our interests. Whether a “butcher and bolt” foreign policy, or a quasi-empire of client states, neither alternative is palatable to American voters.

If war, then, is politically off the table, and if diplomacy’s dismal record argues against going down that road again, then can calibrated, selective military actions at least deter Iran from further mischief? The 1987-88 Tanker War, which destroyed Iranian naval vessels and Republican Guard bases for attacking international shipping and U.S. military assets, was a success, but it took place while the Iranians were weakened by a vicious, costly war with Iraq. A retaliatory action today against a militarily stronger Iran will have to go beyond a pinprick attack like Trump’s bombing of a Syrian airfield in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Despite that warning, the Syrian tyrant is still using chlorine gas and barrel bombs.

Deterrent retaliation cannot comprise just one-offs, but must reflect a planned escalation that increases the severity of the punishment after each incident, and that at some point targets the capital and the regime’s financial and military assets. But here’s the rub: if the enemy is stubborn enough and indifferent to the lives of its citizens, eventually the next retaliatory response will be war. And then we’ll be back to the political complications mentioned above, not the least being the need for the Senate’s approval. And right now, we have a bipartisan consensus among voters and most of Congress against further serious military involvement abroad.

Forty years of allowing Iran to get away with its aggression against our interests and security have created a problem that today has no good solution. We seem now to be relying on some chance event––another attack as horrific as 9/11, or the collapse of the Iranian theocracy from within––to make the hard decision for us. But inaction is as risky as action, and frequently riskier, a lesson I hope we don’t have to learn the brutal way France and England learned it in 1940.

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Photo by Tasnim News Agency at Wikimedia Commons